11 Amazing Historical Coincidences

A photo illustration of Violet Jessop in front of the Olympic (left) and Titanic (right); she survived the wrecks of both ships—and the Britannic.
A photo illustration of Violet Jessop in front of the Olympic (left) and Titanic (right); she survived the wrecks of both ships—and the Britannic. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain (Jessop), Print Collector/Getty Images (ships)

From William Shakespeare’s supposed connection to the King James Bible to Violet Jessop’s accidental habit of voyaging on sinking ships, here are uncanny coincidences from history, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. A German ship disguised as a British ocean liner ran into a real British ocean liner.

When World War I broke out, navies on both sides of the conflict commandeered privately owned transatlantic liners. Germany, for example, took over the Cap Trafalgar and painted it red and black to mimic British merchant ships like the HMS Carmania. The idea was to have a bit of deception that might let the ship avoid unwanted attention or even give the converted vessel a leg up in battle.

Then, on September 14, 1914, the fake Carmania faced off against the actual Carmania. By this point, the British ship had been painted gray, so the ships weren’t mirror images of each other, but you have to assume the subterfuge wasn’t particularly effective.

A fierce battle—the first ever between ocean liners—ensued, and ended with the Cap Trafalgar sinking in a victory for British forces. Incidentally, some sources say the Carmania was disguised as the Cap Trafalgar at the time of the battle, but that’s not true.

2. Violet Jessop survived three nautical disasters.

Depending how you see things, Violet Jessop may be one of the luckiest people in history or one of the unluckiest. She worked as a ship stewardess and was aboard the Olympic in 1911 when it collided with the HMS Hawke. The Olympic sustained damage but didn’t sink, and Jessop lived to tell the tale.

Then, in April 1912, she was onboard the Titanic. You know how that went, but Jessop did escape aboard a lifeboat. 

At this point, most people would probably have sought out a land-based line of work, but not Jessop. She soon took a job working as a nurse aboard the Britannic, Titanic’s sister ship, which had been turned into a hospital ship in World War I. The Britannic suffered an explosion, probably from an underwater mine, and sank in less than an hour

According to Jessop’s memoirs, she made it to a lifeboat, but when it got into the water, everyone but her ditched it because it couldn’t get loose of Britannic’s propellers. Jessop, who had improbably never learned to swim, finally followed suit and jumped off the lifeboat, and was evidently saved by her lifejacket. She lived to the age of 84.

3. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was in the blast zone for two A-bombs.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, Survivor of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings
Tsutomu Yamaguchi. / Jemal Countess/GettyImages

Tsutomu Yamaguchi had a similar habit of surviving extremely unfortunate circumstances. He was working in Hiroshima the day the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. Yamaguchi was thrown into the air by the impact, but survived the blast and went back home to Nagasaki. There, he ended up in the blast zone of the second A-bomb in the most improbable way. As Sam Kean tells the story in his book, The Violinist’s Thumb, Yamaguchi was telling his boss about the devastation in Hiroshima. His boss countered, “‘How could one bomb ... destroy a whole city?’ … [At that moment] a white light swelled inside the room. … ‘I thought,’ he later recalled, ‘the mushroom cloud followed me from Hiroshima.’”

Though it’s estimated that around 150 people were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the respective days of the attacks, very few were in both blast zones, like Yamaguchi. Amazingly, he still lived to be 93 years old.

4. A real-life tragedy echoed an Edgar Allan Poe novel.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote a novel called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, in which a ship’s crew ends up in a desperate situation, with their boat badly damaged. Eventually, the crew draws straws to decide who among them will be the next life-sustaining meal. The unlucky character in the story who is stabbed to death and eaten is named Richard Parker; two of the characters survive to be rescued, thanks, in part, to that cannibalism. They also eat a tortoise.

A few decades later, a real-life yacht named the Mignonette sank in a storm in the Indian Ocean. The four-man crew escaped to a dinghy but didn’t have time to stock many provisions. Like the men in Poe’s story, at one point they ate a tortoise. And, like the men in Poe’s story, they resorted to eating one of their own in a horrifying, but potentially necessary, case of cannibalism. The unlucky young man’s name? Richard Parker.

5. Some odd signs point to William Shakespeare’s supposed contribution to the King James Bible.

In early 1611, William Shakespeare was 46 years old. That same year, The King James Bible came out, and became arguably one of the few books that has influenced English literature more than Shakespeare himself. Allowing for what is arguably a little bit of fuzzy math, the 46th word of Psalm 46 in that bible is shake, while the 46th-from-the-last word is spear. This has led some to speculate that William Shakespeare worked on the King James version of the Bible and surreptitiously slipped his own name into the text.

Like a lot of conspiracy theories about the Bard, though, this one is more “fun to imagine” than “supported by evidence.” Shakespeare was not the type of formally-educated scholar who would have worked on the KJB—as the British playwright and poet Ben Johnson put it, he had “small Latin and less Greek.” And, of course, you can twist numbers around to make basically anything seem like an eerie coincidence.

6. Robert Lincoln was saved by the brother of his father’s assassin.

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, 1865
The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, 1865. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, was not, as you might read online, present for three presidential assassinations, but his connection to the three tragedies was close enough to raise a few eyebrows. 

On the night of his father’s assassination in 1865, Robert declined an invitation to Ford’s Theatre, but he was with the President when he passed away the next morning. In 1881, while serving as Secretary of War, Robert was at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station when President James Garfield was shot. Eventually, Garfield died, probably from the substandard medical attention given to the bullet wound.

Two decades later, the star-crossed Lincoln went to Buffalo to visit the Pan-American Exposition, a sort of New World version of the World’s Fair. When he arrived, Robert was immediately told that President William McKinley had been shot. He visited McKinley on two occasions that week and was heartened to see that, in his estimation, the President was on the road to recovery. Sadly, McKinley took a turn for the worse and died a week later.

We can chalk all that up to Robert Lincoln’s close ties to the halls of American power—it’s all a bit unlikely, perhaps, and certainly tragic, but not completely astounding. But here’s the weirdest part: It’s possible that Robert wouldn’t have been witness to any of these presidential tragedies if he hadn’t narrowly avoided an accident himself at a Jersey City train station. During the Civil War, Robert found himself in a potentially lethal situation when he fell between a moving train and the platform. He was yanked to safety by one of the most famous actors of the day: Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, the man who would soon kill Robert’s father.

7. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day.

Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1826. Jefferson went first. The founding fathers and longtime political enemies had rekindled their friendship later in life, but perhaps maintained some sense of rivalry: Among Adams’s last words was this erroneous pronouncement: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

8. November 9 is the “Day of Fate” in Germany.

Germans have their own coincidentally significant day: November 9. A number of famous or infamous events in German history have fallen on that day, from the announcement of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication of the throne in 1918 (which put an end to the German monarchy), to the horrors of Kristallnacht in 1938. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, cementing the day’s standing in the German public consciousness. Germans even have a word for it: Schicksalstag, or “The Day of Fate.”

9. Total solar eclipses are a coincidence of time and space.

Think about a total solar eclipse: The moon seems to cover up the sun, pretty much perfectly. The reason the sun and the moon appear almost identical in size to us is an accident of time and space. As astronomer Mark Gallaway said, “The [diameter of the] moon is almost exactly 400 [times] smaller than the sun’s diameter, and the sun is almost exact[ly] 400 times further away than the moon.” That all adds up to a really cool sky show whenever a total eclipse happens. But in a few hundred million years’ time, that won’t be the case. 

As Gallway told Live Science, “the moon is slowly moving away from the Earth at about the rate your fingernails grow,” which means that, eventually, the moon won’t appear large enough from Earth to completely eclipse the sun. And back when the dinosaurs were around, the moon would have appeared relatively larger in the sky, which would probably eliminate the momentary cool diamond ring effect sometimes seen at the edge of eclipses today (that effect is referred to as Baily’s beads, by the way, in honor of the British astronomer Francis Baily).

10. Johannes Kepler’s faulty decoding of Galileo’s message was correct.

A rendering of Mars.
Galileo's message was related to Mars. / SCIEPRO/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

When Galileo Galilei observed the rings of Saturn in his telescope, he wasn’t sure exactly what to make of them. Given the technology of the time, they probably looked like a couple of amorphous blobs on the side of the planet. He sent letters to friends and colleagues, proudly declaring, “SMAISMRMILMEPOETALEUMIBUNENUGTTAUIRAS.”

No, his cat didn’t walk across the keyboard. He had actually disguised his observation in a jumbled anagram, which could be reordered to read “altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi”—“I have observed that the highest planet is threefold.” (At the time, Saturn was considered the “highest” planet because it was the farthest one from the Earth that had been observed.)

The German astronomer Johannes Kepler received one of those cryptic letters. The message he deciphered from that same jumble of letters read “salve, umbistineum geminatum Martia proles,” which he translated as “Be greeted, double-knob, children of Mars.” 

He concluded that Galileo was saying Mars had two moons. Despite his completely incorrect method of deciphering the message, Kepler’s conclusion was correct. Mars’s two moons were discovered centuries later. Today, we know them as Phobos and Deimos. 

Bonus weird moons of Mars coincidence: After Kepler’s time, but well before Mars’s moons were actually discovered, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels. In the book, Swift satirized the sometimes-obscure research being done by British scientists of his day, which he seemed to think lacked an important element of practicality. As an example of this type of frivolous scientific inquiry, Swift discussed how the Laputans discovered “two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars.”

11. A pair of long-lost twins shared some uncanny similarities.

There are some wild stories out there about doppelgängers. One, which seems likely to be either embellished or entirely apocryphal, is about King Umberto I of Italy. He was said to have met a restaurateur who looked like him and had some uncanny similarities—same birth date, a wife and child with the same name—but there’s nothing in the way of contemporary sources to back the story up. But strange synchronicities between long-separated twins is a real phenomenon, as one particular pair of Jims demonstrated.

The two Jims were separated by adoption a few weeks after their birth in 1940 and were independently both named James by their adoptive parents. When they reunited, almost 40 years later, the similarities between their lives flummoxed observers. Each had married a woman named Linda and gotten divorced. They each got married a second time, each to a woman named Betty. And it gets weirder.

Both Jims had grown up with a dog named Toy and an adopted brother named Larry. Both had sons who they named James Allan (though the spelling of the James Allans differed). As psychologist Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., director of the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart Project, said, “I’m flabbergasted by some of the similarities.”

The Jims story can teach us a couple things: One, in the battle of “nature vs. nurture,” nature obviously can claim some victories. The two men dealt with similar tension headaches and put on weight at a similar time in life. There could be a genetic component that led them to enjoy the same classes in school or develop similar smoking habits. 

But the Jims can also tell us something about coincidences in general, and how our brains approach and sometimes construct them. Well over a million twins are born each year, and stories about long-lost twins who have little or nothing in common don’t exactly drive clicks. Given a large enough data set, random distribution means that some long-lost twins are going to share some interesting commonalities. 

And once we find one area of crossover, our brains are practically hardwired to seek out patterns identifying more. Numerous studies have shown that people perceive patterns where they don’t exist. Perhaps it’s a way for our brains to order the vast amount of stimuli we’re constantly taking in; maybe it’s more comforting to believe the universe is ordered, rather than chaotic and unpredictable. 

There's probably an evolutionary benefit to this pattern-seeking: As Dr. Bernard D. Beitman lays out in an essay in Psychiatric Annals, a baby quickly learns the importance of correlation. It cries, and (hopefully) a caretaker appears to feed it, hold it, or change its diaper. The correlation between crying and a caretaker appearing is an important lesson in communication. 

And pattern recognition can lead to scientific discovery. During the cholera outbreak of 1854, Dr. John Snow first detected a correlation—deaths occurred near a certain water pump—before he could understand the causality of a disease spreading through bacteria in the water supply.

So, sure: maybe the two Jims had another set of kids who didn’t share the same first name. Maybe there are two other long-lost Jim twins out there right now who married women with different names. Maybe one married a man, or vowed celibacy. The takeaway isn’t that our DNA is destiny, or that some unseen hand is guiding our actions. Confirmation bias is real, but coincidences are fun. In a certain way they might “mean nothing,” but the fact that we persist in identifying them and finding them noteworthy means something.