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More Weird Historical Coincidences

Given the depth and breadth of the human experience, it stands to reason that over the course of history, things will unintentionally overlap, synchronise or resonate down the years. In what is definitely not a coincidence, this is the second helping of things tied to famous historical people or events that might be considered coincidental, spooky or maybe just a bit weird.

Shakespeare and the Bible Code

Everyone’s heard of William Shakespeare. The English playwright who died in the seventeenth century penned such enduring plays as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. The influence of his work lives on today through such phrases as “the green-eyed monster”, “wild goose chase” and “at one fell swoop” which all originated in his plays. Did you also know, though, that Shakespeare might have been planning on creating an even longer legacy for himself by inserting his name into the Bible? The KJV or King James Version is the 17th Century’s English translation of the Bible.

1760 Cambridge Edition King James Bible. By ThatPeskyCommoner, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Thanks to the printing press, it became widely available and wildly popular. A panel of biblical scholars and translators had been tasked with creating a new English version of the text, variously from Hebrew and Aramaic versions of the Old Testament, Greek versions of the New Testament and Greek and Latin texts of the books of the Apocrypha. The project started in 1604 and the King James Bible was first published in 1611.

Now for the coincidence part. In 1610, as the King James Bible was nearing completion, would it be so outlandish an idea that one of the foremost literary superstars in the land would be asked to run a quick eye over some passages and maybe even jazz them up a little? In the year 1610, Shakespeare would have been 46. If you take a look at Psalm 46 in the King James Bible and count the words, the 46th one from the beginning is the word “shake”.

If you count from the end of the psalm and ignore the word “Selah” which is generally agreed to be more of a punctuation note than a word, the 46th word is “spear”. Moreover, in the 17th century equivalent of scrawling “Shakespeare woz ‘ere” somewhere, the name “William Shakespeare” can be rearranged into the anagram “Here I was, like a Psalm”. While many holes can be poked in this theory and there has been no evidence that Shakespeare had any hand in writing or editing the King James Version of the Bible, it’s still a fun coincidence linking two of the most influential elements of English language and culture. 

The President’s Assassin’s Brother

You may well be familiar with the name John Wilkes Booth. In 1865, the 26 year old actor who was vehemently opposed to many of President Abraham Lincoln’s views and policies, shot the President in the back of the head during a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. 

Booth had easy access to all areas of the theatre as he was a well-known actor and had even performed there with President Lincoln in the audience on a previous occasion in 1863. He wasn’t the only actor in his family, however, with his father and siblings also well known for treading the boards. In 1864, John, along with his older brothers Edwin and Junius Booth, starred in a one-off performance of Julius Caesar. But while John Wilkes Booth went down in infamy for assassinating Abraham Lincoln, his brother Edwin played an almost opposite role in history. Edwin Booth was born in 1833 and had a successful career as a Shakespearean actor.

In the mid 1860s, Edwin Booth was at a train station in New Jersey. The platform was very crowded and as a train started to move off, he saw a man twist and fall down in the space between the train and the platform edge. Grabbing the man by the collar of his coat, Booth managed to haul him up to safety. The man actually recognised Booth as the famous actor and thanked him profusely. It wasn’t until a few months later when Booth received a letter from a friend who was working with the man that he found out who he had rescued. After having to live with the consequences of his brother’s actions of killing Abraham Lincoln, it must have been some small consolation when Edwin Booth was told the man whose life he’d saved that day was actually Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert. Out of Lincoln’s four sons, Robert was the only one to live past the age of 18 and died a wealthy man at the age of 82.

Starting and Ending the First World War

It’s commonly agreed that the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian terrorist group was the tipping point that started the First World War. While other factors were in play, the assassination led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on the 28th of July 1914, shortly followed by Germany declaring war on Russia and then France in August. But would this have happened if the heir to the throne of Austria and Hungary had escaped the assassination attempt in the first place? We can’t say for sure, of course, but he nearly did avoid the ambush.

Franz Ferdinand was in Sarajevo when the events unfolded in June of 1914, overseeing military training exercises. Bosnia and Herzegovina had recently been annexed by Austria-Hungary but Serbia was also interested in acquiring it as part of their budding empire. Franz Ferdinand being there at that time was supposed to send a warning message to Serbia to lay off the aggressive behaviour. He chose a bad date, however.

The 28th of June is celebrated in Serbia as St. Vitus Day, a culturally important day in remembrance of the Battle of Kosovo which took place in 1389. Having just won back Kosovo after the Second Balkan War, the 28th of June in 1914 was of extra importance to Serbia so many nationalists were angered by Franz Ferdinand’s visit on that particular day. A group of Bosnian Serbs linked to the Serbian terrorist group, The Black Hand, set themselves up to ambush the Archduke’s car. The route his car was going to take was widely available and security was minimal as they were driven through Sarajevo.

As the Archduke’s motorcade headed to the city centre, a bomb was thrown at his car. The driver managed to miss it but it hit the car behind, causing several injuries. Seemingly not that concerned about the threat to his life, the Archduke carried on with his visit to meet the mayor. After this, he wanted to go to the hospital to check on the people injured by the bomb but in a stroke of fate that could easily have been avoided, nobody briefed the drivers of the motorcade that the route had been changed. The drivers of the first two cars were Czech and everyone else was speaking German and the message just never got through.

Even after the first failed assassination attempt and the change of plans to go to the hospital, the cars managed to make it back on the originally planned route. When someone else in the Archduke’s car noticed they were going the wrong way, the driver slowed down right in front of Gavrilo Princip, one of the members of the terrorist group, who promptly fired two shots into the car, killing Franz Ferdinand and his wife and jumpstarting the hostilities of World War One.

As well as the coincidence of being in exactly the wrong spot at the wrong time to start the Great War, Franz Ferdinand also has a link to the end of it. The car he and his wife were in had the numberplate AIII 118 which, if spaced equally can be read as 11-11-18. The 11th of November 1918 was the date the Armistice was signed, ending the fighting of the First World War. A coincidence rather than a prophetic message perhaps, but it’s still a pretty nifty fact.

Read the Warnings

Timur. Forensic facial reconstruction by M.Gerasimov. 1941
Timur. Forensic facial reconstruction by M.Gerasimov. 1941. By shakko, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

14th century warlord Tamerlane or Timur was responsible for an estimated 17 million deaths as he built an empire across Asia. He was buried in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and, for some reason, Joseph Stalin thought it would be a good idea to send a team out there to open his tomb. They traveled to the gravesite in June 1941, much to the concern of basically everyone in Samarkand. On Timur’s tombstone was an engraving that translated as: “When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble”.

As we all know, warnings like these always fall on deaf ears so the archeologists kept going. On the 20th of June 1941, they opened Timur’s coffin. Legend has it that inscribed on the inside was the final warning: “Whoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.” Again, warning not heeded and the embalmed remains of the deceased leader were flown to the Soviet Union. Two days after his tomb was broken into, Timur’s curse came true as Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and started his invasion of the Soviet Union.

The death toll for the Second World War far exceeds the estimated 17 million that perished under the military operations led by Timur, so in that way, Hitler definitely was a more terrible invader. And what did Stalin do with Timur’s body once he had it? Perhaps spooked by the apparent curse he’d unleashed and desperate to try anything that might turn the tide, Stalin ordered Timur’s body to be reburied in his tomb at Samarkand with full Islamic burial rights at the end of 1942. It seemed to have done the trick as shortly after the body was laid back to rest, the German army surrendered, losing the Battle of Stalingrad which was a pivotal moment in World War Two. So maybe let’s just let those sleeping warlords lie.

Crossword Puzzle

Another huge turning point for World War Two was the invasion of German-occupied Europe by the Allies. Codenamed “Operation Overlord”, the plan consisted of British, American and Canadian troops landing on beaches in Normandy. These beaches were code-named “Utah”, “Omaha”, “Gold”, “Juno” and “Sword”. Large concrete caissons were also towed over to form harbors to aid the invasion. These were known as the Mulberry Harbours. This first phase of the plan was codenamed “Operation Neptune”.

During wartime, it was obviously of paramount importance to keep information under wraps to give your plans the best possible chance of success. So it must have been surprising and then very concerning to the military when not just one or two, but every single major codeword from the Normandy landings started popping up in British newspaper’s crossword puzzles just weeks before the planned invasion. The answers of “Utah” and “Omaha” in the Telegraph crossword first got the attention of Britain’s military intelligence agency, MI5, in May of 1944 and it turned out that in the days prior, “Gold”, “Sword” and “Juno” had also made appearances as answers. Was this a mole, leaking information to the enemy? Even more suspiciously, the answers “Mulberry” and “Overlord” appeared in fairly quick succession, followed, mere days before D-Day by the word “Neptune”.

One man was responsible for all the crosswords so MI5 paid him a visit. Leonard Dawe was a teacher and crossword compiler and claimed complete innocence over his role in potentially giving away major information to enemy forces. His reaction as to why he had used the words in his puzzles was: “Why not?” Interestingly, Dawe had been investigated 2 years earlier when another crossword he had created contained the answer “Dieppe” which seems innocent enough, but it was published 2 days before the Allies tried to capture the French port of Dieppe, with disastrous consequences.

There may be an explanation for this, though. During the war, there were plenty of soldiers living with or near families from his school and Dawe often sought inspiration for crossword clues from his older students. They might have picked up on some frequently used code words and suggested them to him for inclusion. After thorough investigations, no charges were ever brought against Leonard Dawe so it seems that including all the codewords for one of the most important military operations in history just before it happened, was nothing more than an unwitting coincidence. 

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