10 Uncanny Sets of Birth Twins

Getty Images
Getty Images

Blame astrology, numerology or just coincidence—some people who share a birthdate have more in common than the day they were born. Witness the following 10 sets of birth twins.

1. Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809)

Two of the outstanding figures of the 19th century were both raised as Christians, though Darwin died an atheist and Lincoln was, by some accounts, a non-believer. Both had unimpressive school records, but taught themselves to rise to the peaks of their professions. Both embraced change and detested slavery. Darwin's most important work, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859 "“ one year before Lincoln was elected president. With these events, both would challenge the status quo "“ changing the world, and winning enemies for their efforts. (Darwin would be denounced; Lincoln would be assassinated.)

2. Jimmy Hoffa and James Pike (February 14, 1913)

Hoffa was a powerful and contentious unionist, alleged to have ties with organized crime. Pike was the contentious Episcopal bishop of California, alleged to have extramarital affairs. Both were known as champions of the underprivileged. Hoffa bargained for low-paid workers and campaigned for prison reform; Pike supported the civil rights movement. Hoffa was finally convicted of fraud and jury tampering in 1967, serving four years in prison; Pike was tried for heresy for his radical ideas, which resulted in the formal censure of his views. But most spookily of all: They both disappeared mysteriously. (Pike's body was found a few days later; Hoffa was never seen again.) Neither of their demises were ever solved.

3. Marlon Brando and Doris Day (April 3, 1924)

The evil twin syndrome (though we're not sure which was the evil one). At their peak in the 1950s, they were polar opposites. Brando played rebellious, tough guys who mumbled everything. Day played wholesome, virginal sweeties who sang beautifully. But they had a few things in common. Both of their careers were the result of a misspent youth (Brando took up acting after being thrown out of a military academy; Day was singing in clubs at 16.) Both had reputations for being "difficult." Brando came to the movies as a famous actor, but proved he could sing (sort of) in Guys and Dolls. Day entered movies as a famous singer, but proved she could act in Storm Warning. Both became attached to important social causes (Brando to the plight of Native Americans; Day to animal rights).

4. President George W. Bush and Sylvester Stallone (July 6, 1946)

These two have more in common than you might realize. Their oratorical skills have been criticized, but at their peaks, both were immensely popular. Their secret: people love a war"¦ provided they win. They each have a past that they would rather forget. In the early 1970s, Bush had a drinking problem and multiple arrests; Stallone (as a struggling actor) was debasing himself in a skin flick. Bush has a history of failed business ventures; Stallone has had his own corporate disasters, like Planet Hollywood, his ill-fated co-venture with two of Bush's friends, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stallone's two most famous roles also seem perfect for Bush. Like Rocky, Bush was an underdog, who triumphed (in the 2000 presidential election) without actually outscoring his opponent; and like Rambo, he has been keen to settle old military scores. Of course, neither Bush nor Stallone are as popular as they used to be, proving that celebrity is fickle business, however you achieve it.

5. Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon and Christo Javacheff (June 13, 1935)

Few birth twins have proven more compatible than these two artists, who have collaborated on many projects over the past 40 years, and have been happily married even longer. They are exponents of environmental installation art, famous for wrapping Berlin's Reichstag and the Paris's Pont Neuf Bridge in plastic, as well as such public artworks as Running Fence, a 24-mile-long curtain in California, and The Gates in New York City's Central Park.

6. Princess Diana and Carl Lewis (July 1, 1961)

They were among the biggest celebrities of the 1980s, winning overnight fame early in the decade "“ despite unlikely beginnings. As a child, years before becoming the world's most photographed person, Diana was notoriously shy; Lewis, years before winning nine Olympic gold medals, was a "runt." (Strangely, Diana showed more athletic prowess than Lewis at school, excelling in several sports.) Both became renowned for their charity work. After Princess Diana's death in 1997, "King Carl" wrote a tribute to her: "She will be missed by the many that she touched. And our birthday will never be as bright."

7. Albert Finney and Glenda Jackson (May 9, 1936)

Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts graduates? Check. Made their film debuts in early-1960s British "kitchen sink" dramas? Check. Became major stars in raunchy, Oscar-winning adaptations of classic British novels? Check. Turned down several film roles throughout their careers to focus on the theatre? Che-e-eck. Hey, these twins could almost be the same person! In fact, have you ever wondered why you've never seen them in the same film together?

8. Meryl Streep and Lindsay Wagner (June 22, 1949)

The super-woman of American stage and screen... and the star of The Bionic Woman on TV! How could that possibly be mere coincidence?

9. Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross (June 22, 1947)

Though these actors are best-known for playing a happily married couple in the classic 1980s sitcom Family Ties, they were actually (birth) twins. They're not the only twins who have worked together in television and the movies, of course. Oliver Stone directed Tommy Lee Jones twice, while Quincy Jones wrote music for The Italian Job (1969), starring his birth twin Michael Caine.

10. Andre Agassi and Uma Thurman (April 29, 1970)

One moment "“ like 1994 "“ you're riding high and everyone thinks you're sexy. A few years later, you're a has-been, ranked 141st in the world (or making appalling movies like Batman and Robin), but at least you're married to a former teen star like Brooke Shields (or Ethan Hawke). A few years later "“ like 2003 "“ you have broken up with your ex-teen-star spouse, but at least you're back in form. You're number one in the rankings (or high in the box office), decimating (or slicing to bits) your opponents in court (or in the Kill Bill movies). Oh, and everyone still thinks you're sexy.

Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia. See what else he's written at markjuddery.com.

The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In March 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with one of the most macabre dénouements in his entire body of work. Called Hop-Frog, it was the tale of an eponymous court jester who endures repeated humiliations from an abusive king and his ministers before finally exacting his revenge. Like other works of the great horror master, it may have been inspired by historical events—in this case, by a particularly grisly episode from 14th-century France.

In Poe's short story, both Hop-Frog and Trippetta are people with dwarfism stolen from their respective home countries and brought as presents for the king from one of his generals. Hop-Frog is described as having a disability that makes him walk "by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle." Forced to be the court's jester, he's the target of the king's practical jokes, and while enduring near-constant humiliations grows close to Trippetta, whose status at the court isn't much better.

One day, the king demands a masquerade, and as the evening draws near, he asks Hop-Frog what to wear. After a scene in which he and Trippetta are abused once again, Hop-Frog sees the perfect chance for revenge. He suggests the monarch and his ministers dress as escaped orangutans chained together, which he calls "a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades." The king and his ministers love the idea of scaring their guests, and especially the women. The jester carefully prepares their costumes, saturating tight-fitting fabric with tar and plastering flax on top to resemble the hair of the beasts.

On the evening of the masquerade, the men enter in their special outfits just after midnight. The guests are duly terrified, and amid the hubbub, Hop-Frog attaches the chain that surrounds the group to one hanging from the ceiling that normally holds a chandelier. As the men are drawn upwards, he brings a flame close to their bodies, pretending to the crowd that he's trying to figure out who the disguised men really are. The flax and tar ignite quickly and the noblemen burn to death, suspended above the crowd. "The eight corpses swung in their chains," Poe writes, "a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass."

Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Rijksmuseum, Europeana // Public Domain

The gruesome scene was likely inspired by a historical event: the Bal des Ardents (literally, "the Ball of the Burning Ones"). This obscure episode took place during the reign of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), known to posterity as "Charles the Mad." His periods of illness are well-documented by contemporary chroniclers, who tell us that he ran through his castle howling like a wolf, failed to recognize his own wife and children, and forbade anyone to touch him because he believed he was made of glass. After his first bout in 1392, when delirium led him to kill several knights, his physician prescribed "amusements, relaxations, sports, and pastimes."

Meanwhile, the royal council was controlled by his brother Louis d'Orléans and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy—who both had their eyes set on the throne. It was also the middle of the Hundred Years' War, and England was seen as a severe threat to national stability. In spite of the unrest, on January 28, 1393, Charles's wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, held a ball in the royal palace of Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting Catherine de Fastaverin. The plan was also to entertain the king, as the royal physician had prescribed. One of the guests, the knight Sir Hugonin (sometimes Huguet) de Guisay, suggested that a group of nobles dress as "wild men" or "wood savages," mythical creatures associated with nature and pagan beliefs. The king liked the idea so much that he decided to join in as one of the masked dancers.

The six noblemen wore garments made of linen covered in pitch and stuck-on clumps of flax, so they appeared "full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot," according to contemporary historian Jean Froissart. Poe preserved these details in Hop-Frog, though his characters weren't dressed as wild men, but as orangutans—an animal he had also used in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) to great effect.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, Charles VI was aware that the costumes were highly flammable, so he ordered all torch-bearers to keep to one side of the room. As they entered the ballroom, five of the wild men were chained to one another. Only the king was free. The men probably humiliated the newlyweds, howling and dancing; some historians believe the wild dance was a charivari, a folk ritual intended to shame newlyweds at "irregular" marriages. (As a widow getting married for the third time, Lady Catherine would have been a target.)

But there was an important guest missing: the king's brother, Louis d'Orléans. He arrived late, carrying his own torch, and joined the dance. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, before long his torch had set fire to one of the wild men's costumes. The fire spread quickly. Two of the knights burned to death in front of the guests, and two more died in agony days later. Court chronicler Michel Pintoin, known as the Monk of St. Denis, describes the dancers' "flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood."

Only two of the wild men survived. One of them, named Nantoiullet, had reacted to the blaze by throwing himself into a barrel of water, which spared him a horrid death. The other was the king. He was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who used her gown to extinguish his costume before it was too late.

The event shook French society. It was seen as the height of courtly decadence, causing outrage and further unrest. That the king had engaged in this extravagant amusement, and that his life had been spared only by chance, was further proof that he was unfit for the throne.

Meanwhile, the part that Louis d'Orléans played in the tragedy was subject to some debate. Most chroniclers blamed his youth and recklessness for the terrible accident; some reportedly suggested it was a prank to "frighten the ladies" that got out of hand.

Although it seems that the Bal des Ardents wasn't a planned crime, the king's brother must have felt responsible for the fatal accident, since he founded a chapel in the convent of the Célestins shortly afterwards, hoping it would buy him a place in heaven. It didn't save him from a violent end, however: In 1407, Louis was assassinated on the orders of his cousin and recently minted political rival the Duke of Burgundy, which triggered a civil war that divided France for decades. The Duke of Burgundy justified the murder by accusing Louis of having used sorcery and occultism to attempt regicide on several occasions—one of them, he claimed, during the Bal des Ardents.

Regardless of the truth behind the matter, the horror of the event filtered down through the centuries to inspire one of Poe's most macabre works. (It's not clear where the author first heard about it, but it may have been in the pages of The Broadway Journal, where he was soon to become editor, and where a writer likened it to the accidental onstage burning death of the dancer Clara Webster in London.) Today, the shocking historical event lives on in Poe's story—and in Hop Frog's memorable final line: "I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest."

Additional source: Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys

A Scientific Spirit: Sir Francis Bacon and the Ghost Chicken of Highgate

iStock.com/GrabillCreative
iStock.com/GrabillCreative

Most ghost stories involve suspense, evil deeds, and a terrifying specter, but this one is a bit different. This is a ghost story about a philosopher, an innovation, and a plucked chicken.

It was an unseasonably cold and snowy day back in April 1626 when the famed philosopher, statesman, and proto-scientist Sir Francis Bacon was driving through Highgate, north London, in a horse-drawn carriage with his good friend Dr. Witherbone, the king's physician. The learned pair was discussing the best methods to preserve food when, inspired by the snowy landscape, Bacon proposed that ice might be used to keep food fresh. So excited was he by this bold new idea that he demanded the carriage stop in Pond Square, where Bacon procured a chicken from a nearby farm. After it was plucked and gutted, he proceeded to pack it with ice from the ground—in effect creating the world’s first frozen chicken.

Sadly, Bacon never lived to see the results of his innovative experiment in refrigeration. His exposure to the freezing temperatures reportedly led to a case of pneumonia, and he died on April 9, 1626.

Sir Francis Bacon painted by Paul Van Somer
Sir Francis Bacon painted by Paul Van Somer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In a more typical ghost story, Bacon himself might come back to haunt the scene of his undoing. Instead, it was the chicken who returned.

Reports supposedly soon surfaced of a half-plucked chicken appearing in Pond Square, running madly in circles or sitting sullenly in a tree. When approached, the mysterious chicken would vanish into thin air. The sightings continued over the following decades: During World War II, an air raid warden patrolling Pond Square caught sight of the mangy bird and thought to catch it for his supper. He chased the fowl, but was thwarted when it disappeared before his eyes. In 1943 a man crossing Pond Square heard the sound of a horse and carriage before witnessing the squawking ghost fleetingly appear. In the 1970s a young couple was courting in the picturesque square when their romantic moment was ruined by the arrival of the ghostly chicken, flapping its plucked wings and charging around in indignant circles.

In recent years, sightings of the frozen ghost chicken have become less frequent, the specter of the fowl perhaps assuaged by the passage of time. Both the ghost, and reports of Bacon's experiment, have their doubters, but the story lives on. It reminds us of an important scientific development—and might prompt us to whisper a little thanks to the ghost chicken of Pond Square as we prepare our frozen chicken for dinner.

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