Researchers call it “the birthday effect.” You might initially think dying on your own birthday would be a massive coincidence. However, studies have shown your birthday is the day of the year you’re most likely to die on.
It makes sense when you think about the idea. If you’re a relatively healthy person, you might die on your birthday because you overindulged in some way (such as drinking too much or recklessly partying) that put your safety at risk.
On the other hand, if you’ve been struggling with a long illness that would inevitably claim your life, you could die on your birthday because you were intentionally waiting to experience one last birthday before letting the illness take you.
With that in mind, here’s a list of a few famous people who died on their birthday.
1. Ingrid Bergman, August 29, 1915–August 29, 1982
Ingrid Bergman may have entered this world in Sweden, but she made her mark on this world in Hollywood, starring in numerous classic films including Gaslight, Spellbound, and most notably, Casablanca.
She won the Academy Award for Best Actress twice (for Gaslight and Anastasia), as well as the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Murder on the Orient Express. She also received Academy Award nominations for her work in For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Joan of Arc, and Autumn Sonata. Unfortunately, she passed from cancer on her 67th birthday, but she left behind a cinematic legacy film-lovers will remember for years to come.
2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., August 17, 1914–August 17, 1988
FDR’s son might not have achieved as much fame as his father, but he still played a significant role in 20th century American history, serving three terms in Congress and two in Presidential administrations.
He was also a member of the military, an attorney, and a successful businessman in the automotive industry. Like many people who died on their birthday, his death was the culmination of a long illness. He passed away from lung cancer at the age of 74 in Poughkeepsie, NY.
3. Merle Haggard, April 6, 1937–April 6, 2016
Merle Haggard’s contributions to country music made him one of the genre’s most noteworthy stars during his lifetime. However, unlike some popular musicians who craft personas to tell stories about experiences they never had, Haggard actually spent his early life having the kinds of experiences so many country singers describe.
For instance, as a child, he decided to quit school and travel across the country by hopping freight trains. He also spent three years in prison, having drunkenly broken into a cafe. Luckily, he left that lifestyle behind and went on to influence a generation of country stars. He eventually passed away from pneumonia on his 79th birthday. After his death, Merle’s friends and family through him a grand memorial service in Bakersfield, California.
4. Betty Friedan, February 4, 1921–February 4, 2006
Feminist activist and author of The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan dramatically changed the lives of women across the world during her 85 years. She explored how societies forced women into roles they may not want for themselves, played a crucial role in launching the women’s lib movement, co-founded the National Organization for Women, and frequently made public appearances advocating for women’s rights.
Of course, someone that outspoken about controversial issues would naturally become the target of criticism from those who wished to maintain the status quo. Some critics dismissed The Feminine Mystique’s premise, while others refused to take Friedan seriously, given that she had a tendency to express her beliefs in an abrasive manner.
Nevertheless, she helped spark a revolution of sorts by starkly illustrating the unfair treatment so many women throughout the world must endure. Sadly, congestive heart failure would eventually take her life.
5. Kamehameha V, December 11, 1830–December 11, 1872
It’s worth noting not all famous people who died on their birthday necessarily deserve our admiration. Consider the example of Kamehameha V.
Kamehameha V served as Hawaii’s king from 1863 to 1872. Immediately upon ascending to the throne after the death of his brother, Kamehameha V made it clear he had no plans to accept the limitations to his power that Hawaii’s constitution dictated at the time. He instead drafted a new constitution designed to give him more freedom to rule as he pleased. However, like all figures from history who strive for power, he still didn’t have the power to avoid death, dying at the age of 42.
6. Corrie ten Boom, April 15, 1892–April 15, 1983
If Kamehameha V is an example of a historical figure on this list whose actions during their lifetime may have caused pain for numerous others, Corrie ten Boom is the exact opposite.
The ten Boom family placed a great deal of emphasis on their Calvinist faith, helping the less fortunate when they could. Specifically, during the Holocaust, they initially protected hundreds of Jews from persecution, until another citizen betrayed them, resulting in the entire family’s imprisonment.
Fortunately, Corrie managed to survive the experience. After World War II ended, she established a rehabilitation center in the Netherlands to support former concentration camp prisoners. These early humanitarian efforts led to the creation of a ministry that allowed ten Boom to spread her message and help others as she traveled to more than 60 countries. To spread her message even further, ten Boom wrote a book, The Hiding Place, which described her experiences during WWII. It became a best-seller.
Corrie ten Boom died on her 91st birthday, succumbing to complications resulting from multiple strokes, but in her life, she undeniably changed the world.
7. Sidney Bechet, May 14, 1897–May 14, 1959
Not everyone may be familiar with Sidney Bechet, but to jazz enthusiasts, he remains one of the most influential musicians in history. This isn’t merely because he was a talented soprano saxophonist. Along with possessing basic technical skills, Bechet also knew how to use his instrument in new, unique, and personal ways, helping establish the style that would differentiate jazz from ragtime. In other words, he helped to create a musical genre.
Bechet was also multi-talented. Along with the soprano saxophone, he played the clarinet. He traveled the world extensively during his early years as a musician but fell out of the limelight for a period of time when interest in jazz waned. Fortunately, a revival of New Orleans music that began in 1939 allowed Bechet to resume his career, and he spent the next decade recording frequently once again, until his death in 1959.
8. Ella Baker, December 13, 1903–December 13, 1986
Ella Baker is yet another famous person who died on their birthday after spending a lifetime fighting for the rights of others. Baker’s grandmother had been an African-American slave who refused to marry a husband her owner had tried to force on her, even though he whipped her for her defiance. This strength inspired Baker to keep her grandmother’s legacy alive.
She graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh as valedictorian of her class and soon after moved to New York City, joining numerous organizations for social activists. These included not only organizations promoting African-American rights, but also general women’s rights organizations. During the Jim Crow era, she became a field secretary and director of several branches for the NAACP.
Baker’s activism didn’t end there. She worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and assisted many young student activists organizing sit-ins. This earned her the Swahili nickname “Fundi,” which refers to someone who passes on an important skill or craft to younger generations. She died at the age of 83 on her birthday, leaving behind a vibrant legacy.
9. William Shakespeare, April 23, (Year Uknown), 1564-April 23, 1616
William Shakespeare certainly isn’t the last person on this list because he was the least famous. On the contrary, some may consider the Bard to be the most universally-known figure listed here.
However, scholars aren’t completely certain Shakespeare died on his birthday because they don’t know if his birthday was April 23, although they do know it was at least very close to that date. Although we don’t have any proof of how Shakespeare died, according to some stories, he died after a night of drinking with friends, which would explain why he may have died on his birthday. He might have overindulged while celebrating.
You might expect that many people would’ve attended Shakespeare’s funeral, or that one of the actors who performed in his plays would deliver a famous eulogy. At the very least, a literary critic would have probably given Shakespeare one of history’s most famous obituaries, right?
That wasn’t the case. Shakespeare’s reputation as perhaps the greatest playwright in the world (as well as one of its greatest poets) didn’t develop until after his death. There was no grand memorial service for the bard, and only a few people attended his funeral.
People Who Died on Their Birthday: Not All That Uncommon
Many people died on their birthday, it’s just a strange fact of this world. Or perhaps not that strange at all—depending on how you look at it. Death comes for us all, and birthday deaths aren’t necessarily uncommon. What is uncommon is the type of impact these figures had on the world during their lifetimes.
- “Actress Ingrid Bergman dies on her birthday.” History, A&E Television Networks, LLC, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/actress-ingrid-bergman-dies-on-her-birthday
- Chakelian, Anoosh. “Study: You’re Most Likely To Die On Your Own Birthday.” Time, Time USA, LLC, 12 June 2012 newsfeed.time.com/2012/06/12/study-youre-most-likely-to-die-on-your-own-birthday/
- “Corrie ten Boom.” Biography, A&E Television Networks, LLC, 17 April 2019, www.biography.com/activist/corrie-ten-boom
- Fox, Margalit. “Betty Friedan, Who Ignited Cause in 'Feminine Mystique,' Dies at 85.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 05 February 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/02/05/us/betty-friedan-who-ignited-cause-in-feminine-mystique-dies-at-85.html
- “Kamehameha V.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/biography/Kamehameha-V
- McQuiston, John T. “Franklin Roosevelt Jr., 74, Ex-Congressman, Dies.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 18 August 1988, www.nytimes.com/1988/08/18/obituaries/franklin-roosevelt-jr-74-ex-congressman-dies.html
- “Merle Haggard, an American country music legend, dead at 79.” BBC, The BBC, 06 April 2016, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-35981077
- Tesch, Noah. “The Death of Shakespeare.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/story/400th-anniversary-of-shakespeares-death
- “WHO WAS ELLA BAKER?” Ella baker Center for Human Rights, ellabakercenter.org/about/who-was-ella-baker
- Hudson, Rob. “Sidney Bechet.” BlackPast, Blackpast.org, 14 January 2008, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/bechet-sidney-1897-1959/