August 16: The day the music, the Bambino, and the vampire died

Categories: Obituary
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Beware the ides of August! Famed musicians Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley, Hall of Fame slugger Babe Ruth, and horror movie legend Bela Lugosi all drew their last breath on August 16. What cosmic truth or transcendent meaning can be derived from this ghoulish convergence? It doesn't have the same significance as political rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same 4th of July in 1826, but the circumstances surrounding their deaths were as unique as their lives. Except for Bela, he just had a heart attack.



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Robert Johnson was playing a show with Sonny Boy Williamson one night in July 1938, when a young lady caught the bluesman's eye. It's believed the jealous husband of the woman had Johnson served an open whiskey bottle containing strychnine. Johnson became ill following his return to the stage and had to go outside. Johnson fought the poisoning for weeks, succumbing to pneumonia on Tuesday, August 16, 1938 at age 27.


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In the fall of 1946, Babe Ruth, who hit 714 home runs during his legendary career, was diagnosed with throat cancer and spent three months in the hospital. He lost 80 pounds, his voice was impaired, and he was rendered nearly immobile. On June 13, 1948, with his health still in decline, the Yankees honored the player that made them the most recognizable team in the world by retiring his number 3. He died on August 16, 1948 at Memorial Hospital in New York City at age 53. On August 17 and 18, his body lay in state at the entrance of Yankee Stadium, where over 100,000 people came to pay their final respects.


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Bela Lugosi, born near the western border of Transylvania in 1882, gained international fame in 1931 in the title role of Dracula, leading to almost three decades starring in horror movies. Lugosi committed himself in 1955 in order to overcome his drug addiction, then joined director Ed Wood on their third collaboration, Plan 9 From Outer Space. After filming a few scenes, however, Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956, and was buried in his Dracula costume. He was 73.


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Elvis Presley, the first rock and roll star, with 150 different albums and singles certified gold, platinum or multi-platinum, and over one billion record units sold worldwide, grew heavier and more dependent on prescription drugs during the latter part of his life. On August 16, 1977, the day before his next scheduled concert, "The King" was discovered by his girlfriend Ginger Alden dead on the bathroom floor at Graceland, the book The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus laying nearby. He was 42. Congestive heart failure was ruled the cause of death. A later autopsy revealed advanced hardening of the arteries and an enlarged liver.



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