Mark Twain, the great American humorist and creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, died on April 21, 1910, at the age of seventy-four. He had been in poor health for some time and was severely depressed by the deaths of his wife and two of his daughters in addition to several close friends.
He was born in 1835, at the time of one of Halley’s Comet’s cyclical appearances. The next appearance of the comet was expected in 1910.
Twain took to remarking on the timing, gloomily saying in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”
In fact, Twain did die two days after the comet’s closest approach to the earth.
Thirteen years earlier, in 1897, Twain was staying in London when rumours started to spread in America that he was living there in poverty and was gravely ill or had even just died. (His health was in fact faltering and bad investments left him burdened by severe debts in the United States.)
On May 31, Twain wrote a note for a reporter charged with investigating the story, saying “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
This was later simplified in the public mind to the pithier “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” — one of Twain’s most famous quotations even though he never quite said it.