One of the most astonishing coincidences in world history was the deaths of John Adams, America's second president, and Thomas Jefferson, its third. They both died, 500 miles apart, on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
But it's not this improbable -- many at the time said miraculous -- event that I will write about today. During the last 14 years of their lives, the two great founding fathers put aside their resentments and became pen pals. (Their voluminous correspondence would become a treasure trove for historians of early America.) So what happened on that final day as each exited the world was not totally surprising. According to bedside witnesses, on the afternoon of the fourth in Quincy, Massachusetts, three or four hours after Jefferson's death at Monticello in Virginia, and an hour or two before his own death, Adams stirred and said in a faint voice, "Thomas Jefferson survives."
Every Adams biographer mentions this mysterious utterance, but none seems to understand it. One of them, Charles Francis Adams, Adam's grandson, positively misinterprets it. "But he was mistaken," he says of his grandfather. "The fact was not as he supposed. Thomas Jefferson did not survive."
We know a great deal more today about deathbed visions, sometimes called parting visions, than was known in 1826. Hospice nurses especially tell us how common they are. During a typical deathbed vision, dying people report seeing what death researchers call a "crisis apparition" -- usually the ghost of someone they knew and loved who preceded them in death. It was ignorance of this common experience that led to the biographer's mistake.
John Adams did not say of Jefferson that he still lived, but that he survived. Survived what? The obvious answer is that he survived death. And how did Adams know? It is likely that he could have seen Jefferson's apparition. If this interpretation is correct -- and I believe it is -- then Adams might not have been mistaken at all. At any rate, what he saw was proof enough for him that his old friend had indeed survived. (Adams was a firm believer in life after death.)
Did Jefferson come in spirit to pay his old friend a visit three or four hours after he, Jefferson, left the world? That is a distinct possibility -- and I would say a likelihood. I say this as a longtime student of deathbed visions. Some of them, well-attested in books like Final Gifts, written by two hospice nurses, involve apparitions that startle the dying person because the spirit seen is thought to be alive in the flesh, when in fact he or she has died without the dying person's knowledge. "Ah, now I understand," is the usual response when told of the death of the friend. Such apparitions bring with them veridical information -- the death of a friend thought to be alive -- that could not have been known in a normal way and is consequently received with surprise and often confusion. They are not what the dying person expected and cannot easily be explained away as hallucinations born of wishful thinking, for hallucinations don't contain veridical information.
The exact nature of Adams' apparition is of course up for debate. Was it Jefferson in spirit come to greet his old friend and reassure him that death was not extinction? Or was it a hallucination produced by a dying mind? Either way, it is a fascinating postscript to one of the most influential friendships in American history, and a proper way to commemorate, not only our country's independence, but the lives of two of its great founding presidents.