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The Cruelest Month, Part 6: The Wreck

Four-twenty-seven is the number that has obsessed me for over fifteen years. I associate the number with profound loss. I wrote about it in detail here, in a piece about the tenth anniversary of the death of my first wife, Jennifer. Jen died of a previously undiagnosed heart ailment April 27, 2006. Ten years later, I fell in love with her sister Nancy, and moved into an apartment in Brooklyn, the address of which was 427. I married Nancy 27 years and four months after I first met her, in February of 2017. Nancy died of cancer on April 27, 2020, the same day as her sister. I left the hospice that day and went home to our family home on Sultana Drive in Cincinnati thinking about the recurrence of the number in my life, and whether it really meant anything or if I was just looking for patterns to explain the inexplicable. 

Four plus two plus seven equals thirteen, a number that is often considered unlucky in the West: there were thirteen people at the Last Supper. The arrest, torture and destruction of the Knights Templar happened October 13, 1307. Apollo 13 was the US moon mission that went awry. Many tall buildings omit the 13th floor (which is of course absurd, because that means the floor officially listed as 14 is the 13th). And so on. 

But on the other hand, according to Britannica, the fear of the number 13 is not as commonplace in Asian or African cultures. The ancient Egyptians considered 13 a lucky number. And "in much of East and Southeast Asia, where tetraphobia is the norm, you’d be hard-pressed to find much use of the number 4 in private or public life, thanks to similar sounds for the Chinese language (and Chinese-influenced linguistic sub-groups) words for 'four' and 'death.'" 

According to a shamanistic astrology page I consulted, "Some say 13 is a number that transcends matter and is coded with the frequencies of Ascension, Oneness and Unity that transforms all things. Since 13 is a prime number it is only divisible by itself representing purity – as 13 then is incorruptible and exists within its own integrity." Furthermore, "The Egyptians described 13 steps on the ladder that leads to eternity and the thirteenth step was where the soul reached the source of its self and attained spiritual completion. Interestingly, the word reincarnation has 13 letters. In Arthurian Legend, Merlin guards the 13 Treasures of Britain."

The date 4/27 intrigued me more, though, because I could definitively tie it to the deaths of both my wives, the specific period of elapsed time between meeting and marrying Nancy, and the physical address of my last place in New York before moving into the house on Sultana (which in retrospect seems to me a harbinger or premonition of the loss of Nancy). 

According to This Day in History, a lot of big things happened on April 27, most seemingly unrewarding when considered in relation to our family's loss.

However, there was one event that jumped out at me: the worst maritime disaster in US history. 

On April 27, 1865, a 260-foot long steamship carrying Union prisoners-of-war paroled after the end of the Civil War exploded on the Mississippi River, killing up to 1,800 of the 2,427 people on board. Most of those killed died instantly or soon after, but several hundred died days later, after enduring physical damage and stress from the catastrophe. 

Overcrowding was blamed for the disaster being so much worse than it might otherwise have been. The ship was supposed to carry 375 people, but there were already an additional 52 people over capacity, and Union Army Captain George Williams insisted that the vessel carry an additional 2000 paroled POWs because it was too much trouble to split them up into separate ships.

The steamship was built at a shipyard in Cincinnati in 1963. 

The name of the ship was SS Sultana

The cul-de-sac where our house is located is named after the ship. 

It's the shortest street in a neighborhood named after sailing vessels.  A dead end.

If the additional 2000 POWs hadn't been added to the ship, the number of passengers would have topped out at 427.

Several main streets in the neighborhood empty onto Anderson Ferry Road, so named because if you follow it down a steep and winding hill, you will end up waiting to ride the Anderson Ferry, which takes people across the Ohio River into Kentucky.

According to Alan Huffman's article "Surviving the Worst," published at Mississippi History Now, "Word of the disaster reached Memphis when a passenger, a teenage boy, floated up to the waterfront and told the sentries what had happened. In the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, as word of the disaster spread, numerous boats began to assist in the rescue, and the survivors were sent to hospitals in Memphis. Many were naked by the time they were rescued, having shed their clothes to make it easier to swim. In Memphis they were given red long johns (much like thermal long underwear), which some of them wore as they wandered the streets of Memphis.When they were well enough, the survivors were put on other boats and sent north, where they finally made it home. The Sultana remained at the bottom of the Mississippi River."

You try not to read too much into things, and then you find out stuff like this.

What to do? Read more, and continue to find it interesting.

I believe that fate, luck, and coincidence are names for phenomena that we'll eventually be able to describe with mathematical equations, hundreds or thousands of years from now, when we've evolved, provided the species survives long enough. 

Our brains aren't big enough to understand these forces now. That's why we have theology, philosophy, and poetry.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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