Given that Margaret Thatcher breathed her last in the London Ritz Hotel yesterday, we're due a round of a dark guessing game. That old “rule of threes thing,” as Jimmy Fallon put it during a “30 Rock” cameo, needs satisfying.
Of course, "30 Rock" was making a joke. Wives' tales about cosmic links between the rich and famous are routinely debunked. So why does the myth persist that celebrities pass away in sets of three?
Blame it partly on precedent. A few well-known trios have bitten the dust together -- most notably, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the singer/songwriter nicknamed the “Big Bopper,” when the plane they were in spun into a cornfield after takeoff, killing everyone on impact. (Legend has it this is when the notion of the rule arose, in 1956.) In 1970, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison followed suit, leaving the world in quick succession 27 years after they each arrived.
But for every clean set of three, a number of messy sets complicate things. Take Thatcher. Does she necessarily join Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, who also died yesterday? Other recently deceased candidates include novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, another European, and Roger Ebert, whose mix of respectability and fame buys him a ticket into any threesome. Or is the Iron Lady part of a still open political set that began when Hugo Chavez died?
The fact is, no internal rules guide the “threes rule.” In a 2009 dispatch about its revival after a string of deaths, Washington Post writer David Montgomery noted an incongruity, that, “this week folks are mentioning Billy Mays in the same breath as [David] Carradine, [Ed] McMahon, [Farah] Fawcett and [Michael] Jackson.” Fitting everyone into sets sometimes means matching people together who never would have been in the same room when they were alive. “There is great pressure,” Montgomery wrote, “to elevate another dearly departed to the pantheon.”
So what's the allure? Michael Eck, a math teacher whose work documenting patterns of three on his web site Threes.com, has made him a de facto spokesman on such matters, says it has to do with the number’s. Historically, three is a numerical rock star, with serious fans. The scientist Nikola Tesla is said to have equated understanding the universe with understanding three and its multiples. Georg Hegel, the German philosopher, was so infatuated with the number, he trisected every chapter of his books. Even actual rock stars have been known to fall hard: Jack White designs his career with three in mind, from the number of colors he wears, to the name of his record label (Third Man Records), to his own names (he goes by Jack White III, and sometimes “Three Quid”).
Followers often cite the archetypal power of the Christian trinity. More universally, there is the utility argument -- that phenomena often require three elements to become whole. Three notes make a chord. Three legs make a chair. White’s explanation for his love of three follows the latter logic, with a story about watching an upholsterer declare a chair finished only after he clamped in a third, final staple.
The death rule is similarly about “completion,” Eck theorizes, pointing out that a number series in math isn’t defined until the third number. When we serialize the passing of extraordinary people, we make sense of the loss. And we uphold another soothing illusion in the process, Eck says, turning dying into an act we observe, not one we will also have to do.