An old story claims a long list of astonishing similarities between the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy.
Anyone with email has probably received a chain letter revealing a startling series of similarities between the assassinations of U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. But even before the days of email, the story had been around, being printed and reprinted, quoted and requoted, and it all seems to go back to a book published the year after Kennedy died. Author Jim Bishop’s book A Day in the Life of President Kennedy, published in 1964 but written mostly while Kennedy was still in office, included an appendix listing a number of strange parallels between the two distinguished Presidents.
We’re going to examine these parallels to see if they hold up, but in doing so we should keep in mind the larger question. Are these similarities in any way meaningful? Do numbers and the spelling of names hold any consequential significance? Let’s find out. Today’s version of what’s become quite the urban legend will read something like this:
The Lincoln-Kennedy myths are really intriguing when you hear them, but perhaps equally captivating when you hear the counter arguments. If I drop six pairs of dice, chances are that one pair will match. Taken by itself, that match is pretty cool. Four U.S. Presidents have been assassinated in office, which results in six possible pairings; between those six, it shouldn’t be surprising that we’d find one pairing with interesting coincidences. But that’s just where the counter arguments start to get interesting.
A lot of the similarities are about dates that are exactly 100 years apart. This is no great shock; as U.S. Presidential elections happen every four years, so there are only 25 elections in a century, and every President has at least one other President elected exactly a century before and/or after. But this century-centric nature of the Lincoln-Kennedy legend starts to fall apart very quickly when you look at what should be the most important dates: Lincoln and Kennedy died 98 years apart, not a century; and they were elected to the terms in which they died 96 years apart, not a century. Conveniently omitted from the chain email. But let’s look deeper.
My favorite disassembly of the Lincoln-Kennedy legend is the one on Snopes.com. Barbara Mikkelson, who does most of the research and reporting on Snopes, has always been most astonishingly thorough with the way she tracks down every last scrap of an urban legend, but she also applies a very keen skeptical eye to popular claims. The Lincoln-Kennedy legend is primarily a list of coincidences; and when taken away from the context of all the many non-coincidences that also characterized the two men, it seems amazing. She writes:
We’re supposed to be amazed at minor happenstances such as the two men’s being elected exactly one hundred years apart, but we’re supposed to think nothing of the numerous non-coincidences: Lincoln was born in 1809; Kennedy was born in 1917. Lincoln died in 1865; Kennedy died in 1963. Lincoln was 56 years old at the time of his death; Kennedy was 46 years old at the time of his death. No striking coincidences or convenient hundred-year differences in any of those facts. Even when we consider that, absent all other factors, the two men had a one in twelve chance of dying in the same month, we find no coincidence there: Lincoln was killed in April; Kennedy was killed in November.
Even advice columnist Ann Landers took on this question in 1995, and aptly pointed out that there are far more differences between the men than similarities …