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:
Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846.
John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.
Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860.
John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.
The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters.
Both were particularly concerned with civil rights.
Both wives lost their children while living in the White House.
Both Presidents were shot on a Friday.
Both were shot in the head.
Lincoln's secretary was named Kennedy.
Kennedy's secretary was named Lincoln.
Both were assassinated by Southerners.
Both were succeeded by Southerners.
Both successors were named Johnson.
Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808.
Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.
John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln was born in 1839.
Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy was born in 1939.
Both assassins were known by their three names.
Both names are made of fifteen letters.
Booth ran from the theater and was caught in a warehouse.
Oswald ran from a warehouse and was caught in a theater.
Booth and Oswald were assassinated before their trials.
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:
Consider all the ways that Lincoln and Kennedy were different. They didn't belong to the same party, come from the same state or even the same part of the country. They didn't have the same first names or even the same initials. One came from a rich family; the other from a poor one. One went to Harvard; the other didn't go to college at all. One was bearded, and one was clean-shaven. One was elected to a second term, and the other didn't finish his first. Neither is there that much resemblance between the two assassinations. One was inside; the other was outside. One president lingered for almost a day, and the other died within a couple of hours.
We can also consider all the ways Booth and Oswald were different. He was 26 years old when he shot Lincoln and died. Oswald was 24 when he shot Kennedy and died. They were born in different months. They were of different backgrounds, different professions, and killed for different reasons: Booth was politically motivated; Oswald was an angst-ridden loner with no clear motive.
Some of the similarities only seem surprising when pointed out; for example, that both presidents were succeeded by men named Johnson born 100 years apart. Johnson is the second most-common name in the United States. Moreover, Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson began their terms 98 years apart, not 100; so that fact that they were born 100 years apart doesn't even match.
They were both shot in the head. Of course; if they hadn't been shot in the head, their assassinations likely would have been assassination attempts and they would have simply joined Ronald Reagan who was shot in the chest, but not killed, while in office.
Both presidents were shot on a Friday. Well, it's a good day for it, since that's a day when presidents are often out and about giving speeches; assassins also drew guns and/or fired at Andrew Jackson and Gerald Ford on Fridays. But to come up with that little stat, I had to cherrypick the data. Assassins drew guns and/or fired at Teddy Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan all on Mondays; and at FDR, Harry Truman, and George W. Bush all on Wednesdays.
It's even easier to create coincidences if you use untrue information. For example, error number 1 says that Booth and Oswald were born in 1839 and 1939. Not true; Booth was born May 10, 1838. Error number 2 says Lincoln's secretary was named Kennedy and Kennedy's secretary was named Lincoln. Also not true. Kennedy did have a personal secretary named Evelyn Lincoln, but Abe Lincoln's two secretaries were John Nicolay and John Hay, not a Kennedy among them. Error number 3 says Booth ran from a theater and was captured in a warehouse, but he in fact rode his horse to a tobacco farm and hid in the barn.
But anyway, that's enough of debunking this particular urban legend. The point is that it's easy to make just about anything sound extraordinary if you take it out of context, most especially if all you're doing is looking for numbers that match or non-unique things like names. As an exercise, pick any two random events, and think about all the possible numbers and names that could be connected to the events or to the people involved, plug them all into a database and search for matches. Just think what you could do if you took all the facts and figures associated with the Titanic and the Hindenburg, their captains, their owners, locations, or anything else that might yield matches.
Suddenly names and numbers don't seem all that important. There was no spooky supernatural connection between Lincoln and Kennedy, just some matchups between these arbitrary letter and number systems that we humans invented, combined with flawed logic that emphasized the hits and neglected the more numerous misses. The whole study is really just numerology, the pseudoscience of looking for meaning in the numbers connected with our lives. We happen to use a base 10 numbering system, probably because we have 10 fingers; just think how much of numerology would collapse if the same conclusions were re-examined using a binary or hexadecimal numbering system, or even Roman numerals. It's much less interesting if you say that Lincoln was elected in 744 and Kennedy was elected in 7A8.
To think of it another way, imagine a Gantt chart, with time along the horizontal axis, and horizontal bars representing the lives of Lincoln, Kennedy, their successors, their assassins, or anyone else you want to associate with the events. Take away all references to years, just show time flowing, as it's seen in nature, not as we humans have chosen to measure it — which would no doubt be demarcated completely differently if observed through a telescope by three-fingered aliens with a solar year of 500 Earth days. All of a sudden, there are exactly zero observable similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy's assassinations. Take away the spelling of their names — which would also be entirely different if written down by Chinese translators — and even the similarities that we humans see melt away as well.
So beware of the real problem with comparisons such as the Lincoln Kennedy legend or any similar assessments. The problem is not that some of the numbers may be wrong, and it's not even that the numbers might be cherrypicked or taken out of context. It's that any measurement or designation system is fundamentally meaningless, and any lessons to be learned from the true histories of Lincoln and Kennedy are not to be found in numerology.