Why Does The Lincoln-Kennedy Urban Legend Persist Decades After It Was Disproved?

On Friday, April 14, 1865, the world was rocked by the terrifying assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The president, while seated next to his wife, was shot in the head by gunman John Wilkes Booth.

On Friday, November 22, 1963, the world was rocked by the horrifying assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The president, while seated next to his wife, was shot in the head by gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. 

From those handful of tragic similarities, one of America's most famous and enduring urban legends was born. Within a few months of Kennedy's demise, an unknown person compiled a list of unusual coincidences between Lincoln and Kennedy that, at first glance, seems downright spooky.

Article ImageSome of these coincidences center around the fact that many noteworthy incidents occurred in both men's lives 100 years apart: Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846, Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946; Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Kennedy was elected president in 1960. 

Their successors - both of whom were named Johnson - were also born 100 years apart: Andrew Johnson was born in 1808, and Lyndon B. Johnson was born in 1908. Lincoln and Kennedy's respective assailants - both of whom famously used three names, each adding up to 15 letters - were also supposedly born 100 years apart: Booth was said to have been born in 1839 and Oswald in 1939. These fascinating connections are just a few in a long list of almost unbelievable coincidences.

However, what at first appeared to be some bizarre, universal, divine conspiracy proved to be unbelievable for a reason: many of these connections were arbitrary, statistically speaking, and a great deal of them are downright false. Dates were changed to accommodate the connections, and facts were ignored to make the list seem more impressive.

This debunking began soon after the list first circulated in the mid-1960s, yet the legend persists to this day - conspiracy bloggers and Facebook users, fascinated by the seemingly shocking coincidences, perpetuate the myth without corroborating any facts. Why?

Why do we find this list of meaningless coincidences so fascinating? Why do we share it, even when so much of it has been proven false? What is it about this set of so-called facts that has captivated people so thoroughly? Nearly 60 years later, we still share it with one another like a classic joke or folkloric tradition.

The List Was First Spread By The GOP Congressional Committee Newsletter

In August 1964, the GOP Congressional Committee Newsletter, which reached approximately 15,000 Republicans at the time, found the fascinating series of coincidences and shared it with their readers. Newsletter Editor Edward Neff told Time magazine shortly after that there was no political motivation for sharing the coincidences - instead, "We just thought of them as interesting."

Article ImageSince the newsletter first published the list, it has grown to include increasingly tenuous connections between the presidents, their wives, their successors, their assailants, and even the vehicles and locations in which both men were taken out.

However, despite the GOP Newsletter's claim that their actions had no political motive, there is one historical fact from Lincoln's demise that many in the GOP would have liked to see repeat itself.

When Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, finished the rest of Lincoln's term, he was succeeded by Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican whose last name began with "G." Following Kennedy's end, he was succeeded by his Vice President, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. When the newsletter was published in August 1964, the nation was just a few months out from an election in which Johnson was running against Barry Goldwater - a Republican whose last name began with the letter "G."

Some suggested at the time that the newsletter's distribution of the list was a motivator for Republican voters - according to this theory, more Republicans would have participated in the election, simply to keep the string of coincidences alive. However, this was not the case. Johnson went on to defeat Goldwater by one of the largest margins in American history.

Many Of The Connections Were Immediately Disproved

As far back as 1964, when the list began to circulate in various publications, many of the so-called coincidences were almost instantly disproved. For instance, the argument that Booth and Oswald were born 100 years apart is simply false - Booth was born in 1838, not '39.

Additionally, Oswald did not, as the list suggests, go by his three names - this only began after his infamous act. Prior to this, he simply went by Lee Oswald.Article Image

Mathematician Martin Gardner later wrote and analyzed the list in a meta-fictional column for Scientific American in the 1970s, which was later published in his book The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix in 1985. While examining the list as if it were presented to him by the book's eponymous (and satirically fictional) Dr. Matrix, Gardner pointed out some key issues with the veracity of the links.

His book provided only 16 coincidences, with annotations on how some of the errors were the result of misinformation on the part of whomever first collected the historically interesting "facts." For example, while Booth was actually born in 1838, several sources incorrectly reported that he was born in 1839. 

Fact-checking was a slow process in the mid-'60s, so mistakes in research were inevitable. If those mistakes happened to help an argument, it's no surprise that many readers turned a blind eye to accuracy.

The List Of Connections Went On To Inspire Music And Parodies

Two years after the GOP Congressional Committee Newsletter circulated the list, musician Buddy Starcher wrote and released a single called "History Repeats Itself," which is based on the preponderance of random similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy's lives. 

The song was something of a hit and was immediately covered by jazz singer and big band leader Cab Calloway just months after Starcher's version. Both iterations of the single charted in the same year.

Soon after, as more and more supposed connections were discovered, a number of satirists and comedians began to lampoon the popularity of the links - some more overtly than others.

Article ImageOne joke that was eventually added to the folkloric connections regarded both presidents' final hours: "A week before he [passed], Lincoln was in Monroe, Maryland. A week before Kennedy [passed], he was in Marilyn Monroe." 

Of course, this joke is blatantly inaccurate and was intended to be a play on words poking fun at Kennedy's high-profile affair with the actress. There is no such place as Monroe, MD, and Marilyn Monroe perished on August 5, 1962, a full year before Kennedy was slain. Despite this, many modern retellings of the coincidences include this demonstrably false claim.

However, some other parodies of the list mocked the arbitrary nature of the connections. Demon Magazine, a Harvard University humor publication, mocked the folklore with some additional "facts" of their own, including:

- "Kennedy slept with Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe was in Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon. Jack Lemmon was in JFK, which tells the life story of John F. Kennedy, who was [slain], just like Lincoln."

- "Both men (except Kennedy) were born in log houses."

- "Lincoln and Kennedy both [passed from] Lou Gehrig's Disease, not from being shot, as is commonly believed."

There's A Possible Psychological, Scientific Reason Why The List Has Remained So Popular

For an urban legend to maintain the longevity and tenacity that the Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences have enjoyed, it needs more than just popularity and willful ignorance of the facts. Something else about these coincidences seemingly captures people's interest.Article Image

These reasons have been the subject of speculation for decades, but one possibility is the psychological phenomenon known as apophenia, which is defined as "the tendency to perceive order in random configurations." Essentially, the human mind finds connections where there are none. This phenomenon has also been referred to as "synchronicity" and "patternicity."

According to psychologist John Cohen, "Nothing is so alien to the human mind as the idea of randomness." Some suggest that the connections between Lincoln and Kennedy's lives and ends could be a source of comfort amid the shocking, senseless loss of two of the nation's most influential leaders.

Similarly, as Bruce Martin wrote in a piece for Skeptical Inquirer, "Most improbable coincidences likely result from play of random events. The very nature of randomness assures that combing random data will yield some pattern."

This willful interpretation of random data has been a trick used by researchers to manipulate data sets for decades. This can be seen in some of the most blatant examples of "strange connections" between the presidents, which are actually meaningless.

A perfect example of this is the supposed coincidence that Lincoln and Kennedy's last names both contain seven letters. As pointed out in a long-form debunking by Snopes, "The average length of presidential surnames is 6.64 letters." So for them to both have seven letters in their last names is almost statistically expected. 

Additionally, this supposed coincidence ignores the fact their full names contained a different number of letters, and that Kennedy had a middle name, Fitzgerald, while Lincoln had no middle name at all.

So, ultimately, a loosely researched and broadly interpreted set of arbitrary similarities (and complete falsehoods) has maintained its popularity by feeding into people's innate desire for patterns and rational order in the face of existentially terrifying randomness. The list of coincidences seemingly persists for the same reason that the countless conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy's end are still circulated (or for the same reason that most conspiracy theories are spread): As humans, we'd rather believe there is some guiding order to the universe - even if it's potentially malevolent - than gaze into the frightening face of random chaos and tragedy.