Twisting Fact and Fiction

Debunking a Presidential Urban Myth

I was going through boxes of old magazines and scrapbooks in the basement of my parent’s house, sorting and sifting through parts of their past, when I first came across a peculiar little article. More specifically, it was a short, untitled sidebar piece clipped out of a magazine and taped to a sheet of heavy paper. From the masthead I saw that it was from the August 16, 1964, issue of Newsweek magazine, and it read as follows:

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A list of curious coincidences on the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy was making the office duplicating machines hum in New York last week. Under the title ‘Strange as It Sounds,’ the synchronism read:

- Both Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy were concerned with the issue of civil rights.

- Lincoln was elected in 1860, Kennedy in 1960.

- Both Presidents were assassinated on a Friday and both in the presence of their wives.

- Both Presidents were shot from behind and in the head.

- Their successors, both named Johnson, were Southern Democrats and both were in the Senate.

- Andrew Johnson was born in 1808 and Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908.

- John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald were Southerners favoring unpopular ideas.

- Booth and Oswald were both assassinated before it was possible for either of them to be brought to trial.

- Both Presidents’ wives lost children through death while living in the White House.

- John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in a theater box and afterward ran to a warehouse.

- Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and ran to a theater.

- The last names of both Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters.

- The names of Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson each contain thirteen letters.

- The names of both John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald each contain fifteen letters.

- Lincoln’s secretary, whose name was Kennedy, advised him not to go to the theater.

  • Kennedy’s secretary, whose name was Lincoln, advised him not to go to Dallas.

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Coming less than a year after the national trauma of Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, one can imagine the goosebumps and raised eyebrows when readers took all that in back in 1964. (Like my father, who obviously thought enough of this corollary list to clip it out and set it aside.)

Well I, too, was intrigued. So I decided to do a little research on the subject myself. A couple of taps and clicks on the computer and I found out that this same comparison of the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy has been circulating for years. But alas, a little fact-checking by historians and pseudo-scholars alike uncovered a few problems.

For starters, the ‘author’ behind these comparisons has never been established. Usually not a good sign.

Secondly, while President Kennedy did indeed have a personal secretary named Evelyn Lincoln, there is no record of President Lincoln ever having a secretary or staff member named Kennedy. Whoever thought that one up was good. Real good.

Too bad it never happened.

Which begs the question — what is the veracity and the meaning of the rest of the list?

Anyone with the vaguest notion of American history knows the common fate of these two celebrated figures. Since the other oddities on that list do hold up under historical scrutiny, the overall effect is enough to make one think twice about dismissing outright those funny little things called chance and destiny. That’s a good thing to ponder.

But there’s another note to be found here, a cautionary one. The line between fact and entertaining fiction can be a fine one, easily and discreetly crossed by anyone these days. If there’s one thing history and media and politics has taught us over the years, it’s that a little stretching of the truth goes a long way in getting and directing people’s attention. For better and for worse

Urban myth and folklore has always been part of our entertainment culture. Nowadays that story culture is being stretched like never before with blogs and websites of every ilk. There is fake news and “data dredging,” whereby vast amounts of data are mixed and matched until they seem to present fact and identity where none exists at all.

So consider this a friendly reminder, dear reader, that everything you see in black and white isn’t always as simple and straightforward as, well, black and white. Take it from Newsweek in 1964.

Or better yet, take it from Lincoln himself, who purportedly once said: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time.”

That one I’d like to believe. I really would.

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