This semester I am assisting Professor John Y. Simon with the second half of his American history course. Today we talked about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
I admit that the assassination has not always been one of my favorite topics. However, I have recently become quite interested in it. If you aren’t familiar with the assassination, but want to know more about it, I recommend Blood on the Moon by Edward Steers, Jr. and American Brutus by Michael W. Kaufman. Both books are well-written and will serve as good introductions to the topic.
We started today’s class with one of my favorite exercises. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say that Lincoln and John F. Kennedy have quite a bit in common, perhaps even too much in common to be mere coincidence. Hardly a year goes by without someone sending me an email that goes 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 lost a son while living in the White House.
Both Presidents were shot on a Friday.
Both were shot in the back of 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 was born in 1839.
Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939.
Both assassins were known by their three names.
Both names are made of fifteen letters.
John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in a Theatre called "Ford."
Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy in a car called a "Ford" Lincoln.
Booth ran from a 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.
A month before Lincoln was shot he was in Monroe, Maryland.
A month before Kennedy was shot he was with Marilyn Monroe.
Lists like this one began circulating shortly after the Kennedy assassination. I have even seen such lists printed in newspapers from foreign countries.
Lately, I've seen lists that include this one:
Lincoln's last child, Tad, had his funeral held on July 16, 1871. Later he was exhumed and moved to a different grave site.
Kennedy's son JFK Jr. was lost at sea on July 16, 1999. Later his body was found, brought up, and then reburied at sea.
But what, if anything, can we make of such a list of eerie coincidences?
At first glance, it certainly looks impressive. The two presidents appear to have much in common, but notice that there are a number of errors. For instance, I have never been able to find a secretary by the name of Kennedy who worked for Lincoln in the White House, or for that matter, at any other point in his life. Another error comes up when we compare the birthdates of the assassins. This list claims Booth was born in 1839 and Oswald in 1939, but it is not true. Booth was born on May 10, 1838, while Oswald was born on October 18, 1939. Similarly, the claim about Marilyn Monroe is simply false. Monroe died on August 5, 1962, which was more than a year before the Kennedy assassination.
While the factual errors may not stand in the way of the next Oliver Stone movie, I do think they are at least important enough to mention. That isn’t to say I’m not interested in the list. In my view, any list that encourages us to think about American history is going to get my support.
I want to add one more thing. Isn't a list of similarities misleading? What about the many differences between these two political figures? When we examine a list of differences, I am afraid that the chain of eerie coincidence snaps in half! Such a list might look something like this:
Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809.
John F. Kennedy was born in 1917.
Abraham Lincoln’s father was a subsistence farmer.
John F. Kennedy’s father was a multi-millionaire businessman and politician.
Abraham Lincoln had a brother, who died in infancy, and a sister.
John F. Kennedy had eight siblings, all of which reached adulthood.
Abraham Lincoln never attended college.
John F. Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 1940.
Abraham Lincoln was married in 1842.
John F. Kennedy was married in 1953.
Abraham Lincoln was a Whig and later a Republican.
John F. Kennedy was a Democrat.
Abraham Lincoln served two years in Congress.
John F. Kennedy served six years in Congress.
Abraham Lincoln was never a member of the Senate.
John F. Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1952.
Abraham Lincoln never officially joined a church.
John F. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic.
Abraham Lincoln had four children, all boys.
John F. Kennedy had three children, two boys and one girl.
The list could certainly go on, but you get the picture.