Things just happen

Chance, coincidence, synchronicity? Everyone has their own view.

On 31 May 1909 a statue of President Abraham Lincoln was unveiled in a public square in Hodgenville, Kentucky. The ceremony was attended by his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who was one of several people who had turned down an invitation to the performance at Ford’s Theatre where his father was assassinated in 1865. By bizarre coincidence, Robert Lincoln actually witnessed two other presidential assassinations. He was at the Sixth Street Train Station in Washington, D.C., when James A. Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau on 2 July 1881. Ten years later, he was at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on 6 September 1901 when William McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz. He is said to have refused a later invitation with the comment, “No, I’m not going, and they’d better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.”

There is more. Robert Lincoln was once saved from possible serious injury or death by Edwin Booth, a well-known actor and brother of John Wilkes Booth, his father’s assassin. The incident took place on a train platform in Jersey City, NJ, in late 1863 or early 1864. Robert Lincoln recalled the incident in a 1909 letter to the editor of The Century Magazine:

“The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me.”

In London, towards the end of the Second World War, retired school teacher Leonard Dawes, who compiled the crossword puzzle for The Daily Telegraph newspaper, put together a series of puzzles that included the names of two of the Normandy landing beaches – Utah and Omaha – along with other supposedly secret code words like Overlord, Mulberry, and Juno. Nobody outside of General Eisenhower’s staff was supposed to know them. On the assumption that Dawes was a German spy, he was interrogated only to be released once it became obvious the words had been chosen entirely at random. While the chances of inadvertently using one of the code words is not remarkable, Dawes’ puzzles contained no fewer than five over the course of two weeks.

In the same city, actor Anthony Hopkins was preparing to appear in a film called The Girl from Petrovka. He tried and failed to buy a copy of the book so that he could read about the character he would be playing. On his way home on the Underground, he saw the book abandoned on the seat next to him. Later, when he met the author and recounted this story, the writer told him that a year or so before he’d lost a copy of the book in which he had been changing the English spelling to American. He’d left it on the Tube. Anthony Hopkins showed him the copy of the book that he’d found and it turned out to be the same.

Convergence-Pollock-1952Back to the USA: Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, two presidents with seven letters in their last names were elected to office 100 years apart – 1860 and 1960. Both were assassinated on Friday in the presence of their wives, Lincoln in Ford’s theatre and Kennedy in an automobile made by the Ford motor company. Both assassins went by three names: John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, with fifteen letters in each complete name. Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and fled to a theatre, and Booth shot Lincoln in a theatre and fled to a barn (a kind of warehouse). Both succeeding vice-presidents were southern Democrats and former senators named Johnson (Andrew and Lyndon), with thirteen letters in their names and born 100 years apart – 1808 and 1908.

Some people take all this as proof of the existence of a ghost in the machine. Others are more inclined towards Stephen Jay Gould’s view, expressed in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History:

“The human mind delights in finding pattern so much so that we often mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning. No other habit of thought lies so deeply within the soul of a small creature trying to make sense of a complex world not constructed for it.”


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