Remember those pre-internet days when you could get away with any sort of folk wisdom more or less unchallenged? Razor blades in apples! Birds explode from wedding rice!

lincoln booth

My pre-internet favorite was the comparisons of the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy…generally presented in solemn, ominous tones, suiting the eerie-ness of all the coincidences. Actually, if you google those words right now, you’ll see several D-level websites and tumblrs still peddling Lincoln-Kennedy similarities as some kind of unharmonic convergence of contingencies.

So Snopes, as it does, comes to the rescue with a full debunking of all the little connections that people have compiled over the years. And the Snopes article concludes:

The coincidences are easily explained as the simple product of mere chance. It’s not difficult to find patterns and similarities between any two marginally-related sets of data, and coincidences similar in number and kind can be (and have been) found between many different pairs of Presidents. Our tendency to seek out patterns wherever we can stems from our desire to make sense of our world; to maintain a feeling that our universe is orderly and can be understood. In this specific case two of our most beloved Presidents were murdered for reasons that make little or no sense to many of us, and by finding patterns in their deaths we also hope to find a larger cosmic “something” that seemingly provides some reassuring (if indefinite) rhyme or reason why these great men were prematurely snatched from our mortal sphere.

So snopes is right and there’s nothing more to it, right? Or…is there?

world war 1 begins

I’m not sure Stephen Sondheim would agree with that snopes paragraph you just read. In 1990 Sondheim wrote a Broadway musical called Assassins, a period-jumbled revue starring the twelve or so people who have tried to kill American Presidents. It investigates not their crimes but their mindsets, and by extension, the mindsets of us audience members who retain fascination for these people. Perhaps playing to the cheap seats, the show begins with the killing of Lincoln and ends with the killing of Kennedy (after fast-forwarding to attempts on Ford and Reagan). Well, it would be more correct to say that the show begins and ends with the cast singing “Everybody’s Got the Right to Be Happy.”

That song contains wisdom that the estimable doesn’t even attempt to understand. Why do people try to kill beloved leaders? And why do we give them the attention they obviously crave, when we may be encouraging the next putative assassin? If Sondheim is right, the twin progress of civil rights and utilitarianism (prioritizing happiness over religion) are key factors. Before the 19th century, a God-fearing morality might have stayed the hand of those centuries’ Booths and Oswalds. Of course, that didn’t stop the conspiracy that killed Julius Caesar, but that was more of an in-house squabble; these days we think more about the outsider who rises up against the insider.

Sarah Vowell covers some of the same ground in “Assassination Vacation,” a book which became an audiobook that was read by Jon Stewart, Tony Kushner, Stephen King, Conan O’Brien, Dave Eggers, Catherine Keener, and other people you know. Part of the brilliance of Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is that Travis Bickle’s attempt to kill the candidate is only half of his attempt to be relevant; his Plan B is to save a pre-teen hooker. And Peter Gabriel also got closer than snopes when he wrote the song “Family Snapshot” written from Lee Harvey Oswald’s perspective.

I don’t really hate you
-I don’t care what you do
We were made for each other
-Me and you
I want to be somebody
-You were like that too

We see some live their dreams, some who claim to speak for our dreams; we imagine ourselves with the same fame, we see a shortcut to historical relevance.

kennedy oswald

But wait, you say, this doesn’t really happen all that often, does it? Not enough to count as indicative of our character? Well, I quote Ian Fleming: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” If you’ve stargazed with your friends, one of you eventually said: Uh, a straight line connects any two points. Only if three stars are on the same straight line does it count as a (sorry, snopes) pattern.

Apologies to partisans of Garfield and McKinley, but only Lincoln and Kennedy’s deaths were really epoch-making. To tease out the proper pattern and why it matters to us, we need to do better than Sondheim and Vowell. And better than any website I’ve seen.

There were three successful assassinations that affected Americans more than any others. We could argue over “affected,” but let’s just leave that for a moment (until my conclusion) and consider the commonalities of these three:

April 14, 1865: Abraham Lincoln assassinated by John Wilkes Booth

June 28, 1914: Franz Ferdinand assassinated by Gavrilo Princip

November 22, 1963: John Kennedy assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald

Hey snopes! Deconstruct this:

The slain leader, aged between 46 and 56, seemed younger than his years. Or at least more vital (perhaps because he had young children), appearing to promise that his policies would last years or even decades into the future.

The slain leader was sitting with his wife in a conspicuously public place. This may have contributed to a feeling of safety – surely no assassin would be so brazen as to kill this leader in front of his wife. And it may have contributed to the killer’s fortitude – he wanted to kill him next to his wife.

Death occurred because of one good gunshot to the head. This is more of a coincidence than it may appear. There are many ways to kill someone – knives, poison, rope, defenestration, blunt objects. Furthermore, when one has made the decision to end a very public person’s life – and thus, in all likelihood, end one’s own life (certainly as one knew it) – wouldn’t one overwhelm the target with killing force? Shouldn’t you try to shoot the target four, five, six times in his vital locations to be absolutely certain that he’s dead? Yet of the three, only Oswald shot more than once at the leader – Oswald shot three times. In all three cases, one bullet proved the difference between life and death. One almost feels that as the fateful bullet struck, history snapped back on the killers like a rubber band in the face: did I really just do that?

The assassination was in a city. Perhaps these stories resonate because we don’t quite trust cities (or perhaps we don’t quite trust cities because these stories linger). No doubt snopes would scoff that leaders spend a lot of time in cities, but that belies something about these three: Lincoln grew a beard for the precise reason that he feared assassins on the rural roads from Illinois to D.C.; Ferdinand was known for what we now call “summering” in a remote castle in Bohemia; even before his election, everyone had seen photos of JFK playing touch football with his brothers on those Martha’s Vineyard lawns. They could have been killed in lots of places. The urbanity is related to the nature of the crimes: in each case, a leader was clearly, and perhaps hubristically, enjoying himself mingling with “the common people,” and one such common person thought to turn such enjoyment on its head, to not only kill the person but to tell him: here’s what you get for thinking you can wave and smile to us.

The assassination was in a liminally domestic space. Defined as a physical part of the country, but a part that borders land outside the country, and is inhabited by, let’s say, a surfeit of disloyal citizens. In other words, Booth, Princip, and Oswald all had reason to think they might return to the shadows afterward (unlike, say, the 9/11 hijackers, who knew there was no going back). To be fair, Lincoln never recognized Virginia as a separate entity, but Richmond had been the capital of the confederacy only two weeks before, and D.C. was hardly as packed with Unionists as, say, New York or Boston. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, was nominally part of Austria-Hungary, bordering Serbia…but Bosnia and Serbia were both Slavic. Since its annexation in the 1840s, Texans have called themselves Texans first and Americans second, and this one-foot-in-one-foot-out tendency was only more pronounced during the civil-rights era. Again, this space speaks to the nature of the crime: unlike with the sort of murderer who kills and volunteers arrest (or shoots himself), these three appeared to have thought to evade capture, perhaps to let their legend grow to the point where they’d attract enough partisans to postpone imprisonment indefinitely? Certainly this applies more to Booth and Oswald, who bolted; Princip was seized seconds after the bullets left the gun, but if he was anything like his erstwhile six allies, he would have made a break for it if he could have.

The killer was an adult, yet young enough to be the son of his target. (There were 22 to 30 years between them.) This seems an unrecognized reason that these deaths made such strong and lingering impressions: Oedipus complexities. We fear and love young men who don’t seem to fit in, and wonder what they will do with their power.

The killer was part of a seditious conspiracy against a “tyrant” with recent blood on his hands. This isn’t proven in the case of Oswald, though most Americans believe it. The larger point is that these weren’t lone wolf gunmen, but instead young men loyal to a vast opposition network who found other young men, likewise part of that network, to sit in cafes and agree with them that something needed to be done about this tyrant. There’s a social and gendered aspect: probably Booth, Princip, and Oswald all wanted to be the “manliest” of their friends/allies. Accounts that describe them in “lone wolf” terms demonstrate bias in favor of the targets. Booth wanted to prolong the Civil War; Princip wanted Serbia to seize land from Austria-Hungary. We will never know Oswald’s full story, but he lived in Moscow in 1962, had ties to Cuba and Mexico, and told the arresting police “I am a Marxist”; he was no Unabomber-style lone radical, but instead identified with one side of the Cold War. As for bloody hands, Ferdinand, as one of three or four people running Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy, was perceived to have aided non-Serbs in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 (maybe he did, maybe he didn’t); Kennedy was opposing Communism in Cuba (as in the Missile Crisis which almost caused nuclear Armageddon) and killing Communists in Vietnam. If history books tend to put halos over the heads of Lincoln, Ferdinand, and Kennedy, that belies the reality that their lieutenants managed life and death every day.

The killer’s plan backfired and his target was martyred, his causes successfully discharged after his death…or were they? At least in the first decade after the assassination, the people happiest to see the leader slain were probably unhappiest with most other national events. Booth was killed, the 13th and 14th Amendments became law, and Reconstruction proceeded at a remarkable clip; Serbia was punished during the First World War (Princip died of dysentery in prison and probably would have lived if Serbia hadn’t been busy fighting a war); Oswald was killed and Kennedy’s successor expanded the Great Society. And yet…arguably, the killer won, because the South “won” the century after Reconstruction (in a way that it might not have, had Lincoln lived as long as Jefferson), Serbia became a far larger Yugoslavia, and Republicans, post-Goldwater and post-1960s, took charge of the next half-century of America’s narrative (the Great Society became “you’re on your own”).

The assassinations were about 49 years apart. In deference to snopes, we won’t turn this into some big eerie “OMG Lincoln and Kennedy and their Vice President Johnsons and the number 100 ooooooo.” It’s more interesting to note that the latest 49-year window has come and gone – that would have been 2012 (or perhaps 2013, if we say that the previous three were separated by 49 years and a few months). Unless you make a living peddling theories about Benghazi – and let’s face it, the idiots who attacked the U.S. embassy probably didn’t know Christopher Stevens or anyone else in it – it’s hard to make a case that those years saw a world-historical assassination on the level of Lincoln, Ferdinand, or Kennedy.

The question becomes: are we past the age of earth-shaking assassinations? Oh, certainly, people are being and will be killed, but even if Obama or Merkel or Putin had been killed in 2012, could we have expected anything like the visceral reactions to the murders of Lincoln, the Archduke, and JFK? Part of that is the age of constant war (in our case, in Iraq and Afghanistan) – we’re already compartmentalizing death and violence in a way that previous generations didn’t. And the internet, including tweets from the Pope and this essay, has had a certain leveling effect: we don’t really trust any leader to embody our hopes and dreams as we once did. Certainly, if Obama were slain tomorrow, there would be a week of mourning and a lot of turgid analysis, but the proportion would feel different. Lincoln’s funeral train was witnessed by millions at a time when such witnessing was difficult; Ferdinand’s death provoked a war that basically destroyed Europe; Kennedy’s death was the great “loss of innocence” for the televisual generation. If the age of print media in many ways brought us increased rights, participation, and concern for our happiness (historian Chris Clark says as much in his book about the causes of World War I; newspapers then agitated governments in a manner that would have been unthinkable a century before), the age of social media may have accelerated us to a diffuse, bottom-up plateau where no particular person can be much of a hero or villain. (The killing of Osama bin Laden was not the same as what anyone has ever called an assassination; it was too much a part of a years-long war to have that “bolt from the blue” aspect.) If so, good.

What Snopes fails to get, or even hint at, is that our ruminations over the assassinations of Lincoln, Ferdinand, and Kennedy aren’t really about seeking patterns. That’s a symptom, not the sickness itself, which more relates to our uneasy relationships with violence, political representation, celebrity, and current events. Most of us follow the news, and thus the newsmakers, and we eventually wonder what it might be like to reach out and touch them. “Follow” is a telling term; some of us prefer to lead, particularly if the man we’re following seems to have lost his way. Separately, we wonder if we have given our lives enough meaning; we wonder if there is any principle we’d die for. We wonder if our opinion counts if we’re not “in the arena” (as Teddy Roosevelt put it). Some unspeakable part of us relates to Booth, Princip, and Oswald even as an innate moral code complicates those feelings. So we narrativize, and wind up spinning a decent yarn (as the men did about themselves):

The youthful yet aged leader sits with his beloved wife and mingles amiably with the people he leads, their future together promising to be as happy as this present day. As David came to Goliath, as the pauper came to the prince, and as Oedipus came to his father, a young scruffy man separates himself from the genuflecting commoners with a weapon and a dream; with one bullet of destiny he strikes down tyranny and ends empire expansion. Hubris dies, yet hubris lives to die again: the killer is himself slain in a land he thought might protect him. As life goes on, no person can say for certain if history would have proceeded apace had either villain or victim never lived.

Yeah, I can see why people keep telling that story.