Friday, 6 March 2015

Coincidences Abound

There is a world of coincidences out there that are all statistically valid, but which on the face of it still look strange and often are quoted as being unexplainable ... these coincidences often get turned into evidence for conspiracy theory fodder as well, so it becomes hard to separate the one from the other.

Perhaps the most often quoted coincidences in the popular press are of couples who were allegedly born on the same day, married on the same day, and died within hours of each other on the same calendar day. But in fact these are the rarest of coincidences.  And indeed so rare are they, that there are often misquoted examples i.e. couples born same day, married for years but who died 24 hours apart are not as rare, but still often quoted as being 'all same day', when strictly speaking they aren't.

But even these near misses are in fact still rare enough to warrant news stories, and even the plain old 'Married for years and died within a day or so' are uncommon enough to prompt news stories around the world from the UK to USA.

So in reality, it really is not all that uncommon for people who have lived together, to die very close to each other in time, in what many consider to be a strange coincidence.

Strange Coincidences Are Everywhere

..... in fact statistically, many events will happen like this, governed by the simple law of averages.

This is where 'coincidence' gets pulled into conspiracies, like all those '9/11 conspiracies' or 'JFK death' conspiracy, which often quote coincidences, which frankly don't really stand up when examined, as they usually incorporate factual errors, which are then woven into the conspiracy as 'fact', rather than coincidence. So for example the President Kennedy and President Lincoln coincidences, and false facts are often intertwined and presented as fact ... this site is as good an example of this as you can find, but there are many others.

They start with one or two real 'facts' that are also coincidences, and stack up less certain ones on top after that, with ever more credulous stretches of the truth, turned into facts to top off the conspiracy: e.g an opening 'Fact':

  • Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846.
  • John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.

followed by another ....

  • Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860.
  • John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.

And so on .... but these coincidences are often not all that remarkable or even very unlikely e.g. As they were politically active at about the same time (just a hundred years apart), the fixed US electoral would account for these date coincidence/facts ... i.e. the US has fixed electoral cycles so you can only be elected for certain roles such as Congress, Senator or President, on the same year ending dates in these cycles, even a century apart.

I won't bother to go through the whole debunking of the 'coincidences', as the the snopes website deals with it all, but there are in fact more non-coincidences between the men, than any events that they may share.

Perhaps the best example of these is one of the oft quoted 'coincidences':
  • Lincoln's secretary, Kennedy, warned him not to go to Ford's Theatre.
  • Kennedy's secretary, Lincoln, warned him not to go to Dallas.

Wrong! John Kennedy did have a secretary named Evelyn Lincoln (who may or may not have warned him about going to Dallas), but Lincoln's White House secretaries were John G. Nicolay, and John Hay.

Again if you want the whole tale ... go to the SNOPES web site ..

Another of the common ones is the 'Wingdings 9/11' coincidences, which are particularly funny, but very good examples of how these things will fly with little effort ... After the 9/11 attack, an email was circulated claiming that "Q33 NY", was the flight number of the first plane to hit the Twin Towers (or in an alternative version, the address of the World Trade Centre), and that by entering it into the Microsoft word font 'Wingdings', would bring up a character sequence of a plane flying into two towers, followed by the skull and crossbones symbol and the Star of David.

It was only after every idiot on the web (and that's a lot of idiots), had circulated this tale in one form or another, was this exposed as a hoax: the flight numbers of the two air planes that hit the towers were American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175; the tail numbers were N334AA and N612UA. The whole nonsense is discussed at some length on the SNOPES web site  .... which it files under 'coincidences'.

However there are real coincidences around, where the facts do stack up, and which seem as equally unlikely as the false stories when you first read them: Perhaps the most famous and incontrovertible of these, is that surrounding the start and end of the American Civil War.

The McClean Houses Featured At The Start and End Of The American Civil War

Farmer Wilmer McLean was a retired major in the Virginia militia, of whom it was said that the American Civil War "started in his front yard and ended in his front parlour". When war was declared, McLean's farm, the Yorkshire Plantation, in Manassas, Prince William County, Virginia was being used as a headquarters for Confederate Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, and when the Union Army artillery fired at McLean's house, a cannonball dropped down through the kitchen fireplace.

Beauregard wrote after the battle, "A comical effect of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fire-place of my headquarters at the McLean House." This was the initial engagement of the war on the 21st of July 1861 and became known as the 'First Battle of Bull Run' (First Mannasas).

McClean was a sugar broker, so as his commercial activities were centred mostly in southern Virginia, he moved away from Mannasas, to Appomattox County, Virginia, near a crossroads community called Appomattox Court House.

On April 8, 1865, a messenger from Confederate General Robert E. Lee knocked on McLean's door and requested the use of his home, to which McLean reluctantly agreed. On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in the parlour of McLean's house, effectively ending the Civil War. Later, McLean is supposed to have said "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlour".

The US Army Officers present then stripped his house of anything not nailed down as souvenirs. They paid him in US dollars or Gold as they walked out the doors ~ he protested but to no avail and the good US currency (Confederate money had been worthless for a year or so), actually can't have been too bad.

McLean ended up as a tax collector for the US government.

Oh, and just for the record, the Huntrodds couple, are the only true example that I have come across, of the phenomena of the couple who were born on the same day, married on the same day, and died within hours of each other on the same calendar day. According to their tomb inscription they were both born on the 19th of September 1600 AD, they married on the 19th September, and both died on the 19th of September 1680 AD.

The Huntrodds .... An Unusual Couple

So when you get right down to it ... given a long enough spread of time, and enough people, with good enough recorded data, there will be examples of every kind of strange coincidence, AND in fact they are all statistically inevitable!

NB: For those of you are interested in the maths of coincidences surrounding births, deaths and marriages etc then there are reams of examples, but for instance sharing the same birthday is as not as uncommon as you may think ~ A Harvard university study found that 21 of the 30 most common US birthdays fall in September .... so that slews the odds of a couple sharing a birthday quite considerably.

If you add in the fact that studies of social media suggest that 28% of married graduates married someone from college, and who was more likely to share the same birth year as well, then the odds fall again. Its estimated that 31,750 couples could be sharing the same birthday in the UK alone  .... so you can see how once you delve into the maths, the strangeness of coincidences can evaporate.


  1. Indeed, it would be truly incredible if these coincidences didn't exist !
    Good piece.

    1. Yes, they abound, but have no real significance past being just coincidences. A fact that many can't grasp.


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