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  • Coincidence in Jersey City April 22, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Following on from a recent post Beachcombing has had several extraordinary emails about coincidences among our governing classes. He thought, meanwhile, that today he would premiere another of his favourite coincidence stories: the good works of Edwin Booth (obit 1893). In 1909 an American citizen wrote the following letter to The Century Magazine with an account of how, in August, 1864 [there is some slight disagreement about the date], he had been saved, as a young man, by a celebrity at Jersey City train station (pictured as it is today).

    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 care. 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, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.

    Edwin Booth was the brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln: JWB would strike a year later. And like John, Edwin was a theatrical star and so the young man knew the name of his rescuer as soon as he saw Edwin’s face. It would be the equivalent of a tall dark stranger pulling you out of a drowning wave on a surfing beach and you opening your eyes to see Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt.

    So where is the coincidence here: after all, celebrities do meet members of the general public, accidents happen…? Well, it arises from the fact that the young man who was saved was Robert Todd Lincoln (obit 1926), the  elder son of Honest Abe. If Beach had come across this story in a gutted form on a list of ‘Ten Weird Civil War tales’ then he simply would not have believed it. But the only way out of this extraordinary tale is to suppose that Robert was a liar. Certainly, it would be interesting to find some earlier pre-1909 documentation that stood up to scrutiny: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com  But, for what it is worth, Beach’s instinct is that this is the real deal.


    26/4/12: An old friend of the blog George T writes in: I discovered another coincidence that also involved the Lincoln family that might interest you. As background, in 2004 the first Transit of Venus since 1882 occurred. I was going to be in Africa when it would happen and remembered that in 1903 the Canadian/American astronomer Simon Newcomb had written about observing the 1882 Transit from Wellington, South Africa and expressed a desire to have someone observe the 2004 event from the same location  (quote below). I located a South Africa astronomer who had a similar idea and after some sleuthing involving the US National Archives we were able to pinpoint Newcomb observing location and fulfill his request. “On our departure we left two iron pillars, on which our apparatus for photographing the Sun was mounted, firmly imbedded in the ground, as we had used them. Whether they will remain there until the transit of 2004, I do not know, but cannot help entertaining a sentimental wish that, when the time of that transit arrives, the phenomenon will be observed from the same station, and the pillars be found in such a condition that they can again be used.” While researching for this project, I found out that Julius Ulke, the photographer of the expedition, had, along with his more famous brother Henry, lived across from Ford’s Theatre. After Lincoln was shot he was brought to their boarding house and both brothers aided in the efforts to save him by boiling water and bringing it to his bedside. After Lincoln died, Julius took the famous photo of Lincoln’s death bed. In 1881, Simon Newcomb attempted to locate the assassin’s bullet in President James Garfield using a metal detector he had invented. He was unsuccessful, according to some accounts because he was unaware that Garfield had installed metal spring mattresses in his quarters Link. So by coincidence, of the four members of the expedition, two had been involved in unsuccessful attempts to save assassinated US presidents.  They must have had some interesting conversations. Rhys writes: There were some other presidential coincidences involving Robert Lincoln. He had been invited to join his father at the theatre on the night of Abraham’s assassination but declined. Had he gone, he would most likely have been seated where John Wilkes Booth would have encountered him first, perhaps giving him the opportunity to intervene. Some years later he witnessed James Garfield’s assassination and later still, was at the Pan-American Exposition when William McKinley was shot. You might also like this photograph of Abraham Lincoln during his second inaugural speech with, supposedly, John Wilkes Booth, other co-conspirators and possibly the owner of Ford’s Theatre looking on: Next up is Wade with proof: Lincoln Booth further citations towards the bottom of the discussion, Bonnie lists Chicago Tribune 25 April, 1865, The Washington Post 28 November, 1886, and Century illustrated Magazine, November,1893. Wow! I think we need to recruit Bonnie to Bizzare History!‘ Thanks Wade, Rhys and Howard!!