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The Apotheosis of Apophenia: Conspiratorial Minds

What links the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy to Coronavirus denial? Otto English has found a pattern…

Protestors marching in London during the anti-lockdown demonstration on 24 April 2021. Photo: PA Images

The Apotheosis of ApopheniaConspiratorial Minds

What links the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy to Coronavirus denial? Otto English has found a pattern…

At 10.20 pm on 14 April 1865, as the audience in the Ford’s Theater, Washington, roared with laughter at an exchange in the hit comedy Our American Cousin, a well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth, crept into the box occupied by Abraham Lincoln and his party and shot the President in the back of the head.

Booth, scion of a famous acting family, was a Confederate sympathiser and racist who hated Lincoln with an almost unhinged intensity. He had become particularly incensed by a speech delivered by the American President three days earlier, in which Lincoln had expressed support for limited black suffrage for the first time.

The Lincoln assassination was planned as part of a three-pronged night of terror in which Booth’s two accomplices, Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, would kill Secretary of State William Seward and the Vice-President Andrew Johnson. But Powell screwed up his mission and Atzerodt got drunk and threw his weapon away.

Almost immediately, conspiracy theories started to abound and matters weren’t helped by the newspapers, which spat out conjecture and misinformation in an attempt to satiate the public’s thirst for knowledge.

There were suggestions that the plot might have been hatched by Jews and, later, when it transpired that some of the conspirators had been Catholics, that Pope Pius XI himself might have ultimately been responsible. 

In the decades that followed, the Lincoln conspiracy became a veritable cottage industry.

In 1885, an ex-communicated priest turned Presbyterian proselytiser, by the name of Charles Chiniquy, published a memoir in which he claimed that he had been a close confidant of the President. Chiniquy revealed that Lincoln had been as avowedly opposed to Catholicism as he had been to slavery and that the entire Civil War had been plotted by forces loyal to the Pope.

Chiniquy had briefly met Lincoln in 1856, when the future President had defended him in a slander trial. But his suggestion that the two men had been close friends was pure fantasy. 

Lincoln conspiracy theories abounded well into the 20th Century. In 1937, a bestselling thesis titled ‘Why Was Lincoln Murdered?’ by Otto Eisenschiml – inventor of the window envelope and rust-proof barbed wire – suggested that the true culprits sat right at the top of the Government: Lincoln had been killed by the ‘deep state’. Drawing together circumstantial evidence and conjecture, Eisenschiml promulgated a theory in which the President had been assassinated in a plot organised by his Secretary of State for War, Edwin M. Stanton. 

The evidence for the hypothesis rested on Stanton’s proactive response following the attack. The Secretary of State had directed attempts to save the President’s life, to secure the theatre, and subsequently to hunt down and kill the conspirators – so, of course, he must have been the culprit. 

This deep state theory took further hold in the paranoid years of the Cold War. In 1960, The Web of Conspiracy by Theodore Roscoe, a pulp fiction writer, argued that “Booth could not have murdered Lincoln had not Lincoln been betrayed”. In 1976, Rolling Stone magazine published an article suggesting that Vice-President Andrew Johnson might have been in on the plot and that Booth himself might never have been killed. In 1977, the Stanton theory resurfaced in a book called The Lincoln Conspiracy, which was later made into a film. 

Contemporary lithograph of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C., on 14 April 1865

No serious, mainstream historian ever bought into these narratives – and with very good reason. The evidence, the motive and the witnesses were all there. Hundreds of people had witnessed Booth shoot the President. Booth had left a paper trail proving that it was his plot and that he was responsible for the crime. But to ‘Lincoln Truthers’, any attempt to dismiss the conspiracies was explained away as the ‘establishment’ sticking to their version of events of a cover-up that went right to the top.

The Lincoln conspiracies have now been eclipsed by the far more recent assassination of a US President. On 22 November 1963, during a visit to Dallas, John F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, an embittered former soldier with pro-Castro sympathies spawning a reboot to the whole presidential murder franchise.

Oswald was an angry, unhinged loner who had defected to the USSR in 1959, before changing his mind and returning to America – in part because he missed bowling alleys and nightclubs. He struggled to re-adapt to US life, although his wife Marina later told investigators that he would never have been happy anywhere, adding: “Only on the moon, perhaps.” 

Soon after returning to the States, the would-be assassin, who had a history of threatening and erratic behaviour, bought a carbine rifle and telescopic lens under an assumed name. Seven months before his successful attempt on Kennedy, he used it in an attempt to kill a very right-wing US Army General, Edwin Walker, but only managed to graze his forearm.

Oswald – like Booth before him – had the motive and the desire to kill the President. There were photographs of him holding the weapon that was used. His wife said he was responsible. All the evidence pointed to him. But, for many people, this was nothing more than firm evidence that it had to be anyone other than Oswald. Clearly this loner couldn’t have done all that by himself. Clearly Kennedy had been killed by the CIA, Cubans, Lyndon B. Johnson, the deep state, the Federal Reserve or any number of other outfits.

The notion gained such currency that, as recently as 2017, polls showed that 61% of Americans believed that there had been a wider plot.


Conspiracy theories, like the history book on the shelf, have a remarkable habit of repeating themselves and those similarities can in turn spawn other theories.

Soon after Kennedy’s assassination, people began to pinpoint stark parallels between his and Lincoln’s death. Highlights included the observation that both men were elected 100 years apart, that both fought for the rights of black Americans, and both were succeeded by Vice-President Johnsons. Kennedy was assassinated while travelling in a Ford Lincoln, Lincoln was killed while seated in a theatre called Ford’s.

Many of these freak coincidences appear remarkable – until the brain is engaged. For example, much is made of the fact that both men had surnames that consist of seven letters – but then so do I, Timmy Mallett and Boris Johnson. It is a completely common occurrence, not a conspiracy.

The compendium and the theory are a classic example of apophenia – a term first coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in 1958. Apophenia is a state in acute schizophrenia where otherwise unrelated details or random events are perceived, by the patient, to be connected. Latterly, apophenia has come to be applied to any situation in which individuals seek to find patterns where there are none. This is why people sometimes think that they see shapes in the clouds or in inanimate objects: Jesus on a piece of toast, or a smile on John Redwood’s face. 

The ‘Gambler’s fallacy’ is a familiar form of apophenia – which happens when a player at the roulette wheel begins to divine patterns, where there are none, and then ascribes any wins or losses to them. Confirmation bias is also a kind of apophenia. Very religious or superstitious people might put faith in prayer or lucky charms and any subsequent success or good luck is proof that that rabbit’s foot worked.

But it is in conspiracy theories that we see the apotheosis of apophenia. 

Conspiracy Theories

Witnesses to the Kennedy assassination. Frightened spectators hug the ground moments after a sniper’s bullet struck the President. Photo: Everett Collection Historical/Alamy

Many of the early Lincoln assassination conspiracies revolved around the suggestion that many of the conspirators were ‘Catholics’. In fact, of the eight people who were purported to have been involved, just two were observant to that faith – and given that around 10% of the population of the US was Catholic in the late 1860s, that is not a surprising statistic. It is less surprising still because these two suspects were mother and son, with the mother, Mary Surratt, quite likely wrongly convicted.

Likewise, the Zapruder film – that disturbing 26.6 seconds of footage of Kennedy’s assassination shot on a cine camera – has been pored over and apophenianated to within an inch of its life. 

In a much-analysed segment, just as Kennedy is hit, a man is seen briefly holding an open umbrella which, for reasons that will become apparent, caused some consternation when first broadcast in 1970. Why was the guy holding an opened umbrella? It had rained the night before, but the morning of 22 November 1963 was a hot Texan day and everyone else was wearing T-shirts and summer clothes. Perhaps he was firing a poisonous dart at Kennedy to paralyse him in order to make him an easier target – or maybe his umbrella was actually a gun! 

In Oliver Stone’s paranoid 1991 cinematic version of events, JFK, the Umbrella Man was said to be signalling a second gunman on the grassy knoll. But, in fact, the identity of the individual was already well-known by then. His name was Louie Steven Witt and he was engaged in a bizarre protest against the Kennedy family. Witt was heckling John F. Kennedy on account of his father Joseph’s support for appeasement in the 1930s – and the umbrella was symbolic of Neville Chamberlain who always used to carry one. Such umbrella protests were once common and were being used as late as 2014 in Hong Kong. 

But to the JFK conspiracy theorists, the ‘Umbrella Man’ is solid proof that something was amiss that day and no amount of evidence will shake them from it.

Coronavirus Deniers

The parallels between modern Coronavirus deniers and Kennedy and Lincoln truthers was brought home very clearly to me last week when I encountered some on Twitter.

The discussion began following an incident in Bath in which a pub landlord, Rod Humphris, heckled Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer over the COVID-19 lockdowns. Soon, other anti-lockdown activists were busying themselves on Twitter, lauding Humphris and claiming that he spoke for millions of Britons.

Having pointed out to former Brexit Party MEP Martin Daubney that around 80% of Britons supported lockdown measures, I was dragged into a rabbit hole full of self-proclaimed ‘scientists’ and ‘experts’ who took me to task on that fact, on polls, and the science around lockdowns, vaccinations and the origins of the virus. 

It was a startling demonstration of the pandemic of apophenia during this current crisis. 

Drawing together disconnected and random facts, many of these people seemed certain that there was proof that the vaccinations were “experimental” and that this entire pandemic was part of a broader conspiracy.

Several cited ‘Event 201’ as proof that ‘Coronavirus’ was being used as a cover for Bill Gates to vaccinate people as part of the ‘Great Reset’. To the uninitiated, vent 201 was a sort of pandemic war game conducted by the World Economic Forum in association with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in October 2019 – which played out various scenarios and responses to an imagined global outbreak. It has to be said that its timing – much like that of the Umbrella Man’s protest – could not have been worse (or better). But, watching the event, it was striking how differently key elements of their scenario played out in contrast to actual events and, specifically, the development of a vaccine.

As I tried vainly to fight back against a growing tide of COVID deniers, I was told over and over and over again to “EDUCATE YOURSELF!” And so I did. I not only watched the highlights of Event 201 but also Bill Gates’ extraordinarily prescient 2015 TED talk. I read at some length about the trials of the vaccinations and then, curious to know why so many people were in denial, I read up about apophenia. 

At the root of denial and conspiracy theories sits fear.

It is understandable that when a big and terrifying event shakes our certainties, people become afraid. Conspiracy theories and apophenia are a coping mechanism for people seeking to offset their cognitive dissonance against the terrifying and random nature of world events. They give the illusion of knowledge and the illusion of control.

People were afraid when Lincoln and Kennedy were murdered and people are afraid now. As we seek to confront the tide of misinformation and conspiracy facing the world, we should perhaps show as much understanding as to why it is there so that we might begin to tackle it.

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