Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/September 1879/A Remarkable Coincidence



To the Editors of the Popular Science Monthly:

IN the April number of your Journal for this year (1879), I discussed the subject of coincidences as one of the six sources of error in experimenting with living human beings, and stated in substance that this department of logic had been most imperfectly studied, and that the mathematical doctrine of chances especially had been abused and misunderstood, to the great detriment of science.

The following very remarkable correspondence illustrates my position so forcibly that I beg leave to present it to your readers.

The first letter is a so-called "April-fool" letter, as the date suggests, and is wholly imaginative. It was written for amusement purely, and obtained a very different reply from what was expected.

The author of the communication is a well-known merchant of this city, and a friend of mine. The person who replied is also well known in the region where he resides.

This coincidence is certainly one of the most remarkable of any recorded in the history either of logic or of delusions.

202 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn,
April 1, 1879.
My dear Sister Velina: You will no doubt be somewhat surprised to receive a letter from me, but I have a little matter of business, and if you will attend to it you will place me under obligations to your good self.

Some time ago a man by the name of John Nasium lived in New York. His father was a Southerner, and died last summer of yellow fever. He had two brothers, James and George. The former, some years ago, went to California, and the latter, I understand, resides somewhere in Kansas.

This John Nasium seems to have been the black sheep of the family, and when he left New York he did not leave a very good record behind him. He went from here to Toledo, Ohio, and afterward, we hear, he went to Tecumseh, Michigan, no doubt thinking that in a quiet country place he would be more secluded than he could be in a city. I and several of my friends would like to get track of him, if it can be done quietly, and without exciting any suspicion. He may have changed his name, and so I will describe the man, as nearly as I can, which may be some help to you. John I never knew very well, but his brother Jem, as they called him here, I knew very well indeed. John is rather tall, weighing about 180 pounds, I should think. He stoops a little, and is slightly lame in the left leg. You would not observe his lameness unless you were to pay particular attention to him while walking. His hair is a dark sandy color, in fact almost a red, and his side-whiskers are almost the same color, but a little darker. He is about thirty-eight years of age, but really does not look over thirty. His eyes are a very dark brown, and the left eye looks a little peculiar, i. e., unlike the other—looks as if some time or another a cataract had been removed by an operation. To look at him, you would at once see a difference in his eyes, and yet I can not describe the difference any better than I have done. While he lived here he usually wore his hair rather long, and carried himself in a style peculiar to the Southerner.

Now, perhaps the best and most prudent way for you to do would be for you to go up and read this letter to Uncle Hiram first. He is a very careful, discreet man, and he can make inquiries and excite less suspicion than you could.

I am real sorry to make you any trouble, and much less Uncle Hiram, but this is a matter, if it can be properly done, which may be of considerable importance to me and several of my friends, and perhaps further the ends of justice.

There is one other mark which may aid you, which is—this man was in the rebel army, and his forefinger on his left hand was shot off. His nose is quite prominent, and he has a very mild and quiet look, and he is the last man you would pick out for the scoundrel that he is. Yours very truly,

R. T. Bush.

P. S.—Please attend to it, and oblige.

Shortly after this letter reached its destination, Tecumseh, Mr. Bush received a telegram stating that the man had been found, and asking if they should arrest him. The correspondent had not observed the date of the letter, nor suspected that he was reading a novel; and in a few days the following letter was received:

Tecumseh, April 18, 1879.

Mr. R. T. Bush

Dear Sir: Velina read to me a letter Wednesday evening from you, describing a certain man that was wanted in New York, who had recently left Toledo for this village.

The next morning, after hearing the description, I informed our marshal of the fact, and requested him to keep a lookout for such a man. In the course of half an hour he came to me, saying that he had just seen my man with sandy whiskers, rather tall—would weigh 170 or 180 pounds—wearing specs, and the front finger of the left hand missing; and was very anxious that he should be immediately arrested, as he was then at the livery-stable, for a saddle-horse to ride away. I told him we had better wait and be sure that he was the one we wanted, and also find out if we could whether you wanted him arrested, should he prove to be the right man. I saw the man, and he answered the description so well, even to the finger, that I thought best to telegraph you for instructions. The Marshal, in the mean time, was to keep his eye on him (as he failed to get a horse). Seeing him walk down to dinner with one of our townsmen, the first opportunity he made some inquiries of this townsman, and found that he was not the man—that he was the cousin of this man that took him to dinner, and was brother to a Mrs. Palmer, whom he was visiting—that he lives in South Cleveland, Ohio, and is a lawyer by profession.

That he answered the description, both in size and the loss of the finger, as well as the color of his whiskers, there could be no doubt. Wearing specs we supposed was to hide the defects of that eye you mentioned, and he looked as though his side-whiskers had recently been cut or shaved; but if, as we were told, his home is in Cleveland, and his name is Hick, why of course we were deceived in the matter. And, if his friend has not informed him, he is still ignorant of our suspicions.

Now, as this is my first experience in the detective business, you will pardon the blunder.

Hoping that it has put you to no inconvenience, I remain yours, etc.,

H. Raymond.

The one striking feature of this coincidence is of course the loss of the forefinger in the left hand.

Both the imagined and the real case possessed this very exceptional peculiarity. This is a subject on which statistics can not be gained; but it is certain that in the whole continent not a small roomful could be found possessing precisely this deformity at the age specified; and it may well be doubted whether in the whole world there is another person thus mutilated and at the same time possessing all the general physical characteristics of the individual described in the letter.

More striking still is the fact that this individual did not reside in the place where the letter was sent (which is not a large place), and was there by chance only the day that the letter reached there.

Those who believe that the mathematical doctrine of chances can solve the complex problems of coincidences will find in this case material for consideration. I may here quote a single sentence from the second of my series of papers on "Experiments with Living Human Beings," in the April number of the "Monthly": "In these and all studies of a like character it is to be recognized that coincidences of the most extraordinary character and astonishing nature are liable to occur at any instant, and that they are as likely to occur on the first trial as on the last of a long series."

A second point of great psychological interest in this case is the attempt made by the person to whom the letter was addressed to overlook certain discrepancies between the imaginary and real individual, and to twist and pervert and reason upon the facts of the case, so as to bring them into harmony with what he was expecting to see. While the man corresponded to the description in size, in the color of his whiskers, and especially in the loss of his finger, he did not correspond in the fact that he wore spectacles and had no side-whiskers. The detective reasoned that he wore spectacles to hide the defect in the eye, which defect he did not see; and he assumed, on thought, that the side-whiskers had been recently shaved or cut. Nothing is said of his stooping, or of his being lame in the left leg, or of the color of his hair, or of its length.

The bearings of this whole history on the delusions of clairvoyance mind-reading, animal magnetism, and spiritism are apparent. A successful coincidence of this kind would have made fortune and favor for any clairvoyant, or medium, or mind-reader.

Truly yours,George M. Beard.

New York, July, 1879.