Coincidence gets a bad rap in life, starting with the qualifying words frequently preceding it --- “just a.” It slums even harder in crime. No one likes it. No one trusts it. Human beings are pattern-seekers who crave control. Two knife murders taking place on the same street on the same day one year apart might have nothing whatsoever in common, but the detectives working the cases will have to work hard to prove it.
Even Sherlock Holmes, famously methodical, once asked, “But is it coincidence? Are there not subtle forces at work of which we know little?”
My answer: no, Mr. Holmes, there are not.
Ten years ago The New York Times published a fascinating article by Lisa Belkin on coincidence called “The Odds of That.” It was not yet a year after 9/11. The terrorist attacks, soon followed by anthrax-laced letters sent anonymously to media and government offices, fomented high paranoia and brought the conspiracy-minded out of the dark. When nearly a dozen men connected to the world of bioterror and germ warfare began dying in bizarre and mysterious ways “the truth is out there” crowd shed the crank label and assumed their status as visionaries.
But what Belkin’s article illustrates is that the law of large numbers means that with a large enough denominator --- for instance, the whole world --- weird, sometimes even unbelievable stuff happens. To paraphrase a statistician from the article, 280 million people in the United States means that 280 times a day a one-in-a-million shot is going to occur.
The impetus for the story was a small news item Belkin came across detailing how elderly twin brothers in a small Finnish town were riding their bikes separately one day running errands when they were hit and killed by trucks within hours of each other. Every explanation, from psychic twin bond to the second twin’s suicide upon hearing about the death of his brother to murder plot, was offered as an explanation and explored.
“What are the odds?” everyone asked.
Pretty good, as it turns out. Distracting, superfluous details that have no bearing on the statistics of coincidence often mislead people. That they were brothers is a superfluous fact. A closer look shows that the two men frequently traveled by bike, so that they should die that way is not as surprising. An even closer look, pared to the essentials: within hours trucks hit two older men riding bicycles along a busy highway during a snowstorm.
Uncommon? Sure. But definitely not unfathomable.
I thought of “The Odds of That” while I was reading up on two unsolved cases that appear to be connected. Marion Marshall, 72, was last seen alive during the late morning of Aug. 14, 2006 at a grocery store. Alerted by a friend of Marion’s who couldn’t reach her, a neighbor discovered Marshall’s body on the living room floor of her home in Springfield, Virginia. Groceries were on the kitchen table. There was no sign of forced entry. Marshall was killed by trauma to the upper body.
Three months later, the body of Marion Newman, 74, also of Springfield, was found in her bedroom. As in the Marshall case, there was no sign of forced entry and Newman died of trauma to the upper body. According to a recent article in the Lorton, Va. Patch detectives believe the same suspect is responsible, due to “similarities in the two cases and evidence obtained in both investigations.”
Equal weight is given to “similarities” and “evidence,” but a closer look reveals a textbook case of distracting, superfluous, misleading details that make the cases look eerily connected, when in fact they may be connected, just not in an eerie, super-villain-playing-chess kind of way.
Similarities cited in many articles include that both women lived alone, didn’t have children, were in their 70s, lived in nearly identical red brick ramblers, looked alike, were named Marion, and died of trauma to the upper body with no sign of forced entry.
Now let’s unpack those points.
It’s not uncommon for elderly women to live alone, especially ones that don’t have children. Living alone makes you a more appealing victim. A Google Street View search shows that the majority of houses in both neighborhoods are red brick ramblers. As for the resemblance, elderly women frequently have short, graying hair and wear glasses. The term “trauma to the upper body” is a general one which in these cases appears to include both beating and, in one case, choking.
But it’s the “Marion” connection that really seems to stoke excitable flames. The psychopath stalking women named Marion is like a plot line from Criminal Minds. In fact, while Marion is a fairly unusual name now, it was much more common in the 1930s, when the two victims were born. It was popular enough that it was used in a song, “Marian the Librarian,” from the 1957 Broadway smash The Music Man. Shirley Jones, who played the movie version of Marian, was born in 1934, the same year as Marion Newman.
Compelling evidence, such as DNA, may tie the unsolved cases of Marion Marshall and Marion Newman. They certainly contain superficial similarities. The problem with superficial similarities is that they’re superficial. In the big grab to assemble a pattern out of chaos important facts are often overlooked. Such was the case in the mysterious deaths ten years ago of men affiliated with bioterror and germ warfare. What was lost in the conspiracy construction was that some of the experts were only tangentially connected to those fields. Conveniently pushed aside was information about medical conditions, and other circumstances that explained the deaths.
In the end, no connection existed. A dozen men of somewhat similar age and occupation died in various parts of the world over the course of several months, sometimes mysteriously.
What are the odds of that?
Excellent, I'd say.