AP misses date of Lincoln’s death by four score and 20 years; we all miss copy editors

060116blog abraham lincoln
Wikipedia (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

The typo itself – an Associated Press story reported that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1965 instead of 1865 – was just that, a typo, as even a middle-schooler knows our 16th president never lived to hear the Beatles.

However, among journalists of a certain age (mine), the distressing though not unexpected aspect of the miscue was that the erroneous date made it onto so many prestigious news sites. As a 1970s-era college friend of mine put it in an email subject line: “Copy editing was a fine profession ...”

Meaning that back before the near-extinction of copy editors, it would have been unlikely that the Associated Press would have allowed such a gaffe, never mind that it would have gone unnoticed by so many AP-subscriber news organizations.

The error-carrying AP story was based on an account of the recent discovery of Mary Todd Lincoln’s 1882 funeral expense ledger, as reported by The State Journal-Register of Illinois. The AP version of that story was picked up widely and followed by this correction:

060116blog lincoln correction

A search on the headline “Correction: Mary Lincoln-Funeral story” brings back six pages of results.

The Washington Post was among those that ran the original erroneous story and subsequent correction. As of this writing, the former still carries the 1965 mistake.

And looking at the correction again just now it occurs to me that it, too, appears to be in need of correction. It seems unlikely that Abraham Lincoln’s wife could have “kept” the log in question since it belonged to the funeral home and the entry is dated July 19, 1882, which was three days after she had died.

Copy editing was a fine profession.

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