Tona Hangen

Historians Behaving Badly, and What We Can Learn From Them

One of our last discussions in the methods class concerned professionalism and integrity in the history profession. There are probably many useful case studies, but I used two that had come across my desk recently.

Case Number One: Scholarly Graffiti

Thomas Lowry admitted this year to changing one number on a Lincoln document in the National Archives, from a 4 to a 5, which altered the date of the document by one year, which placed it on the day before Lincoln was assassinated. The story as written up in the AHA Perspectives News Briefs for March 2011 raises a number of interesting issues (scroll down, it’s the third story).

First, there is why Lowry would have made the change in the first place, and why the precision and integrity of historical documents is important. Second, there was the fascinating tale of the sleuthing involved in discovering the crime and rooting out its perpetrator (who was, initially, contacted by the Archives for help in the case before he was a suspect). Third – the lack of any penalty or punishment beyond banishment from the Archives and ruin of his reputation. Shouldn’t the statute of limitations on theft or damage to a historical document somehow be different? It also introduced us to the “Inspector General’s Archival Recovery Team,” which I never knew existed, and I think it would be cool next time around to try to get someone from there to Skype with us.

See also the National Archives Press Release about Lowry’s act of historical vandalism, and their public-domain video about the case, which could spark good class discussion:

Case Number Two: Sketchy Provenance, and Admitting a Mistake

This one I found in the Letters to the Editor of the most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History (Vol 37, No 1., Winter 2011), titled “Unmasking Another Hofmann Forgery” by Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brian Reeves. Turley, lead author of the highly acclaimed Oxford University Press book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, has also edited a document sourcebook on the event, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. One of the documents included was an affadavit supposedly taken in the 1920s with an elderly man who had been at the 1857 massacre, owned by the Utah State Historical Society. It recently came to Turley’s attention that the document had been obtained by the Society in a purchase of a group of documents from Mark Hofmann, something that hadn’t been catalogued in its original metadata and was unknown at the time the sourcebook was published. Turley recounts how they pieced together the document’s provenance, and concluded that it was a forgery like others that Hoffmann had created and sold in the 1980s before being convicted of murder and fraud and sent to live out his life in a Utah state prison. In another odd twist to the case, Turley himself is the author of a 1992 book on the Hofmann murders, titled Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case.

The letter is probably behind your firewall, but there’s a Sept 7, 2010 article in the Deseret News that covers much of the same ground.

Turley’s letter was useful in a methods class on a number of levels. First, it provided a good model for how academics apologize and make corrections to an already-published work (the document will be removed from future editions). Second, again, the detective work proved fascinating – in this case, it came down to the analysis of the typewriter that was used, which did not exist in the 1920s. One of my students commented, “That typewriter forensics guy must have been waiting his whole life for a case like this!” And lastly, the backstory of Hoffmann’s document-forging and the murders he committed was all new to my students and they were incredulous and intrigued that there was such a sordid market for historical documents. Or such a promising future in becoming a documents forensic examiner (that PBS show notwithstanding)!

Both cases generated a lot of very productive discussion about scholarly values (provenance, citation, metadata, precision, accuracy, acknowledgment, peer review, not taking a fountain pen into the archives… etc…), which turned out to be a good way to wrap up the unit on history as a profession & what it is that we “profess” as historians. And reminded us that truth is often, still, stranger than fiction.

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