CORRECTING HISTORICAL DATA
A slim steel object that resembles a rusty bayonet is the center of a debate in Charlston, West Virginia.
Part of an exhibit meant to portray the history of coal mining in that state, it represents a “Stickin’ Tommy:” it holds a stubby candle in a loop at its midpoint…Long before the days of carbide lanterns and helmet lamps, miners jabbed these into the seams they were working to light their way as they dug coal… Miners would hang the shared wick of homemade candles on the hook as spares…*
The problem is a hook that rises up above the candle loop should…be facing downward. However, the hook is placed in the display upside down.*
This error was discovered by labor historian Wess Harris.*
I am not a trained historian, although a history professor I spoke with while I was doing research for a historical journal article and my historic romance novel** dubbed me an “independent historian.”
During my research I’ve discovered numerous errors in historical books, documents, and local histories. My “lowest” experience occurred at an event during Ligonier, Pennsylvania’s, 250th anniversary.
The speaker was an expert in the George Washington papers. I attended his talk because I wanted to know if he was familiar with Madame Rosalie de la Val, a French refugee who mixed in the business world of land speculation in the 1790s. I knew I had a copy of her letter to President Washington when he retired. Perhaps there were other communications I hadn’t discovered.
To prepare, I went through my assorted sundry of papers. But it was my friend Fran, who assisted me in my research, who uncovered a copy of the letter and e-mailed it to me.
I read it to reconnect with its contents.
At the end of the letter was a statement, explaining who Madame was, which included an error. I had seen this error repeated in several books written by noted historians. It was easy to see why the statement on Madame’s identity had the data on her wedding date wrong.
Did I dare approach this man of the Ivory Tower, this expert on the George Washington papers, with this error?
Knowing that authentic historians abhor inaccuracies, I returned to my research materials, where I found the documentation on Madame’s true wedding date. It was from a prime source, the original records of the church where she was married. I had not only viewed this record, I had photographed the book cover, identifying marks, and page where the data was recorded.
I reproduced the material on a single sheet, added the location of the marriage record book, folded the paper, and slipped my business card inside.
After the historian’s presentation, I waited at the end of the line of people who wanted to talk to him. Finally, it was my turn. I had planned to broach the subject gently, but I had all of thirty seconds because he was being pulled away to attend a followup event. I quickly but gently told him I had discovered an error, and handed him the papers.
For months afterwards, I felt I may have insulted this historian.
Then, at another meeting, I met the head of the Ligonier 250th Anniversary committee. After the introduction, I told him about my experience.
“Oh, it was you,” he said, confirming that my actions were improper.
My conclusion was wrong. The committee chairman said that for three days after my action, the historian cheerfully told people that he can spend all his time in an Ivory Tower, and then travel to a small country town where some woman hands him the documentation of an error.
I never heard from the historian. He may have lost my business card, since I neglected to staple it to the sheet of paper. I know how that can happen when a person is traveling.
He did say he would correct the error, and that I could check it on the computer. I haven’t done so yet.
Historians like Wess Harris and the George Washington speaker want their data accurate. Like them, I expect my writing to be founded on accurate data. If you consider my presentation or data to be erroneous, tell me. Perhaps I can document my statement. Perhaps correction is necessary.
Historians appreciate the information. Please relay it in a kindly manner. But do relay it.