The Lowry Kerfuffle

25 01 2011

Update: For anyone who thinks that by asking how this fraud slipped by for so long I’m being too harsh or judgmental, check out Harold Holzer’s comments on the New York Times blog Opinionator.  Yikes!!!

——————————–

In this post I linked to stories about Thomas P. Lowry and his apparent doctoring of an Abraham Lincoln pardon.  Needless to say the topic has been burning up the blogosphere, Facebook, and discussion groups the past two days.  Dr. Lowry and his wife now deny having committed the act despite a signed confession.  While history is rife with confessions signed falsely under duress, I’m not Oliver Stone and things don’t look good for the doctor.  But anything is possible, and John Coski is willing to give Lowry the benefit of the doubt.

I wondered aloud how such a fraud could have gone undetected under the circumstances (those circumstances being the long-time inclusion of the document in Basler’s edition of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln and the association of the fraudulently dated document with perhaps the most studied day in Lincoln’s life and one of the most studied days in American history).  Most accept that Dr. Lowry’s motivation was to gain some fame by the “discovery” of the document, yet at the same time many claim that it was such a minor blip – after all, it didn’t really change anything we already knew about Lincoln – that hardly anyone, and certainly no one important, even noticed at the time it was made, despite the NARA press release.  Some have said that another reason the discovery went unnoticed was that Dr. Lowry received little attention from mainstream historians, yet the book in which the doctor doctored document was used received the endorsement (I know, a blurb is a blurb is a blurb and I don’t expect blurbers to have gone over every footnote with a fine tooth comb) of a mucky-muck in a Lincoln scholar organization and another from an established historian who also wrote its foreword.

In various forums, my questioning of how the fraud went undetected at the time and took 13 years to correct (kudos again to the folks at NARA - better late than never) has resulted in accusations that I am flinging out a red herring to deflect blame from Dr. Lowry (whom I do not know) – I’ve maintained from the outset that he deserves whatever he gets.  Seems like a strawman red herring (a straw-herring?), though both those terms are so over- and mis-used they’ve become meaningless to me.  Others seem to think I’m pointing fingers at specific individuals or classes of individuals for not catching the fraud earlier.  Other than NARA, I don’t believe any one person or group of people should have caught it.  But I was imprecise in what I was trying to say.  Given the vast number of folks who consume every tidbit of info on Lincoln and in this case his assassination, which includes pretty much everything concerning the days surrounding his murder, I’m really just mystified none of them, none of them, looked into the announcement any further.  Maybe it really wasn’t a big deal and nobody noticed.

But they’ve sure noticed now.

In a different life I was a corporate internal auditor.  In my experience, there are two types of auditor personalities (both dull): one who wants to catch the bad guy, the bad guy being his focus; and one who wants to find out how an act can in the first place be committed and in the second go undetected – he’s interested in systems and controls.  I was always the second type.  Old habits die hard.  I’m sorry if my doubts caused anyone to take offense.

As for how the fraud could have been mechanically carried out, I’ve communicated with my NARA contacts past and present and others familiar with the doctor and his wife.  The Lowrys were trusted researchers: they spent a lot of time in the archives. A whole lot of time. Were some of the restrictions placed on less regular visitors relaxed in their case? Not formally or in practice by anyone I’ve heard from. But if Lowry’s confession is to be believed, somehow that pen made it into the central research room.

Also, as trusted researchers, when they declared their discovery it was taken at face value – NARA likely didn’t feel the need to verify prior to making the announcement of what some there believed a major find.  That a trusted researcher might tamper with a document signed by Lincoln, a sacred document, may have been unthinkable.  Perhaps precedent also came into play – no other Civil War document alteration has come to light at NARA in 150 years.  since its founding in 1934.

What has impressed me most over the past 24 hours is the sense of loss felt and expressed by people I’ve corresponded with who were close to Dr. Lowry (yes, some respected historians are in that group).  They all considered him a friend.  By most accounts he’s been a good guy, quick to help and give advice.  Perhaps some of those friendships can be repaired.  Short of exoneration I suspect most will not.  All in all this has been a very sad episode.  Shakespearian in character, if not in scope.  Burnham Woods has come to Woodbridge, VA.

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20 responses

25 01 2011
David Lowe

Unfortunate indeed. Dr. Harsh introduced me to Mr. Lowry. I fear Joe must be grunting and rolling over to get more comfortable at this moment. He always said chronology, chronology, chronology. If you mess with the chronology you’re just making shit up.

25 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

I seem to recall that Harsh and Lowry and a few other folks were in some sort of informal club of “published” guys.

26 01 2011
Brooks D. Simpson

“Some have said that another reason the discovery went unnoticed was that Dr. Lowry received little attention from mainstream historians, yet the book in which the doctor doctored document was used received the endorsement (I know, a blurb is a blurb is a blurb and I don’t expect blurbers to have gone over every footnote with a fine tooth comb) of a mucky-muck in a Lincoln scholar organization and another from an established historian who also wrote its foreword.”

Frank Williams (head of the Lincoln Forum) is not a professional historian, but an amateur. The only professional historian who blurbed the book in question was the late John Y. Simon. You cast a rather broad net based upon a rather thin basis. That said, one can well wonder why the historians (amateur, professional, whatever) who attended functions at which Dr. Lowry broadcast his “discovery” remained silent. I wonder whether they were really paying attention. You’ll have to ask them. However, to continue to suggest anything more that implicates the majority of Civil War historians while failing to name names is, to be kind, problematic. Finally, one does not need a PhD to turn to Basler’s index. Rather, it’s the initial failure of the NARA to check the “discovery” and its decision to celebrate the “discovery” and get some publicity that’s worth some scrutiny.

The “find” was enough to get Dr. Lowry on various forums in the East and perhaps elsewhere, where a general public listened to him. I don’t recall him attending any professional conferences. Lowry then went on to write other books about the Civil War, several with sex as a theme, and apparently sex sells. I’m sure he enjoyed rubbing elbows with those historians who enjoy offering conferences to a general public, often for a fee. Maybe you should ask Judge Williams and the Lincoln Forum or the historians who appeared on programs where he spoke about this find what they knew and when did they know it. Otherwise, you unjustifiably cast aspersions and just add to a general atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, and, Harry, that’s not fair or right.

I notice that most people, including you, Harry, had not heard of this “discovery” before it was discredited. We’ve seen where it was accepted and where it was omitted. Some of my colleagues are raising (in private) questions about those professionals associated with the organizations where Dr. Lowry was popular and where he spoke.

As for what you have previously said, I think the best evidence for that is in what you have previously said, and I would direct readers there.

26 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

I didn’t say Williams was a historian, I said he was a mucky-muck with a Lincoln scholar organization. And I also am curious what you mean by ” to continue to suggest anything more that implicates the majority of Civil War historians while failing to name names is, to be kind, problematic”. I’ve expressed in this post just who I’m talking about: “Given the vast number of folks who consume every tidbit of info on Lincoln and in this case his assassination, which includes pretty much everything concerning the days surrounding his murder, I’m really just mystified none of them, none of them, looked into the announcement any further.” That’s a lot of people, professional historians and otherwise. Just becasue other folks are making this an academic/non-academic thing, don’t lump me in with them. That’s not a gripe of mine.

As for what I previously said, I have directed readers there, right at the beginning of this post, but here it is again: “And how could it have been missed by NARA and Lincoln scholars for thirteen years?” As I’ve said this was imprecise, but it is not a swipe at “the majority of Civil War historians” (i think there are likely plenty of folks who are Lincoln scholars but not professional historians, but will stand corrected if that’s is a more formal label), and to continue to insist that is, as you say, neither fair nor right.

26 01 2011
Brooks D. Simpson

Harry, you can’t make your mind up about this. First, you say that the report “apparently” was a big thing (apparently assuming that because it was in the papers, everyone must have heard about it, although you admit that you did not). Then you say it wasn’t a big deal. Then you want to know how this evaded the attention of scholars, while you give a nearly free pass to the NARA, where you have friends. Yet it was the NARA that issued a press release celebrating the “find” and pointed to it with pride for years. All one has to do is to compare your blog posts and what you’ve said on other blogs to see that you’ve said a lot of things, and not always the same thing.

26 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

“you can’t make your mind up about this”

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the finest football team of the Super Bowl Era. Other than that, there’s not much about which I have made up my mind.

“First, you say that the report “apparently” was a big thing (apparently assuming that because it was in the papers, everyone must have heard about it, although you admit that you did not). ”

You’re right in the first place, wrong in the second. Just because something is a “big deal” doesn’t mean everyone has heard about it. But folks around back then indicated that a big deal was made at NARA. And no, I didn’t notice it at the time, but I wasn’t then and am not now a historian or a Lincoln scholar, and was significantly less “into” what for me is a hobby then than I am now.

“Then you say it wasn’t a big deal.”

No, I didn’t say it wasn’t a big deal, just suggested it perhaps was not if, in fact, “nobody” noticed.

“Then you want to know how this evaded the attention of scholars,”

No, I expressed that I am shocked that it DID evade the attention of scholars. Now such shock would be misplaced if, in fact, scholars were unaware of the announcement – keeping in mind that “scholars” is a large group of people, including but not limited to some historians.

“while you give a nearly free pass to the NARA, where you have friends.”

I do have one friend at NARA (others are e-quaintances), but he doesn’t work in that building – he shares my surprise that the fraud was able to be committed and that no one caught the discrepancy with Basler. And I don’t believe I gave NARA any kind of pass. Possible explanations of what happened are not excuses, and some might say they are indictments.

26 01 2011
Brooks D. Simpson

And, Harry, you quote me in your comment. Show me in that quote where I say “professional.” I simply defined the backgrounds of Williams and Simon. You continue to misrepresent what others have said. Nor do I appreciate the way that you responded when I told you that I had not heard of the Murphy claim, which you were then insisting was “apparently” a big deal. You just could accept me at my word: you instead said that you had no reason to believe otherwise. Nice.

26 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

For me, all historians are professionals. I don’t call anyone an amateur historian, just like I don’t call anyone an amateur lawyer. By that I mean professionally trained, with advanced degrees in history. But I do sometimes attach the word professional to make the distinction for people who do that. It’s inconcsitent of me, I know.

I do take you at your word. And I do have no reason to believe otherwise in the case in point. However, as you have apparently taken offense, I apologize.

26 01 2011
Ted Savas

I was the publisher of Mr. Lowry’s “Don’t Shoot that Boy!” title. I was called today by the AP and quoted in several articles that have appeared on the net, including the Los Angeles Times. I want to be clear that there are many other things I told the reporter, including the fact that I do not KNOW whether Mr. Lowry is guilty or innocent, and I have no way of knowing. I hope he is not. I really do. But I was not there, nor was I privy to any of the negotiations surrounding the alleged confession or lack thereof.

Those who read Civil War books will be the final arbiters of his guilt, and at this point I think his factual guilt (as far as his credibility goes) is no longer an issue. Lowry has been tarred by a very sticky brush, and the allegation itself casts a pall on all his work forevermore.

Tom Lowry was my friend as well as one of our authors. I enjoyed his work, I enjoyed listening to him speak, and I enjoyed his witty banter in the editorial columns of various publications.

This situation is truly regrettable for all concerned.

tps

26 01 2011
Dick Stanley

I can sympathize with Lowry’s friends. I enjoyed his book on ACW prostitution, but otherwise don’t know him. Kevin’s putting him in the pantheon of shame that includes plagiarist Ambrose and Vietnam combat-phony Ellis certainly is justified by the NARA’s conclusion. But even Ambrose and Ellis were never accused of altering a historical document. That is really beyond the pale.

26 01 2011
Chris Evans

I guess one can say of Lowry:

“Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!”

What a disgusting thing the whole situation is.
Chris

26 01 2011
John Koster

Remember the Norfolk Four? Four young sailors confessed to a rape and murder they couldn’t possibly have committed based on DNA and polygraph tests to avoid the death penalty, and were still serving time years after the actual rapist-murderer confessed from prison and said none of the sailors was implicated. (The same detective tried to frame three other sailors to get a DNA match but the other three sailors stone-walled and weren’t charged.) FBI agents had to testify that they believed the convictions were fraudulent before the “confessed” convicts even got out of prison, and I think they still haven’t received official pardons. The cop who framed them is now facing sentencing for a number of charges related to similar offenses. Like the column manager, I have my doubts about Dr. Lowry’s actual guilt.

26 01 2011
Asking Questions of the National Archives | Crossroads

[...] in Bull Runnings Harry Smeltzer shared some of his thoughts about the evolution of the Lowry affair and its implications.  Reminding readers that he had once [...]

26 01 2011
Brooks D. Simpson

Anyone who thinks that Harry’s in my doghouse should take a deep breath, because that spot of honor is currently occupied by Harold Holzer (see Harry’s update at the top of this post). This is my response, which has already appeared in several places:

Harold Holzer would like all Lincoln scholars to take the blame. Actually, it’s worse: “The entire historical profession should be ashamed for heralding Dr. Lowry without doing a moment’s worth of due diligence.”

That’s ridiculous. The entire historical profession did not herald Lowry’s work. I would have no problem in saying that those scholars who were aware of the Murphy claim and accepted it as true without question might have some explaining to do, and if that includes Harold Holzer as well as his friends Frank Williams and John Y. Simon (both of whom blurbed the work in question), then Harold Holzer’s welcome to speak about them.

Name names, Harold. If you feel responsible, then speak for yourself. Address those groups who had Thomas Lowry as a speaker, and look for what they have to say. Don’t drag everyone else down with you — especially those who were unaware of this “find” until this week

27 01 2011
John Foskett

As for Lowry’s guilt, certainly there may be room for some doubt (although we’re not operating in this realm with the burden of proof which applies in a criminal case). But let’s say Lowry isn’t the one who altered the document. The first time I saw it (Monday), I immediately was drawn to the “5″ just from its dark appearance and it’s somwhat different style. Lowry should at least have had a question about it befoere trumpeting the date in his book and elsewhere. So either he committed an incredibly unethical and unlawful act or he failed to point out that there was something possibly amiss about the document.

27 01 2011
Dimitri Rotov

Harry, the NARA issues are crucial and need to be fixed. Good of you to raise them. Here we are grappling with an altered document while whole, planted forgeries that are turning up in historiographical disputes among ufologists:
>>In 1985, another document mentioning MJ-12 and dating to 1954 was found in a search at the National Archives. Its authenticity is also highly controversial. The documents in question are rather widely available on the Internet, for example on the FBI website, where it is concluded they are fraudulent (linked below).<<
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majestic_12

Authenticity is becoming a bear.

27 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

Here’s a favorite quote from Stanley McChrystal:

“The way I chose to go through life is, I’m going to default to trusting people. And every once in a while you get badly burned and you have to decide whether that’s worth it, but if you don’t trust people then you go through life missing a lot.”

Seems to me there’s been a lot of trust inherent in this field. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing for the most part. But if this whole controversy means anything, it’s probably that the game is going to get a lot less… fun.

28 01 2011
The Abraham Lincoln Observer

Harry: Dunno if you noticed already, but the New York Times has endorsed “kerfuffle” as the official characterization of the pardon scandal.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/29/us/29lincoln.html?_r=1&src=twrhp

I think you’re due congratulations.

29 01 2011
Harry Smeltzer

Plagiarists.

20 02 2011
Thomas Lowry’s Version of Events « Bull Runnings

[...] blogger Drew Wagenhoffer passed along the information that Dr. Thomas Lowry (see here and here) has started a WordPress site presenting his side of the whole National Archives incident. You can [...]

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