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.