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Mysteries in History

After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection

by James West Davidson, by Mark Hamilton Lytle
Knopf, 388 pp., $19.50

Cynics (mainly professors) will occasionally call pedagogy a lame branch of the entertainment industry. A standard defense is that you have to keep classes awake somehow. The fact is that a good many professors fancy themselves as entertainers, cultivate theatrical wiles, and cherish reputations as performers. Few successful teachers are able to dispense with such stratagems completely in a pinch.

Whether historians are peculiarly prone to adopt these devices or not, their subject matter would seem to lend itself to the temptation. For one thing, so much of it is script suitable for theater of the absurd and for black humor. Another reason is that in the practice of the craft the historians are thrust—sometimes inappropriately—into a wide variety of roles and often play them, whether they are appropriate or not. These include the parts played by judge, jury, prosecutor, investigative reporter, and—most analogous by far—the detective. The latter is the part favored by historians, and nearly all of them have a turn at it.

In The Historian as Detective,1 which preceded the book under review by several years, Robin W. Winks points out the similarity between the historian and the detective (“at least the detective of fiction”) in the methods and techniques they use to collect, interpret, and explain their evidence. He also remarks on the number of detective-story addicts and detective-fiction writers among English and American historians. Winks illustrates his comparison with a collection of twenty-six essays by as many historians.

James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle, in After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, give thirteen examples of the art as they practice it themselves. Their subjects, all drawn from American history, are mysteries ranging from the earliest years of colonial settlement down through Watergate. The authors admit that in most of the mysteries they are either reporting or leaning on findings of more specialized historians. But they are not merely posing with meerschaum, magnifying glass, and deer-stalking cap. Davidson and Lytle are actively involved in all the sleuthing that goes on and often make original contributions of their own. They are addressing both amateurs and professionals and manage to convey to both their zest for the sport.

A conventional opening for the detective story is the discovery of a body. Here we start with thousands of bodies, with the problem of explaining why the first permanent colony in Virginia sustained a death rate of 75 to 80 percent in its first two decades—more than twice that of the black death plague in England in the fourteenth century. Indians and disease took their toll but the main cause is found to be starvation—and this in the fabled Land of Plenty where food was easily grown. The authors’ explanation deepens the mystery. The solution, suggested not by them but by Edmund S. Morgan,2 is the first American boom, the get-rich-quick tobacco boom. It in turn suggests clues to the reliance on indentured white labor and the postponement of black slavery—too risky an investment in view of the death rate as compared with the lower cost of indentured servants.

More bodies to account for are those of the twenty-five or so witches at Salem in 1692. The question is not who killed them but why. To three centuries of suggested reasons, recent historical detection adds a revealing new one. A north-south line drawn through the middle of Salem Village locates nearly all the witches and their defenders on the east side and nearly all their accusers to the west. It so happens that the same line that divides the witches from their accusers had also for twenty years prior to the witch trials divided the village politically over bitter disputes about the election of ministers, the division of taxes, and the distribution of land. On the west side, with the accusers, were concentrated subsistence farmers tied to a spartan, traditional style of life. To the east, with the witches, lived the growing merchant class in their fine new houses.3 A conjecture? To be sure. While fictional detection has to end with a conviction or a confession, historical detection usually has to settle for a conjecture. But conjectures can reverse verdicts of centuries’ standing.

The origin of the Declaration of Independence is a more conventional case for historical detectives. The basic document in American history, the Declaration is surely the most familiar—it is a familiar placemat in restaurants. Yet some laymen may be surprised to learn that it was not written or signed, nor was independence adopted, on July 4, 1776. More interesting to professionals is the evolution of the document and the changes made in Jefferson’s “original Rough draft.” That most relentless of historical sleuths, the late Julian P. Boyd, turned up fragments of a draft prior to the “original” and contributed much to knowledge of how the document was shaped.4 It appears that Congress removed a quarter of Jefferson’s original language and various people, including Jefferson, made eight-six alterations.

Two ventures in applying psychiatric detection, one to Andrew Jackson and one to John Brown, are not very impressive. Jackson’s father died before his son’s birth and Jackson himself had no children. The authors combine his fatherlessness, childlessness, and separation from his mother to explain his attitude toward Indians, “children of the forest,” and downtrodden whites, as well as the “infantile rages” of his adulthood.5

In their analysis of the “madness” of John Brown at Harpers Ferry they depend almost entirely on autobiographical information and hints found in one long letter that Brown, at the age of fifty-seven, wrote a thirteen-year-old boy. It suggests complicated conflicts between Brown and his father. This is said to account for his hatred of slaveholders, another class of paternalistic oppressors. Since Brown has already been revealed as quite careless of the truth, especially about himself, the authors tend to discredit their own evidence. One point they seek to make in the essays on Jackson and Brown is the influence of theory on historical interpretation. That influence is well established, though with adverse results, I believe, in these instances. Albert Einstein may have been right, as they say, that “it is the theory which decides what we can observe.” But he may have been thinking more about physics than about history.

The uses and deceptiveness of unconventional types of evidence in historical detection are beautifully presented, with appropriate pictorial illustrations. Close analysis of two water-color portraits of Plains Indians painted from life in 1833 by the young Swiss artist Karl Bodmer reveals in their costumes and jewelry a global trading pattern extending from Venice and the West Indies through New York, New Jersey, and St. Louis, and from the Spanish Southwest northward through the Ute and Crow tribes to the Pacific coast. Equally authentic-looking portraits are proved to be derivative, not firsthand, and imitative, revealing more about the artists than about their subjects. Yet the authors also show that eyewitness drawings can be as deceptive as eyewitness writings.

Another illustrated essay shows “how deceptive the camera’s claim to mirroring reality can be,” however superior to paintings in recording detail. Behind every camera is a photographer selecting evidence, “framing” the shot, reflecting subjective preconceptions, deciding how a picture “should” look. From Jacob Riis in the Depression of the 1890s to Walker Evans in that of the 1930s, photographers came to their subject with preconceived notions. “The photographic ‘mirror,’ then, is silvered on both sides: catching the reflections of its users as well as its subjects.” The prints, therefore, “must be read by historians as they do all evidence—appreciating messages that may be simple and obvious or complex and elusive.”

Every historian should know that “the whole truth” is a necessary fiction of courtrooms and witness stands, unattainable there and by the historian as well. The courts do not even determine whether the accused is guilty or innocent of a crime, but only whether the evidence assembled by the prosecution meets the minimum standards of legal proof. In a miscarriage of justice—as Davidson and Lytle believe the Sacco and Vanzetti conviction to be—a court may even fail to do that. The main point in their study of the two Italian anarchists is the far greater latitude the historian enjoys over the legal system in weighing and collecting evidence. While the court is properly constrained by rules of procedure and evidence, the historian “gives full play to all aspects of the subject being investigated” and is not obliged to answer “either/or” questions in just one way. To explain why a local case in Dedham, Massachusetts, extended its impact to the nation and all around the world, the historians assemble evidence not only on the defendants but also on the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, the defense counsel. They point to a nation in the grip of the first red scare and a hysterical revival of nativism and xenophobia.

The most complicated and ominous mystery the two detective historians tackle is the decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan. Answers beginning “Truman decided” or “Truman dropped” are set aside as simplistic, however coherent, clear, and human. Such explanations identify an individual with a government—with organizations of scientific, military, industrial, and civilian bureaucracies, each with its own purposes, motives, and points of view—and are built on a “rational actor model.” Instead, the authors propose an “organizational model” that allows for plurality, inconsistency, contradiction, ambiguity, even irrationality of motives, and recognizes the need for compromises. It becomes clear that naval spokesmen urged reliance on a blockade of Japan, diplomats on diplomacy, and that army, air force, and scientists had their own views. The organizational or pluralistic model permits the historian to transcend the viewpoint of the omniscient narrator and take advantage of the novelist’s technique of multiple narrative voices and contrasting viewpoints.

The decision for military use of the bomb if needed was the least controversial. Henry Stimson, Robert Oppenheimer, and Arthur Compton all agreed that this was implicit from the start, “always assumed,” according to Oppenheimer, “at no time” denied, recalled Stimson. Much more controversial were questions of whether and when it was a military necessity, what its effect would be on Russia and Japan, whether a “nonmilitary demonstration” would sufficiently persuade the Japanese, whether a second bomb was necessary, and what—apart from shortening the war—was the real purpose of the terrible action. Conflicting answers to all these questions had powerful advocates. Some answers were easier to accept than others and some ambiguity was inevitable. By abandoning the “rational actor model” and the “single-act” assumption and seeing the series of decisions as an “organizational process,” the historians gain new insights on the complexity of decision making and reveal the momentum of organized bureaucracy moving toward holocausts.

Davidson and Lytle close on a lighter theme, a theme that has both fun and rivalry with two well-known counterparts in journalism, the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The historians acknowledge the similarities and differences between their methods and aims and those of the journalists, and point out the disadvantages and advantages of journalism. The advantages are mainly the possibility of interviewing participants, which historians are normally denied. The rivalry is not over the revelations about the Watergate conspiracy but over the identity of the participants who were the main sources of the journalists’ information. Woodward and Bernstein claimed, of course, that they were obliged to promise their informants anonymity as the price of their cooperation. Presumably the reporters did their best to fulfill their obligation and keep their promises. One consequence of their reasonable success at this has been a great deal of speculation and rumor about who talked and who did not—and in this case the identity of informers is often significant.

Davidson and Lytle concentrate not on the first book, All the President’s Men, an account of largely firsthand detective experiences, but on the second, The Final Days.6 In the latter, Woodward and Bernstein cross over the line into history and reconstruct past events from an “omniscient” viewpoint. In their game of detecting informants’ identity concealed by the journalists, the historians rely on “the evidence that can be deduced from the text of The Final Days alone.” Their method is close contextual analysis and shrewd attention to narrative perspective, syntax, and small tell-tale details, familiar historical techniques they pursue to the limit, but rarely beyond. Their conclusions are that Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig did not talk (even though the latter figures prominently in the text), and that James St. Clair kept his counsel too. The key sources on the Nixon family are identified as David Eisenhower and Pat Buchanan. On major figures and events, “the loquacious J. Fred Buzhardt,” special White House counsel for Watergate, is “a key contributor” and his is “perhaps the most dominant [narrative] perspective of all.”

In addition to telling some fascinating stories and aptly illustrating the historian functioning as detective, Davidson and Lytle are trying to tell us something about the nature of their craft, its range of possibilities as well as its limits, to define its uniqueness among the disciplines, and to convey their enthusiasm for its practice. They neglect to acknowledge along the way that not all their colleagues in the good gray world of archives are fired by detective zeal and that some are content with essential chores of recording and filing. But they do make their point that historians are not “couriers between past and present,” that the past is not history, only the raw material for it, and that history is not inert data or record, but rather something that historians do. They leave no doubt about their zest for the doing.

  1. 1

    Robin W. Winks, ed., The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence (Harper and Row, 1969).

  2. 2

    Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (Norton, 1975).

  3. 3

    Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Harvard University Press, 1974).

  4. 4

    Julian P. Boyd, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton University Press, 1950), Vol. I, pp. 413-433; and Boyd, The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text (Princeton University Press, 1945).

  5. 5

    Michael Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (Knopf, 1975).

  6. 6

    Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Final Days (Simon and Schuster, 1976).

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