Unsolved History

Unsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the Past

JOE NICKELL
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 192
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jct1g
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  • Book Info
    Unsolved History
    Book Description:

    What constitutes historical truth is often subject to change. Joe Nickell demonstrates the techniques used in solving some of the world's most perplexing mysteries, such as the authenticity of Abraham Lincoln's celebrated Bixby letter, the 1913 disappearance of writer and journalist Ambrose Bierce, and the apparent real-life model for a mysterious character in a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Nickell also uses newly uncovered evidence to further investigate the identity of the Nazi war criminal known as ""Ivan the Terrible.""

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2856-6
    Subjects: History, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 INTRODUCTION: History and the Investigative Approach
    (pp. 1-5)

    Man’s view of history—the world’s significant past events—does not remain static. Just as science came to discredit the theory of geocentricism (the belief that the earth is the center of the universe) and to acknowledge the truth of reports that stones fell from the sky, so it is with historiography (the writing of history):¹ One generation’s dubious legend may become another’s accepted historical fact—and vice versa.

    Take ancient Troy, for example. That citadel of Asia Minor had been made famous by Homer’s epic poem,The Iliad, which related how the Greeks besieged Troy to rescue the beautiful...

  5. 2 ANCIENT RIDDLES: The Mystery of the Nazca Lines
    (pp. 6-17)

    Mysteries beckon from the distant past. Time has typically obscured the contexts, erased the links, removed the ancillary evidence that would allow us to comprehend ancient events fully. What remain are fragments, pieces of puzzles to be solved.

    Often that is quite literally the case. Archaeologists expend much time in assembling pottery shards, sifted and sorted from an ancient site, into restored pots and other artifacts—rather like working jigsaw puzzles in three dimensions. From such restored jars, bowls, or other items, the archaeological detective can identify a particular culture, since each is characterized by its own distinctive style of...

  6. 3 BIOGRAPHICAL ENIGMAS: Ambrose Bierce Is Missing
    (pp. 18-33)

    Biography—or life history—is not only important in its own right, but it can also function as an essential element of a larger historical view. (How complete, for example, would be our comprehension of the Civil War without the attendant biographies of presidents Lincoln and Davis, of generals Grant and Lee?) In either case, an investigative approach is likely to return the greatest dividends.¹

    Even so, Leslie A Marchand could scarcely have anticipated the wealth of unpublished biographical materials he would uncover when he set out across Europe in the late 1940s “following Byron’s trail.” They ranged from “innumerable...

  7. 4 HIDDEN IDENTITY: Unmasking a Nazi Monster
    (pp. 34-50)

    An offshoot of biographical investigation—a significant one deserving special treatment—comprises cases to which a matter of identification is central. However, there are varying types of “hidden identity” and varying degrees of difficulty in exposing them.

    Whimsical impostures are often inadvertently exposed. For example, young Deborah Sampson (1760–1827), prompted by a desire for adventure, assumed a false identity as Private Robert Shurtleff and served bravely for a year and a half in the Continental Army until being hospitalized with a fever, which resulted in her unmasking. Honorably discharged, she soon married, raised three children, and published a narrative...

  8. 5 FAKELORE: Swift’s Lost Silver Mine
    (pp. 51-68)

    Although it is true that “the historian tends to think mainly in terms of documents,”¹ it is also true that he or she must frequently rely on other sources, so-called oral history being one important example. Oral history is information based on interviews with persons who have direct knowledge of historical events, as when Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus, in the fifth century b.c., interviewed the survivors of wars they were chronicling.² As oral history expert Willa K. Baum puts it, “The way of life that was characteristic of an earlier America is rapidly disappearing, but there are persons still...

  9. 6 QUESTIONED ARTIFACTS: D. Boone Riddles
    (pp. 69-89)

    Artifacts (products of human workmanship) are tangible survivals of the past. Both prehistoric artifacts (such as Stone Age tools) and historic ones (like spinning wheels or millstones) can help fill gaps in man’s knowledge. States one writer:

    History, the total story of mankind, comes to life for us when we can see and study the treasures man has left behind in his journey through time. The word “treasure” usually evokes images of jewels and gold and silver plate set with precious stones, or ancient chests bursting with coins, pearls, or uncut diamonds. Yet the smallest finds uncovered on an archaeological...

  10. 7 SUSPECT DOCUMENTS: Lincoln’s Bixby Letter
    (pp. 90-105)

    However true the old saw that imitation is the sincerest flattery, something more is usually at stake when it becomes blatant forgery—resentment and greed perhaps, as prompted the spurious letter by the king’s bastard son inLear.¹ Shakespeare would himself be victimized by the crime, becoming probably its greatest target. As the late Curtis D. MacDougall, author ofHoaxes, wrote: “It is natural that the biggest names should be those most often forged, and the best work that most frequently plagiarized or stolen.”²

    Works bearing Shakespeare’s name, but which are now regarded as of doubtful authenticity, appeared in his...

  11. 8 LOST TEXTS: Cooke’s “Missing” Edition
    (pp. 106-117)

    In addition to questioned writings, another category of document-related problems the historical investigator frequently encounters is that of lost texts. Bytextis meant the wording or words of something written or printed or even voice-recorded. Texts of one kind or another represent the essential foundation upon which knowledge of the past is constructed.

    A text may be “lost” in any of numerous ways. It may be destroyed, as by fire, or be hidden in some manner, or rendered unintelligible, faded, or otherwise difficult to read by the passage of time. The restoration of texts involves a variety of approaches...

  12. 9 OBSCURED SOURCES: Hawthorne’s “Veiled Lady”
    (pp. 118-131)

    A history can only be as accurate as its sources, for if they are incomplete, biased, or spurious, then any view predicated on them can scarcely be otherwise. Therefore, source study is a frequent activity of the historical sleuth.

    Consider, for example,The Horn Papersof western Pennsylvania historiography.¹ Largely “transcriptions” of alleged diaries of Jacob and Christopher Horn that were since “lost,” they were a veritable mine of information. They yielded valuable data on ordinary settlers as well as on leaders—like Christopher Gist and Jonathan Hager—of the western movement, filling in many important gaps in those persons’...

  13. 10 SCIENTIFIC CHALLENGES: Pseudoscience and the Shroud
    (pp. 132-144)

    Scientific analysis, not itself a genre of historical mysteries but rather a body of technology applicable to many different genres, is indispensable to the investigator. Quite often it can be a deciding factor in resolving some important historical question, as suggested in previous chapters.

    Microchemical analyses, for example, can be useful in questioned-document cases. As well, they are used to determine what pigments and binding media were used in paintings, and for many other identifications.¹

    Emission spectroscopy is another technique used to analyze materials when a tiny amount can be spared. The sample is heated to the glowing point, and...

  14. 11 AFTERWORD: Some Lessons Learned
    (pp. 145-148)

    The foregoing chapters by no means constitute a complete list of kinds of historical investigation. Another, for example, would bedating—determining the age of documents, texts, artifacts, and the like. Still other categories of mysteries readily come to mind. One would be determining relationship, as in the case of the paternity of a man born out of wedlock in 1862. One fact, gleaned from a thorough search of county court records—that he had been given an entire farm at age sixteen—seemed to point to the father. So did proof that the grantor had other children out of...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 149-169)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 170-179)