Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Compounding a fraud

By now, many or most of my readers, I'm sure, have read of the scandal surrounding Lincoln historian Thomas P. Lowry. There are several online articles detailing how Lowry admitted, earlier this month, to falsifying a date on an Abraham Lincoln soldier pardon in the National Archives from 1864 to 1865. Lowry was able to claim, therefore, that the pardon "dated" the day of his assassination was likely one of the president's last official acts. The "find" garnered recognition for Lowry, elevating his status, and was hailed by the National Archives as an important Lincoln find. Rather than further detailing the sordid affair, you can read about the subsequent revelations here:

Saratosa Herald Tribune
Washington Examiner

A Google search of Lowry's name is starting to show several hundred newspaper articles that have picked up the story.

The National Archives has also released a video detailing the crime, which can be viewed here:

National Archives Video

Lowry, according to the articles, is now compounding his crime by blaming others. Even though Archives officials have a hand-written, signed confession to the deed by Lowry, he is claiming that he only wrote and signed it so that the investigators would "leave him alone" and that an Archives staffer likely changed the date. The statue of limitations on the crime (seemingly done in 1998) has run out, so besides the fact that Lowry's claims seem on the surface to be an obvious bald-face lie, it needs to be explained how Lowry could claim that he was "coerced" into signing the confession. So he's blaming Archive investigators, Archive staff, and even to a certain degree his own wife Beverly, who he claims originally found the pardon.

In his confession, the Archives state, Lowry snuck a quill-style pen into the reading room one day in 1998, took out the pardon, and after somehow slightly erasing Lincoln's own hand-written date of 1864 and changed the 4 to a 5. Lowry further states that he changed the date to that of Lincoln's assassination so that he would be recognized and lauded for finding what would seem to be an unusually historically significant document. Lowry based much of his resulting book, "Don't Shoot That Boy," on the document. As a result, he was able to secure publishing contracts for futher books, get numerous speaking engagements, and even a History Channel show based on the book in which he was the main talking head.

As my friend Eric Wittenberg states, it is hoped that Lowry's actions for his 15 minutes of fame have turned out to be worth it. Eric and many other fellow bloggers have picked up and commented on this tragic story. In addition, Facebook and chat boards are burning as the story circulates.

I spoke with Eric and other fellow historians and authors on the phone yesterday and last night, and the common thread in our conversations was how horrified we were by Lowry's actions and subsequent denials, but also by how out of character it is for the vast majority of historians. I have been fortunate to handle historic documents in my research - never a Lincoln-signed document however - and I have always been in awe of them. When I've been able to hold a document written/signed by Civil War icons such as Lee, Grant, Chamberlain, etc. and the hundreds of letters and diaries by the grunt soldier, it never fails that the hair goes up on the back of my neck. Lowry's crime has left a stain on the historical community and on all of us, because his utter lack of respect for the historical record is simply unfathomable.

Besides the respect that is owed by anyone who handles such documents of historic significance, we as historians/authors owe it to our readers, and the historic record itself, a high standard that can never be compromised or taken for granted. All of us historians and authors are sickened by this event, perhaps even moreso than in the cases were people have stolen items from the Archives or have been found guilty of plagiarism. All are reprehensible, but Lowry's actions are the worst of the worst. And all in the name of recognition and the building of a false career.

Rather than keep up his ploy of deny and divert, we can only hope that Lowry comes to his senses and reclaims a sliver of his dignity by admitting to his deed. He can't be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations - his prosecution has come from the historical community - but most folks are willing to give a measure of forgiveness to those who repent. Lowry has shown that such forgiveness has no importance to him, as little importance as he showed to the Lincoln pardon by altering it.

Lowry has spent his 15 minutes. And he's spent any amount of respect and forgiveness by blaming everyone but himself. Lincoln is recorded as having said, "History is only history if it is the truth."

Perhaps in his studies Lowry has seen that statement, and perhaps one day he will actually take it to heart.