When a (historian’s) dream comes true

For six years, I’ve been obsessed with a story that I first stumbled across in my local paper. We have a “100 Years Ago Today” segment, as many papers do, and I started to read about this particular case that had occurred. In 1898, a man named George Kimmel had disappeared without a trace. Eight years later, a prisoner in New York suddenly told the wardens that he was Kimmel . . .

Reading the little 2- and 3-sentence tidbits in the paper made me curious, and I started going to the library and giving myself migraines with the microfilm. (Seriously, people. Microfilm sucks. Give me 100-year-old newspapers any day.) Curiosity moved swiftly into obsession. Was the guy in New York really Kimmel? And if not . . . what had happened to him?

As I said, the case went to trial numerous times. Here’s a tip:  doing research on cases that are not part of the online Archives database is HARD. Particularly if some things are held in one place, and some things are in another . . . I nearly gave up several times because even though I had the case file numbers and names, I couldn’t locate the files. Honestly, I started to think that they’d been lost or destroyed long ago.

But then . . . I found them.

And I spent yesterday at the National Archives in Kansas City, laying eyes and fingers – for the first time ever – on a set of papers I’ve searched for for two years. Seeing them sitting there in their archival boxes, so neat and tidy — it was a surreal moment for me. They gave me the rules — only one box and one folder on the table at a time, no gloves (not for paper documents), no pens, no feeding the documents after midnight — and left me to it.

All the names I’ve become familiar with for the past six years were there. Bacon, the lawyer. Edna, the sister. Denton, the local bank teller. Swinney, who threw a monkey wrench into the entire thing. Subpoenas. Depositions. My God, the depositions! Entire books of depositions. I was trying very, very hard not to cry sometimes because really, crying in an archive and getting their papers wet is not a good thing. But then I pulled out one last deposition — and actually had to turn around, because I was afraid I would cry.

As a historian, there’s a moment where, when you’re researching someone, it becomes real. They become real. When I researched David Rice Atchison a few years ago, that moment was when I was looking at his diaries on microfilm and there, at the top of one page, in his elegant scrawl, was My daughter Molly has gone away to college today . . . This big man, who had been a Senator, who had led the Border Ruffians against Kansas, who had fought in the Civil War, who had owned slaves, suddenly became real to me in that one sentence. His heartbreak and his pride were clear, even across the distance of more than a hundred years.

So even though I’ve been working with this particular case for 6+ years, there was always a veil between me and these people. I’d been reading about them mostly in the old newspapers, and truthfully, I’d begun to think that it was all made up. A story fabricated – and then syndicated – by someone who needed to make a buck or two.

But then I picked up that last deposition and saw the handwritten notation on the front. “Deposition of Geo. Kimmel, taken at Auburn State Prison, 1908.” That’s the moment, for me, that it became real. That I could finally lay to rest the fears that this was fiction, that I would never find the truth because none of it was true. Kimmel’s the central figure in this incredible story, and whether he really gave that deposition in 1908, or whether it was someone just claiming to be him, is part of what I have to discover.

So in the next two weeks, I get to go back at least twice — I’m guessing three times, so please, little Saturn, make the trip! — and photograph and catalogue the entire thing. Yeah. All three boxes, and 2,500 +/- pages. I don’t know yet what will be important and what won’t.

This story has haunted me for so long. But finally, I’m going to know the truth.

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