“Can This Story Be Told?” The limits – and frustrations – of historical research

“It’s not a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?” – David Grann, 2017.

This quote, more than any other, was my takeaway from seeing David Grann two years ago on a nationwide tour for his new book, Killers of the Flower Moon. This book details a little-known aspect of history:  the murders of several wealthy and prominent Osage people during the 1910s and 20s, murders committed by the whites who were supposed to be working in the best interests of the very Osage men and women (and children) they killed. It’s a gripping story, and I reviewed the book here https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/killers-of-the-flower-moon-a-review/ (along with the experience of being able to see author David Grann talk about it).

But since then, the thing I’ve heard over and over, on countless Facebook pages and discussion groups, is this:  why were’t we taught this in school? 

Well, as a history teacher, I can tell you that one reason is that we have too much ground to cover in class. In an Oklahoma history class? Sure, this should be discussed. In a general survey of US History, however, it’s impossible to cover everything. We want to. As teachers, we want to so much, because it’s these kinds of stories that pique our students’ interest, keep them listening, and might even convince them that history isn’t so bad. The best we can sometimes do, however, is mention them in passing, in support of some other Big Important Topic we have to cover. Then, if students are interested, we can discuss it in more detail, either during class (yes, I will sometimes jettison other things to talk about smaller, but equally important, topics), or after class.

But there’s more to it. As historians studying the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 know, the truth can be buried. It can be buried so deeply, so thoroughly, that bringing it to light is a miraculous thing – if it can be done at all. When people want the truth to be buried, it’s easy to make it happen. Particularly if they are the people in power. And believe me, the people who committed the Osage murders had a reason to bury that truth. So did the perpetrators of the Tulsa Race Riots. But bringing it to light can be done – if the story is there. 

And that’s the question I face now.

As David Grann said, for him, it was never a case of should the story be told; rather, could he tell it? Did the evidence exist? It’s one thing to know something happened; proving it, telling that story, is another. One is easy; the other is not.

Grann was both lucky and good. He walked into the right museum, asked the right questions. He’s a good journalist; he followed his instincts. But he was also lucky – because in this case, the evidence was there. It wasn’t gone, just buried. It was just that no one else had ever asked the questions, followed the leads, gone to the lengths he did to find the truth. No one else had picked up the scattered remnants of this story and pulled them together into a coherent narrative.

But what do you do when, in fact, the truth is gone? Or, at least, you suspect it is?

Right now, I’m simultaneously reading Ron Chernow’s Washington and Alexander Hamilton (my second time). In these books, Chernow is upfront about what we do and don’t know about these men and their lives. We are lucky that Eliza Hamilton made it her life’s mission to collect every document Hamilton ever wrote, to gather as many stories about him as possible, to document his life so thoroughly, that historians have been able to mine that rich lode of information for two centuries. But even then . . . we don’t know the whole story. We don’t know what she burned. What was lost by other people. Likewise, Martha Washington burned most of the letters she and George Washington wrote to each other. What did these two have to say to each other? What insights into their marriage did they provide? What would Washington have told her in confidence that he’d not have told anyone else? We’ll never know. (Soapbox:  STOP BURNING LETTERS, LADIES! WE NED THEM!)

I’m absolutely in awe of the work Chernow did on both of these biographies. His task was downright herculean. From Washington’s diaries, to Hamilton’s letters, to the recollections of Jefferson and Madison and the diaries of others who knew them, he is able to sort and sift through it all to provide us with masterful biographies of both men that also give us insight into all of those around them. The treasury of information is almost bottomless. Like Grann, the story could be told. He had the information. Documents measured not by number of boxes, but by linear feet.

But . . . what if neither Chernow nor Grann had had that?

Historians don’t refuse to tell stories because we don’t care. Ask any historian – we care about everything! But we have to pick and choose our battles. And sometimes – as with the Tulsa Race Riot – the evidence doesn’t come to light for decades. The stories might exist – but the evidence might not. Without evidence, it isn’t history. It’s an anecdote. The problem is, how far do you dig before you accept that the evidence isn’t there? How much evidence is enough – or not enough? Can you tell the story right, if you’re missing key elements?

That is where I am now.

For ten years, I’ve been chasing the ghost of a story. I am, without a doubt, the world’s leading expert on George Kimmel. I’ve spent years tracking down every single court case. All the appeals. Looking at thousands of pages of depositions and testimonies. Reading hundreds of newspaper articles. I know the ins and outs of the cases. I know the theories about his disappearance.

What I don’t know, however, are the people involved. 

There are times when I think I do. When I get an insight into them via their depositions, or their behavior in court, and I think okay, I’ve got them now! I understand this person. And then . . . I realize, when I turn the page, that I really don’t, not at all. I’m not seeing them through their own words and actions. I’m always seeing them through a veil of secondary sources and hidden motives.

I’ve spent so much time tracing their footsteps – the lawyers Bacon and O’Brien, Kimmel’s sister Edna and his mother Estelle and his uncle Charles Johnson, his friends in Niles, Michigan and here in Arkansas City – that it’s easy to think I get this case. That I get all of their motives and know exactly what happened.

After ten years, I can honestly say I don’t have a damn clue about any of it.

Who were they, really? How did they really feel about Kimmel? How did they deal with his disappearance, and the subsequent trials? Where are their letters and diaries? Where are their conversations with others? Where are they in this narrative?

The truth is – they are nowhere. Because I don’t know them. Because I don’t have the very things that would let me know them. Diaries. Letters. Records of conversations. Memories from those who knew them. Things that could clue me in as to their motives. Things that could tell me if my suspicions are on track – or hopelessly off base.

As I said a couple of weeks ago in this blog, when you write history, you have an obligation to your subject and your readers to be fair, honest, and objective. When you haven’t got the sources that would enable you to be those things, how far can you morally go? How do I bring these people to life when they are little more than shadows moving through newspapers, or across the pages of depositions? How do I get at the truth of who they were and what they did?

That is why some stories are never told.

When I started this research, I had no end goal in mind. I just wanted to follow the story and see where it led. And then, as I got deeper and deeper into it, I wanted to know what really happened to George Kimmel on that July night in 1898. And when I did that . . . it changed everything. In part because of all the twists and turns the trials took, I never knew what to make of anyone involved in the case. How, for example, could you possible explain a woman who would sign away nearly $1 million in life insurance money just because her uncle told her to? There had to be more. I had to know why. 

This is not a biography; I get that. This is a mystery story, at heart. But in fiction, we say that there are no plots, only characters that want things. That’s what I’m missing here. It’s like I’m working backwards, precisely counter to where I would start if this was a fictional story. What did these people want? And what were they willing to do to get it? And it brings me, sadly, back around full circle to David Grann’s question:  can this story be told? 

This is the crossroads I find myself at now. Having gone so far, have I gone too far to go back?

Can the story be told – or at the very least, can it be told right? 

I honestly don’t know.

* For more on the Kimmel case and my research into it – including numerous times I’ve had my head meet my desk in frustration! – see these posts:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2018/03/10/when-research-becomes-obsession/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true-part-2/

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