Memory and History: What do we really remember?

“I don’t recall.”

“I don’t remember.”

“If you give me a minute, I might be able to think it up.”

“Not that I can recall just now, no.”

“I refuse to answer that.”

Me:  ANSWER THE F-ING QUESTIONS ALREADY, YOU BLEEPING BLEEP BLEEP!

No, I didn’t travel into the future and bring back the transcript of Donald Trump’s treason trial – though if I had, I’d also (spoiler alert!) tell you he’d been found guilty. No. This? This is a micro-sample of what I encountered this week, slogging through the deposition of the man who claimed to be George Kimmel.

Any wonder why I started writing OMFG on nearly every page?!

If you don’t remember (hah), George Kimmel disappeared without a trace in 1898. For the past ten years, I’ve been researching his disappearance. Why ten years, you ask? Well! See, the case went to trial several times over a decade, because there were several life insurance policies, and because every time one court made a decision, an appeal was filed the next day by the losing side. It dragged on until, I think, 1917 – and part of the reason it dragged on for-ev-er was because of this guy. This claimant. Whose real name I don’t even know.

All I know is, he was NOT freaking George Kimmel.

In the very first episode of the Serial podcast, Sarah Koenig discusses the problem of memory. Can you recall a day six years ago? Ten years ago? Where were you? Who were your friends? Where did you work? Did you work on that particular day? This is often the problem with solving cold cases – or any cases, for that matter. How can you prove that what you think happened, really happened? Today, we could probably check our Facebook pages, or Twitter. But what if I asked you to recall a day before social media? Could you do it?

That’s the problem I face with this case. Some memories are good. Some are not. Some can’t be trusted. Can any of them be trusted? Who’s telling the truth? And that’s why I have to keep an open mind, even when my knee-jerk reaction is to throw everything The Claimant says out the window.

The dude’s totally infuriating. He spent most of his time either refusing to answer questions, claiming he didn’t remember things he bloody well ought to have remembered, or arguing with the attorneys. How many times did he say “I don’t remember,” or some variation thereof, you ask? My best guess is somewhere around 80-90% of the time. The Claimant claimed that it was because he was hit on the head and thus his memory was impaired. Well, he was hit on the head, that’s true. In fact, he wasn’t just hit on the head; from the description, someone tried to take his head off, possibly with an ax. Having read 657 pages of the claimant’s testimony, I am in complete sympathy with that person.

I think anyone who’s seen a few episodes of Matlock would probably join me in saying, after just a few pages, that this guy is a total fraud. Some things, he’s completely lucid and detailed about – for instance, the crazy story he tells about being kidnapped in Kansas City and held hostage in St. Louis. He can recall that with perfect detail. No problem whatsoever. But ask him to identify people in photos, people he ought to know, like his family? He can’t – and won’t – do it. In fact, at one point, the bum even turned his head away and refused to look at them. The things he should know, he doesn’t. The things he does know, are things that were either published in the papers and readily available, or are things that he has made up in his own mind.

And yet. This deposition was taken in 1908 – ten years after George disappeared. Can you remember what you were doing ten years ago? In 2010, I was an adjunct instructor. I was in my first year of teaching for Newman University, and my work load was really picking up. I think that was the year I taught for Butler, too. That was the year I got my cat Angel. But as for specifics? Students in my classes, books I read? You do it. See how far you get. Because I can only give you generalities.

Big ticket items, we tend to remember. I will always know that 2019 was the year I saw Hamilton live. Just like I will always know that 2020 was the year that the entire world went to hell in a handcart. But ask me to get more specific than that . . . and without some frame of reference, I don’t think I could do it. So why do I – and why do these attorneys – think The Claimant should be able to do it?

A proverbial Catch-22.

Do I believe he’s George Kimmel? No. Absolutely not. For starters, they look nothing alike. See here:

side by side photos - Newspapers.com

The one on the left is The Claimant. The one on the right, George Kimmel. The nose, the eyes, everything is different. Even their eye colors are different! The Claimant has gray-blue eyes; Kimmel, dark brown.

If I didn’t know this story as well as I do, if I hadn’t read hundreds of newspaper articles and studied the earlier trials, I might be swayed by his arguments. I might say, “But look! He knows all of this stuff! And of course the men who kidnapped him are going to keep quiet about it!”

BUT. I have to admit, there are moments that give me pause. Things I can’t quite explain away – except by remembering that The Claimant is a con artist, and this is a con.

For starters, he clearly lived in St. Louis at some point, or was being fed information about the city by one of the lawyers, for he could pinpoint streets and intersections and locations that actually did exist in 1898. And there are other things, things that aren’t quite as well known, things he would either have to know, or have to have learned from someone. In the deposition, for example, he finally says that his grandmother’s names are Desire (pronounced, I believe, Desiree, but spelled Desire in the parish register and in his testimony), and Ethelina. Seriously, NO ONE could make those names up! And what about the fact that he says (after a great deal of back and forth and refusals) that his paternal grandfather lived on Hickory Lane – and he did? 

Those are the kinds of things that throw me for a loop, every time.

I want to get to the truth. I want to remain unbiased. But I’m not. No historian is, not really. No writer is. I have never known what to think about this story. I have never truly been able to form an opinion about what happened to George Kimmel. I have half a dozen theories, each as realistic and probable as the others. But what I do not think is that The Claimant is him. I believe he’s nothing more than a con artist. A good one, but a con artist nonetheless. Because this is how con artists work. Pick out a few key, important details . . . stand fast behind a facade of “I don’t have to prove anything to you,” and “I don’t remember” . . . and voila! You’re someone else, and no one can quite prove you’re not – especially in an age where fingerprints weren’t even in use yet, and DNA, for all we knew, didn’t even exist. (In case you’re wondering, fingerprints were actually first used to solve a crime in 1892, in Argentina. But in America, the first case that used them to convict someone wasn’t until 1910.) And even if someone had thought to use fingerprints – where could they have gotten a sample of George’s? By 1908, when this deposition was taken, all of his belongings were back in Niles, possibly in storage, possible destroyed, possibly scattered. There was no way to control that sample. No lawyer worth his salt would have allowed that into evidence!

Which, I had to remind myself repeatedly by page 400 or so, was precisely what the claimant was doing. Wear down the lawyers. Wear down the family. Wear down the idiotic historian who decided 100 years later to become obsessed with the case. You know. This is what con artists do. 

And yet . . .

Even I can’t quite shake the doubts.

 

If you’ve never heard Serial before, OMG, where have you been? A link to Season One:  https://serialpodcast.org/season-one

For more information on that first case of fingerprint use, see:  https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-bloody-fingerprint-elicits-a-mothers-evil-tale-in-argentina

And for more information on the first American case:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/first-case-where-fingerprints-were-used-evidence-180970883/

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