“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/

Advertisements

When Research Becomes Obsession

missing ad 2If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that one of my obsessions is with a disappearance that occurred in 1898 – that of George Kimmel.

And it is an obsession. I freely admit that! For about ten years, I’ve tried to discover what really happened to this guy. Here’s the bare-bones of the case:

  • On July 29, 1898, Kimmel took school bonds to Topeka, deposited them, and then went to Kansas City.
  • On July 30, Kimmel checked into the Midland Hotel. He withdrew precisely $530.20 from his accounts, got into a cab . . . and disappeared.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve got. After  that, there are at least five different options. Sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Sadly, at least three of those options end with Kimmel being murdered on or just after July 30, 1898.

Okay, there’s more. I didn’t tell you about the fact that Kimmel had worked with his uncle, Charles Johnson, in Niles, Michigan, at the First National Bank of Niles, or that Johnson asked Kimmel to come to Arkansas City, KS (my home town) to become cashier at a bank Johnson managed here. I didn’t tell you that Johnson was later found guilty of purposely failing and defrauding banks, possibly to cover gambling debts. I didn’t tell you that somewhere along the line, someone – Kimmel? Johnson? – insured Kimmel’s life for nearly $30,000. (In today’s terms, this is hard to convert, but is somewhere between $850,000 – $970,000. In short, the guy was insured for nearly a million dollars.)

And I didn’t tell you about the court cases – three of them – to decide if Kimmel was alive or dead, because I didn’t tell you that in 1905, a man in Matteawan Asylum in New York suddenly announced that he was the missing George Kimmel.

And then . . . It never ends! That’s why I have to take so many breaks from this research, because it literally never freaking ends!!!!! I’m a historian. I’ve done loads of research. Written loads of papers. None of it ever prepared me for the sheer lunacy of this project.

What makes it more difficult is that I’m sort of feeling my way in the dark, on several levels. First – I don’t have colleagues who care about this. I teach at a community college. What that means is that my colleagues don’t do research. It’s not even encouraged by the administration. So when people come into my office and see the big pages tacked to my wall that have calendars and bubble charts and a Who’s Who of confederates and allies and possible suspects . . . they just sort look past it, like it doesn’t exist. I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. I’m not sure if they resent that I am doing it, or if they are afraid of guilt by association, or if they’ve finally cottoned on to the fact that I’m a bit of a freak. But it’s hard not having anyone to bounce ideas off, to brainstorm with, or just to commiserate with. I hate that. A lot.

It’s not just that the research itself is difficult, although it can be. Documents disappear – sometimes accidentally, sometimes purposely. For example, I discovered that if a case did not go to appeals, all supporting documents, testimonies, evidence – everything! – was discarded when the case was over. So although I had the summary and sentence for Charles Johnson (for failing the Niles bank), I had nothing else. Whatever evidence was entered into the record, whatever he might have said on the stand that may have shed some light on my own mystery – it’s all gone. Nope. That’s tough enough to deal with. It’s also the fact that every single time I turn on my computer, look at the court documents, read the newspaper stories, it all changes. 

Questions never get answered. Literally. Questions. Never. Get. Answered. They just beget more questions! I’ve been researching this, off and on, for years, and every single time I pick it up again, I find new things that put a new spin on what I’ve learned before, or take my research into a totally different direction. It’s not a cut-and-dried thing, and I keep wanting to put a ‘villain/victim’ spin on it, like we would in fiction. But I can’t. Every stone I turn over reveals a new clue, something else that changes how I see this case. For instance:  did Charles Johnson pay off Kimmel’s debts and hide the fact that he was missing because he was covering up crimes of his own . . . or because he was trying to protect a wayward nephew? Two days ago, I would have absolutely told you the former. No question. But after reading some testimony last night, I’m no longer so sure.

Yet another reason for the long breaks!

The obsession is tough. I’m following in the footsteps of a very good lawyer, a man named Ed O’Brien. Every single suspicion I’ve had about Kimmel’s disappearance, he had. Every single question I have asked, he’s asked. I find myself staring at the charts on my wall, trying to piece it all together, wondering if O’Brien ever did the same. Wishing I had access to his private notes, his papers, anything he might have collected about the case. Sure that the answer might be in there. Somewhere.

But there’s other things about it that make me – hesitant.

For starters, I am never immune to the fact that these were real people, and they have real descendants somewhere. Well, George doesn’t, not direct descendants, anyway. But his sister does, and Charles Johnson does. One of the potential main players, Robert Snyder, was a major figure in Kansas City. How can I even begin to talk to them about the things I need to ask? “Hey, I’m researching your great-great uncle’s disappearance. I suspect it might have something to do with your very corrupt great-great-great uncle. Can we chat?”

Yeah. Probably not.

And again . . . part of the problem is simply that . . . the documents, I highly suspect, simply don’t exist. Even things that should exist, I haven’t been able to locate. For example, Johnson hired the Kansas City branch of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate. But those records have evaporated. They are not housed with the official Pinkerton Archives at the Library of Congress. No one can tell me where they are. Did they get submitted as evidence, and misplaced? Were they destroyed? I’ve no idea. I also have yet to locate Johnson’s deposition, which should have been taken in 1905, while he was incarcerated. There’s no way O’Brien wouldn’t have done that. But where IS IT????

I can’t explain why this case obsesses me so much. But I need to figure it out, because I’ve been asked to present on my findings in May.

If they want answers . . . I’m afraid they’re going to be as frustrated as me.

 

For more on my research into George Kimmel, see these posts:

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/

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

 

 

 

The Dangers of Minimalism (to a historian)

I adore The Diane Rehm Show. Not only does she always have interesting and timely topics to discuss, but she has the most fascinating guests and panels.

Today’s topic was Minimalism. I didn’t get to hear the entire story, but I heard one short bit that REALLY freaked me out. See if you can guess why:

The guest practices minimalism – the art of decluttering. Living with as few possessions as possible. I’m all for it. I’m a bit of a ‘collector’ myself, but if you can do it, more power to you! Of course, most of mine is vintage and antiques, stuff for my online shop, and things that have personal meaning. They admitted that it’s hard to get rid of those kinds of items but you should – take photos of important things like report cards, awards, and personal letters and then throw them away.

Yeah. Now you see why I got a bit upset.

Look, I get that everyone’s different. I understand that to some people, inheriting a house full of cool stuff is the worst thing that could ever happen to them. That they may feel zero connection to the boxes of newspaper clippings, letters, photos, journals and memorabilia in the garage or attic.

photo 1But PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. Don’t throw it away.

I’m a historian. Right now, I can tell you that the story I’m working on – the Kimmel case – may never get solved to my satisfaction because key players in the case threw stuff away. Admitted it on the stand. Of course, that’s a bit different – that was more about self-preservation than decluttering – but the fact remains that there will always be those holes in my research because those primary sources burned more than a hundred years ago. Think how much more heartbreaking it would be to find a treasure trove of sources – only to find that they had been thrown out just days before I discovered their existence!

I love antique shops. Haunt them, really. I’m always amazed by the family histories I find there. The photos, especially. Most of them have no identification, no names or locations; I can well imagine that after a generation or two, no one has any idea who those people were. But once, someone did.

Trust me. Those family Bibles and old letters and photographs and advertisements and whatnot may not seem very important to you, but they are important. To someone. Maybe your kids, or your grandkids. Or maybe to someone like me. There’s loads of people out there who collect vintage and antique photographs. Who collect vintage letters and other things you may want to throw away. AND VINTAGE CLOTHES. NEVER, EVER THROW AWAY THE FREAKING VINTAGE CLOTHES. PLEASE.

So what can you do with them besides take them to the dumpster? Here’s some ideas:

  • Call your local historical society and see if they’re interested (I bet they are!).
  • Call your local antique shop and see they’ll take things on consignment (they often do, or they might just make you an offer then and there for it).
  • Contact a local historian. Every town has at least one. They might not pay you anything, because they’ve got to store it, but if all you’re going to do is throw it away anyway, so what?
  • Call the history department at your local college or university. It’s a long shot, but there could be a historian there who can give those items a good home, or knows someone who can. Often, historians at universities are interested in research into that town or area.

Please. Stop throwing away your family’s history. Maybe you don’t want it – but someone else might.

And if it’s got anything to do with George Kimmel, Edna Kimmel Bonslett, John Boone Swinney, Andrew J. Hunt and his wife Margie, or Charles A. Johnson of Niles Michigan, PLEASE, I WANT IT! 🙂

A link to the story:  https://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2016-07-28/the-lure-of-minimalism

 

When a Historian’s Dream Comes True, part 2

For the first time in a LONG time, I’m not teaching face to face classes this summer. And after the year I’ve had . . . yeah. Let’s just say it’s better that way.

But it gives me the chance to catch up on things I’ve had to abandon this year, and one of those is my research into my nonfiction historical project. I’ve written about this before (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/ , https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/), but to recap:  about 10 years ago, I started to read in our local paper’s ‘100 Years Ago Today’ column about a man named George Kimmel, who disappeared from my home town of Arkansas City in 1898, and then mysteriously reappeared some eight years later . . . or did he? At the time, no one was quite sure if the man who claimed to be Kimmel was really Kimmel or not. And the testimony from the trials didn’t make it any clearer.

I spent days photographing some 3,000 +/- documents from just one of the trials, and some of the things that I found astounded me. I thought I had a good handle on the case and on who Kimmel was, and how things would turn out. Turns out, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

This week, I started on the testimony of a man named John Boone Swinney, who was a surprise witness in the 1911 trial. And when I say surprise, I mean full-blown, people popping out of cakes with machine guns, kind of surprise. See, before Swinney, everyone assumed that what ‘Kimmel’ said was true:  that he’d been kidnapped from Kansas City, taken to St. Louis, and beaten up. He then lost his memory and had only recently regained it. But Swinney came in with a totally different story, one that for most, put that entire St. Louis story out to pasture permanently.

But this is what I love so much about this case. Every single time I go back to it, there’s a surprise. Not Easter eggs; Easter bombs. 🙂 I’m not finished with Swinney’s testimony – I have more than 200 pages to print and read – but I’ve already got two pages full of notes of things I have to chase down.

I think what I love most, though, is that through this testimony, I can see the trial. Hear these people. I know precisely what kind of gun Kimmel was carrying (a 32 caliber designed by Otis Smith, if anyone cares). I’ve even laughed out loud in a couple of places – for example, Swinney said he was in Utah, ‘doing nothing’ and staying in hotels. Of course, I’m thinking in the back of my mind:  Wait. You’re a part-time farmer, you’ve been convicted of attempted railroad robbery . . . um . . . where was the hotel money from again? The attorney must have wondered the same thing, because he finally asked:

“What were you doing?”

Swinney:  “Nothing.”

Attorney:  “Well, did you commit any train robberies out there?”

Swinney:  “I – at least, I wasn’t charged with any.”

I’m so mad at the attorneys, though!!!! So many places where I want to go back in time and beat the crap out of them! I want to know what the hell happened to George Kimmel. That’s it. I want to know. So when I see testimony like this:

Q:  “Well, how long did you talk with him there?”

A:  “Maybe he was there half an hour. He told me to take this (valise) and meet him . . .”

Q:  “I didn’t ask what he told you; how long did you talk with him there?”

SERIOUSLY????? You can’t wait FIVE BLOODY MINUTES for this guy to tell us WHAT WAS SAID BETWEEN THE TWO OF THEM???? He never does let Swinney tell what Kimmel told him. So I have no idea – yet – why Kimmel was brought in on this ‘treasure hunt’ or what was said between them or why he was convinced to go. I have my suspicions, but as of yet, nothing to back them up. Very frustrating.

Another frustrating thing, for me, is the knowledge that I’m dealing with real people here. Yes, they are all dead now, but – in Arkansas City history, men like Albert Denton and A.J. Hunt are practically paragons. One of the men Swinney incriminates in his treasure hunt story is R.M. Snyder, a banker in Kansas City – and yes, another freaking paragon. What do you do? How do you reconcile what I think they did in 1898 with what they did later?

I’m hoping, in cross-examination, that the other attorney will let Swinney tell more about his interactions with Kimmel. Because so far, this bloody idiot has led us through 20 pages of Swinney being part of an attempted robbery in Oklahoma and a bunch of other crap that has no bearing whatsoever on George Kimmel. I still have about a hundred pages to go. So here’s hoping!

Man. I am so glad I don’t have any classes this summer. 🙂