“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” – Zora Neale Hurston
Fun fact: research can also be a slow slog through half-frozen mud three feet deep, while a light sleet coats everything.
But Zora Neale Hurston is right about one thing: research IS about curiosity. It’s the curiosity that keeps you going. No one has to research anything. Just ask Trump supporters. But for some of us, there is a deeper need to know. An itch about something that won’t leave us be. Benjamin Franklin, wondering how electricity is conducted. Louis Pasteur, wondering if there was a way to keep milk safe. That random weird guy, thousands of years ago, who looked at an oyster and thought, “Hell, yeah, I can eat that!”
Of course, sometimes that research becomes quicksand. You take a step off into it and . . . suddenly, you’re sucked in, with no end and no rescue in sight. You’re curious – you’re burning with it, in fact – and so you have to dig . . . but in the digging, you uncover more than you thought.
Truthfully? It sort of becomes your neighborhood dealer. That initial thing, that first question, was the freebie. We did a little digging, and we found something! Suddenly, we’re excited, because we think we’ve hit the jackpot. So we go back. We dig deeper. We get sucked in. The research starts to say, Hey, good to see ya! Back for more? Sure. Ah, but this time, it’s gonna cost ya. Cost what, we ask? Time. Effort. Frustration. (Yes, at times, actual money.) Your sanity, too.
At some point, the doubts start to manifest. Sure, you found something, and it was fun. But it didn’t answer your question. Or worse, it only spawned more questions, which you must answer . . . By the time we realize we’re in too deep, it’s too late. We wake up one morning and realize that initial question, that first mystery . . . that was the gateway, my friend. Now, there’s no escape.
“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
Whenever I talk to people about my research into George Kimmel, the inevitable question is: how did you find out about this? I explain the story of seeing those little tidbits in the newspaper, those dozens of clippings that littered my desk for months and months, the fact that those clippings eventually weren’t enough. Those were my gateway, those tiny scraps of mystery that begged and enticed and mocked. Others saw the same thing. But I was the only one who followed them.
I’m currently reading a book by Australian historian Shane White called Prince of Darkness. It’s about Jeremiah G. Hamilton, the first African-American man to become a millionaire on Wall Street – and he did it in the 1800s. I’ll review it when I’m done, but one reason I picked it up was because of the extensive research White had to do. Like me, White stumbled across his subject almost by accident. His subject, like mine, left almost no written trace of himself; we know our respective subjects not from what they said, but from what others said about them. There are no other biographies to rely on, no other secondary sources that mention him. Hamilton moves in the shadows of New York in the 1830s and 40s, a man walking between two very distinct worlds, fitting into neither. George Kimmel – at least, the more I dig and the more I discover – seemed to do the same.
So how do you write about them?
In fact, this is the very question White asks himself in the introduction to the book: “Is it possible to recover the story of someone who, for well over a century, became all but invisible?” (7)
And it’s the very question I ask myself almost on a daily basis.
White, at least, does have quite a lot of primary source material in Hamilton’s hand; letters and articles he wrote, court cases he was involved in, testimony he gave. He knows how he spoke and wrote; he can extrapolate some ideas about him. Me? Not so much. I am seeing Kimmel completely through the eyes of others – and everyone involved in this case had something to hide.
For instance: George built a grain elevator and mill here in Arkansas City. They existed. Of that, I have no doubt. I have a newspaper article in which George is looking for stone masons to build the foundation. There are advertisements in the papers. It existed, it operated. I know it did. But the insurance company claims that this was nothing more than a dummy corporation to cover up George’s illegal speculating on the grain market. And the men who served on the company’s board all testified – later – that they didn’t think it was a real corporation; they invested no money in it, and recalled no meetings. Yet it did exist. And in the very next breath, they testify that George made money from it. I’ve even discovered advertisements for the elevator published months after George disappeared – advertisements made in the names of the very men who denied its existence.
Here’s the thing: You don’t advertise something that doesn’t exist. You certainly don’t advertise a business that doesn’t exist, in a small town, where you are a well-known and respected man.
So what do you believe?
Sometimes, historians try to determine what someone may have done based on what kind of person they were. With George Kimmel, this simply doesn’t work, because I don’t know what kind of person he was – because I can only see him through the eyes of others.
When I read the affidavits and testimonies, I get two ends of a spectrum: on one end, friends and family; on the other, the insurance company. According to his friends, he was social, friendly, honest; a good businessman; loyal to his friends and more devoted to his mother and sister and uncle than almost any other person on earth; the kind of man who could never, ever leave them without a word. According to the insurance company, George was a consummate con artist – a charming, sly embezzler and forger who got in over his head and orchestrated his own disappearance. An 1890s Neal Caffrey, if you will. And while it is possible for a man to be devoted to his family and a con artist . . . where, along this spectrum, did the real George Kimmel lie?
And, if I keep going, can I find out?
When you study someone at a distance, you may never know them, not really. Historians spend two years, five years, maybe eight years, researching a particular topic, a particular person, and never feel they get the entire story. There’s always a curtain of distance and history separating us from them. Thanks to the newspapers and their intrepid reports, I have a better idea of what some of the other key players were like. They’re described at the trials. I can see their reactions in the transcripts.
But for George, I have none of this.
So when I doubt my ability to find the truth, I have to fall back on curiosity. It was curiosity that got me in too deep to back out, after all. And hopefully, curiosity will keep me in the game.
https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2016/wall-streets-first-black-millionaire-shane-whites-prince-of-darkness – More information about Shane White and Prince of Darkness. Yes, White is Australian!