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US National Archives says historian tampered with Lincoln pardon
January 24, 2011 6:49 PM   Subscribe

Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero announced today that Thomas Lowry, a long-time Lincoln researcher from Woodbridge, VA, confessed on January 12, 2011, to altering an Abraham Lincoln Presidential pardon that is part of the permanent records of the U.S. National Archives.
posted by gyusan (87 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
WHOA!
(and not to derail, but Rahm's people should hire that guy.)
posted by CNNInternational at 6:51 PM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


This throws everything into question.

I'm not even sure any more if Lincoln was really that tall.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:55 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


LOL at the detail shot of the year change. No shit, someone altered that?
posted by 2bucksplus at 6:55 PM on January 24, 2011 [8 favorites]


@Joe Beese
Question really is if he was 6'4 or 6'5.
posted by CNNInternational at 6:57 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe it was actually broads, words and a pot.
posted by ND¢ at 7:01 PM on January 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


No shit, someone altered that?

And it took them 12 years to figure this out!
posted by axiom at 7:05 PM on January 24, 2011


Wow, as an archivist, I've got to say that this guy is a total asshat.

Maybe the National Archives need to do a better job of making sure people don't bring pens into the reading room. That's kind of Archiving 101, ya know.
posted by elder18 at 7:09 PM on January 24, 2011 [22 favorites]


The pardon conspiracy didn't end there. It went all the way to Richard Nixon!!
posted by Senator at 7:11 PM on January 24, 2011


Have they found the pennies or yet?
posted by I love you more when I eat paint chips at 7:12 PM on January 24, 2011


"Lowry, a retired psychiatrist...." That's the detail I needed to understand. You master some people's reality, you think you can master everyone's, I guess.
posted by eegphalanges at 7:12 PM on January 24, 2011


Maybe the National Archives need to do a better job of making sure people don't bring pens into the reading room. That's kind of Archiving 101, ya know.

Serious question: what's a 78-year-old like Lowry to take notes with in such a situation, if not with a writing utensil, presuming he doesn't use a laptop?
posted by killdevil at 7:13 PM on January 24, 2011


a lot of times these sorts of documents have changes to them made at the time - someone began writing something, got it wrong, wrote over. It's not like they had white-out. So an apparent change might seem unimportant.

of course, it's not as important as a document I found in the archives: I found a document that said that this seventeenth century guy was fishing where he ought not to be, and the authorities got mad at him, and he kept on fishing there.

yep, that's what history is made of. exciting, isn't it.
posted by jb at 7:14 PM on January 24, 2011 [8 favorites]


'Fixed that for you' has always been the preserve of the irritating sods.
posted by Abiezer at 7:18 PM on January 24, 2011 [16 favorites]


killdevil: pencils, lovely pencils.

Ink is forbidden from archives not because the archivists are paranoid the researchers will run around changing dates, but because pens leak or spill or ink can transfer from your notes to the originals. Some archives also ban erasers, because the rubbings can get the documents dirty.
posted by jb at 7:18 PM on January 24, 2011 [10 favorites]


"… and I see no way in which the defendants can ever succeed unless they can somehow prove that the deed in not a forgery. This is the whole story. The case cannot be gained by much talking." Personal reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Thomas Lowry.
posted by unliteral at 7:28 PM on January 24, 2011


So does this mean Larry King has to go back to jail?
posted by briank at 7:29 PM on January 24, 2011 [7 favorites]


Wow, that is so wrong.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:29 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


He who controls the past controls the future.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:39 PM on January 24, 2011


should have used #666666 instead of #333333 son!
posted by nathancaswell at 7:52 PM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Sandy Berger tried something like this.
posted by republican at 7:57 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Archives has banned Lowry from its facilities.

He's banned from my house too. I also think he should lose his metafilter account.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:00 PM on January 24, 2011 [15 favorites]


What bugs me is if he had been just a little bit more careful about testing out different inks ahead of time, he very well apparently would have (completely insignificantly) changed history.
posted by floam at 8:07 PM on January 24, 2011


At least until the day we run all the papers in the entire archive through some sort of automated system using cameras and UV light and magnets and shit to look for funny stuff.
posted by floam at 8:09 PM on January 24, 2011


It also goes without saying that his career as an historian is pretty much over - his book is now so much trash, and anything citing his work is now suspect. He built a moment of celebrity on a cheap fraud, and then waited until he couldn't be prosecuted for it to confess?

I find myself actually angry - not merely appalled, but angry - at his actions. It's hard enough to get access to primary sources, but to have the temerity to actually deface one, then build a friggin' career on that defacing, is the height of arrogance.
posted by FormlessOne at 8:10 PM on January 24, 2011 [18 favorites]


Hurrah for archivist Thomas Plante! That was a mighty fine piece of palaeography there.
posted by Flitcraft at 8:12 PM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


I always knew Lincoln was gay.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:19 PM on January 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


What bugs me is if he had been just a little bit more careful about testing out different inks ahead of time, he very well apparently would have (completely insignificantly) changed history.

Well, maybe. He wasn't caught just based on the ink, but rather the fact that there were secondary records confirming the original 1864 date. At some point those would have been correlated, even if the ink was a perfect match, because that's how historians do.
posted by muddgirl at 8:25 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


At least he didn't stuff the original down his pants. People like this make it that much harder for other researchers to get access to originals.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:25 PM on January 24, 2011


Calling Screw-on Head! Come in, Screw-on Head....
posted by SPrintF at 8:33 PM on January 24, 2011 [10 favorites]


Wow, as an archivist, I've got to say that this guy is a total asshat.

We need more asshats like him. A fucking researcher alters a primary text, the archivist digs until he gets the guy to confess, and you're calling him an asshat?

I'm calling him brilliant. Except for forgetting the "stab repeatedly in face" part for damaging a primary text. It's a shame we can't charge him, but statute of limitations is too important. Bannination may be the best we can do -- that, and utterly destroying his reputation as a historian.

I hope they can significantly recover the original date. I presume there's a note attached to the file that says the primary text was altered in the 21st century, and the original date was 1864.
posted by eriko at 8:36 PM on January 24, 2011


Rarely do I read a story on the blue that leaves my mouth hanging open, but this one did. I hope that every professional group he's ever belonged to or that has honored him makes a point of ejecting him and stripping him of his awards in addition to the banning from the archives.
posted by immlass at 8:55 PM on January 24, 2011


elder18 what do you have against Lincoln....and pens?
kidding
posted by clavdivs at 8:57 PM on January 24, 2011


It's not really stated in the story, but the mention of nonfade ink and the obvious discrepancy shown in the picture probably means that the original ink faded over the past X years and his didn't.

Faded, perhaps, due to the public displays brought about by HIS ALTERATIONS DUN DUN DUUUUUUN
posted by unixrat at 9:05 PM on January 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


fuck yeah science, intrigue, and truth
posted by localhuman at 9:10 PM on January 24, 2011


> Calling Screw-on Head! Come in, Screw-on Head....

It makes more sense when you link to it
posted by mrzarquon at 9:12 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do archives cryptographically sign documents at the point when they digitize them, to make them much more tamper-proof? It just occurred to me that it could be a pretty big oversight if we're not doing that.
posted by XMLicious at 9:19 PM on January 24, 2011


A fucking researcher alters a primary text, the archivist digs until he gets the guy to confess, and you're calling him an asshat?

eriko, I think you've seriously misread elder18's comment. The person being called an asshat is the person who defaced the document.
posted by mediareport at 9:19 PM on January 24, 2011


Also, Lincoln's beard was drawn on with a Shaprie.
posted by robotot at 9:20 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Update:
[Lowry] said he was pressured by federal agents to confess.

"I consider these records sacred," he said in an interview Monday at his Woodbridge home. "It is entirely out of character for me. I'm a man of honor."

His wife, Beverly, said the change was made by a former Archives staffer, a charge the agency denies.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:23 PM on January 24, 2011


Wow, just wow. If the statute of limitations has passed, can I suggest that the IRS audit his tax returns to see what other falsifications he's perpetrated.
posted by arcticseal at 9:37 PM on January 24, 2011


This throws everything into question.

I'm not even sure any more if Lincoln was really that tall.


Actually, the National Museum of Health & Medicine (the Smithsonian's unwanted bastard child) will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Lincoln's corpse.
posted by schmod at 9:40 PM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


I did a Google Books search on books published after 1999 (when Lowry's book came out) and discovered two important Lincoln works by reputable scholars that accepted his altered document at face value. Joshua Wolf Shenk's respected Lincoln's Melancholy uses the pardon as a dramatic device to frame the last hours of Lincoln's life in the last two paragraphs of the book--a powerful piece of writing but (as it turns out) not true. And god knows how many articles and documentaries picked up on the story, which has a dramatic power.

I blogged about what I found out here.) I can link my blog in the comments, right?)
posted by LarryC at 9:43 PM on January 24, 2011 [7 favorites]


Yes that's fine Larry, and that's some impressive research.
posted by Mister_A at 9:57 PM on January 24, 2011


Some discussion of previous Lincoln-related fraud.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:14 PM on January 24, 2011


Just another desperate ploy from Confederate time travelers.

That'd be my defense.
posted by klangklangston at 10:16 PM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Do archives cryptographically sign documents at the point when they digitize them, to make them much more tamper-proof? It just occurred to me that it could be a pretty big oversight if we're not doing that.
Seems like whoever tampered them could just re-sign their tampered version.
posted by delmoi at 10:43 PM on January 24, 2011


Seems like whoever tampered them could just re-sign their tampered version.

They would need to have the private key to do that and you usually don't just leave the private key lying around. (Or the private keys used to sign documents as they're digitized could be destroyed on a regular basis, in which case it wouldn't even be possible to re-sign the document with the correct key.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:55 PM on January 24, 2011


Confederate time travelers on Kamino.
posted by clavdivs at 11:05 PM on January 24, 2011


I don't care about the statute of limitations. If there is any such thing as a crime against humanity, this is it. He has not only defaced some small portion of the record of an American president, but significantly harmed the cultural notion that we can learn from the past to give us guidance in the present and the future.

Imagine if the Library of Alexandria were an arson job, but then there were a much less sever version of that charge, primary source manslaughter. That is what he is guilty of. Unfortunately, we will never muster the societal outrage about this that we can about a 30 year-cold murder case, even though it has perhaps a more lasting impact.
posted by LiteOpera at 2:54 AM on January 25, 2011


1865
posted by fire&wings at 2:59 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, I don't think they should restore the document. It is no longer simply a primary source of 1864, and is now one that give unique insight into the year 1997 in American historiography. As long as they make note of the false date, and the name of the man who defaced the document, it should go back into the archives as it is, but not in the Lincoln collection. They have another copy of the order, so this shouldn't be a hardship for Civil War historians, who will probably have this citation memorized after this ordeal anyway.

As they say in the Post article, this should not just "[become] on of many pardons that Lincoln signed." It should be preserved as an example, so that this man's name sits alongside Benedict Arnold as one of the great villains of American history.
posted by LiteOpera at 3:01 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Benedict Arnold, sir? Truly? The rediscovery of the true date alters nothing in our understanding of Lincoln's character. It simply removes a layer of dramatic, melancholy irony from the events on the day of his death.

As oppossed to Arnold's betrayal, which risked the lives of many soldiers and whose entire aim was tanking the American war effort in the Revolution.

Your man's career as a historian is fucked and ought to be. But somehow I think it'll take about a 100,000 episodes or so before they run through all the worthier candidates and he turns up on an episode of History's Greatest Villians.
posted by Diablevert at 3:34 AM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


If there is any such thing as a crime against humanity, this is it.

No, it is not. By making that assertion, you dilute the meaning of the phrase, which is commonly used to refer to acts that kill or maim large numbers of human beings. You're talking about a piece of paper, for pete's sake. No actual humans were damaged - let alone slaughtered - in the commission of this act.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:45 AM on January 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


Is this the guy that wrote those sick notes from Epstein's mother?
posted by planetkyoto at 3:56 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


They should have known something was up when Lowry was reluctant to allow other researchers access to the document, saying it was "still wet."
posted by milkfish at 4:09 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wait until the truth that his name was actually Babe Lincoln and he was a she comes out.
posted by srboisvert at 4:27 AM on January 25, 2011


I'm usually the last to promote a surveillance state but I don't understand how of all places, a reading room in the National Archives doesn't have recorded video monitoring. You can't take away writing or other note-taking equipment and I feel like ANYTHING can potentially be dangerous. I fail to see how you can have to do anything--ANYTHING-- in one of those reading rooms where you need or should assume privacy.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:02 AM on January 25, 2011


Babe Lincoln? Please tell me rule 34 does not apply here.
posted by bashos_frog at 6:33 AM on January 25, 2011


Wait until the truth that his name was actually Babe Lincoln and he was a she comes out.

No, no, no. We of the Illuminati know that his name was actually Aperaham Lincoln and he was a shaved gigantopithecus, the wisest of the cryptids.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:50 AM on January 25, 2011


Because of asshats like this, the Archives in DC has completely changed their entrance/exit policy to be a complete pain in the ass (almost on the level of what you have to put up with at US airports these days) in order to try and protect against this kind of crap. (As well as trying to deal with the douchebag who stole a bunch of stuff before he retired.)

Disclosure: I volunteer with CWCC at the Archives in DC.

posted by sperose at 6:53 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Given all of this material, and the access the public has, one of the biggest problems will always be insider thefts. The problem of the employees of the archives taking valuable objects and keeping or selling them. The Government Accountability office recently issued a report on the National Archives after items had gone missing. Lost items include the Wright Brothers patent for the first airplane, Eli Whitney's patent for the cotton gin, a copy of President Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech, as well as target maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
National Archives maintains a publicly available page listing lost and stolen items.
posted by zamboni at 7:16 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


So everyone took the word of the self-promoting amateur historian when he "found" this bombshell document -- scholars citing it in books, archivists including it in "VIP tours" (whatever they are) and exhibitions, but nobody bothered to double check the extant Civil War pardon records in the Lincoln scholarship until the 5 failed to fade? There's a lot of intellectual laziness on view here, something I find nearly as egregious as the alteration itself.
posted by Scram at 8:07 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


...the change made it look as if Lowry had discovered a document that was perhaps Lincoln's final official act before he was assassinated that evening at Ford's Theatre.

My God! This means that Abraham Lincoln is... STILL ALIVE!
posted by steambadger at 8:09 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, I guess this just goes to prove what everyone always says; "history is written by the guy with a pen."
posted by quin at 8:12 AM on January 25, 2011


I could've told Mr. Lowry he'd eventually be caught. It's inevitable. I altered a high school report card once. Changed an "F" to a "B" (what other choice is there?). Got caught. His mom is gonna be pissed.
posted by VicNebulous at 8:24 AM on January 25, 2011


I'll have to watch out for Lowry, Thomas citations.

also, historians...
posted by fuq at 9:36 AM on January 25, 2011


>> If there is any such thing as a crime against humanity, this is it.
>
> No, it is not. By making that assertion, you dilute the meaning of the phrase

So is there such thing as a misdemeanor against humanity?
posted by jfuller at 9:55 AM on January 25, 2011


"It is entirely out of character for me. I'm a man of honor."

PROTIP FOR YOUNG MEFITES: Any man who uses the line "man of honor" to describe himself is not only a pompous gasbag, but almost certainly a dishonest and treacherous pompous gasbag. It's an unintentional alarm to the wary: "HEY, UNTRUSTWORTHY SMUG DICK OVER HERE! OVER HERE!"

It's actually kind of impressive how often this snide axiom proves accurate.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 10:01 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interesting discussion in the comments here among Lincoln historians about the forgery, including at least one board member of the Abraham Lincoln Association and the director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln collection at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
posted by catlet at 10:16 AM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Great link, catlet. I think that discussion really puts into perspective why this isn't really a "crime against humanity." We sometimes like to think of history as something fixed to the existing historical record - that falsifying one document changes the tapestry of history; of course, it's much more complicated than that - more like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that won't ever fit together. One false piece won't ruin the whole work, and hopefully eventually it will be discarded.

More like science, on a philosophical level, than storytelling.
posted by muddgirl at 10:22 AM on January 25, 2011


Lowry is now denying he's the forger. Claims the investigators *forced* him to confess. (Just an aside here... these were "Investigative Archivists" not FBI agents, OK?) Meanwhile, Lowry's wife insists it was an archives staffer who created the forgery. Va. historian denies tampering with Lincoln pardon Ugly business, this.
posted by sally_j at 11:01 AM on January 25, 2011


Uncool, dude. Your library privileges have been revoked.
posted by Zed at 12:20 PM on January 25, 2011


PROTIP FOR YOUNG MEFITES: Any man who uses the line "man of honor" to describe himself is not only a pompous gasbag, but almost certainly a dishonest and treacherous pompous gasbag.

IMPORTANT EXCEPTION: If the man who says this is standing twenty paces away and you are pointing pistols at one another, it's okay.
posted by steambadger at 12:33 PM on January 25, 2011


No, it is not. By making that assertion, you dilute the meaning of the phrase, which is commonly used to refer to acts that kill or maim large numbers of human beings.
And I merely suggest that such heinous crimes (genocides and the like) are not crimes against humanity as a whole, but crimes against large numbers of humans. The willful destruction or defacement of historical primary sources is, by contrast, something that is a crime against humanity as a whole.

I apologize, but I had forgotten that random people on the internet didn't know about my pet peeve with calling genocides, massacres, human rights violations, and other seriously evil things by this name. You'll notice I didn't compare it directly to the holocaust or any actual, bonafide "crime against humanity" by the consensus definition of the phrase. The only direct comparison made was to the burning of the library at Alexandria, and that this was to note that it was a similar but much less severe crime.
posted by LiteOpera at 1:32 PM on January 25, 2011


The only direct comparison made was to the burning of the library at Alexandria, and that this was to note that it was a similar but much less severe crime.

Falsifying one document to get some press to sell your already-ahistorical book on Lincoln - a book that is only cited by other non-academic writers - does not seem to me to be even in the same universe as burning down the Maverick Branch of the San Antonio Library. From catlet's link:
Most members of the “community of scholars” simply don’t pay attention to Lowry’s work. His major audience remains a far more general public. I’d never heard of this claim until the news broke that it was false. No one asked me to authenticate the claim: I’d never heard it discussed, and I’m a member of the board of directors of the Abraham Lincoln Association.

The Lincoln assassination is a subset of Lincoln scholars, and there are a lot of people who don’t study Lincoln except for the assassination. You assume all this was broadcast at the time, and that it was a “big deal.” It wasn’t nearly as big as you think. It was unknown to me. Frankly, if it happened today, online communities would be on the issue in a moment, as they were on the famed letters of transmittal regarding the Corwin amendment.
Emphasis mine
posted by muddgirl at 1:41 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't want to argue about how you read my comment. I think it's clear, especially now that I've clarified it, but you may not. "Takes all kinds..." and all that.
posted by LiteOpera at 2:14 PM on January 25, 2011


I don't want to argue about how you read my comment.

Fine: Let's talk about the statements made by Brooks D. Simpson, a noted Civil War Historian and member of the board of directors of the Abraham Lincoln Association. Do you think his estimation of the severity of Lowry's offense is inaccurate?
posted by muddgirl at 2:17 PM on January 25, 2011


I'm saying that I agree with you about the severity of the crime. It's not that serious, in the scheme of things. And that, by the way, has nothing do with any expert opinions. Just because it would be quashed by the blogosphere hive mind in today's world doesn't mean it's insignificant. It's insignificant because he didn't hurt anybody or cause any permanent loss of data, not because a director at the American Lincoln Association said so.

The other implication in that quote is that, because it wasn't "academic," it really really doesn't matter. That's bupkiss. Academic journals do not shape publlic perceptions of reality. Pop-history, like what comes off the end of this guy's pen, actually does, to an extent. Not to the same degree as a historical movie or television series. Most people know more about the French Resistance via Hogan's Heroes than they do from The Unfree French.

What I'm saying here is this: we don't disagree. This is nothing, in the big scheme. Stealing from the jelly bean bin in the bulk aisle is like looting conquered lands for priceless cultural and artistic artifacts to take home as spoils, but not anywhere even close to as bad. This is probably somewhere closer to shoplifting a nice pair of gloves or something.
posted by LiteOpera at 2:36 PM on January 25, 2011


I guess I'm just confused, then, as to why Lowry is a "great villain". He doesn't seem any worse to me than a novelist who writes a false memoir, or a forger who tries to pass off a fake painting. That's what this really is - a poor but unimportant forgery.

I don't think the point is that academic books are more important than pop-history books (although I think a good pop-history book should of course be based on academic research), but that in the scheme of Civil War researchers Lowry is a small fish in an incredibly crowded pond. Reading his short autobiography here I get a certain sense of who he is as a person - fascinated with historical minutia but perhaps he misses the big picture, as he must have done to think this forgery would go undetected.
posted by muddgirl at 2:47 PM on January 25, 2011


This will go on his permanent record.
posted by Capt. Renault at 3:57 PM on January 25, 2011


Lowry said he signed the confession because the Archives agents said "it would never be publicized" and that he would not face any consequences. "They promised that if I agreed to make a confession, they would just leave me alone."

And he agreed to that? Instead of calling a lawyer?
posted by mediareport at 5:04 PM on January 25, 2011


And I merely suggest that such heinous crimes (genocides and the like) are not crimes against humanity as a whole, but crimes against large numbers of humans. The willful destruction or defacement of historical primary sources is, by contrast, something that is a crime against humanity as a whole.

There is a legal definition for "crimes against humanity," which contains no mention of defacing historic documents. In fact, according to that Wiki page, the first use of the term was at the end of WWI, in reference to the Armenian Genocide. I do not think your peculiar definition is going to gain much traction.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:05 PM on January 25, 2011


I think this is why Jessamyn got her sheriff's badge.
posted by arcticseal at 7:31 PM on January 25, 2011


Op-ed in today's NYTimes on the Lowry fraud.
posted by catlet at 7:40 AM on January 27, 2011


I think this is why Jessamyn got her sheriff's badge.

What's even cooler than a librarian?

A librarian with a gun. "Drop the knife, grangerist!"
posted by Zed at 10:14 AM on January 27, 2011


"Don't make me get all Dewey on your ass."
posted by arcticseal at 6:31 PM on January 27, 2011


Not sure if this was already posted in the thread, but the Washington Post was able to get the Archivist of the US to sit down and answer questions about this shitfuckery.

May require free registration, IDK
posted by sperose at 1:56 PM on January 29, 2011


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