Historian Forges the Past, Perhaps Permanently

A strange and sad story from the National Archives broke today: National Archives Discovers Date Change on Lincoln Record.

Washington, DC…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. The pardon was for Patrick Murphy, a Civil War soldier in the Union Army who was court-martialed for desertion.

Lowry admitted to changing the date of Murphy’s pardon, written in Lincoln’s hand, from April 14, 1864, to April 14, 1865, the day John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. Having changed the year from 1864 to 1865, Lowry was then able to claim that this pardon was of significant historical relevance because it could be considered one of, if not the final official act by President Lincoln before his assassination.

NARA made an excellent short video of the discovery:

I think that NARA is handling this potential scandal exactly right by getting it all out into the open and making it a teachable moment. Over at Civil War Memory (where I became aware of this story) in the comments section Kevin Levin wonders how many subsequent historians have used this falsified document in their description of Lincoln's last days. With Google Book Search we can begin to answer the question. Lowry published his research based on the faked document in a 1999 book Don’t Shoot That Boy: Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice. In Google Books I did a search for lincoln + pardon + "patrick murphy" restricted from 1999 to 2011.

As you see there were only three hits, and one of those is Lowry's book. One of the others is Joshua Wolf Shenk's respected Lincoln's Melancholy. Shenk actually uses the false anecdote that Lowry created to offer a poignant counterpoint to Lincoln's pending assassination on the last page of the last chapter:

It is a wonderful piece of historical writing and it is a shame (and no fault of Shenk) that it is not true. Edward Steers makes similar use of the story in his 2005 book Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. "Murphy's case travelled all the way from California through the tangled military bureaucracy to reach Lincoln's desk on April 14," Steers tells us. "Lincoln studied the file and picking up his pen wrote, 'This man is pardoned and hereby discharged from service. A. Lincoln April 14 1865.' Patrick Murphy would live."

This search through Google Books is not definitive--due to copyright most recent books are available only in snippets and sections from the service and others are not available at all. Probably other recent books use the story as well. The sad thing is that now this story--doomed president granting life to a condemned soldier, only to be himself assassinated hours later--will never go away. It is in print and online, and there is no mechanism for recalling or correcting the thousands of copies of the above books. Though training and peer review should keep it out of future academic biographies, other people will find the story and repeat it in History Day presentations and seminar papers and popular biographies. Long after the disgrace of Thomas Lowry is forgotten, his rewriting of our history will endure.