I asked historians what made them say, “Wait, wut? »Here is a taste of the hundreds of answers
Often times when historians visit archives or conduct research, we don’t know exactly what we’re going to find. With the help of archivists and librarians, we can know globally what is contained in an archival record or database, but we never know what may or may not be of use to us. By approaching our research material with a particular set of questions or an analytical framework, what we actually find may leave us surprised, confused, or bewildered in some other way.
On Twitter I asked a simple question: Historians, what made you say “wait, wut?” »In the archives or in your research? The response has been overwhelming – over 300 responses and 450 quotes from tweets at last count.
Historians, archivists and other researchers have come in contact with great stories of their archival finds and tales of bizarre research moments. These ranged from the eccentric to the disturbing to the deep.
Below I have chosen a handful that fall into each category to give an idea of the wide range of what historians have encountered in the field.
Many of those who responded told stories of bizarre (and sometimes funny) discoveries in the archives. Some were real objects, like Robert Cribb’s discovery “17 tubes of processed opium, ready to be smoked, in the Dutch archives from 1946 in Indonesia”, Daniel McKay through “negatives of a naked Australian prime minister on vacation”, and “300 love letters from woman to woman circa 1760, partly written in blood”, located by Susanne Wosnitzka.
Others have found an interesting match. AJ Bauer gave the example transcripts of sex phone calls in the Ronald Reagan presidential library, after a politician wrote to Reagan to speak out against “dial-a-porn.” Yasmin Dualeh discovered a “letter from Professor Phillip Hitti calling on his Princeton colleague Albert Einstein for spreading false rumors about him to students.” Maurice casey spoke of a letter written to Soviet leader Josef Stalin by a New York University debate team “seeking help with their next debate on capitalism”.
Stranger stories have emerged from newspaper articles and speech transcripts that historians have uncovered during their research. Xesc Mainzer mentioned a 1970s story in a Mallorcan newspaper of “an elderly Belgian woman loser [sic] her dentures when she bit a policeman’s leg ”. In the Presidential Gerald Ford Library and Museum, Dustin Jones “I came across a speech given by John Wayne at a charity dinner that Ford also attended, making one of the least accurate predictions I have seen in my studies.” What was the movie actor’s prediction? This “Watergate will be a footnote” in future history books.
Historians have also attested to disturbing material that amazed them in their research, with the often bureaucratic and sterile nature of the archival documents believing the troubling question unearthed.
Lachlan Clohesy found notes of a presentation by British nuclear physicist Sir Ernest Titterton on Australia’s potential nuclear arsenal. This speech “included stressing that if we had nuclear weapons, the cost of death per man, woman and child would be less than conventional war.” Clohesy added that Titterton’s notes included actual prices.
On a similar subject, Stephen Schwartz found that US Army Lieutenant-General James M. Gavin told Congress in 1957 that to win a nuclear war, the United States would need 151,000 nuclear weapons. Still on the subject of the calculation of deaths, Grandpa Roswaldy met a Dutch colonial magazine promoting the relocation of indigenous lands to Indonesia in the 1930s (which resulted in a number of deaths) and reporting that an officer allegedly said: “The number of deaths is just correct, nothing unusual.”
There were also more horrific discoveries. Gabe Moshenska said to find a description by the famous Egyptologist Sir John Gardner Wilkinson of “his own sick penis” in Thomas Pettigrew’s papers at Yale. Narrelle Morris mentioned an encounter at the National Archives of Australia with “a rusty razor with which a suspected Japanese war criminal attempted to kill himself”, stating: “I brought it to the attention of the archivist.”
There were also the surprising discoveries which were of particular importance to historians and to our understanding of the past. Becky Erbelding of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum fell on the only known photos of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in Auschwitz-Birkenau, when a photo album was sent to the museum.
Peter Job spoke about a document that Indonesian intelligence provided to an Australian diplomat in Jakarta in 1975. This document, Job explains, was a list of members of Fretilin, the independence group in East Timor, which was to be targeted after an Indonesian invasion. Job maintains that this “[s]how is the level of complicity before the invasion “by Australia.
For Adam Rothman, it was an 1866 US Senate report on “rumors that newly freed people in the United States were kidnapped and sold as slaves in Cuba and Brazil.” This led Rothman to write an entire book based on this achievement.
Other historians have also revealed that a chance discovery led them to new research projects. For example, Anna hajkova heard about the story of a forced relationship between a German guard and a young prisoner during the final year of WWII. Intrigued by a tale from an oral history recording, Hájková developed this story into a groundbreaking work on queer history.
These are just a few of the many stories people have revealed in response to my tweet. When we research the past historians are often confronted or surprised by what we come across. Some results may be fun treats on our research side. Others greatly alter our knowledge of certain events or people.
Almost every historian has a thought-provoking research discovery story and, via Twitter, we got to hear about so much.
Evan Smith, history researcher, Flinders University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.