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Startling Lincoln Discovery Exposed as Fabrication

What a difference a digit makes. Back in 1998, a retired psychiatrist named Thomas Lowry made a splash when he claimed that he had found a pardon in the National Archives issued by Abraham Lincoln on the day the president was shot, April 14, 1865. Lowry made an even bigger splash recently when the Archives announced that he had altered the last number in that date from a “4” to that “5.” Officials at the Archives called this the first known instance of tampering in their collection.

Historians were stunned by the news, not least because Lowry made his name through the supposed discovery. The document was featured in a National Archives exhibit; Lowry was included in a symposium at the Library of Congress; he wrote a 1999 book (Don’t Shoot That Boy!: Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice) about this pardon and other court-martial decisions by Lincoln. “I was one of many who had a high opinion of him,” says noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, “as one of the most indefatigable researchers in the country.”

Starting in the late 1990s, Lowry and his wife, Beverly, began scouring little-explored army court-martial records from the Civil War—and created a valuable database for other researchers. “They literally came every single day, sometimes all day, for years,” says Trevor Plante, an Archives expert on old military records who became increasingly suspicious of the slightly darker “5” on the pardon Lincoln issued to California infantryman Patrick Murphy for desertion. Searching other sources, Plante learned that Murphy had been pardoned in 1864.

Plante turned his findings over to the inspector general’s office at the Archives, and early this year two investigators went to Lowry’s home, where he signed a confession that he now says was coerced. “I finally gave in, I think, to get them out of my house,” says Lowry, who paid for a lie-detector test that he says supports his innocence. Ross Weiland, assistant inspector general for investigations at the Archives, denies coercion, adding, “I don’t know why you would confess to something you didn’t do that would have such an immediate effect on your reputation.”

Big Dig Uncovers Boston Brothel

The infamous Big Dig project in Boston took a very long time and a lot of taxpayers’ money to reconfigure roadways in the city—and one byproduct of the work has been a greater insight into life in a 19th-century brothel. Archaeologists funded through the construction budget found a trove of very personal items in a privy used for trash disposal by a thriving house of ill repute. Many of the objects, now being studied by Boston University archaeology students, had to do with hygiene: toothbrushes, bits of tooth powder, vaginal syringes and traces of copaiba oil, a natural remedy used to treat everything from ulcers to sexually transmitted diseases.

Pie Safes Get Some Respect

Forget about the Great Man theory of history. What about the pie safe? In the middle of the 19th century, when baked goods needed to be ventilated to prevent mold but enclosed to keep away bugs and other critters, nearly every household had one of these cabinets (a k a food safes). Jeffrey Evans, an auctioneer and antiques expert in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, has launched a two-year project to study his region’s dominant type, in which punched-tin panels allowed air to circulate. Over time, safes began to reflect a growing interest in aesthetics—holes in the shape of George Washington, for example, to commemorate his 100th birthday—and the dispersal of craftsmen and regional motifs show the profound influence of better transportation. “It’s not just a piece of furniture,” says Evans. “It’s a story.”

Secret Civil War Message Uncorked

Call it a double dose of doom. A message in a tiny sealed bottle at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., was known to have been sent to—but never received by—John Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, Miss., on July 4, 1863, the day the city fell to the forces of Ulysses S. Grant. But the actual message remained a mystery until curators recently determined that the bottle could be unsealed without destroying the tightly wrapped paper within. When the crudely coded message was deciphered, says curator Catherine Wright, “I’m sure the look on my face was priceless.” The beginning—“SEAN WIEUIIZH DTG CNP LBHXGK OZ BJQB…”—translated into: “Gen’l Pemberton, you can expect no help…”

Lost Books From Jefferson’s Personal Collection Found

A cache of books that were among Thomas Jefferson’s personal effects when he died in 1826, has surfaced unexpectedly at Washington University in St. Louis. The 74 volumes, part of a collection of 1,600 auctioned in 1829 to help pay off his massive debt, include architecture books, with Jefferson’s notes in the margins, that influenced his designs for the University of Virginia, as well as Aristotle’s Poetica, which may have been the last thing he read. The books were purchased at the auction by Jefferson’s grandson-in-law Joseph Coolidge and donated to the university in 1880, but sat unidentified until researchers at Monticello stitched together clues from various sources. “Oh, my goodness,” says one of the bibliographic detectives, Endrina Tay. “This is huge.”

Telltale Evidence Shows Man Bites Dog

If life gives you paleofeces, make paleofecal soup. That’s what University of Maine graduate student Samuel Belknap III did, and when he screened the rehydrated, 9,400-year-old human you-know-what, there was a small skull fragment from the oldest domesticated dog found in the Americas. Belknap, who works in the school’s Climate Change Institute and department of anthropology, was analyzing 30 stool samples from Texas as part of his research into the human diet, and this fragment—about the size of the tip segment of a pinkie finger—was lodged within an intact sample. That means, unquestionably, that the pooch was not just man’s best friend, but also dinner.

Presidential Pawns ID’d

As a passionate devotee of chess—known to play four-hour games with Thomas Jefferson—James Madison would probably enjoy the gamesmanship of the recent discovery of two pawn fragments at his Montpelier estate. The identity of these ivory bits was only captured 16 years after they were unearthed on the mansion grounds, eluding experts en passant (in passing), who speculated that the treasures might be bobbins. But as part of a recent move to refurnish Madison’s residence, a new gambit was executed: looking specifically for misidentified items that might turn out to be pieces. “We reassessed the collection,” says Matthew Reeves, Montpelier’s director of archaeology, “and we saw them.” A period set that closely resembles Madison’s was purchased and put on display. In the world of historical artifacts, it definitely pays to check and check again. Sometimes, it leads to mates.

Abigail Adams Mounts Up

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names recently approved the naming of a 5,335-foot summit in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range for our second first lady, Abigail Adams. The peak—formerly known as Adams 4—is near Mount Adams (named after her husband), Mount Quincy Adams (her son) and Mount Sam Adams (her husband’s second cousin). That leaves nearby Adams 5 awaiting a proper family name.


Originally published in the June 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here