Monday, January 24, 2011

National Archives Pardon "Scandal"

One of the problems any serious researcher of Abraham Lincoln is keenly aware of is the difficult task of separating fact from fiction. Lincoln had his critics, more than willing to misrepresent the general situation in order to slander their target. But he also had (and continues to have ) overly enthusiastic admirers, individuals who not only defended him against the critics, but who were also more than a little willing to fabricate the record for the purpose of making Lincoln look better (more witty, more wise, more kind, more merciful, more understanding, etc.) than he actually may have been. In 1999, David Kincaid and I noted:
As with any dimension of Lincoln scholarship, sifting fact from the fiction can be a formidable task. Apocryphal tales abound of pardons issued minutes before hangings, and convicted youths fighting and dying valiantly after receiving a pardon from the Commander-in-Chief. Many such stories are facially dubious and have little corroborating evidence. "Inside Lincoln's Clemency Decision Making." 29 Presidential Studies Quarterly 84-99 (Winter 1999).
Now, the National Archives reports that 78-year old Thomas P. Lowry, a longtime "Abraham Lincoln researcher," has been caught "telling a big lie about Honest Abe." A "big lie?" Wow! Those are big words! What was the lie? The Washington Post reports Mr Lowry:
has acknowledged that he used a fountain pen with special ink to change the date on a presidential pardon issued by Lincoln to a military deserter, making it appear that Lowry had uncovered a document of historical significance. Specifically, Lowry changed the date of the pardon from April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865. The Archive said 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.
A date is a date. But how anyone discerned (or pretended to discern), from a document that was merely dated, that it might represent Lincoln's "final official act" is quite difficult for us to grasp. Nonetheless, the Post reports Lowry's "purported discovery" - thirteen years ago - was "hailed by historians," placed in a prominent display and he was credited with having made "a unique and substantial contribution to Lincoln research and to the study of the Civil War." Holy Schnikies!

Such enthusiasm invites disappointment at so many levels!

In this case, the party spoiler was one archivist, Thomas Plante, who was troubled by the fact that the number '5' on the clemency warrant (pictured above) appeared darker than the rest of the document, and was perhaps covering another number (like a "4"). Indeed, when he checked the document against other sources that were available to him, Plante concluded the date should have been 1864 (Plante, incidentally, gained a measure of fame with his own, unrelated, Lincoln "discovery").

It is reported that, at that point, Mr. Lowry, a psychiatrist, signed a written "confession" admitting to violation of the integrity of the Lincoln document - a federal crime - his weapon of choice being a Pelikan pen. But it is also now reported that Lowry denies the allegations against him, claiming that he was "pressured" for two whole hours to confess by federal agents (while wearing his bathrobe no less). Either way, he is banned from the Archives "for life."

Prosecution is not expected - the statute of limitations being 5 years. But, of course, it would be just too good if President Obama were to grant a pardon to the poor fellow! See Post reporting here and here.

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