Spinning Lincoln? How about outright fraud?

January 28th, 2011

Just when we thought we might adjourn our five article discussion on not spinning the civil war, we have this sad, just revealed document forgery down at the National Archives to tweak our conversation. And the deed was allegedly done to boost and enhance a wanna-be historian’s ambition for scholarly acclaim and wealth.

In 1998, Woodbridge, Virginia author Dr. Thomas P. Lowry and his wife “discovered” a presidential pardon for deserter Pvt. Patrick Murphy, who had been sentenced to death. The document, signed "A. Lincoln" and dated “April 14, 1865,” would be proclaimed as one of the last–if not the last–official documents signed by the president. It was preserved in the National Archives in a collection of papers rarely consulted. Lowry, a retired psychiatrist and amateur historian, was credited at the time with discovering this poignant, humanitarian last gesture signed by Lincoln hours before he was murdered. Lowry thus gave it prominent play in his 1999 book, Don’t Shoot That Boy! Abraham Lincoln & Military Justice, (Mason City, IA: Savas Publishing). Welcoming this dramatic find, the National Archives soon had the document on public display in its rotunda.

Enter Trevor Plante, a trained historian and NARA employee, who sensed something amiss. Closer inspection of the actual document revealed that the ‘5’ in 1865 was penned in darker ink than the ‘186.’ Plante and others dug deeper, researching the published sources where they found the pardon—dated April 14, 1864!—published on page 298 of editor Roy P. Basler’s The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, (New Brunswick, NJ, 1955). When interviewed by two federal agents on January 12, 2011, Lowry signed a confession admitting he had altered the document sometime in 1998, changing the ‘4’ to a ‘5’ with a fountain pen. Expecting this to be “kept quiet,” Lowry has since retracted his confession in light of publicity.

His publisher, Ted Savas, admits he cannot help but wonder if Lowry may have falsified other information in the book or for that matter, in any of his other titles, which include some that were self-published.

Indeed, Lowry explored several non-traditional interests in his civil war studies. He not only exhibited a fascination for Lincoln but thrived on such subjects as Civil War whore houses, soldiers’ sexual misconduct, venereal disease, disreputable officers, and of course, court martials. Once started, he cranked out a book nearly every other year, his published titles reflecting his passions. Among his works: The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War, (1994), The Civil War Bawdy Houses of Washington, DC (1997), Tarnished Eagles: The Court-Martials of 50 Union Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels (1998), Tarnished Scalpels: The Court-Martials of Fifty Union Surgeons (2000), Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice (2002), Curmudgeons, Drunkards, and Outright Fools: The Court-Martials of Civil War Union Colonels (2003), Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (2005), Sexual Misbehavior in the Civil War (2006), Confederate Heroines: 120 Southern Women Convicted by Union Military Justice (2006), Confederate Death Sentences: A Reference Guide (2009), Utterly Worthless: One Thousand Delinquent Union Officers Unworthy of a Court-Martial (2010), and Merciful Lincoln: The President and Military Justice (2010).

Lowry’s newest (last?) book, out this month, is Bad Doctors: Military Justice Proceedings Against 622 Civil War Surgeons, co-authored with Terry Reimer, research director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. Reimer said Tuesday that her collaboration with Lowry ended with this book and that Lowry has no official affiliation with the museum. She declined further comment.

Such avoidance of Lowry continues to spread through the academic community. Although the statute of limitations will prevent him from any arrest and conviction, Lowry has been summarily banned for life from the National Archives. Shame and marginalization of his published works will surely follow.

Meanwhile blogs and online conversations continue to rage about this mess, and many are asking what motivated this 78-year-old retired psychiatrist to such actions? It is acknowledged that ‘the discovery” of this document “jump-started” Lowry’s career as an author and historian. This sordid revelation should end it.

Others however, have considerable egg on their faces too. In Wednesday’s New York Times, Harold Holzer acknowledges in A Blot on Lincoln Historians: “shame on all of us in the Lincoln studies profession for accepting it without question.”

Indeed this Examiner has heard remarks from fellow authors and students of the war marveling and speculating on the plethora of Lincoln books that have been published over the last two decades, and especially in Old Abe’s Bicentennial year of 2009. Several point coincidentally to the 20-year-old Lincoln Prize, a stunning $50,000 award—(btw, five times larger than the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes!)–presented for “the finest scholarly work on Abraham Lincoln, or the American Civil War soldier, or a subject relating to their era.” Despite its widely described subject area, the Lincoln Prize really targets…Lincoln, for of the 24 Lincoln Prizes awarded by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College and the Gilder and Lehrman Institute of American History since 1991, 19 have been about Mr. Lincoln and/or slavery.

Lowry never won and now never will win the Lincoln Prize, but could it be that such a focused, coveted award not only inspires scholarship but tempts spin and fraud as well?

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