This past week I got the chance to attend the annual conference of the National Council on Public History (NCPH). While there, I attended a session called “Presenting Cops and Crime” led by FBI historian John Fox. Also presenting were Laurie Baty of the U.S. DEA Museum in Virginia, John Butler, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Kristen Frederick-Frost, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Barbara Osteika, ATF historian, and Rachel Penman from the Alcatraz East Crime Museum, now in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The panel discussed, among other things, how we think about the history of crime in this country, and from whence do we get those (often sensationalized) perceptions? Though the FBI has had its own historian for many years, other government entities, such as the ATF, have not. In fact, Ms. Osteika is the first, and by her estimation, the last such professional. It was an interesting panel, and led to some relatively heated discussion (by professional history conference standards).
During her presentation, Ms. Frederick-Frost shared that in her previous position with NIST, she was asked to write a history of Wilmer Souder, an Indiana farmer turned forensics expert active in the 1920s and ’30s. This was to be an internal document meant only to enlighten modern NIST employees. After her first effort was reviewed and returned by her superiors, she was shocked to find that it had been practically rewritten as laudatory and sensationalized puffery. She refused to acquiesce to the changes, though I don’t recall the result of the incident. What I do remember is what she said next (and this is paraphrasing, but very close, I believe): “Who can tell the story and how will it be told? How do we create an appetite for a more complex story?” That, I thought, was a provocative question, and it got me thinking about my own research on circus grift, illegal gambling, and political and private graft.
It also reminded me of my trip to the Chicago History Museum a couple of years ago. I still have a photo on my phone of a text panel that rubbed me the wrong way. It’s from an exhibit on “Gangland Chicago.”
I don’t know what the museum’s text writing process is like; perhaps this panel was the subject of ongoing contentious discussion. But to me, “[Gangsters] bribed and threatened police and politicians, and corruption stifled reform” lets the police and politicians off pretty easy. The complicity of those in power, both as consumers and beneficiaries in the bootlegger’s trade, certainly exacerbated the violence.
I admit that I haven’t come up against this kind of suppression in my own work as of yet, but others have. When I received the research collection of the late author and professor John Hanners, it included some manuscripts that he had sent to the Circus History Fraternity on the subject of circus grift. The drafts were returned to him with many of his findings refuted and denied. But with newspapers and other sources now online and easily searchable, the evidence continues to pile up, and I’m here to collect it. The monotonous bug in my ear muttering “write! write!” continues to get louder and harder to ignore. I know, and the research continues to show, that this is a complex and fascinating history with so much potential. But again, who will listen? Where is the audience? Can an interesting, complex story still be accurate and also palatable? The bug just said, “there’s only one way to find out.”