Falsifying the Historical Record: Thomas P. Lowry

Back in 1985 I visited the Illinois State Historical Library, then located in the basement of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois.  I was doing research on my dissertation.  There, in a back room, combing through documents related to Ulysses S. Grant, I came upon a letter from Robert E. Lee to Grant, dated June 13, 1865.  Lee was writing Grant to inquire as to whether the terms he had signed at Appomattox protected him from being prosecuted for treason: he had just learned that he had been indicted for treason by a grand jury sitting at Norfolk, Virginia.  He enclosed a request for pardon in compliance with President Andrew Johnson’s proclamation of May 29, 1865.  Grant endorsed the letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, declaring that the Appomattox terms protected Lee from prosecution, adding that Abraham Lincoln had approved the terms.

This document is a treasure.  It was part of a critical moment in the restoration of peace in 1865.  It showed Grant, as a man of his word, looking to protect Lee from prosecution to preserve the peace just won.  Moreover, it is one of the few pieces of paper in existence signed by both Grant and Lee.   The Appomattox terms were an exchange of letters, not a commonly-drafted or signed document.  And I was privileged enough to be looking directly at the document itself (with the usual protections in place … archives have procedures to protect their documents … although, as we’re about to see, they don’t always work).

Working in the archives is a necessity for good scholarship.  You need to see many documents firsthand, and often the only way to find important information is by sifting through page after page of material until you come upon something that you may not have anticipated.  I’ve had that experience several times, including once when I had to dig through several drafts of a manuscript prepared by James H. Wilson to find out important information that called into question critical aspects of perhaps the most famous story of a Grant wartime drinking spree.  You find the most unusual things in the most out-of-the-way places.  But you’ve got to go to the documents themselves, often literally, even in this day of online resources.

But working in the archives is also a privilege and a trust, one scholars cannot abuse.

That trust was recently broken and that privilege abused by Thomas P. Lowry, author of several books.  Earlier this month he confessed to deliberately altering the date on a Lincoln pardon in the National Archives so that it read “April 14, 1865” (the day John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln) from “April 14, 1864.”  Lowry detailed to investigators how he altered the document and explained that he believed that pointing to the pardon as being signed on that fatal fourteenth was a way to elevate his status among the many people who are interested in Civil War history.

The National Archives released a press release, with an embedded video.

This story will now take its place alongside the tales of plagiarism, fabricated repositories and footnotes, and outright thievery from archives.  What seems especially telling is that Lowry admitted that he did this in order to get attention, leading to book deals, speaking opportunities, and so on, many paid for, I suspect, by some readers of this blog.

It would be useless for me to express my outrage.  Suffice it to say that this is so wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin.

Kevin Levin and Eric Wittenberg are also covering this story.

UPDATE: Read Lowry’s response to the report.  Please explain to me how he could be pressured into offering such a detailed explanation of what he did (hat tip to Kevin Levin).  Read also this account that appeared in the online New York Times.  Meanwhile, Larry Cebula reveals two instances where authors unknowingly incorporated these false findings into their work.  Harry Smeltzer deplores what Lowry did, but he can’t resist the following dig: “And how could it have been missed by NARA and Lincoln scholars for thirteen years?  While Dr. Lowry no doubt deserves the approbation sure to be heaped upon him, there are a lot of other folks who look foolish right about now.”  Would that include Ted Savas, who published Lowry’s book?  Name names, Harry.

I’m not sure how many people knew of the original claim: I did not.  All I ever heard was that the Lowrys had found many courts martial records with notations made by Lincoln.  That’s something that does not interest me: the findings did not change my understanding of Lincoln.  I did not hear about the claim about Murphy’s pardon.  Most Lincoln scholars apparently did not consult Lowry’s book, and the claim that’s caused such a fuss was not something professional historians have talked about.  So it would be hard to blame people for not disproving what they did not know.  Lowry seems to have been a favorite with two Lincoln organizations on the East Coast, so perhaps Harry should do a little digging there and ask those folks how they feel (they doubtless heard the claim).  I haven’t read Lowry’s books (a few titles, courtesy of various prize committees, remain unopened in my garage/library, and may be among the few Civil War books I have actually sold); I don’t have the book in question.

Apparently Harry Smeltzer’s been a big fan of Dr. Lowry’s work, which might help explain his response.  It would be interesting to see if there were any other so-called discoveries that had in fact already been found.  I am intrigued by the notion that no one has done this, and perhaps there’s an opportunity for folks who seem to be interested in this sort of thing.  I do wonder why no one at the National Archives checked the Basler edition (the endorsement’s right there); I assume that in today’s world, people would have hastened to check his claim, much as they did when the issue of Lincoln’s transmittal letter pertaining to the Corwin amendment came to light.  But Harry paints with too broad a brush, to put it kindly.

20 thoughts on “Falsifying the Historical Record: Thomas P. Lowry

  1. Mark January 24, 2011 / 2:20 pm

    Yes, astonishing, but as Defoe said — all men would be tyrants, if they could. This guy who altered the document wanted STATUS, the same thing Tim McVeigh wanted, the same thing Lee Harvey Oswald wanted, the same thing Robert E Lee wanted.

    Men are status junkies, and will do nearly anything to get it.

    Thanks for sharing this story. In a broader sense, though, must of history is distored, as evidenced by the romanticized “Lost Cause” version of SOuthern honor and heroics, topped only by the absurdity of claiming men like Lee and Davis were anti slavery.

    • Sherree January 25, 2011 / 7:50 am

      Mark, You are utterly pathetic.


      This is yet another reason that I am so glad that you are blogging. Established, trained professional historians must enter this online conversation. The series of posts that you are running on secession is critical.

      I have not read Lowry’s work because I believe that publishing information about the intimate sexual habits of Civil War soldiers has little merit. That said, I do not believe in beating up on anyone, publicly or privately. I hope that Lowry learns from his mistake and learns how to live with it. He is an older man at the end of his career. It is sad.

  2. Bob Huddleston January 24, 2011 / 2:32 pm

    I have met Tom Lowry, heard him speak and seen him at work in the Archives. Indeed the speech I heard was about the wonderful discovery of this very document! How very sad! It was not, I imagine, money, but a few moments of fame, by discovering a last moment of Lincoln’s life spent saving someone.

    Lowry’s reading all Civil War courts-martial and documenting them discovered a large number of previously unknown Lincoln document.

    I remember years ago tracking down at the Archives a court martial MSS and discovering that AL had written a note on it, also previously unknown Lincoln writing (Lowry had not gotten that far!). I told the staff and they immediately got their NARA stamp and joined me in the reading room to stamp the page with Lincoln’s note. I xeroxed the pages – which I would have done anyway. Still it was a thrill to actually hold something that I knew Lincoln had held.

    I was in the Archives last week while we were in DC and noticed the heightened security in the reading room, especially about pens. Mine was in my pocket as I entered and the guard told me to either give it to him or take it back to the storage lockers. I internally grumped at the idea, but smiled – he was just following orders – and took it back. Now I know why!

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 24, 2011 / 4:37 pm

      The unfortunate truth is that while it may not be a lot of money, it’s a speaking gig here, a new book contract here, a television appearance somewhere else. He becomes a name on a list of speakers to attract customers, many of whom paid for the privilege of hearing him and who purchased a book for him to sign.

      That’s all over now. There’s something different about this. It’s most like the fabricated sources book on guns in the early republic. The plagiarists, if they played it right, got back into good graces (Ambrose’s death spared him from dealing with the consequences of his defiance). Moreover, exposing plagiarism tends to hurt the person who exposes it as well, and it’s a fact that a lot of readers don’t care. Telling fairy tales about one’s life also has a limited impact. But tampering with the evidence (especially by erasing and writing over Lincoln’s own handwriting) … well, that’s a career-killer.

      • Kevin January 24, 2011 / 6:32 pm

        That last point is a really good one, but it’s also something that I find almost impossible to grasp. And this is what has left me with a very uncomfortable feeling.

  3. David Woodbury January 24, 2011 / 8:59 pm

    Something that occurred to me as a possible motivation. Perhaps he thought that by making such a major Lincoln discovery — and writing a book about it — he would be eligible for the Lincoln Prize ($50k).


  4. Harry Smeltzer January 24, 2011 / 9:23 pm

    I’m not thinking of any person in particular, but the publisher of Lowry’s book probably feels embarassed, I suppose. More specifically I’m thinking of folks who were intimately familiar with documents concerning Lincoln and with the events of April 14, 1865. And mostly I’m thinking of back when this news broke, in 1998. Apparently it was a big deal. It seems to me likely that at least one of the many Lincoln scholars out there would have thought to himself “Geez, I’ve never heard of this document before. How could such a thing on the last day of his life have gone unnoticed? Let me check the index to Bassler to see if it’s in there.” Now, that may have happened and perhaps some explanation for the difference in dates was put forth, I don’t know. But if it didn’t happen, it seems odd. To me.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 24, 2011 / 10:07 pm

      I’m sure Ted Savas feels betrayed more than embarrassed. What I recall was that in 1998 I heard that there had been more Lincoln pardon annotations found by the Lowrys. That’s all. The Patrick Murphy claim was news to me as of this morning.

      You have a point about the NARA (although they’re the agency that eventually discovered what had happened). That agency publicized the specific find. As for Lincoln scholars, I maintain you paint with too broad a brush. I did not hear discussion about the Murphy pardon, and I’m on the ALA board of directors. Others did at the conferences to which I referred elsewhere (because Lowry spoke there). There’s a lot that goes on at such conferences that no one else hears about, and there’s a lot that happens on the East Coast that I don’t hear much about. Information flows much more readily now and it’s easier for me to gather newspaper coverage; you can see that in case of the Lincoln letter transmitting the Corwin amendment, and in fact in today’s news about this fraud, where coverage is expanding even as I compose an update.

      Here’s my take: after something happens, people are very good at asking, “Why didn’t someone catch this?” After all, now it seems so obvious that someone should have caught Lowry. But it’s not clear in all cases how at the time people should have gone about their business. The NARA? Yes, something went wrong there. The Lincoln scholars who heard Lowry talk and highlight his claim? Perhaps. The people working on Lincoln’s papers? I can understand what happened there because of the curious way rival Lincoln projects were going about their business at the time — a unified project would most likely have caught it. I think people just couldn’t believe (and did not consider) that anyone would fabricate a finding, and Lowry’s explanations today raise new questions about him. Far from persuading me of anything, they just make things worse.

      Finally, Basler’s not comprehensive. More documents are being found all the time. So someone not naturally suspicious might have picked up volume eight (which covers the last months of Lincoln’s life), not see the document, and shrug their shoulders. One might even check the supplemental volumes and find nothing. Had one checked the index, bingo — that’s how one would have found the endorsement as dated on April 14, 1864. That’s where the inquiry should have begun. But, for reasons that should be obvious, by definition it cannot occur to me to check out a claim when I haven’t heard about the claim itself.

      • Harry Smeltzer January 25, 2011 / 6:17 am

        I have no reason to doubt that you were unaware of the claim. However, the jacket of “Don’t Shoot That Boy” has endorsements by Frank Williams and John Simon. Williams’s is a little generic, but Simons’s specifically lauds Lowry’s use of primary sources at NARA. However I’m not sure how much time and effort gets put into blurbs.

      • Brooks D. Simpson January 25, 2011 / 8:07 am

        Williams and Simon were (and Williams still is) associated with one of those East Coast groups, the Lincoln Forum. Simon was known for giving generous blurbs to books where he liked the author, and sometimes this backfired badly (he did the same with Perret’s Grant biography, which was riddled with errors). So you are well within your rights to call him on what he said, but he has passed away.

        Stay tuned. There’s another April 14 pardon now worth checking.

  5. Tony Gunter January 25, 2011 / 6:49 am

    LOL! You’re just trying to get Brooks to repeat his rant on blurbs. I have seen it before, it’s a good one.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 25, 2011 / 8:10 am

      The more specific one is about what they say in a blurb, the more accountable one should be for what they say.

  6. Warren Jason Street January 25, 2011 / 8:12 am

    C-SPAN and The Smithsonian were also duped. What a deplorable act.

    I agree with Mark’s point about “status junkies.” If you look at the C-SPAN video where Mr. Lowry gives a talk in front of a gathering of Civil War buffs in 2005, you notice his excitement (and his lack of any conscience). Fully seven years later, he was still touting his book (yes, the speaker who introduced him said that attendees could definitely find his book for sale at that particular event).

    Every dime he ever made from that book should be repaid and every book he has lent his name to (I counted more than seven) should be yanked from the shelves. It may be sad, and it may be harsh, but his work is utterly without merit or value given his demonstrated lack of ethics.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 25, 2011 / 8:28 am

      Let’s put it this way: everything he’s done will no longer be seen as reliable, and people will check out the original sources to see whether what’s said about a particular subject is true. It throws everything he’s done into question, because while I’m sure most of what he’s written is sound, I can no longer rely on that being true as a matter of course.

  7. Ted Savas January 25, 2011 / 9:38 am

    I am deeply saddened and a bit angry to learn what Tom Lowry has done. It was the last thing I would have expected of him. I (Savas Publishing Company) published his book “Don’t Shoot That Boy!” more than a decade ago, and feel completely betrayed that he would offer a falsified document for us to publish. We had no viable to check its authenticity, and he made hundreds of dated claims in the book. Still, as the publisher I offer my sincere apologies for being the company that launched the document into the book trade.

    Altering Lincoln’s original handwriting for your own purposes is criminal. Too bad the statute of limitations on that has run. Tom, you were doing great work and uncovering some remarkable archival items in the process. Now, even if this is your only sin, no one will ever be able to accept your work at face value. What a shame for you, and especially for all the people who supported you over the years. I am confident being barred from the NA and carrying the stigma of what you have done may be the best medicine for you to swallow–for the rest of your life.

    Savas Beatie LLC

  8. Daniel W. Stowell January 25, 2011 / 11:47 am

    You can be certain that my colleagues working at the National Archives for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln will check all Lincoln endorsements for any such alterations. We are conducting a systematic search for documents written, signed, or endorsed by Lincoln or written to him. We have completed the search at Archives II in College Park and located more than 29,000 documents that fit those criteria, but we have only begun to search through the records at the National Archives in downtown Washington.

    My colleagues there have not yet searched Record Group 153, where the Lowrys found these endorsements, but we will compare every endorsement against those that Basler published in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Our careful record-keeping and comparison has already assisted the National Archives in learning that a telegram from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Lincoln that they listed as missing was indeed still in their vault. See the complete story in the latest issue of our newsletter at http://www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org/NewsletterPDFs/EDITOR38.pdf.

    While this story is a tragedy and will undoubtedly make working conditions at the National Archives for legitimate researchers and projects like ours a bit more cumbersome, it also points out the need for painstaking archival research, high-resolution scanning, and careful record-keeping. We frequently run into forgeries and facsimiles, each of which we must evaluate.

    Kudos to the National Archives staff, especially Trevor Plante, for finding this document suspicious and following their instincts to discover the alteration.

    Lowry’s work made more of a splash in popular venues than in scholarly works, but few scholars track every citation back to the original source, again pointing out the need for authoritative reference materials. On the other hand, anything purporting to be written by Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, immediately raises a warning flag for me.

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