History Detectives

Are you tired of the History Channel’s Modern Marvels, Civil War Journal, or other assorted shows on Hitler’s last days in the bunker?  If yes, than you need to check out PBS’s History Detectives.  The show is now in its fourth season and essentially brings together four investigators who are "devoted to exploring the complexities
of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that
connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects." The History Detectives are Wes Cowan, Elyse Luray, Gwen Wright, and  Tukufu Zuberi.  In achieving these ends the team utilizes both traditional research skills such as library and archival work with modern technologies such as forensics and ballistics.  The reason the show is so successful is that it always begins with the personal inquiry and builds from there.  One or two of the detectives visit the individual or family for a quick chat about their story and object and asks what they would like to know.  From there it’s off to track down leads by going to the library or consult with an expert.  Through it all the viewer gets a snapshot of how historians and other researchers go about doing their work.  Microfiche readers are a common sight as well as dusty volumes in archives.  Best of all you watch as leads run dry and as the team juggles the difficulties of competing explanations.  All the while the personal story is being transformed into a broader narrative that connects to some important aspect of American history. 

One of last night’s episodes focused on a couple from Terre Haute, Indiana.  They were curious about an eyeglass with an image of Jefferson Davis and wanted to know if it was used by an ancestor to indicate their sympathy with the Confederacy.  Wes Cowan took the lead on this one with Elyse Luray in support.  He made his way to Lafayette, Indiana where the ancestors, Mary and Henry Wagstaff, had taken in a 14 year old Confederate prisoner of war who was quite sick.  Cowan also discovered a letter written by Henry Wagstaff indicating his Confederate sympathies.  While this established his political position it still did not confirm that the eyeglass was used as some kind of signal.  After consulting with an expert the team learned that the eyeglass dated to the 1880′s and not 1861 as the family thought.  Cowan ended up in the Atlanta History Center (a dynamite museum with an excellent Civil War exhibit) to talk to curator Gordon Jones. Jones explained that the popularity of the Davis eyeglass reflected the shifting feelings of the white South surrounding Davis and the beginning of the Lost Cause movement.  They included some wonderful old reels of Confederate reunions and mentioned organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans. 

Following the investigation the team returned to Terre Haute to report on their findings.  This is usually the best part of the episode as the investigation returns to a more personal level.  The findings are not always positive, but typically some object is returned to the individual or family which along with the findings serves to connect the local story with something much more important and meaningful. (In an episode last week a man was shown for the first time the grave of his grandfather.)

The show’s website includes a section on modern investigative technologies and teachers will want to check out suggestions on bringing the concept of the show into the classroom.  Most of you no doubt watch the show, but if not you don’t want to miss it.  Here in Charlottesville History Detectives airs on Mondays at 9:00pm – check your local listings

1 comment… add one

  • Thanks for the alternative to the same old tired History Channel shows. I’ve seen the show and it is good.

    Yes, isn’t the Atlanta History Museum great! I plan on getting over there in the next few days and I have some interesting personal connections to the Tullie Smith House I plan on devulging in a future post.

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