Historian Thomas Lowry Alters Lincoln Document

From the acknowledgments section of Don’t Shoot That Boy!: Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice: “As always, any errors, omissions, or ill-founded opinions are the sole responsibility of the author.” [You said it.]

Update from the Washington Post: In an interview Lowry claims that Archive officials pressured him to confess to the document tampering.

What can I say other than I am speechless.  From the National Archives website:

Washington, DC…Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero announced today that Thomas Lowry, a long-time Lincoln researcher from Woodbridge, VA, confessed on January 12, 2011, to altering an Abraham Lincoln Presidential pardon that is part of the permanent records of the U.S. National Archives. The pardon was for Patrick Murphy, a Civil War soldier in the Union Army who was court-martialed for desertion.

68 responses... add one

Kevin:

Astounding and appalling. Lowry’s book “Don’t Shoot That Boy” (1999, p. 122) cites the pardon as “poignant, indeed,” and describes it as follows: ” ‘This man is pardoned and hereby ordered to be discharged from the service. A. Lincoln, April 14, 1865.’ A few hours later, Lincoln put on his hat and headed for Ford’s Theater. During the winter of 1998-1999, Murphy’s papers formed part of a new public exhibit of ‘Treasures’ at the National Archives. Fame comes to men in many strange ways.”

Indeed . . . .

I know that book well, Russell. You have to wonder what was going through his head when he wrote, “A few hours later, Lincoln…”

Unbelievable on so many levels, the least of which is that it took so long for anyone to fact-check Lowry’s claim. The collected works of Abraham Lincoln aren’t exactly hard to find. I am very sad, in that I greatly admired Lowry’s work and tenacious research. Now everything he ever did is subject to doubt. On the other hand, I sincerely hope that the Archives will make more of an effort to digitize their holdings so that access to the originals is almost needless. I am afraid we will see more of this kind of thing in the future. As for Lowry: I hope your 15 minutes was worth it.

I think the reason no professional historian bothered to fact-check Lowry’s claim is that most of us don’t pay attention to him. His work is off to the side and off the radar. Indeed, this was the first I had heard of his “discovery,” period. It’s taken for granted that someone would not do what he did. Now it won’t be. Anyone in the future looking for an easy way to discredit something they don’t like can now add the Lowry accusation to their bag of tricks.

I just checked Michael Burligame’s massive 2-volume biography of Lincoln and he doesn’t mention the pardon. Neither does William C. Harris in his study of Lincoln’s final months. It would be interesting to see the extent of the damage.

I wonder if Burlingame and Harris, etc., did not have some inkling. That Lincoln spent a lot of time going over courts martial results is hardly news: it was the date that made the headlines — and Hollywood! But why not? Lincoln might have spent time looking over courts marital on April 14 or been planning to do soon on the 15th.

It is so sad that Lowry, for his few moments of fame, should have resorted to forgery.

The penalty NARA imposed would have tickled Lincoln’s famous sense of humor! To heck with jail: ban Lowry for life from the Archives! Now *that* would be a real and very appropriate penalty! Throw me in jail, toss the key away but don’t ban me from the Archives!

Bob-My understanding is that the statute of limitations has expired on any criminal prosecution. If not for that, I have little doubt that NARA would have pressed charges. The fact that criminal prosecution wasn’t an option undermines Lowry’s claim that he was forced to confess.

It looks like the National Archives may have used Lowry’s Facebook profile pic.

This is so frustrating. I really don ‘t think that that particular document is much of a “discovery.” But now we can’t trust any of Lowry’s research or to an extent any document he touched (you never know.) Let us hope he only touched this one thing. I’m not sure if defacing documents or stealing them irritates me more. At least stolen documents resurface, forged and altered documents are unreliable.

You are right that it is not significant at all. My wife made a good point a few minutes ago when she pointed out that even if it was dated 1865 it wouldn’t change the fact that Lincoln didn’t know he was going to be assassinated that evening. I hope his 15 minutes of fame was worth the humiliation that he will have to endure for the near future.

Mr. Wagner,

Thank you for taking the time to comment. In the future please try to make your point without engaging in personal insults.

Thanks for your understanding.

Kevin Levin
Civil War Memory

Yes yes, fine, Lowry deserves whatever he gets (assuming his denials are false). But what about a community of scholars who, for 13 years, didn’t notice that this groundbreaking “find” had been in Basler since 1953 with the correct date? Am I being to hard on them (as if I can have any effect on – or mean anything to – them)?

I thought the same thing, Harry, but than again I can’t find a recent Lincoln book that references the incorrect date. I only checked a few books. Have you found anything? At the same time, I don’t step into an archive with the goal of checking for these kinds of mistakes. Do you?

No, I haven’t and no, I don’t. Apparently this was a”big deal” at the time. But nobody checked the index of Basler out of curiousity when this news broke? We’re talking April 14, 1865 – which by 1998 had already been studied in miniscule detail by Lincoln Scholars, and nobody had run across a last minute pardon up until then. And when I ask if I’m being to hard on all these folks – and let’s face it, there are a lot of them – it’s not rhetorical. Am I being to hard on them? Maybe back in ’98 someone did mention the discrepancy and it was explained somehow.

It’s definitely a reasonable question, Harry. It would be easy to pose it to a representative of the NARA. They included a contact address on their announcement page.

Yep. CW VII: 298-299. Jees, Lowry was really an idiot — if I was going to forge a document of someone whose works have been published, I would at least make certain that it had not been already published.

Maybe I’ll call tomorrow. I also have a couple of NARA “peeps” I can talk to , folks who were there at the time.

Harry, most members of the “community of scholars” simply don’t pay attention to Lowry’s work. His major audience remains a far more general public. I’d never heard of this claim until the news broke that it was false. No one asked me to authenticate the claim: I’d never heard it discussed, and I’m a member of the board of directors of the Abraham Lincoln Association.

The Lincoln assassination is a subset of Lincoln scholars, and there are a lot of people who don’t study Lincoln except for the assassination. You assume all this was broadcast at the time, and that it was a “big deal.” It wasn’t nearly as big as you think. It was unknown to me. Frankly, if it happened today, online communities would be on the issue in a moment, as they were on the famed letters of transmittal regarding the Corwin amendment.

The world has changed a great deal over the last ten years. Want to show me the blogs where this would have been discussed at the time? The discussion boards, where knowledge is burned to a crisp by flames?

Now, if you check an online newspaper archives, you can find reports, such as this one:
http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F70D16FF3F5D0C768DDDAA0894D0494D81

Go to Google news archives and look up “Thomas Lowry” in 1998. Now reflect that those online archives didn’t exist in that way at that time (the ones that did were a bit of a challenge to use, and you would have to know what you were looking for … which, in this case, would exclude me, because I didn’t hear about it).

Did you hear about it at the time, Harry? Did you check it out?

No, I didn’t hear about it (hence my qualifier that it was “apparently” a big deal) and I didn’t check it out (keeping in mind that I’m not a historian), but as I posted on your blog Frank Williams and John Simon both endorsed “Don’t Shoot That Boy”. I accept that you didn’t know about the “find” in 1998, and that you are not a consumer of Lowry’s work. But Lowry’s other books also have endorsements from “big hitters”, some specifically referring to his work at NARA or with original documents in general.

I’m sure Lowry is the quack this information suggests. I haven’t read or purchased any of his books, but do remember entertaining and persuasive interviews he gave. My question is: what qualifies one to join the “community of scholars?” Assuming that Lowry used primary sources and documented them, why was he discredited or “not taken seriously” to begin with? Is a ph.d in history from a presitgious school a prerequisite of being taken seriously in the club? What was Lowry’s original sin shortcoming that everyone else missed? What other popular others with scholarly pretentions (I think Lowry qualified for this category until this week) are also scoffed out by the academic insiders? As a soon to be published university press author, but lacking a ph.d, I’m really interested to know.

Dan, you’re implying that while professional historians, many of who do not address the details of Lincoln’s last full day on earth, ought to have known something, those historians (mostly non-professional historians and non-academics) who immerse themselves in these sorts of subjects cannot be expected to possess the same skills.

You assume that every member of the “community of scholars” should be equally interested in every little tidbid that comes up. Not so. Many people never heard of this until yesterday. Had you heard of this before that? If so, and you are complaining about the exclusive nature of this community, is there any reason why you didn’t check it out? After all, according to your own testimony, you did listen to his interviews. That suggests that you were aware of his claims. So you might want to direct your questions toward yourself.

I see your comment as verging on the usual anti-academic rant. No one but you brought up advanced degrees or “prestigious” schools. To repeat, while some people apparently did get all excited about the claims, many people never heard of the Murphy claim. As to who incorporated the claim in their work (Steers and Shenk), check their credentials.

I think Dan’s comment was misinterpreted. (For starters, unlike Harry’s comments, it had nothing to do with who should or shouldn’t have uncovered this forgery – not sure that how you got that out of it.) I actually do have an academic Ph.D. and I agree that many books written by popular historians are lousy, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that there is a stark dividing line between the real “scholarly community” and popular dilletantes and that therefore anything by Lowry (prior to his crime) or Shenk or Steer can be dismissed because they are on the wrong side of the line.

No one’s making that point. No one defined the boundary of “community of scholars” by possession of an advanced degree. Even Harry’s made that clear elsewhere. Dan offered the dividing line. He’s the one who wrote about degrees and schools. I saw that as a distraction from the discussion.

So someone’s been misunderstood, but not Dan.

Lowry’s topics were what sent him to the fringe: he wasn’t grappling with topics or issues that engage most historians. Those few scholars who welcomed him with open arms (Harold Holzer) are now trying to figure a way out of this mess. Holzer’s not a PhD, but John Y. Simon, who blurbed the Lowry book in question, was. Lowry’s main audience happened to be members of the general public who enjoyed his stories.

No one’s dismissing Shenk or Steers because of any “line.” They aren’t being dismissed at all. Folks were asking where Lowry’s “find” might have been repeated. In both cases, in fact, one could cast aside the paragraphs mentioning the Murphy pardon without doing violence to their interpretations. Observing a characteristic (the status of the author) is not the same as dismissing said author. To me, it’s the work that counts, not the pedigree of the author. I’ve said that for years online. That said, do you think your PhD training in history is worthless?

I think I’ve also been misunderstood, so there is no point in further back-and-forth. The answer is obviously “no,” however.

Thanks Larry. I was just about to past a link to your website. Thanks for following up with this search.

Now that’s interesting, because neither author is part of the broader scholarly community of professional historians, although they are part of the non-academics who write about Lincoln … including Steer on the assassination (Lincoln assassination studies are a subset of the Lincoln community, and many of us don’t pay much attention to the continuing arguments abouth Booth, the Surratts, Mudd, etc).

Just heartbreaking. I have one of his books and am angry that he got even a few pennies of my royalty money. But as I look at the document I can’t imagine how it did not arouse suspicion immediately! It is so obviously altered.

Candis-That was my reaction. I’ve seen better alteration jobs down by grade school and high school kids altering grades before showing a report card or paper to their parents (in the pre-digital age.)

I’ve got enormous respect for NARA. I made a record request three years ago for my Civil War ancestor. The records I requested arrived the same week as an e-mail from a direct line descendant of my ancestor’s commanding officer. It could have been a coincidence, but somehow I got the feeling their people do a bit more than make copies and lick stamps.

Any chance we could put this guy to work doctoring a few of the documents for Henry Wirz?

Mr. Lowry and his wife actually discovered 534 notations when they were going through the Lincoln documents. How many of those were “altered” or “changed” is anyone’s guess (I have more details up on my site).

One would hope that an archivist or investigator has gone through the documents that the Lowrys looked at when they decided to take ink pen to history and create their little fabrication. Did they alter anything else? Take anything? Destroy some document that refuted their work?

At the very least, every dime he ever made off of that book should be refunded to the people that were defrauded. As late as 2005, Mr. Lowry was on C-SPAN, hawking his book and receiving accolades. So far, I count the Smithsonian and C-SPAN as having been duped by his work. I’m sure there are many more.

The folks at the NA watched researchers like hawks *before* this forgery surfaced. (I was once told in no uncertain terms that gum-chewing was not allowed in the research room.) It will be interesting to see how they plan to prevent further alterations. Hopefully it will only involve having experts examine every newsworthy discovery from now on.

You can be certain that my colleagues working at the National Archives for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln will check any 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 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.

As Brooks Simpson noted, 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.

Kudos to you, and kudos to the investigators who tracked this down. If this had been allowed to go another 13 years, who knows what else would have been tainted by this forgery.

I hope that, if you do find suspect marks or alterations, someone will pursue those appropriately. Too often after something like this happens, there is a tendency to wish things away.

The National Archives comes across as being very up front about this. At least this wasn’t buried on an IG’s desk for a Friday news dump in August.

I once asked Dr. Thomas Lowry to examine and compare a handwriting sample for me and he was informed and cautious about reaching conclusions. His independent evaluation matched that of an FBI-trained criminologist and an experienced police detective — he called the handwriting comparsion probable but not confirmed. I have to doubt that a man of his intelligence and professional acumen would have executed such a clumsy forgery — wrong ink? Bear in mind that he denied everything and has continued to do so. Clearly there was a forgery. But did Dr. Lowry perhaps overlook somebody else’s prior forgery?

So I guess now you have to somehow explain why NARA would lie about Lowry’s confession. Go for it.

“It is entirely out of character for me. I’m a man of honor.”
A quote from Lowry’s statement. A man of honor would not have confessed to something he hadn’t done.

such a clumsy forgery — wrong ink?

Unless he’d practiced on other authentic documents, I find that actually much more plausible than the idea that he’d know how to produce precisely the same sort of impression and image just because he’s used to reading the originals. Forgery is a very different skill, it seems to me, than research or orthographic analysis.

BTW, has anyone else read the Dorothy Lee Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mystery “Gaudy Nights”. The major action occurs in a women’s college at Oxford and the motive for the murders and attempted murders arises out an event that the book places as having occurred years prior to the time in which the mystery is set: an impoverished scholar with a wife and children, about to complete and publish his dissertation after many years, finds a document that completely demolishes the basis for his dissertation. Rather than face this, he steals and hides the document. Unfortunately, one of the dons from women’s college, who was among the reviewers, knew about the document and realized from certain things in the dissertation that the scholar had to have come across it. She exposes him. He’s dismissed from academia and commits suicide.

So there is truly nothing new under the sun.

“It is entirely out of character for me. I’m a man of honor.”
A quote from Lowry’s statement. A man of honor would not have confessed to something he hadn’t done. If he has changed history to benefit himself once, no doubt in my mind that he has done it before. Probably many times. Anyone buying any of his books would have to question the accuracy of anything contained therein.

Does anyone know if the Hambrick pardon, allegedly dated April 14th 1865 and allegedly “discovered” by Lowry has also been investigated? Dr. Ed Steers cites Lowry when writing about the Murphy and Hambrick pardon in his book Blood On The Moon.

It’s generally understood that confessions can be extracted by many means academic historians are not familiar with — though they should be. For instance, the U.S. Naval aviators picked up at Midway gave the Japanese the location of the U.S. fleet before the Japanese had a chance to torture them — and the Japanese sank the U.S.S.Yorktown. These aviators were brave men, and none of us should assume that we might not do the same thing. The Norfolk Four , U.S. sailors at Norfolk, confessed to rape and murder because the prosecution needed a conviction — even though the DNA and polygraph, which they were never shown, would have acquitted them. The Norfolk Four were not physically tortured — they were simply denied sleep and pressured in a situation where they were made to feel helpless and verbally threatened with the death penalty unless they talked. So they talked. When the actual rapist-murderer confessed from prison and said that none of the four sailors were implicated, it took a decade for the Norfolk Four to obtain pardons. The chief interrogator, incidentally, has been convicted of extortion and accepted bribes and is now facing sentencing. Here’s a condundrum — Dr. Lowry’s most famous book was written and published BEFORE the forgery incident took place and he was a psychiatrist, medical instructor, and U.S. Air Force officer. Why take a chance like that when he was already established as a medical authority and as a Civil War author to boot? Makes no sense to lump Dr. Lowrty together with liars like Stephen Ambrose and Iris Chang, whose forgeries of fact could affect our foreign policy. Lowry did nothing to detract from Lincoln’s greatness — assuming that he did anything at all. If he did it, it was a dirty deed indeed — but I have my doubts that he did it.

Mr. Koster,

You are free to arrive at any conclusion you wish. Your question as to why Mr. Lowry might do something to jeopardize his career makes little sense to me given the fact that individuals sabotage themselves all the time. In that sense there is nothing unusual here. If you wish to entertain the possibility that Mr. Lowry was coerced into signing a confession than you are going to have to do better than bringing up WWII history. Finally, the specific charge made against Stephen Ambrose was plagiarism.

The Norfolk Four were not physically tortured — they were simply denied sleep and pressured in a situation where they were made to feel helpless and verbally threatened with the death penalty unless they talked.

If you’re suggesting something of the same sort happened in this case, please make a direct accusation — don’t fiddle-fart around the edges of insinuation.

As I understand, the “interrogation” of Dr. Lowry occurred at his own kitchen table, by two investigators who’d showed up unannounced at his home, after months of his refusing to cooperate with their investigation. The only sort of “coercion” I’ve heard Lowry claim is that he’d been told that, if he admitted the alteration, it would not be made public and he’d suffer no further consequences. I don’t know if that’s true or not — I suspect the investigators were actually less-than-explicit about that, and Lowry “heard” what he wanted to hear — but it hardly qualifies as the sort of coercion you’re describing.

Andy — without reference to what you “suspect” it sounds like they made him a promise and broke it — what a surprise! Kevin — how do you know what they told him? Were you there? Did they play you a tape? Barging into somebody’s house unannounced to compromise his security is standard operating proceed in police states around the world. (In the Nazi or Soviet versions they generally broke in at about 2 a.m., but this was clearly a lot more genteel and refined. After all, we’re civilized here — ask any black man or American Indian.) As I read it, Lowry said that they didn’t stick splinters under his fingernails (phew! — would have left marks!) but that they leaned on him for two hours and promised him immunity — and then reneged. This is not atypical of bad police work. I’ve been an investigative and police reporter for 40 years — it doesn’t happen too often, but it happens.

Mr. Koster,

Now we are a Nazi police state? If you have relevant evidence to back up your suspicions of how NARA officials handled the interview with Mr. Lowry then please present it. Since I doubt you have anything further let’s make this your last comment on this thread. Thank you for your interest.

Thomas Lowry himself should be “court martialed” for this offense. What a disgrace he is to the honor of President Lincoln and should not be allowed to call himself an American citizen any longer.

Yes, perhaps revoking his citizenship is a bit too much. That’s enough drama for now. Thanks for the comment.

If any of you had bothered to contact Tom, you might have formed a different opinion. He’s an enthusiastic amateur who spent years of his life cataloging Civil War archives. He had no incentive to alter any of the archives. He’s also a nice old gentlemen whose sense of honor would prevent him from doing such a thing. He obviously lacked judgment in letting a couple of Federal agents without a warrant into his home to browbeat him into a confession. He was also naive enough to believe their promise that no ill would come of it.

The archivists fact checked the document at the same time Tom reviewed it, it was only years later the embarrassing truth came out, that the document had been altered. Can you not at least accept the possibility that this was a cover up of an official mistake, and that Tom’s a scapegoat? Who knows who altered the document, but there’s only a confession extracted under psychological duress to suggest Tom did it.

Hi Alex,

Sorry, but given the available evidence the best explanation is that Mr. Lowry altered the document. All you’ve done is repeated Mr. Lowry’s accusation, but you’ve presented nothing beyond a mere possibility that there is another explanation. I will be the first blogger to post an announcement if just such a scenario emerges. Thanks for the comment.

You’re right, emailing a suspect and asking “did you do it?” is *surely* the most fullproof method of determining culpability… And we cannot “accept the possibility that this was a cover up” because it defies belief that the National Archives would turn a researcher into a scapegoat. In denial much?

The Department of Justice has reportedly decided not to pursue this as a criminal matter. I think that’s a shame — not because I’m some law-and-order, lock-’em-up type, or because I want to see Lowry go to jail — but because I think it would be beneficial for all parties, and the general public, to get all the evidence out on the table, in public. I would very much have liked to see Dr. Lowry get his day in court.

False confessions, obtained through coercion, do occur, and they’re a blemish on a criminal justice system that prides itself on being even-handed. It’s a serious business, make no mistake. But in the larger scheme of things, there are far too many people sitting in prison right now, convicted of far more serious crimes, based on false and coerced confessions for me to lose much sleep over Dr. Lowry’s predicament.

Dr. Lowry recently passed a certified polygraph test. He stated he had not forged the date. The polygraph affirmed that his response was truthful. His friends would now like to see records of the “repeated” attempts by the NARA to contact him before the agents dropped in for the confession interview.

The crooked cop who framed the Norfolk Four just got 12.5 years for unrelated and numerous extortion and bribery charges — but of course that never happened….all authorities are honest.

As with almost every conspiracy theory, the weakness is in the motive portion. Let us stipulate the possibility (as clearly distinguished from probability) that Lowry was the victim of a frame up. Now, why would the NARA do such a thing? No one is speaking out about this false accusation? I suppose the families of all of those privy to the set up have been threatened to ensure silence and complicity with the ruse? In the absence of credible counter-evidence, I’m going with Occam on this one. Sometimes, things are as they appear.

Whoever made the alteration, it underscores how easy it is to want the facts of great historical figures lives to fit into narratives which elevate them above the ordinary. The pardons are historical evidence of the mercy Lincoln showed, yet someone wanted something more and a last pardon before his exit from history’s stage fit the narrative, in retrospect, all too perfectly.

Washington, Lincoln, and Lee to name three all have become historical and mythical characters. Maybe it is a human tendency to want to find confirmation of their unique characters and, perhaps worse still, to ignore their failings. There should be an element of justice in history, a blind weighing of what is known, an objective reporting. The myth making here, and not the forgery itself, is to me the greater offense.

As for Mr. Lowry, guilty or innocent, I hope people will remember this is a 78 year old man we are talking about. The whole affair starts with a document which shows someone being shown mercy and pardon. Perhaps some kindness and mercy can be shown Mr. Lowry, guilty or not.

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