Unsolved Mystery–Detective Work in the Archives
Today’s post comes from Stephanie Schmeling, who works as an Archives Assistant in the New York University Archives. Stephanie is in her second year of the Archives and Public History Master’s Program at NYU.
Have you ever watched History Detectives on PBS? Well, if you haven’t, it’s a somewhat cheesy, somewhat humorous, completely fascinating television show “devoted to exploring the complexities of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects.” Some professionals in the fields of history and archives are critical of this show because it presents history and research at a very elementary level…but it is public television! What do you expect?
Despite the show’s critics, it does have avid fans. For those who do appreciate it, they recognize the program has a tremendous impact on how ordinary people understand and interact with history. All of the mysteries presented in the episodes start as questions from average people curious about some artifact in their basement or some story passed down through their family. You don’t need a Ph.D. to be inquisitive. Personally, watching this show when I was in high school had a significant influence on my interest and choice to pursue American history for my undergraduate degree and why I continue to pursue the intrigue of history research by training to be an archivist.
In August at the Society of American Archivists annual conference one of the sessions gave a behind-the-scenes look at how a series episode was produced. Tukufu Zuberi, one of the show’s featured detective historians, spoke about how this show presents history through the research process and through the expertise of professionals…including archivists!! This session helped to rekindle my passion for history research and reminded me how some of the duties of being an archivist are very similar to those of a history detective.
I will admit that research requests are not always my favorite part of working in an archive, but sometimes the questions can be really intriguing, and tracking down the answer is like a mini detective hunt. This past summer I had one request in particular which was quite fun to investigate.
The request came in via phone from Dr. James Holland (Emeritus Professor of History at Shepherd University). An Associated Wire photo dated May 20, 1957, was brought to his attention in relation to a project he was researching. The photograph was taken at the installation event of the bust of “Stonewall” Jackson at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at the (now former) University Heights campus of NYU. The AP caption identified all individuals except one man in an academic robe. The question posed by Professor Holland: Who is this man?
I procured a copy of the AP photo in question and started the investigation by looking through the University Archives Photo Collection, particularly the Hall of Fame photos. I located a photo dated May 19, 1957, of the “Stonewall” Jackson installation. It was not the same photo as Professor Holland’s. However, there was an accompanying clue attached to the photo. A press release listed the principal speakers of the ceremony by name. Perhaps one of these men is the mystery robed figure in Mr. Holland’s photo? Common sense told me no. All the men mentioned were not related to New York University, so I eliminated them based on the attire of the mystery man and the presumption that he was associated with NYU.
Based on the program from the unveiling ceremony, I took account of every NYU-associated speaker or participant. Potential suspects:
Dr. Carroll V. Newsom, New York University President
Dr. Ralph W. Sockman, Director of the Hall of Great Americans
Alfred M. Greenfield, Director of Music
Fred R. Crossland, Director of Public Occasions
George B. Sargent, Grand Marshall
I then consulted our portrait files, which contain photographs of individuals associated with the University. Since each one of these men held significant positions at NYU, each had a file. I selected photos that had similar profiles to the mystery man and that dated from around 1957. I prepared a photo line-up and had everyone working at the Archives select the most similar- looking suspect. We easily narrowed it down to two individuals: Hall of Fame Director Ralph Sockman and Grand Marshall George Sargent. A second query with the two photos resulted in a 3:3 split with no one willing to change their conviction.
After I relayed the line-up results to Dr. Holland, he queried his colleagues, but consensus was also elusive.
So the question goes out to you. Can you solve the mystery?
(It’s important to note that although the mystery man is wearing glasses and the photo line-up portraits have no glasses, other photos in Sockman and Sargent’s files prove that both men wore similar spectacles.)