Debasing of history

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11660404317896.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of’, ‘Did our 16th President not really write the Gettysburg Address? Could the speech really have been delivered by a body double?’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11660405147896.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of’, ‘Did Babe Ruth call his homerun shot against the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series by pointing his bat toward center field?’);

It seems to be the lifelong ambition of certain individuals to take great pride in shooting down others and their accomplishments. Many of these nabobs of negativism (to use a phrase frequently employed by a former vice president) have done very little with their lives and get some sort of perverse pleasure in casting doubt on the admirable feats of others.

This was driven home to me recently when I noticed a television special that claimed to offer evidence that the Apollo 11 moon landing never happened, and the whole thing was an elaborate hoax designed to booster the interest and funding for an ebbing space program. The proof of the allegations is based on photographs made of the alleged moonscape that showed an absence of stars and an American flag apparently waving in the breeze where there is not supposed to be any wind.

Another example of legend and hero bashing was the recently-published opinion of a little-known expert that Davy Crockett did not die fighting to the end at the Alamo in 1836. Rather, he surrendered to Santa Anna and was probably executed before a Mexican firing squad. What are we going to do with all those coonskin hats that children cherished a generation ago in memory of one of our great American folk heroes whose deeds are legendary?

Another bashing of an American folk heroine took place in a book published by a popular author that revealed the “true sex” of Calamity Jane. True, the book was a work of fiction, but many have taken it as gospel that this famed character of the early frontier was not a woman but a man who cleverly disguised his gender for most of his life. So much for the popularly-believed romance between Jane and Wild Bill Hickock. I prefer the Calamity Jane prototype as portrayed by the actress Jane Russell in a popular movie years ago.

Another denigration of a popular historic figure really hit close to home and annoyed me greatly. Another “expert” now claims that Theodore Roosevelt did not perform heroically at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898. Rather, this destroyer of legends maintains that Roosevelt was far to the rear when the charge occurred and did not lead his Rough Riders in the bloody assault on the Spanish stronghold. It seems to make no difference that at the time TR was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor, and numerous of his comrades offered affidavits attesting to his courage in battle on that fateful day. As the awarding of this medal for outstanding heroism in the face of the enemy must be approved by Congress, Roosevelt’s powerful political enemies made sure he was not awarded this honor. However, it is satisfying to note that more than 100 years later, the Medal of Honor was awarded to Roosevelt posthumously. My family has always been a great admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, and, in fact, my grandfather was such a booster of TR that he named my uncle after him. So, I was especially affronted by this Roosevelt basher who gleefully was able “to set the record straight” concerning the exploits of a man I consider to have been our greatest President.

Abraham Lincoln has long been a favorite target of those who wish to tear down his image and accomplishments. In 1864, a woman lost five sons killed in action in the Civil War. This so moved the compassionate Lincoln that he wrote a personal letter of sympathy to the woman expressing his great sorrow for her loss. The letter was saved and offers a deep and accurate insight into the character of our 16th President.

Now, a history professor at a college in Connecticut offers evidence that Lincoln did not write the letter. Rather, he claims the famous missive was written by Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Hay. He cites as irrefutable evidence for his claim a similarity of phrases in the letter to phrases previously used by Hay. I would not be surprised if the good professor did not in the future present “proof” that Lincoln did not write and deliver the Gettysburg address—that it was written by a 19th century White House speech writer and delivered at Gettysburg by a double.

Another legend from the Civil War era also has recently been questioned. It involves the command “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” given by Admiral David G. Farragut as his fleet entered Mobile Bay on the morning of Aug. 5, 1864. The entrance to the Bay and the port of Mobile was restricted to a narrow channel guarded on one side by the guns of the Confederate-held Fort Morgan and on the other by a minefield. (Mines were called torpedoes during the Civil War) As Farragut’s ships advanced into the channel, one of the Union ironclads, the Tecumseh, struck a torpedo and sank in a matter of minutes, blocking the ribbon-like passage into the bay. Farragut climbed into the rigging of his flagship and gave the order that the advancing men of war were to turn to the port side and bypass the stricken Tecumseh. One of his officers shouted to him that that would lead them directly through the minefield, and it is then that this first admiral of the United States Navy gave his historic command.

Now it is claimed Farragut did not give that command, but rather, it was the figment of the imagination of an over-zealous reporter who was present at the time. Apparently, there are no affidavits from crew members present that attest to hearing the command. No one can know for sure if Farragut did indeed issue the famous order, but it has inspired members of our naval service for almost 150 years and should be allowed to do so in the future. As a side note, none of the warships was damaged as they traversed the minefield, the torpedoes having become waterlogged rendering them incapable of explosion. Later the same day, Mobile Bay was secured by the Union fleet, and the last southern port was closed to the blockade runners.

Biologists and other scientists are not immune from the basher’s wrath. For example, it has been reported in recent years that the Father of Genetics, Gregor Mendel, fudged his data, thereby rendering his fundamental work on how inheritance works invalid. Mendel was an obscure monk living and teaching science in the mid-1800s at a monastery in what is today Austria. Though he was basically a mathematician, his interest in biology was profound.

Working in a small garden plot within the monastery, he observed certain characteristics of pea plants he raised. After many years of careful study and detailed crossing experiments, he was able to formulate two of the basic laws of genetic: dominance and independent assortment. He used the word “determiners” for what we call today “genes.” These experiments showed how two parents can produce offspring with different characteristics than those possessed by the parents, an extremely important contribution to the knowledge of how inheritance takes place and how the raw material for natural selection and evolution is provided.

Mendel reported his findings in 1859 in an obscure and little-known scientific journal, and his work was overlooked until it was discovered in 1900, and this year is generally considered to be the dawn of the science of genetics. As his basic field was mathematics, much of his experimental data were presented in the form of mathematical ratios based on his predictions of how his various determiners expressed themselves.

Now, much to the horror of biologists and other admirers of the monk, a modern-day statistician has declared that Mendel must have doctored up his figures so they conformed to his predictions. This expert claims Mendel’s numbers were so close to the theoretical that they were mathematically impossible. Therefore, Mendel committed the scientific no-no of altering data to fit a predetermined idea, and his work should be regarded as tainted.

Maybe the cherubic little monk did “round off” some of his numbers, but the validity of his basic laws has been proven countless times in the past 100 years. Please, let’s not destroy the well-deserved reputation of this important scientist.

In biology, the science of naming species is called taxonomy, and there are certain rules to be followed when a new species is na

med. The individual who discovers this type of life previously unknown to science gets the privilege of giving it a name, and many well-known scientific names have been around for several hundred years and are well known to workers in a specific field. There is a breed of taxonomists, however, who seem to spend their entire lives attempting to prove that a scientific name is null and void and must be discarded from all the books and literature in which it appears. A scientific name may be discarded if it is shown someone else named the species first, or the name had previously been given to another species. In recent years, there has been a clamor from these pseudo-taxonomists to correct the errors they have gleefully discovered.

There should be a law similar to “squatters rights” which states that if a name has been used and has been generally accepted for a species over an extended period of time, it should retain its taxonomic validity even if it can be demonstrated that technically the name is invalid. Once a name has become a day-to-day part of the scientific lexicon, it should not be thrown in the waste basket because some latter-day snooper has found supposed grounds for its invalidation.

And this debasing of legends and extraordinary people extends to the world of sports. Recently, experts have declared that New York Yankee Babe Ruth did not call his homerun shot against the Chicago Cubs in a World Series game in 1932. The legend has it that, after taking considerable harassment from the Cubs dugout and the fans at Wrigley Field, Ruth calmly faced his antagonists and pointed his bat to center field. On the next pitch, he hit the longest home run ever hit in Wrigley Field up to that time, and trotted around the base paths tipping his cap to the dejected Cubs and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a spectator in the stands. It is maintained that Ruth merely pointed his bat at Cubs pitcher Charlie Root to make a point and did not predict a homer on the next pitch.

The 1951 playoff for the National League pennant was a race between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers and is perhaps the most famous series in the history of baseball. The amazing Giants overcame a 13-1/2 game deficit in a little more than a month to tie the fading Dodgers and force a playoff series. In the final and deciding game of the series, Brooklyn led the Giants by a score of 4-2 in last of the ninth inning. With two outs, it seemed almost certain that the Dodgers would win the right to represent the National League in the World Series. Then came what has been referred to as “the shot heard around the world,” when Giant Bobby Thomson hit the next pitch thrown by Ralph Branca out of the Polo Grounds for a 3-run homer to win the game and the National League pennant.

Now, an after-the-fact genius has declared that the win by the Giants is tarnished because the Giants were stealing the signs the Dodger catcher was flashing to Branca, and Thomson knew exactly what type of pitch was to be thrown next. A spotter with binoculars was supposedly stationed inside the scoreboard in center field and was intercepting the signals the catcher was using and relaying them to the Giant dugout, where they were quickly passed on to the batter.

“Stealing” signs has always been an accepted part of our national pastime, and all teams attempt to do it whether they will admit it or not. So, why bring this up some 50 years later? This guy must really be a sore loser and a real die-hard Brooklyn fan of the old school.

And on and on it goes, even to the point where we hear the Nazi Holocaust did not occur but was simply the figment of our imagination. After all, didn’t Hitler do many things to help the people of Germany, whose economy and society had been shattered by World War I?

I guess we will have to endure the rantings, ravings, and sensational disclosures by those individuals who seem to get a kick out of denouncing great individuals and their deeds and revising the legends of history. As for myself, I prefer to go along with what has become an established part of history and not rake over the boneyards of the past.

Dr. Robert A. Hedeen is a columnist with The Rock River Times, whose column appears weekly in Section B.

From the Dec. 13-19, 2006, issue

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