Muffled Voices Heard from Forgotten Closets
by Steven Branting, author of Wicked Lewiston: A Sinful Century
The old radio program “Fibber McGee and Molly” had a long-running gag — an overstuffed closet from which a cacophony of items would tumble every time it was opened by Fibber, who always vowed to clean it out. Every community, large and small, maintains a closet or two into which murder and mayhem, scandal and skullduggery have been none-too-neatly stored. Historians love the adventure of “what’s behind the door.” Opening some can rival the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. "Do you see anything," asked Lord Carnarvon. "Yes," replied Howard Carter, "Wonderful things."
Carter’s workers had accidentally found a stairway leading to the tomb. There are subtle pathways for the historical investigator. I trod them when writing Wicked Lewiston: A Sinful Century. Such trails are not well-paved or elegant, but they are real just the same when you recognize the crumbs on the ground.
Serendipity cannot raise its head and say “Here I am” when one has paradigm blindness. We all settle into a comfortable ways of seeing and doing things. Those routines are paradigms, patterns for perceiving the world and reacting to it. Historians must peer beyond these façades, which are mere groupthink, the version of past events that everyone has agreed to accept.
So much of what history, even local history, can teach us has been lost to inattention, a type of blindness in the guise of an “invisible gorilla.” In a 1975 study, researchers asked participants to perform a very simple task: watch a short video and count either the number of times a ball was passed among a group of people or the number of the times the ball touched the floor. At a point in the video, a woman walked through the scene either dressed in a full gorilla suit or carrying an open umbrella. The test subjects were very adept at keeping count, but fifty percent of the participants never saw the gorilla or the umbrella. Their minds had become so focused on their tasks that they were now “inattentionally blind.”
“When you talk,” commented American historian Jared Sparks, “you repeat what you already know. When you listen, you often learn something.” The unsavory survives on a good dose of family anecdotes and impermanent memories. The root of truth hides beneath the grafted foliage of telling and retelling, but it is there, awaiting a good pruning to the master stalk. And truth can be cathartic, as was the case for the friends of Jean Johnson and Garnita Prosser, young women murdered with passionate intensity in the 1950s.
Successful criminals are not and have never been stupid. Crooked paths and devious courses require a good sense of direction. “It’s a wicked world,” wrote Arthur Conan Doyle, “and when a clever man turns his brain to crime it is the worst of all.” His downfall commonly involves hubris. Such was the case of Robert Emmett Eastman, who bludgeoned a former Lewiston woman to death in his Maryland home and fed her to the Chesapeake crabs in an unsuccessful effort to hide from those seeking him for fraud.
Hubris encourages feelings of invincibility; invincibility nurtures permanent solutions to temporary problems. The arrogant cannot help but leave a well-marked trail for historians. From Achilles of old to political demagogues today, the leap from sensible to crackpot, from civil to barbaric is no more difficult than for the boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In the mind of a woman the likes of child-killer Margaret Hardy in the last chapter of Wicked Lewiston, the change was as imperceptible as the transformation from life to death in a boring faculty meeting, but oh, so much more tragic and ending in the obscurity of the Idaho State Insane Asylum.
When the principals to violent crimes have joined their victims, “to mix forever with the elements/To be a brother to the insensible rock/And to the sluggish clod,” what ground-penetrating radar does a historian use? When the passions cool, there remain the fragments found in police records and faded newspaper pages, all to be interpreted and verified. As the motto of the United States Air Force Technical Applications Center reads: “In God we trust. All others we monitor.” Or, as Mark Twain put it: “If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.” So, beware of the “T-effect.”
Researchers in Sweden have found that our imagination can change our perceptions of reality. Your mind can literally play tricks on you by changing illusions of what you think you hear and see into what seems like reality. Mental imagery and visualization can alter how we perceive the world around us. The "phantom edge phenomena" (seeing an outline that is not actually there) is due to what neuropsychologists call the "T-effect." Groups of neural cells see breaks in lines or shapes, and if given no further input, will assume that there is a figure in front of the lines. Scientists believe that this happens because the brain has been trained to view the break in lines as an object that could pose a potential threat. With lack of additional information, the brain errs on the side of safety and perceives the space as an object. Can you appreciate the implications for historians?
I was asked recently to investigate a quite ordinary Montana peak campaign hat found in a second-hand store some twenty years ago. As novelist Eudora Welty liked to say, “Never think you’ve seen the last of anything.” The sweat-stained hat was like a thread hanging invitingly from a battered woolen sweater. I pulled, and the whole and the whole story unraveled before me, starting in May 1895 with the deaths of two men in a gunfight near my city and ending up in the Idaho Supreme Court nearly 60 years later. Along the way, a Presidential pardon and a West Point graduation were thrown in. No two families are alike when it comes to unhappiness.
“Ocian in view! O! the joy!” As it was for William Clark, the taste of historical discovery is sweet, regardless of how arduous the trek may have been to reach it. Each stage has its own level of anticipation. Few Eyptologists are getting a good night’s sleep now that radar has uncovered at least two additional chambers adjoining the tomb of the boy king. It’s going to be such an adventure.
"Be careful going in search of adventure,” wrote William Least-Heat Moon in Blue Highways. “It's ridiculously easy to find."
The author of four books from The History Press, Steven Branting is the only Idahoan to be awarded the Historic Preservation Medal from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Idaho Statesman (Boise) describes Wicked Lewiston as “twistedly entertaining… unconventional history… a collage of vice… a pastiche of ‘paranoia, perfidy and puzzling predicaments.’”