the forging of historians

Lies, Frauds and Hoaxes

Historians are trained to examine all sources carefully, looking for subtle biases, omissions, and silences. But sometimes we are confronted with sources that lie outright or that are themselves fraudulent. How should we approach such sources? How do we determine authenticity and accuracy? How and why are some lies promptly discredited while others remain believable for years? Primary sources will include memoirs, diaries, correspondence, newspapers, maps, and other materials of questionable veracity.

I had a chance to design and teach my own course in grad school, but I never took advantage of it. However, before deciding to put it off for a while – which turned out to mean never teaching it at all – I came up with the draft course description above. It’s probably too vague as to period and place: I likely would have focused mostly on examples from U.S. history, since that was my specialization – but there’s no reason someone couldn’t make a course like this cover all sorts of times and places.

The emphasis of this sort of class was supposed to be on working with sources. My idea was to have, if possible – along with general readings on frauds, forgeries and hoaxes – a few weeks revolve around a particular type of source:

  1. Is seeing believing?: visual sources (maybe doctored photography and/or maps)
  2. The truth and nothing but the truth: legal sources
  3. To thine own self be true: diaries and memoirs

and so on, hopefully all with clever unit names. I suspect it would have been quite difficult to organize the material like that, and I probably would have fallen back on covering particular cases.

I also had the idea of including forgeries and hoaxes in the readings without marking them as such. The idea was to see if students could figure it out for themselves. But it never occurred to me to have them create a hoax of their own. (via)

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