James O. Hall: Amateur historian, dead at 95, debunked Lincoln conspiracy theories





... Following a career with the Labor Department -- he retired in the early 1970s -- Mr. Hall turned himself into the world's foremost authority on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Historians, pros and amateurs alike, sought him out for his knowledge and access to his exhaustive files. As one of them put it, James O. Hall knew more about Lincoln's murder than anyone who ever lived, including John Wilkes Booth.

Uncorrupted by graduate degrees, with no thought of professional advancement, Mr. Hall exemplified a tradition in the study of American history, particularly in the Lincoln field, where the most interesting writing and research is often done by hobbyists. It's been this way from the beginning. Until the middle of the last century, all the great Lincoln biographers made their livings outside the university -- journalists like Ida Tarbell and free-lance enthusiasts like Benjamin Thomas produced biographies that were beautifully written and filled with news. Even now, dozens of Lincoln or Civil War roundtables flourish, and many of them publish quirky newsletters in which members let drop bits of recondite research or boldly advance new theories. While other areas of academic research have shriveled into hyperspecialization, the amateur tradition has kept the Lincoln field blessedly free of the guild mentality that can make academic history seem the dreary province of pedants and bullies.

Amateurism does have its lapses, as Mr. Hall well knew. Growing up on the Oklahoma frontier, he had listened as a boy to the old men swapping stories of their service in the Civil War. After his own service in World War II, Mr. Hall picked up a book by a chemist named Otto Eisenschiml. "Why Was Lincoln Murdered?" -- published in 1937 -- was thought for many years to be the definitive account of the assassination. As a historian Eisenschiml was a marvelous chemist, transmuting half-truths and shards of random evidence into a seemingly plausible case that Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, had masterminded the president's death.

"I started to read the book," Mr. Hall told me once, "and I thought, Good God!'" He could scarcely believe that investigators in 1865 had failed to uncover a conspiracy so immense as the one Eisenschiml proposed. "I decided I'd poke around on my own." The rest -- pardon the expression -- is history. Mr. Hall plunged into the transcript of the conspirators' trial, pored over contemporary accounts in newspapers, diaries and letters, and pieced together the notes taken by the original investigators. Eisenschiml's book is now just a historical curiosity, thanks in large part to Mr. Hall's meticulous debunking....


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