Response to James McPherson et al.


Mr. Vancil is a curator at the Rare Books & Special Collections, Indiana State University Library. He holds a Ph.D. in English.

Click here to read a second response by David Vancil to Professor McPherson.

  • Jane Singer's Response to David Vancil's Article
  • In"Fact or Fiction?" excerpted online (http:// www.theaha.org/perspectives/issues/ 2004/0401/0401pre2.cfm) from the January 2004 President's column in Perspectives , the newsletter of the American Historical Association, James M. McPherson, AHA president for 2003, writes entertainingly of concocted research documents and collections. As a bibliographer and researcher with 30 years of training and experience with documents, I was familiar with many of the examples and enjoyed reading of them and the few others with which I was unfamiliar. However, as I had been warned would be the case, I found an account of Edward Steers's, Joan Chaconas's, and Jane Singer's adventures, or misadventures, in the Neff-Guttridge Collection, included in McPherson's remarks. I will not bother to repeat what the reader may read for himself. Therefore, let the remarks which follow stand in response not only to McPherson's comments but Edward Steers's and Joan L. Chaconas's" Dark Union : Bad History," North & South 7.1 (January 2004): 12-30, and to the sidebar remarks! made by Jane Singer contained in it.

    In March 2003, I began to accept the Neff-Guttridge Collection, which currently focuses on the Lincoln era but ranges well beyond Lincoln himself. As part of the collection provided a research materials for the use of the authors of Dark Union , Leonard Guttridge and Ray Neff kept much of the collection in their own possession until the book appeared last summer. No great effort was made to process the collection as it was received since a publisher had not been found at the time, and it was uncertain, based on the sample received, whether Neff's existing indexing scheme would be sufficient for library research purposes. Eventually, it was found that his system could be successfully adapted, and efforts were then undertaken to mount on the departmental website some of Dr. Neff's existing research listings and, in addition, to create a web-searchable database at the item level of the main documents, many of which were unique, in the collection.

    In aside, let me indicate that Leonard Guttridge, a historian who writes on many topics entirely unrelated to the Lincoln era and the assassination, has indicated that he may deposit research materials for his other books. However, no timetable has been established and no formal agreements signed to effect the receipt of these additional materials.

    The reason that I recommended accepting the collection has nothing to do with the Neff-Guttridge theories concerning John Wilkes Booth's activities or those of other figures in Dark Union, . As a librarian, I do not take a position on these theories or their narrative. Nor does our university, as far as I know. The collection was accepted because it has intrinsic value. There are unique photographs and papers pertaining to nineteenth-century history that I felt should be preserved and made accessible to researchers. Many, if not most of them, have nothing to do with matters covered in Dark Union . In fact, it has been practice not to accept research notes in my department for published works by ISU faculty members or other authors. But the Neff-Guttridge Collections goes far beyond research notes. It is a rich respository of all kinds of information, which I believe researchers interested in subjects as diverse as family history or public history will fin! d useful.

    As for the documents disputed by Dr. Steers, Joan Chaconas, and Jane Singer, I have to say that I sampled the Neff-Guttridge Collection before receiving it and verified its provenance to my own satisfaction with respect to its overall authenticity, but I have not examined every page of what amounts to thousands of pages and photographs. I have attempted to authenticate particular items when researchers have requested it, but the Neff-Guttridge Collection, besides having been relocated several times in recent years, is a collection arranged for the convenience of its creators. Some items are not found where one would expect. In addition, some material has yet to be received.

    The process of receiving and documenting such a collection normally would take many years. Usually, it would be largely unavailable to researchers until such a process had been completed. However, because of statements made by the publishers of Dark Union , I elected to try to accommodate qualified researchers, as long as they understood the limitations of our knowledge of a collection neither received in its entirety nor fully processed. In fact, at the time of Edward Steers's and Joan Chaconas's visit to the collection, I had received only a few days before a box of papers containing portions of the Potter Papers and other related materials. Also, I want to add that since their four-hour research visit, I have received many more containers of documents relating to Potter.

    The remarks by Jane Singer are disconcerting. A note in the Dark Union attributed the location of a document to the Filson Club, but Neff has explained he actually obtained it indirectly through Dr. Nancy Baird, a researcher who subsequently published on Luke Blackburn. I thought it was clear to Ms. Singer that I was quering Dr. Neff by telephone and the reason that he" could not remember" is that he had already delivered the relevant research folder to the collection and was twenty miles away. Is it not unreasonable to expect him to recall details perfectly of occurrences 30 years in the past. Once he reviewed the document and his correspondence with Dr Baird, Dr. Neff reasserted that he had obtained the document from her, although she had no recollection, according to Singer, of ever having communicated with him. It is a shame Ms. Singer did not contact Neff to verify the interpretation or understanding that she had reached. At no time do I believe that I ind! icated that I spoke for Neff, and now wish I had said nothing or spoken with greater precision.

    As to the Steers-Chaconas charge that there is no evidence that Andrew Potter ever existed and that the typescripts and few handwritten materials are therefore suspect, I readily admit that I cannot authenticate the materials beyond the ordinary provenance standards used by manuscripts librarians and archivists. And so admits Dr. Ray Neff, who purchased the Potter Papers from a Crawfordsville, Indiana antique dealer, after one of his health-science students at Indiana State University who knew of Neff's interest in the Civil War informed him of their availability. While he has told me he considers the find serendipitous, he also acknowledes the lack of evidence external to the collection proving the documents genuine, especially since there is apparently no mention made of them other than in documents held in the collection itself. His methodology for dealing with this problem he has explained elsewhere. It is not an issue for the library, since the documents themselves ! are viewed as possessing intrinsic interest apart from their use by Neff and Guttridge.

    While I have been willing to assist researchers when asked specific questions, I am under no obligation to validate the facts in Neff's and Guttridge's work. As artifacts, the Potter Papers are themselves fascinating, regardless of whether all of them are accurate depictions of the lives of invididuals. I am satisfied that they were created by someone other than Neff or Guttridge and that it was quite a long time ago. I am a good enough student of paper and other factors in dating manuscript materials to indicate that I think these materials were created 70 years or more ago.

    There are errors that Steers and Chaconas make in their article with respect to the holdings. For example, one of the photographs they identify as being of Andrew Potter is actually identified in the collection as Charles Potter, Andrew's son. This is not the only example of an error. But it is not my job to criticize researchers, but to aid them. Nor do I want to bring to bear my own experience as an editor with the suspect clarity of Potter Papers. My own observation is that we have no idea what guidelines, if any, were adopted in the creation of these transcripts. And if they are as old as I believe them to be and they actually even if they were examples of" creative writing," I have to say they are remarkable achievments deserving of preservation. Yet, I do not think they are fakes. Also, as a librarian, I will not hazard any theories about why some of them may contain accurate information and others do not.

    I will be happy to receive James McPherson, Edward Steers, Joan Chaconas, or Jane Singer in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections to make use of the Neff-Guttridge Collection or any other that they would find useful. The Neff-Guttridge Collection is but one of several collections of which we are proud.

    Finally, I want to correct some misinformation about Dr. Ray A. Neff. He is a retired member of the faculty of Indiana State University, who attained the rank of Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Safety. While his field of expertise in health issues demanded an extensive knowledge of chemistry and he, in fact, holds some patents in this field, I would hardly characterize Neff as a chemist. Also, I would like to go on the record as stating that I consider both Ray Neff and Leonard Guttridge to be gentlemen and, yes, scholars.

    Be advised that the views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent any official or unofficial views or opinions of Indiana State University.


    I have been researching the life and work of Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn for five years. Therefore, when I came upon the letter attributed to him in Dark Union I was most interested to discover its provenance as its sentiments were contradictory to everything I knew about Blackburn.

    I am saddened to learn that my efforts to learn more has been called a "misadventure." After all, it is the responsibility of the non-fiction writer to assiduously source and stand behind any and all documents quoted in their work.

    While Dr. Vancil graciously provided me with a copy of the curious undated typewritten document, neither Blackurn's biographer or anyone at the Filson Society knew of it, nor did it ever reside as claimed in their collections.

    Because there appears to be no established provenance for the Blackburn letter that was quoted in Dark Union, I could not in all conscience use it or quote from it in my own work.

    Non-fiction writing demands microscopic attention to detail. Appropriate scrutiny is hardly a "misadventure." It is a necessity.

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