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Historical Fraud and the Seduction of Ideas: The Poulshock Case

Much of the commentary about the latest plagiarism scandal involving Stephen Ambrose, and to a much lesser extent, Doris Kearns Goodwin, portray them as victims of their own success. As best-selling authors of popular narratives that appeal to a vast audience hungry for well-told stories about America's past, they inevitably succumbed to the temptations of the market place which, the commentators invariably remind us, rewards speed rather than reflection, flash rather than substance. Had they only stuck to their last and produced serious works on serious topics, the kind of academic tomes read by the few rather than the many, their reputation for probity would still be intact. After all, so the argument implies, historians writing for other historians rarely plagiarize or commit other scholarly sins. Not that historians populating our colleges and universities are more ethical than, say, personal injury lawyers. But deceiving one's peers who, presumably, have total acquaintance with the evidence before them and delight in dissecting every sentence and running to ground every citation, is virtually impossible and fraught with so much danger that few are foolish enough to try. As John R. Dichtl intoned confidently in"Integrity and History," in the February 2002 Newsletter of the Organization of American Historians, in conjunction with institutional sanctions in academia which serve to intimidate potential wrongdoers employed there,"scholarly peer pressure keeps dishonesty in check."

The major problem with this theory is that it ignores the fact that the most egregious examples of scholarly fraud that have come to light can be found in just those narrow works of academic history that only specialists seem to love. Notwithstanding current attempts to rank Michael Bellesiles's The Arming of America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (2000) as"one of the worst cases of academic irresponsibility in memory" (quoted in Melissa Seckora, National Review Online [NRO], Nov. 26, 2001), I think it is fair to say that no historical study published in the past century violated the canons of scholarship more than one authored by S. Walter Poulshock, The Two Parties and the Tariff in the 1880s. Published in 1965 by Syracuse University Press and based upon the author¹s Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, the book rested on fabricated evidence. Yet it passed muster with the eminent historians who directed and read it as a dissertation and won the plaudits of a leading authority who reviewed it for publication as a"refreshing, stimulating, and significant work. . . . a major contribution to our understanding of the politics of the Gilded Age and the history of both the Republican and Democratic parties."

And it did indeed advance a compelling, though not wholly original, thesis. Contrary to previous interpretations of the Gilded Age which viewed the Republican and Democratic parties as captives of the"Robber Barons," Poulshock argued, the leaders of both parties"were independent seekers of political power" who deliberately employed the tariff issue as a partisan weapon, not because they were under the thumb of the business community, but in order to differentiate themselves in their search for party cohension and elective office. This generalization depended mostly on what the politicos said to one another in their private correspondence, a largely unexplored"wealth of materials" he claimed to have been one of the rare historians to have thoroughly mined and which, he insisted, future"historians of the period would do well to digest" if they were ever to acquire"a point of view" like his own,"fresher and more enlightened than that of the [Matthew] Josephson school."

The trouble with this exercise in self-congratulation, however, was that to prove his thesis and to disprove, as he put it, the"simplistic and naive" interpretation of previous historians, Poulshock relied upon little more than his febrile imagination. He engaged in almost no archival research but instead fabricated hundreds of quotations and statements, including correspondence between some people who never lived and some politicians who were long dead, all dreamed up to give substance and structure to his argument and all dressed up in the most respectable, though thoroughly deceptive, scholarly garb. His footnotes, especially, looked like models of careful annotation, seemingly providing all the information any reader might ever require. Moreover, not content with merely citing his spurious sources, Poulshock often larded his footnotes with learned suggestions pointing to new avenues for study so as to impress any and all with his unrivaled mastery of the material. Ironically, it was one of those authoritative musings on a subject I was working on which eventually led to his exposure.

Poulshock¹s book first grabbed my attention when I came across a chatty reference in it to a letter supposedly written by Sen. Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island. At the time, in early 1966, I was researching a biography of Aldrich in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress but the letter, said to be in the papers of Sen. William E. Chandler of New Hampshire, which I had scoured months earlier, had apparently eluded me. Another search of the Chandler papers at the Library failed to turn it up. Could Poulshock have simply been careless about the provenance of the document or was this a case of willfull dishonesty? Not knowing the answer but a little suspicious that something was amiss, I dashed off an inquiry to him at Rutgers University, where he was an Assistant Professor of History.

While awaiting his reply, I attempted to track down several other citations that had also raised doubts. To my surprise, none of them checked out. Over lunch a few days later, I told two other historians doing research in the manuscript room, Ari Hoogenboom and Irwin Unger, of my concerns. They were astonished, not merely because it seemed so improbable but because both of them were reviewing the book for major historical journals. Together, we decided to check thirty, randomly selected references and came up blank on all of them. Wondering now whether he had ever even stepped foot in the Library of Congress, where most of the documents he cited were located, we went over the records of the Manuscript Division¹s sign-in register and discovered he had never been there. At about this time I received a reply from Poulshock to my letter."I am at present in a temporary residence and all my notes are packed away in an inaccessible place," he explained."However, I will be moving in a month or so, [and] will be able to check the footnote thoroughly. At that time I will be more than happy to send you either the full letter or the precise citation."

Convinced now the book was fraudulent we decided to act quickly before any reviews appeared and brought our findings to the attention of Henry R. Winkler, who was the Managing Editor of the American Historical Review as well as a colleague and teacher of Poulshock's at Rutgers, where the latter had received his B.A. in 1952. Though understandably disbelieving at first, Winkler appointed us and Fred Nicklason, a historian at the University of Maryland, as a fact-finding committee to report back within a week. Dividing the book between the four of us, we concentrated on 195 references to collections in the Library and discovered only 23, all of which were apparently copied from biographies and other secondary sources. But even then Poulshock altered the content of those authentic documents, embellishing them by adding a couple of sentences here and subtracting a few words there, to bring them into line with his thesis. This practice also extended to quotations from contemporary newspapers, magazines, and books. Of the bogus letters, two deserve mention. They were supposedly written to Grover Cleveland's Secretary of the Treasury, Daniel Manning, ten months after he died by prominent politicians who might well have served as pallbearers at his funeral. (Click here to see a sample of Poulshock's footnotes.)

Winkler and a colleague, Richard McCormick, who came down to Washington for the meeting, heard our report and, because Poulshock was in the midst of receiving tenure and promotion, swiftly notified the President and Dean at Rutgers. What happened next, we were later told, was that Poulshock was summoned to a conference where a group of administrators and faculty presented him with our findings. At first, we learned, he vociferously denied everything but after five minutes or so he confessed to the obvious. Yes, he admitted, the documentation was fabricated but, he insisted, the thesis was nevertheless correct. Having no other choice, he resigned from Rutgers.

When Syracuse University Press was informed, it sent urgent notices to bookstores and libraries asking them to return their copies immediately because of production errors. For one perplexed bookseller near the Library of Congress this only added to his confusion. Completely mystified as to the reasons for a sudden burst of orders for the book from the cognoscenti anxious to get their hands on a copy, he took the requests to mean it was some word-of-mouth best seller he had better stock up. But no sooner did he put his books on display when the publisher called demanding he ship them back. Would someone please explain what was going on? he pleaded to a customer who took pity and told him the story. Others soon heard about it, too, when in July 1966, a cryptic notice appeared in Pennsylvania History, informing its readers that Poulshock¹s book as well as an article he contributed to the journal four years earlier was"based confessedly in part upon evidence which does not exist, has been withdrawn as far as possible from circulation, and anyone attempting to use it should be advised of this."

Unfortunately not everybody is aware of, or is willing to act upon, this warning. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, refused to revoke the degree it awarded Poulshock in 1962, and even went so far as to grant him another doctorate, this time in sociology, in 1978. Presumably, in the absence of any sanctions for his admitted fraud and its remarkable willingness to bestow a second Ph.D., that institution must have regarded his original, bogus dissertation as a worthy scholarly endeavor which not only should remain accessible to readers but as one which prepared him well for its doctoral program in the social sciences.

Similarly, the two major professional historical associations failed to caution their members or the public about the fraud, relying instead on the proverbial academic grapevine to shoo readers and researchers away from the book. As a result, despite -- or maybe because of -- the efforts of Syracuse to recall the book for unstated technical flaws, copies can still be found circulating in college libraries. And without any warning labels with"reader beware" emblazoned on the cover, it is no wonder that its fabrications sometimes turn up recycled in term papers and master¹s essays. Still, it is disturbing to find it prominently cited in published works by professional historians who should know better -- and probably would have known better had the responsible professional organizations not kept silent. Recently, a book by Robert W. Cherny, American Politics in the Gilded Age, 1868-1900 (1997), addressed primarily to college students, appeared with the Poulshock title featured in its bibliography for the light it sheds"on major issues and policies." Not that there isn¹t some merit to Poulshock's"thesis" but no historian should take other historians' claims on faith alone,"an expedient so desperate," the English scholar, G.R. Elton, asserted in The Theory and Practice of History (1967),"as hardly to deserve the name."

Which partly explains why, I think, Poulshock committed his fraud. He was convinced of his conclusion long before he undertook any major research to gather the specific factual evidence to support it. A remark Poulshock's dissertation adviser once made to me provided an insight into what might have impelled him to do what he did. Of course, this adviser was dismayed by the fraud and embarrassed that it happened on his watch. But, he said firmly,"the thesis is true," precisely the same comment his student uttered when he confessed. Both of them knew the truth and the facts were just incidental, mere bagatelles to be acquired and displayed in due course. In Poulshock's mind, at least, this certainty came to mean that if the evidence was difficult to obtain or didn¹t quite fit the theory, then the evidence and not the theory was at fault and he would set the evidence right no matter if he had to construct it. Poulshock, in that respect, appears to have been a pioneer in post-modern literary criticism.

Much the same casual, dismissive attitude about the worth, indeed even the necessity, of an honest evidentiary basis to support a given thesis, seems to be reflected in the controversy over Bellesiles's Arming America. Consistent with what Poulshock implied by his actions and his statements, some of Bellesiles's supporters assume that questions of fictitious or fabricated evidence are of far less historical and intellectual importance than the book's"thesis," its point of view, its larger purpose in the grand scheme of things. As Saul Cornell of Ohio State, one of Bellesiles's supporters, argues,"Even if he is proven wrong, it is possible to write an important book that moves the debate forward, even if it is flawed. We are all in Bellesiles's debt for opening the debate" (quoted in Seckora, National Review Online [NRO], Oct. 1, 2001). In other words, Cornell is claiming, if a work of history propounds a theme or"thesis" of political, social, or intellectual merit that stimulates debate, readers should not be too concerned about whether it is based on dishonest, bogus evidence. The book's"thesis" is what we should really focus on and treasure, not those grubby little facts that have the bad habit of sometimes getting in the way of the truth. So much for the notion that the seductions of the market place are what lure historians into error. While that may well be the case for some, for many more, especially in the groves of academe, it is the seductive power of ideas.