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An historian does not stop with reading past records that directly record the event involved!  We must use forensic history techniques to find "what actually happened."

Forensic History: definition and description
     By Leonard H. Bucklin

We agree with a writer who was distinguished as both an historian and as a philosopher, that we should never neglect "that prime duty of the historian, a willingness to bestow infinite pains on discovering what actually happened." [R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1946) at p. 49.]

We cannot know exactly everything that happened in the Gaspee Affair.  While it is true that we cannot know exactly what happened, and we cannot know everything that happened, we cannot reject any other additional detail that is not recorded as a direct part of the Gaspee Affair, or is not recorded in an unblemished manner. That would do a  disservice to our present day understanding of the Gaspee Affair, a pivotal event in the start of the American Revolution.  To do true service to our understanding, we must turn to forensic history as our method.

Every instance of historical research is an undertaking partly of cataloging items and partly of analysis. The true question for the historian is how far from the direct scene does he/she look for evidence, and how much analysis is done of all the evidence. To discover "what actually happened," many eminent historians believe in enlarging the radius of factual examination and then examining the existing evidence by using the fullest analysis.  That enlargement of the radius of factual examination, and increasing the analysis of each item,  to help our present understanding of past events, is the undertaking which I prefer to call "forensic history."

Forensics is the term for a field of science dedicated to the methodical gathering and analysis of evidence to establish facts that can be presented to determine what happened during an event. Though criminal events (crime forensics) are perhaps most often associated by the public with the term "forensics," there are also other specialized fields, such as computer  forensics, forensic accounting, forensic engineering, forensic anthropology, and forensic psychiatry.

In dealing with the Gaspee Affair, the recorded data about the event are  limited. For the first ten years after the destruction of the Gaspee, secrecy and a lack of records about the attack or the attackers was deliberate. The Americans, who knew the facts, used the utmost skill and caution to hide the  actors and events.  When, about 10 years later, the Revolutionary War ended, the great battles and severe privations of the Americans eclipsed the Gaspee event in the minds of most persons. Few persons saw any need to record for future historians the names and actions of the Gaspee raiding force. Thus, I find it good to adopt a statement of Marcus J. Borg, made during his historical reconstruction of Jesus, as being appropriate to answer the question of exactly what happened in the events of the Gaspee Affair.

"Answering this question involves us in the task of historical reconstruction, which may be understood as generating an image or gestalt that draws together into a cohesive whole the various elements of the tradition judged to be historical.  The process is very much like a particular stage of detective work: after the evidence has been gathered, analyzed and weighted, it has to be integrated into an overall hypothesis."

"Doing this...produces a sketch...or image...I prefer these terms to picture or portrait, both of which suggest too much fullness of detail. A sketch on the other hand suggests broad strokes --- a clear outline without much precision of detail."   [Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again, at 28.]

Mark Twain expressed the same thought, although in his usual style.

"One of the most admirable things about history is, that almost as a rule we get as much information out of what it does not say as we get out of what it does say. And so, one may truly and axiomatically aver this, to-wit: that history consists of two equal parts; one of these halves is statements of fact, the other half is inference, drawn from the facts. . . . . . . When the practiced eye of the simple peasant sees the half of a frog projecting above the water, he unerringly infers the half of the frog which he does not see. To the expert student in our great science, history is a frog; half of it is submerged, but he knows it is there, and he knows the shape of it." --- Mark Twain, "The Secret History of Eddypus"

Mark Twain is right on target when he refers to history as a science. When drawing historical conclusions from records, it's important that you approach it in scientific way, considering all the possibilities and variables, and cite the reasons for your conclusion. By making sure your research is sound, you can be reasonably sure you're tracing a past event's frog.

I recognize that my own view of history is shaped by my training and experience as a civil trial advocate. Anthropology (a form of history), history, and the trial of a civil lawsuit have one major element in common -- each involves the process of deciding historical facts based on often inadequate information.  Indeed, the process of historical reconstruction is much like a civil trial in the English or American tradition: after the evidence has been viewed, the judge or jury has to determine whether the evidence taken as a whole makes it more likely than not that a particular event occurred. 

Our English and American societies have said that in general it is sufficient that a person's entire fortune shall depend upon the jury's historical reconstruction of events, even if all the jury can say is that it is "more probable than not" that an event happened in a particular way.  We as a culture think it proper that the property and livelihood of individuals and the very existences of businesses can be determined on such a basis, because the alternative is lack of forward movement.  In like manner, to move forward where it seems reasonable to do so, it is reasonable and sufficient to use forensic recreation as a part of historical investigation.  The results of such a method helps us make sense of past events in history.  Those judgments become useful theses for later investigators as the forensics helps us narrow the field of theses for future investigation.

So, in the process of presenting the history of the Gaspee Affair, it proper and useful to our understanding of history to use the question:

Does the evidence taken as a whole makes it more likely than not that a particular event occurred? 

This question is the proper core of the forensic reconstruction of history.

An important point in the use of forensic reconstruction of history is that those events which are not taken from primary sources (but rather have  been "judged" more likely to have occurred than not), must be labeled as judgments on facts.  The need for such labeling is because the dangers of using careful forensic evidence-based evaluations in writing an historical narrative are:

  • the improper use by others of such evaluations to stop further research, and
  • the mistaken use by others of such evaluations as direct facts.

Those dangers are far outweighed by the benefits in using the evaluations for our understanding of history.

Therefore, in my discussions of the events in the Gaspee Affair, I will be using the method of gathering evidence, and then determining whether the evidence taken as a whole makes it more likely than not that a particular event occurred.  This is "Forensic History" or Historical Reconstruction". 

I am mindful, during forensic history,  of the need to use Occam's razor in my determinations.

I am also mindful that my determinations are viewed through the lenses of my own values and experience. My values determine what I view as "normal" for human actions and speech.  My experience is that of a trial lawyer, in which practice, with each witness, as I prepare a cross-examination, I do a semantic analysis involving three questions.  Those same three questions are applicable to historical reconstruction.

1. How does the witness know what he is telling? Many times a witness really was not able to have a good vantage point to see the event, and his/her brain is merely filling in the blanks with what seems normal to the person's brain as what happened. 

As I write this the major television networks' newscasters are each explaining their eight hours of multiple news broadcasts reporting 12 men found alive --- when the men were actually found dead! The monumental error was built on one reporter hearing a police person with no direct view of the scene state within hearing of a reporter that "They're bringing 12 men out now.; the reporter asking: "Are they all alive?; and the response being "As far as I know." The initial reporter, and all the other reporters who relied on him, simply did not undertake the semantic investigation of "how does he know what he is telling?"

2. Exactly what does the witness mean? (Pull the exact meaning out to eliminate the shades of meaning that might have entire other meanings inside them) If the witness says, “It was a long time before he called,” does it mean three days or three hours or thirty minutes? 

Moreover, the purpose behind the making of the statement must be considered. During the Revolutionary War there was a Rhode Island conspiracy of silence and intentional suppression or unintentional distortion of facts by the American participants.  On the English side, that stories by the Gaspee officer and crew to suit their own advantage may well have occurred, because the all were defendants or additional potential defendants in the English court-martial proceedings.

Further, each investigator tends to inject his/her own values of "normal". Because the Gaspee events occurred in a four centuries ago, in a specialized local culture, a historian doing forensic reconstruction of history must have an immersion into the social, literary, humanistic, economic, and political cultures of the 18th century. 

An investigator also must he/she know something about the evolution of English words and values, and have read the literature of the 18th century.  Words change, not only in shades of meaning, but also in actual meaning.  In the 18th century a "stink" meant what we in our 21st century mean when we say a "pleasant aroma".  Even though the meaning itself has not changed,  the connotations attached to the word may vary through the centuries. Thus, for example, the first 18th century  biographer of Shakespeare, Nicholas Rowe, proclaimed the words of Shakespeare's poems as "manly and proper" and "objective."  Today we look at the same words and proclaim them "feminine, homosexual and empathetic." The words are the same, but social connotations of the word have changed.  Indeed, one of the values to a historian of examining the literature of earlier ages is to cause him to reflect on his reliance on his own modern use of words and his own connotations of the words used by the writer of earlier centuries.

3. Does the mere telling distort the way it happened ? For example, events may happen slower or quicker than the witness is able to relate them, and thus the mere telling suggests an untrue time period involved in the events.  In the Gaspee events, many of the documents or oral reports state as complete story what can only have been a partial story, and thus the telling distorts, for us, a narrow event into a broad-picture, wide-screen, investigative-reporting picture.

The semantic problems do not prevent forensic reconstruction of history; they only complicate the process and warn us of the always tentative conclusions we are making.

I should note that working historians are fond of working with the larger units of social action -- a class, a religion, or an ethnic group. The most often examined units I examine arise from my particular fondness of working with the most intimate of groups, the family; and from my particular passion to understand the law and legal events of the time and place (because in America and England law has been an expression of the morals of the governing community and has profoundly affected social action).  Therefore, in my forensic reconstruction of events,  my analysis of the Gaspee Affair often is influenced both by my research that begins with the family and interfamily relationships that shaped events and also by my research on the law of the time and place involved.