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Un petit 'divertisement', with plenty of memetic momentum....
Making (up?) history
Little hard evidence found to support the claims on some monuments
By David Arnold, Globe Staff, 8/6/2001
Such was the reaction of British bicycle historian Derek Roberts upon
learning the other day that Boston has a bicycle path - and New Haven is
about to erect a plaque - in honor of Boston's own Pierre Lallement, the
alleged inventor of the bicycle.
David Herlihy of Hull, with tomes of research to back him up, says it's
But naysayers in England and France claim the real inventors were Pierre
and Ernest Michaux from the French village of Bar-le-Duc, where there is
a monument dedicated to the father-son team.
Not so, counter the Germans, who have always been partial to Karl Von
Drais. He's got a memorial in the Bavarian town of Karlsruhe.
The Lallement controversy is only the latest example hereabouts of what
some call the ''squeaky wheel'' strategy for memorials: Those who make
the loudest noise can get the biggest plaque - regardless of whether or
not there's conclusive proof to back up a claim.
A few examples:
Behind the Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge lies a large granite slab
proclaiming: ''On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house
In Weston stands a 30-foot-high commemorative stone tower on a promentory
''first seen by Bjarni Herjulfson in 985 AD,'' according to an
inscription in polished granite the size of a small billboard.
In the town of Westford, about 25 miles northwest of Boston, lies a
granite memorial alleging that a Scotsman, Sir James Gunn, died here in
1399 while scouting the area.
In the town of Berkley, the 40-ton ''Dighton'' rock, encased in glass and
its own building, has an entire state park named after it because cryptic
carvings in the sandstone indicate (one theory) that the Viking ruffian
Thorfinn Karlseni slept thereabouts.
These incredible claims - carved in stone or cast in bronze for the
education of generations to come - are founded on nary a shred of hard
Since record-keeping began, there have been 209,000 archeological test
pits dug in Southern New England by bona fide archeologists, according to
Brona Simon, the state archeologist. How many holes have turned up
European artifacts predating the early 1600s?
''Zero,'' she said.
Instead, some of the more fantastic memorials around New England are
testament that history is fluid and that every generation has a
proclivity, if not a need, to fiddle with reality. The subject intrigues
Jim Baker, the senior historian at Plimoth Plantation.
''Cultures are continually redefining themselves, sometimes with icons
that may not be accurate, to give meaning when it is needed,'' he said.
With enough clout and money, people can believe they ''can make history
happen, and then hope it catches on.''
To illustrate, he cites the dubious heritage of two rocks.
No one knows for sure that the Pilgrims actually stepped ashore at
Plymouth Rock. But Revolutionary War advocates made the egg-shaped hunk
of Dedham granite legendary to symbolize American independence and incite
And no one knows for sure how old carvings got etched into Dighton Rock.
Interpretations are as varied as the immigrant cultures that have passed
through the Fall River area. For example, a Danish scholar in 1837
pronounced that he saw the marks of Vikings, and a Portuguese professor
in 1918 saw ''clearly and undoubtedly'' markings left behind by one
Captain Miguel Corte Real of Lisbon.
The public allure of these questionable monuments varies dramatically.
Plymouth Rock is a national icon visited by tens of thousands annually;
Dighton Rock, despite its chapel-like shrine, is lucky to attract the
curiosity of a passing jogger.
''If something doesn't catch on, or it cannot be supported with
archeological excavation, it remains in the shadows of history, there but
ignored'' Baker said.
But not always. For example, exercise buffs often pass the Leif
Erikson-lived-here memorial near the banks of the Charles River. For
some, the unsubstantiated Viking homesite (the only proven site is in
L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland) can inspire awe.
''Each time I pass [the granite tribute] I think: Wow, those Vikings
really got around,'' said Sandra Wheeler, a Harvard summer student on her
The stone was laid in the late 1880s by a wealthy Harvard chemistry
professor who had become enamored of a Norwegian violinist, according to
Stephen Williams, a retired Harvard archeologist. Williams said the
effort was based on ''nine-tenths hope and one-tenth a scratch on a rock
Sometimes a plaque is only half right, historians note. For instance, a
bronze inscription on the corner of the Gaffey Funeral Home (once the
Colonial home of Isaac Hall) in Medford claims Paul Revere stopped there
(true) and then rode on to Concord (false - Revere never got farther than
the outskirts of Lexington).
What infuriates Derek Roberts, the British bicycle historian who
challenges Brian Herlihy's research, is the prospect that familiarity
The Lallement Bicycle Path is ''an insult to history,'' according to
Roberts, who admits he's a decade late. In 1990, the MDC dedicated a
4-mile bicycle path in the Southwest Corridor Park to Lallement, based on
Roberts, the founder of two bicycle associations in England, was advised
of the path by a British tourist this spring and subsequently wrote the
MDC insisting Lallement's name be expunged from the path. ''I hope that
steps can be taken to end the Lallement myth before it becomes too firmly
established,'' Roberts pleaded.
But the MDC is holding firm.
''For every argument in this Lallement controversy, there seems to be
another argument going the other direction,'' said Allan Morris, the
Lallement, who immigrated to the United States from France in 1865, took
out the first patent for a bicycle in 1866. He lived for a while in New
Haven, which plans to erect a plaque in his honor on the Green by the end
of summer. Eventually settling in Boston, Lallement died a pauper in 1891.
Roberts and a French ally insist that Lallement stole the idea from their
heroes, the Michauxs. Herlihy, a freelance writer midway through a book
on the subject, has pored through 19th century testimony related to the
patent and insists the credit goes to Lallement.
''I don't understand all the obstinancy of late from the other side of
the Atlantic,'' he said.
Roberts explains it this way.
''I believe in truth at all costs,'' he said. Then he perhaps moved to
the heart of the matter when he added: ''I'm 85 years old. If I don't get
these plaques down soon, they'll be up forever.''
This story ran on page 1 of the Boston Globe on 8/6/2001. © Copyright
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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