Fwd: Making (up?) history

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Mon Aug 06 2001 - 14:18:18 BST

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    Un petit 'divertisement', with plenty of memetic momentum....

    - Wade

    ************

    Making (up?) history

    Little hard evidence found to support the claims on some monuments

    By David Arnold, Globe Staff, 8/6/2001

    `Poppycock!''

    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
    so.

    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 Vineland.''

    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
    evidence.

    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
    patriotism.

    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
    daily powerwalk.

    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
    somewhere.''

    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
    breeds acceptance.

    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
    Herlihy's research.

    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
    park's superintendent.

    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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