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A good story can get in the way of the facts

Essay by Allen Best

History – June 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN THE WRITING of history, as well as journalism, there are two prime commandments. Get your facts right, and make the story entertaining. Flub them and you’re a stiff. Score both and you’ve got a masterpiece.

Masterpieces are rare. Hollywood never has lost sleep over rearranging facts, the landscape, or anything else when putting together a movie. In the rush for immediacy at a daily newspaper, the most common form of journalism, both the narrative of the story and facts get trampled like jackrabbits on a winter highway.

Newspapers are either literature or history in the first draft. For historians trying to piece together the more distant past, facts count for all. To be charged with carelessness with your research is like a mother being accused of neglecting her newborn.

For readers, though, the story can trump the facts. They may want an informative story, but they also want to be entertained; so if it’s something the reader knows nothing about, one fact is as good as another. Is Red Cliff at an elevation of 9,300 feet or 8,660 feet? Did the last freight train cross Tennessee Pass line in 1997 or 1995 or 2000?

Quoting Bob Dole, most people’s response would be “whatever.”

By the same logic, it shouldn’t matter whether we spell it “potato” or “potatoe.” Most journalists, however, seem to think this brand of fact is terribly important. So do most Americans.

A friend who teaches elementary school tells me that parents frequently ask about the spelling abilities of their children. They don’t ask about reasoning ability, emotional maturity, or even whether their child is learning the logic of our grammar. No, they want to know if Johnny can, unlike Dan Quayle, spell “potato.” We judge literacy and hence substance by spelling.

But spelling is only a cheap and rigid conformity. It’s useful to have some homogeneity in our spelling, so that we can, for example, distinguish the homophones of “sum” and “some.” However, with “felt” and “felt,” one a noun and the other a verb, we get along just fine. Further, we Yanks can read a British newspaper with its multitude of “S’s” such as in “publicise” and we understand precisely what they’re saying. We can even read the journals of barely-literate fur trappers and explorers, such as William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), despite the muddled spelling.

For spelling, we have dictionaries and now spell-check computer programs. But for writers of history, the facts are more difficult to nail down. Dozens of hidden bogs lie in wait for even the most careful of researchers. To get it right, as an historian suggested to me recently, it’s best to consult original sources, not secondary resources. She is right. However, even those historians who pride themselves on their careful research sometimes stumble into the same, dark rooms.

I began thinking about this while reading Colorado Avalanche Disasters, by John W. Jenkins. He probably spent weeks looking through books, magazines, and newspapers. His book averages two footnotes per page. Still, his book has at least one major story that I am confident is entirely fictitious, and others that are questionable.

This major story has to do with a supposed avalanche at Homestake Mine, near Leadville, that allegedly claimed four men in 1881. His story is unusually thick with stories within the story. Here’s one sample:

“To this scene came young Albert Morrison. He sought better wages than could be earned farming in New England where he grew up. Albert desired to pay off the farm mortgage that burdened his family after his father’s early death. He planned to save a little extra money and return to marry his girlfriend Charlotte who patiently waited for him. … Albert slowly accumulated his nest egg and looked forward to the day he would return to his mother, the farm, and Charlotte.”

And so it goes. The slide strikes — why yes, on Christmas Eve, at the stroke of midnight, just as young Albert is ready to sign off on a letter to his dear mother and dear Charlotte with the salutation of “Merry Christmas.”

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? Well, a snowslide most certainly did occur in 1885, and it killed 10 men. Sometime before the slide, which most likely occurred in late February, one of the young miners had written to his young cousin in Ohio. I spent a week altogether researching the story, scrolling through microfilms of newspapers published from Leadville, Denver, and several other towns during 1885. I reviewed the Leadville City Directory from the early 1880s. Nowhere have I found mention of an avalanche of 1881–except in the memory of Carlyle Channing Davis.

Davis owned several newspapers in Leadville during the 1880s. His newspapers appear to have been good newspapers, brimming with news and presented in prose that even today awes me with its literacy. By 1911, however, Davis was gone from Leadville publishing. Nonetheless, on New Year’s Day he wrote a story for the Leadville Herald-Democrat entitled “Fate and the San Ysidro Mine; A Memory of Leadville’s Homestake Horror.” This is the source for Jenkins’s story. The story is as obviously bogus as a three dollar bill.

In 1916, Davis passed along something of the same story in his memoirs, called Olden Times in Colorado. This time he dates the great Homestake slide to 1883. Since then, the story has been repeated by Perry Eberhart in his 1959 book, Guide to the Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps, and by Leadville pamphleteer Renee Coquez, and by yet another historian of the Arkansas Valley.

WHY SHOULD THIS STORY be doubted? First, the several newspapers that I examined in 1885, both from Leadville and Denver, said nothing about avalanches at this mine in either 1881 or 1883. Newspapers have short memories, but I doubt that short — especially since they did note a near fatality at the mine in 1876.

Second, in their exhaustive “History of Leadville and Lake County, Colorado,” Donald L. and Jean H. Griswold have absolutely no mention of a Homestake Mine avalanche of 1881 or 1883. For that matter, the index of their two-volume set, a month-by-month accounting of Leadville based on newspapers of the time, has no mention of any Albert Morrison, the other three miners, or of the postmaster who narrates the story in Davis’s account. It has all the names of the victims of the 1885 slide. If this avalanche indeed happened, I’m willing to entertain arguments that the sun rises in the west.

Why did Davis fib? Probably because he had forgotten exactly what happened and then he got to thinking of Orth Stein, Leadville’s most colorful boom-days reporter. Stein was a reporter of the ages. He had an uncanny ability to sniff out legitimate news. Lacking legitimate news, he invented fanciful tales. One flight of fancy was about an ancient arc discovered by prospectors in a giant cavern near Tennessee Pass. I suspect, but don’t know, that the story about a hairy man-ape in the Sawatch Range west of Leadville was also among his yarns. True or false, that story from a century ago was passed along even last year in the Denver Post. Stein should be the patron saint for April Fool’s Day.

So, sitting along the Pacific at Santa Barbara, Davis is recalling the big stories of the boom years. He’s still a good writer, but can’t quite remember the story about the Homestake Horror. So, thinking of Orth Stein, he decides to make up a story. Instead of an unmailed letter written by a miner to his cousin, Davis describes a letter written by a miner to his mother. Instead of an avalanche suspected of occurring at 3 a.m. in late February, we have death at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve. Santa Barbara, which is where Davis was living, isn’t that far from Hollywood, even then a center of the fledgling film industry, and Davis must have caught the bug.

Davis himself offered a more humble explanation in his preface: “Wholey [sic] written from memory while invalided, it will not appear remarkable if minor errors have crept into its pages, considering the fact that the events chronicled cover a period of nearly 70 years.” He urged readers to “piece out imperfections with kind thoughts,” as well as to “give credit to the author for a design to approximate the truth…” Davis was eloquent, if not accurate.

The more I know about what really happened, the more disgusted I get with how it’s reported. A friend, a Division of Wildlife officer, tells me that’s just the way it is. He got over being misquoted about 20 years ago (and suggested tactfully that I’ve had occasion to misquote him since!).

Still, I’m seeing a pattern in books. It’s called formula writing, and by God don’t let the facts get in the way of the story line.

RECENTLY, A BOOK came out about Vail, and I was astonished at the mistakes. But that was almost inevitable, given how much the author had bitten off.

That’s what the publishing world wants. The market demands big stories thickly festooned with spicy details, richly portrayed characters, and a page-turning tension that won’t allow you to put the book down. With that kind of expectation, no wonder this guy resorted to a paint-by-the-number plot. All he lacked was a love interest.

But, in the end, who cares? Who cares if our stories are a few bobs off factual? The marketplace doesn’t. Fractured history and faulty journalism both sell just as well as the masterpieces. In the final analysis, what sells is lively, colorful writing. It’s the story, stupid.

One author of regional history conceded as much. After writing nine books and making a pittance over the last several decades, she has now turned her attention to novels. At a conference last summer, she said she is far more satisfied. Fiction pays better, plus it’s less tedious and more fun. She can invent the facts to suit her story.

In fiction, we can also get to certain truths that might evade us with fact-studded stories, no matter how well researched. Davis’s story about the four miners, as related in his 1916 memoir, wasn’t particularly wrong.

He merely heightened the drama of the avalanche that actually occurred two years later than his account supposed. The men at this remote mine were in grave danger during one of the century’s most vicious winters because they were in a hurry to make their money and get out of the god-forsaken mountains. His was history with eyeliner and mascara. He got the story right even if the facts were wrong.

Still, my years of journalism don’t allow me to blithely leap this wall into more-or-less pure fancy. The story counts, yes, but so do the facts.

Why do we bother purporting the factual objectivity assumed of journalism or the historical research implied by footnotes if they only serve the purpose of fiction?

That’s what keeps us gallant knights o’er the mountains and down the shadowy valleys of archives. That’s what keeps us boldly riding, and writing, searching for this El Dorado of factual accuracy and compelling stories.

Allen Best divides his time between Red Cliff and Arvada, which otherwise have nothing in common except they’re both in Colorado.