Thanks for the benefit of your knowledge on the subject. Just one thing; I think stating “I have told the true story of Fred Ward and Mary Ann Bugg- is a bold statement. Truer. I think a little room for doubt is a healthy thing when addressing the life of people that lived over a hundred years ago and who we know through loose fragments of detail. I have no outlandish beliefs to support and the majority of your contentions seem sound. Here and there though it seemed you were perhaps too adamant when the evidence at hand may not particularly have warranted it. Thanks again for all the hard work
Thanks for your comment, Barbara, and for providing an opportunity to respond via my website. It raises the interesting question of what is historical truth and how we determine it. Currently, we have a crisis of truth in society with people not knowing what to believe about anything. We are taught to question everything so that we don’t blindly accept what others tell us (a good thing indeed), but since most of us don’t have the skills to determine the facts in every discipline we encounter in our daily lives, we are left struggling to understand or accept anything at all. Its made even harder because, as Dr David Andrew Roberts said in our Sydney Institute talk, fact and fantasy are now separated only by the click of a computer mouse.
Yet facts are often easy enough to determine. Let me use an analogy. Two months ago I spoke at the Gloucester Writer’s Festival. Prior to the festival, its programme was published widely in newspapers and magazines, blogs, facebooks and other websites. Afterwards there were articles/photos/references in newspapers, blogs, facebooks and other websites. At what point does the fact that I spoke at the Gloucester Writers Festival go from being truth to conjecture. One year? Five years? Ten years? A hundred years? It is important to point out that if anyone questioned the truth of my involvement, particularly given the amount of primary-source evidence that supports it, it would mean that they – on some level – suspected that a widespread conspiracy had occurred to mislead the public. It is absurd.
To be a good researcher, a person needs to accept the fact that most people tell the truth most of the time. This is extremely important, yet it is surprisingly hard for a lot of people to comprehend. I’ve encountered researchers who blindly accept everything and put themselves through hoops trying to explain some oddity that proved to merely be a typographical error. I’ve encountered researchers who won’t accept even the most obvious piece of primary-source information – with similar problems. One needs to be discerning and also to understand human nature in undertaking historical research. Some information in primary-source records has a stronger probability of being wrong than other information: for example, a person’s age as listed on a marriage certificate can often be incorrect as the under-age put their ages up, while mature age men and women often lower their ages. And the ages of elderly people are often listed incorrectly in their death certificates. But to question the truth as to whether the couple were ever really married or whether the elderly person actually died would, again, require a belief that everybody in the community was conspiring to hide the truth about everything.
When I write history, I deliberately pick stories that have a huge amount of surviving primary-source documentation. That’s why I write true crime stories. The events are well documented in contemporary newspapers, court and gaol records, official correspondence and so on. Sometimes people suggest stories – for example, a female explorer – but there was so little documentation that the only way to write an interesting story would have been to fictionalise it, which I am most definitely not interested in doing. Consequently, when I am determining the facts – the truth of what actually happened – I am not using “loose fragments of detail”. I am actually using a wealth of surviving material that supports and expands upon each other piece of material. If sources disagree, then my job is to determine the truth using the myriad of sources available - including common sense!
I had someone at my home once make a slightly sarcastic comment to the effect that “how can you be sure you are telling the truth about something that happened so long ago”. I brought out a large box of documents and handed him the thick file relating to one minor incident and suggested that he start reading. He got the point very quickly! Indeed he was absolutely astonished at how much information had survived. But of course it takes a huge amount of research to gather that much information. For one of my stories – not yet published – I poured through 120 different English newspapers for the critical four month period. Not many people would make such an effort, particularly considering how much it cost me to live in England for the month and travel to the various research offices all over the country (the research for that book cost me at least $6000 and I had neither the time nor the money to eat so I was very thin when I came home). But I found an extraordinary amount of information. Most people who had previously written about the incident had only looked at a couple of issues of one or two newspapers of the period – and had missed the best stuff.
Yes, it is important to have doubts – which is why I don’t use family stories in my books. I also rarely use later published anecdotes unless these can be strongly substantiated (I only used two in my Thunderbolt book because the others either couldn’t be substantiated or proved to be wrong). If I had based my book on the sort of anecdotal information that is responsible for most of the Thunderbolt myths, I definitely couldn’t call my book the “true story” of Fred and Mary Ann because it wouldn’t be evidence-based history. If I have doubts about an incident, the information is left out of my book and explained at the appropriate place on the website.
One of the problems with historical accuracy is that most people believe anecdotes or take short cuts and repeat what other historians have written without going back to the original records and determining the truth. This has been the problem with the Thunderbolt myths. For example, we all know that a woman cannot give birth to a baby nine months after she dies – is this not a simple truth? Yet the Thunderbolt conspiracists are STILL declaring that Mary Ann Bugg had a child Frederick Wordsworth Ward Junior in 1867 and that she died in November 1867 as Louisa Mason – even though the records clearly show that Louisa Mason was a different woman entirely and that Fred Jnr was born in August 1868.
I am raising this subject again because I have now obtained a copy of the actual baptism entry for Fred Jnr from the original Wesleyan-Methodist church register. I was up at State Records at Kingswood last week being filmed for the Thunderbolt doco-drama while looking at the original records relating to Fred and Mary Ann. As this baptism is a critical document that disproves the claims that Mary Ann died in 1867, I made a point of getting a copy at the same time (I had obtained special permission from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages to copy this for my website because of the “forgery” claims that had been made). Here is the link to the baptism entry.
An American historian once said: “To be a good judge of history, we must not care what the truth is we are seeking. We must be concerned only with finding it.” That has become my research mantra. I will again follow it with the fascinating new book I have just started researching and writing. Adieu.
If you want to follow my progress with my new book, go to my Carol Baxter website.