In my blog post on book breaking (and the version published by Slate), I wrote of two items that ought to belong in an academic historian’s tool kit: narrative and microbiography. Narrative requires a blog post of its own (but no, I did not mean writing fancy sentences and dumbing down serious work for the widest possible general audience. As a trigger warning, however, academics should know that when I talk about book-length things, I freely use words like “narrative” and “story,” as well as “characters” for people.) For now, I want to tackle microbiography, by addressing what (I think) it is, and how it furthers objectives of historical enquiry as well as overall readability.
For me, microbiography is the process of documenting and describing the lives of individuals within larger narratives, as opposed to a work being the biography of one person. These individuals can seem fairly minor to the overall subject, but learning as much about them as possible is consistent with a personal motto I have long followed when researching and writing as a journalist and author: turn over all stones. You just never know what is going to scamper out from where, to make a critical contribution to your understanding of a subject. Not everything you learn may end up on the page, or in endnotes, but a full picture of individual lives is indispensable to crafting the story you do write, and producing good history to boot.
There are too many examples of microbiography to cite in my latest book, Beardmore, but to begin, it was impossible as an author to explain the hoax at the heart of the story without first understanding at a truly granular level the lives of the perpetrator, Eddy Dodd, and his outward victim, museum director Charles Trick Currelly. Dodd’s service record in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War was particularly illuminating for me. Medical reports captured his chronic poor health and premature ageing by war’s end. They helped contextualize the struggles of this low-grade con-man and itinerant prospector to survive in the crushing Depression of the 1930s, when he started showing off his Viking relics. The records also indicated his Welsh wife, Ellen, agreed to marry a man with serious health problems in November 1918, and her fierce loyalty to him over their lifetime together was all the more understandable.
Another microbiography example, related to Dodd: In defending the authenticity of his discovery of a Viking grave in northern Ontario, Dodd and his supporters relied on affidavits from eyewitnesses who purportedly had seen the Viking relics either at his mining claim near Beardmore or at a particular house of Dodd’s at some critical date. A crucial affidavit was supplied by Patrick J. Bohan, who swore he was working as the CNR section foreman at Warneford Station in the spring of 1931 when he visited Dodd’s nearby mining claim and saw the sword and other relics there, which was several months before Dodd could have filched the relics from the basement of a Port Arthur house he began renting, as hoax contenders alleged, in October 1931. Bohan and Dodd long have been known to be friends, or at least friendly, as fellow CNR railmen who had grown up in the same stretch of the Ottawa River around Quyon. As Bohan was a key witness to Dodd’s authenticity case, I drilled down into his life in genealogical records, learning as much about him as I could. One of the seemingly innocuous documents I found was the Catholic baptismal record for his son at Orient Bay in 1936. Much to my pleasure and surprise, the signatures for the godparents at the bottom of the document were those of Eddy Dodd and his wife Ellen.
Now, if you’re trying to understand the Beardmore hoax case, which is rife with people being less than truthful, the fact that Eddy Dodd was the godfather of Patrick Bohan’s son might be useful in evaluating the forthright independence of Bohan’s testimony. In the entire course of the controversy, and over the many decades that have passed since the authenticity case collapsed in the mid-1950s, no one addressing the Beardmore scandal ever expressed awareness of the depth of their relationship.
Another key witness—perhaps the key witness–for the authenticity case was John Drew Jacob, a former provincial game warden and accomplished amateur naturalist who was a source on things ornithological in northern Ontario for the Royal Ontario Museum’s zoology division. Jacob attested to having visited Dodd’s mining claim right after the relics were found, and seeing the rusted outline of the sword on rock from which it had been blasted clear. Charles Trick Currelly, the renowned director of the ROM’s archaeology division, who bought Dodd’s relics (and story), relied considerably on Jacob’s testimony in dismissing the hoax case, and praised him as a “government man” from a “good family.” Genealogy research upheld that Jacob came from an esteemed family of barristers and judges in Elora, Ontario; over on the Drew side of his family, George Drew would become premier of Ontario in 1943. But Jacob also told a story of being descended from the younger son of a titled Scottish family, who fought at Waterloo. Being denied a handsome inheritance by primogeniture, this ancestor had emigrated to Canada, securing a land grant on the St. Lawrence River for his Waterloo valour. This account of Drew’s past would be recounted in print by Colonel L.S. Dear, a founder of the Thunder Bay Naturalist’s Club, who also met and spoke with Currelly in May 1938, just as Jacob was gathering evidence to thwart the hoax case for Currelly. If Colonel Dear related Jacob’s origins story to Currelly in 1938 as well, it would have reinforced for Currelly (who had a complicated relationship with social class) the respectable pedigree of his key witness to Dodd’s discovery. When I got back to a ship owner and merchant in Newfoundland in 1799 when reconstructing Jacob’s family tree, it was clear that the Waterloo-veteran story was complete fiction. That not only told me the Waterloo-ancestor story was untrue: it also told me a key eyewitness to Dodd’s discovery had a penchant for, well, not being truthful.
A further complication in Jacob’s life (and reliability) was his disappearance in May 1940. Jacob was reported in the press as having drowned in Eva Lake, west of Thunder Bay, while working for a mining company. He had supposedly set out to cross the lake in a canoe, and his coat and cap were found on the shore. Colonel Dear would recall Jacob’s drowning in 1959, allowing his body was never recovered. The geologist T.L. Tanton, who was investigating the hoax case at the time of the supposed tragedy, was deeply suspicious of Jacob’s vanishing, and wrote him letters at his Toronto home, essentially letting Jacob know he was waiting for him back in the mortal realm. Tanton’s suspicions were well founded. I visited the Ontario Archives and searched death records. No death certificate was ever issued for John Drew Jacob for 1940, or subsequent years, let alone for a drowning on Eva Lake.
Some of this may seem to any working journalist like basic reportage, and it is. But it is also part of a broader determination on my part to know everything I can about an individual, whether or not all the information makes it onto the page or into endnotes. The sort of information I compile covers the gamut of genealogy research: birth/baptismal, marriage, death, cemetery, and census records, as well as travel documentation, military service, voter lists, and city directories. Much of it is available through a subscription to Ancestry, which some historians I have spoken with seem to balk at using, but as various governments have partnered with the commercial service, it’s hard to avoid it for efficiently searching for and through an array of documents. But the required research extends well beyond Ancestry, in Canada alone into provincial vital statistics records and federal military records, as well as city directories and the like that are sometimes digitized and available through libraries.
This research allows me to steer someone’s life authoritatively through space and time (which is the essence of narrative), with plenty of cross-referenced fact-checking along the way. In case you are not yet aware, census records abound with mistakes. I’m also a big fan of biographical “streetscaping.” I like to know exactly where someone was living, who their neighbours were, because you never know. (I adore fire insurance maps for major cities like Toronto and Montreal, which are available freely online, in high resolution. They tell a tremendous amount about the composition of neighbourhoods in snapshots of time.) A small but noteworthy example of the importance of streetscaping in Beardmore comes in my chapter “Carlo,” devoted to Charles Trick Currelly. Currelly in his memoir described moving to Toronto with his parents in 1892. I found them in the city directory (thus confirming Currelly’s memory, timing wise) in a house on the south side of Bloor Street, at the corner of St. Thomas Street. Victoria University in Cobourg, Ontario, moved to Toronto that year and became Victoria College, affiliated with the University of Toronto. The Currellys were close to Nathanael Burwash, chancellor of Victoria, and they plainly had ambitions for their only child (then sixteen) to attend the college. The city directory told me they moved to a house a stone’s throw from the new red-sandstone Victoria College. As a bonus, city directory entries told me Currelly’s father was making a living selling goods from bankruptcies. Another bonus from drilling deep into Currelly’s life story was his marriage certificate in London in 1909, in which he described himself as “Director of a Museum in Toronto” three years before the ROM legally existed with a board, and five years before there was a physical building.
I have used streetscaping profitably in other work. For The Place of Stone, I amassed a fair haul of biographical data for Edmund Burke Delabarre, the Brown University psychology professor who in 1918 first proposed the Indigenous petroglyph, Dighton Rock, was actually an inscription by the lost Portuguese explorer, Miguel Corte-Real. Among the many ideas Delabarre floated in his investigation of the rock’s complex historiography was a purported connection to a Newport, Rhode Island, pirate named Tew. I noticed, in census records, that Delabarre’s next-door neighbour on Arlington Avenue in Providence was a widow named Tew. Evidently some across-the-back-fence storytelling Delabarre never acknowledged had been going on.
Not every individual in a historical narrative needs or deserves a detailed biographical assessment. But I conduct them as much as possible for several basic reasons. History involves ideas, analysis, and theses, but fundamentally it is about people, and as a historian, you should know everything you can about the people you write about. A person named Mary Smith in 1913, for whom you provide little to no biographical information, might as well be referred to as Electron27. You can’t dismiss as unimportant what you don’t know, and in the absence of knowledge, presumptions (by yourself and your readers) rush in.
Not all historians are comfortable with microbiography within scholarly history. I have had historians ask me whether readers of The Place of Stone needed to know that one of Dighton Rock’s earliest commentators, Harvard’s Hollisian professor of mathematics, Isaac Greenwood, spiralled into disrepute and death because of alcoholism, or that the traumatizing death of ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s son bedevilled his marriage and led to his arch Presbyterianism. In both case, I answered in the affirmative, especially as these facts required only brief references as opposed to lengthy digressions. A test I pose for myself when I consider omitting something about a person is: Does this fact inform my understanding of this person? And if it does, will the reader be lacking something subtle but significant that can allow them to see the person the way I do?
For me, people’s lives, however small in the grander story, are the gateway to historical events and issues. Those lives are what make history interesting and readable. Readers (including fellow historians) have a better grasp of the past when human beings take them there, and lead them through it. Which is where narrative comes in. But that’s for another day, and another blog post.