Biff America column: Faux facts of history
For a sweet old lady, Ida Shultz turned mean quickly.
Ida belongs to an Iowa historical society. She called to thank me for a column I wrote chronicling an event that occurred in the early 1900s. Seems Ida has had a lifelong fascination with this same event.
Here is what I know to be true: At the turn of the century, two young men from Upstate New York were visiting a small town in Iowa. They were staying at a farmhouse miles from the nearest hamlet. One day, under cloudy skies, they decided to walk to town. A freak snowstorm moved in quickly, catching the travelers off guard. Three days later, their bodies were found.
The townspeople had no address for the men’s families, but they knew they were from a particular area in the Adirondacks. They sent a letter to a nearby post office asking the postmaster to inform the families of the men’s fate and tell them they were buried in the local cemetery.
The story continues that many years later, long after the two men were in the ground and nearly forgotten, an older woman, also from the east, was visiting that same area. During her stay, her hosts brought her to that graveyard. The story goes that the visitor noticed the graves of the two young men and became “very distressed.” Turns out, one of the men was her former fiance.
I learned of the events several years ago from an article published in a small-town newspaper. The article was mostly a plea by the town’s historical society to raise funds for upkeep at the cemetery. It spoke of the disrepair of the grounds and some of the graves. The plea mentioned the men’s graves and the story behind them. I wrote the column a few weeks later. The problem was that, though the tale was compelling, it needed some spice, so I took some liberty embellishing.
I added that when their bodies were found, they were clutched together in a peaceful embrace as if to stay warm. I also claimed that the older woman fainted when she saw her former beau’s grave, and when she was revived, she appeared to be hugging the stone of her former lover.
And while I was on a fiction roll, I wrote the older lady told her hosts that as a young gal, she accepted the man’s marriage proposal and agreed that he could do some traveling before returning to marry her. She never heard from her fiance again. Assuming she had been jilted, and not wanting to remain in her hometown in shame, she moved to New York City and remained single.
I also added that once seeing her former lover’s headstone, the old woman never returned back east but, rather, remained in Iowa and was often seen putting flowers on her old beau’s grave.
I think we all can agree the story was better my way.
My column ran in some newspapers and magazines. And somehow, it was forwarded to the afore-mentioned Ida Schultz. She called to praise the column saying she had been interested in the story ever since she was a girl. By her voice, I could tell she was an older woman, so the fact that she had a lifelong interest was impressive.
She was almost gushing when she said, “I’ve been studying this event for most of my life, yet you have unearthed aspects that I was not aware of. I’d love to learn of your sources.”
I’ve found when you are the bearer of bad news, it is best to just rip off the bandage quickly. So I said, “Oh, a lot of that stuff I just made up.”
There was silence at the other end of the line, “You can do that?”
Now to be totally honest, I wasn’t sure of the correct answer so I said, “Oh sure, media people do that all the time.” Just before Ida hung up on me I heard a “harrumph.”
This all took place many years ago. Since then, I’ve been trying to be more factual, or at least make my embellishments more obvious. For instance, I did not have my recent hernia diagnosed by a large animal veterinarian. Nor did that same vet exclaim, “Yowza” when he did so. While I’m at it, my wife didn’t take the batteries out of my avalanche transceiver to use in another appliance.
But the bottom line is there is no stopping those on TV, radio or print from embellishing, slanting or reporting without researching or simply making things up. I do believe there are a few sources that try to get it right, but most are trying to get an audience.
If you want to be entertained or angered, then it’s easy. Believe what makes you happy, mad or laugh. But if information is what you are after, look for news sources with integrity, rather than an agenda. Even then, don’t believe anything out of hand; research for yourself. Use the information to make informed and dispassionate decisions. The stakes are incredibly high. To think on Nov. 8 we might have elected a POTUS who once used a private email server — thank heavens we dodged that bullet.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s book “Mind, Body, Soul” is available at local shops and bookstores or shop.holpublications.com.