Did you know that America’s deadliest maritime disaster was not the Titanic? Or that an African-American woman refused to give up her seat on a bus 11 years before Rosa Parks did the same? How about that the government directed a massacre against Mormons in Missouri, the first non Native American to climb Pike’s Peak was a woman, or that a 14-year-old boy on an Idaho farm led to the invention of television? Author Andrew Carroll didn’t know much about these stories, either, but when he heard about the tale of how Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes) saved the life of Robert Todd Lincoln (son of Abraham), he started digging into the untold tales of history. This result of his search is a new book entitled Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Forgotten History. Mr. Carroll gave a reading at Edgartown Books last Saturday.
In 1863 or 1864 (the exact date unknown, but not long before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865) Robert Lincoln fell between the loading platform and an oncoming train at what is now the Exchange Place PATH station in Jersey City. Edwin Booth, an actor, pulled Robert Lincoln to safety. Upon learning about this encounter, Mr. Carroll began wondering what other unknown stories were out there. He sought out stories that, for whatever reason, never permeated popular culture and remained unmarked. The stories also had to have some sort of national significance and “represent a larger narrative in American history,” he writes in his book. “Not every story can or will be epic in scope, but the impact of each protagonist should reverberate beyond any one state or region.”
Mr. Carroll discovered facts covering a gamut of exploration, inventions, crimes, lawsuits, medical discoveries, technology and social justice.
For example, over 1,500 lives were lost aboard the Sultana, a vessel transporting Civil War soldiers on the Mississippi River from Arkansas to St. Louis. On July 16, 1944, 27-year-old African-American Irene Morgan refused to give up her seat for a white person on a Greyhound bus traveling from Virginia to Maryland. The government’s only violent directive against a religious group was the Haun’s Mill massacre against the Latter Day Saints in 1838. Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs issued this order, which killed 18 Mormons. No apology was given by the state until 1976. J.A. Archibald, the first non-Native American to climb Pike’s Peak in 1858, eventually revealed that she was in fact a woman. And Philo Farnsworth, 14 years old in 1920, was a key player in the invention of television. After experimenting with electricity on his farm in Rigby, Ida., Mr. Farnsworth showed his high school chemistry teacher a design he had made for an early television. He later fought unsuccessfully for legal rights with the president of RCA. In an ironic twist, Mr. Farnsworth finally appeared on television in 1957 as Dr. X on I’ve Got A Secret, winning $80 and some cigarettes. Many of the stories Mr. Carroll recounts are inspirational, some are funny, but all are fascinating in that they remind us that amazing stories are always occurring and very often without fanfare. Mr. Carroll explains that circumstances play a big part in what catches on and becomes part of our national consciousness. For example, Irene Morgan’s decision not to give up her bus seat was overshadowed by the end of World War II. Although her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where they ruled Virginia law to be unconstitutional and even led to a series of other rulings that systematically dismantled Jim Crow laws, the timing was such that it did not capture the national attention at the time. Mr. Carroll became so inspired and moved by the stories he discovered that he began funding markers to place at some of the sites. He also visits schools to discuss why history matters and collaborates with teachers by providing a study guide on his website HereIsWhere.org. Another value of this type of history, he notes, is that it “gets families to talk with each other.” He recounts in the book how, as a result of one his chapters, he came to learn that Howard Florey, a key player in the making of penicillin who would eventually receive the Nobel Prize for his efforts, had stayed at his grandfather’s house at one time. Mr. Carroll also found himself discussing war stories with his 88-year-old neighbor who revealed that he was the first, and probably the last, American to use Tiananmen Square as an airport runway.
“As we’re standing there, it hits me that I’ve lived across the hall from Joe for more than a decade and never really talked with him about his military background.”
Although the book is now completed, the stories keep coming in. He welcomes this phenomenon, and hopes it continues.
Mr. Carroll looks at history in a whole new way now. He closes his book by observing, “At its best, history nurtures within us humility and gratitude. It encourages respect and empathy. It fosters creativity and stimulates the imagination. It inspires resilience. And it does so by illuminating the simple truth that, whether due to some cosmic fluke or divine providence, it’s an absolute miracle that any one of us is alive today,...and that we are, above everything else, all in this together.”