Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times


The historian as detective  

Statue of Sherlock Holmes on Picardy Place in Edinburgh (birthplace of Sir Arthur Canon Doyle, his creator)

John Vincent (1995): ‘History is about evidence. It is also about other things: hunches, imagination, interpretation, guesswork. First and foremost, though, comes evidence: no evidence, no history. It is about surviving evidence. Evidence that does not survive is no use, however plentiful it may once have been. It is also about intrinsically fallible evidence. In this it resembles medicine and the detection of crime. And it is about fallible evidence as interpreted by fallible people; hence no question of finality can ever arise. (…) Studying the past is not possible: it is no longer there. All that can be studied are particular pieces of evidence, created in the first place usually for entirely non-historical reasons, which happen to survive into the present. Their survival, again, usually reflects accident, whether accident at the time of creation, or accident in the process of preservation and survival or both. Nobody, or hardly anyone, created evidence for the convenience of future historians. Had they done so, it would he highly suspect. What ulterior purpose led them to try to influence the future?’  

Robins W. Winks in his classic anthology of essays on evidence (1969)

‘I have compiled this book of essays for fun, and I claim no other high purpose for it. My vocation as a professional historian often leads me to deal with questions of evidence. The historian must collect, interpret, and then explain his evidence by methods which are not greatly different from those techniques employed by the detective, or at least the detective of fiction. It is not surprising, then, that historians often seem to relax with a so-called detective story, or that certain English dons and American professors are known not only to be addicts of the genre but sometimes even contribute to the literature. (….) What I have tried to explore in this anthology is the relationship between the colorful world of fictional intrigue, then, and the good gray world of professional scholarship, and to show how much of the excitement, the joy, and even the color properly belongs to the latter.

Recently a student asked me to defend “the social utility of the historian.” One could do so, I believe, but not here, any more than I would wish to write on the social utility of Agatha Christie. (…) Perhaps the social utility of history is little more than that implied by William Haggard’s Colonel Russell, fictitious head of England’s not quite fictitious Security Executive, or (John) Ross MacDonald’s hard-boiled sentimentalist, Lew Archer: someone ought to be interested in finding out the truth about things, for the truth ought to matter.

My same student also told me that he could never be a historian, for the life was far too lonely. One does not wish to romanticize the historian by belaboring his aloneness, but in the final analysis he is probably the least able of all scholars to work for a team, the least willing to coIlaborate, to co-author, to engage in public testimony and debate. One wonders whether the discipline makes the historian remote or whether it merely attracts those who already are so inclined. Still, whatever compulsions are at work, the historian remains a private person, unwilling to reveal much of himself in his written word. His individuality is to be discovered, rather, in the range of topics on which he chooses to write, in the way in which he gathers evidence, in his conception of peripheral as opposed to central questions, in the very style of his expression. In history perhaps more than in any other discipline, the book is the man, the medium is the message, and the understanding of evidence and how to employ it is one’s closest approach to that truth others seek in churches.
Nevertheless, historians are teachers as well as researchers and writers. In seeking out answers to questions which historians or other scholars frame, in pursuing the data which will provide partial answers to those questions, in ordering the data in a sequence that is both meaningful and true, and in evaluating the validity, importance, and causal relationships of the data, the writer employs certain commonly accepted canons of his profession. (….)

When one speaks of evidence to an undergraduate, or to a lay reader of history, one generally means: How do we know that something is true? That it happened when, or how, or where the press, or a text, or a friend, or a parent, or an encyclopedia said that it did? In other words, while the professional historian frequently is engaged in judging the credibility of a witness, in attempting to gauge the bias that will be present in the account of a contemporary involved in the events he describes, the lay reader more often is concerned with assessing the credibility of a printed record, of one book’s account against another’s. Both levels of assessment involve the problem of evidence.

Evidence means different things to different people, of course. The historian tends to think mainly in terms of documents. A lawyer will mean something rather different by the word, as will a sociologist, or a physicist, or a geologist, or a police officer at the moment of making an arrest. For certain problems evidence must be “hard,” while for others it may be “soft.” Even if no acceptable or agreed-upon definitions of evidence may be given, most of us recognize intuitively what we mean when we use the word. 

Very possibly the historian thinks of evidence more intuitively than most other people do, and for this reason he has worried the word about until it may have taken on more functions than its fragile origins will bear. Increasingly, social scientists think of evidence, or of data, as quantitative; that is, as something that can be counted. To such scholars, the historian’s tendency toward vague and admittedly intuitive conclusions arising from a systematic but often unstructured examination of the evidence is an annoying sign of an anti-theoretical bent. “Many Colonial American newspapers appear to have turned against the British Crown by 1775” is a less satisfying statement than is the apparent certitude of a clear calculation: “Of 27 Colonial newspapers examined, 19 show - by virtue of giving over more than 457 column inches of space to anti-Parliamentary comment - that they had turned against the Mother Country by mid-1770s.” Both statements may well arise from an examination of “the evidence,” but one appears to be more scientific than the other.These two quotations, which are, incidentally, quite fictitious although representative of two techniques for generalizing among historians, involve a “leap of faith” between evidence (the data) and conclusion (the generalization). This “leap of faith,” as the theologian calls the intuitive process, is more frequently covered up by the historian as a “legitimate inference.” But inferences remain incapable of final proof, and thus evidence and its evaluation remain inexact for the historian, whether he be of the school that insists that history is a humanity or of the school that thinks it is a social science. Because historians deal with the inexact, they have developed certain common-sense rules for evaluating evidence in terms of its reliability, its relevance, its significance, and its singularity. 

Inference is notoriously unreliable, as are eyewitnesses, memories of old men, judgments of mothers about first children, letters written for publication, and garbage collectors. (…) We all make inferences daily, and we all collect, sift, evaluate, and then act upon evidence. Our alarm clocks, the toothpaste tube without a cap, warm milk at the breakfast table, and the bus that is ten minutes late provide us with evidence from which we infer certain unseen actions. The historian must reconstruct events often hundreds of years in the past, on the basis of equally homely although presumably more significant data, when the full evidence will never be recoverable and, for that portion of it recovered, when it may have meanings other than we would attach to similar evidence today. Thus the historian has evolved his standards of inquiry, of thoroughness, and of judgment to provide him with a modus operandi.

Historians pose to themselves difficult, even impossibly difficult, questions. Since they are reasonably intelligent and inquiring and since they do not wish to spend their lives upon a single question or line of investigation, they normally impose a time limit upon a given project or book (or the time limit is imposed for them by a “publish or perish” environment). They will invariably encounter numerous unforeseen difficulties because of missing papers, closed collections, new questions, and tangential problems; and the search through the archive, the chase after the single hoped-to-be-vital manuscript, has an excitement of its own, for that dénouement, the discovery, an answer may-one always hopes-lie in the next folio, in the next collection, in the next archive.
Much of the historian’s work, then, like that of the insurance investigator, the fingerprint man, - or the coroner, may to the outsider seem to consist of deadening routine. Many miles of intellectual shoe leather will be used, for many metaphorical laundry lists, uninformative diaries, blank checkbooks, old telephone directories, and other trivia will stand between the researcher and his answer. Yet the routine must be pursued or the clue may be missed; the apparently false trail must be followed in order to be certain that it is false; the mute witnesses must be asked the reasons for their silence, for the piece of evidence that is missing from where one might reasonably expect to find it is, after all, a form of evidence in itself.

Precisely because the historian must turn to all possible witnesses, he is the most bookish of men. For him, no printed statement is without its interest. For him, the destruction of old cookbooks, gazetteers, road maps, Sears, Roebuck catalogues, children’s books, railway timetables, or drafts of printed manuscripts, is the loss of potential evidence. (….)

Of course one applies these notions of relevancy outside book-lined rooms, too, and the historian needs to be the most practical of men as well. (….)

Clearly, then, the historian needs to assess evidence against a reasonably well-informed background. Is one writing of the Pullman Strike of 1894? One must, obviously, know quite a bit about general labor conditions, about business management, about employment opportunities and the nature of the economy, about Chicago and its environs, and about the railroad industry. But since many of the strikers were Welshmen, one needs also to know something of contrasting work conditions in that part of Wales from which the workmen came. Since the strike was compounded by inept police and militia work, one needs to know about the nature of such work in Illinois and, comparatively, elsewhere. One needs to investigate the judicial system, the role of President Grover Cleveland, the powers open to Governor John P. Altgeld, the ideas of Eugene V. Debs, and the effects of the Chicago World’s Fair, which brought hundreds of drifters into the metropolitan area to contribute to the violence associated with the strike. Since the strike disrupted mail service throughout the nation, forcing letters north onto Canadian tracks, one needs to investigate at least briefly the Canadian rail network, the relationship with railwaymen elsewhere, and the applicability of the secondary boycott. One needs to know much of the general climate of opinion at the time to assess the meaning of the strike. One needs to look at company, city, union, judicial, militia, post-office, Presidential, legal, and gubernatorial records; at the private papers of Cleveland, Altgeld, Pullman, Debs; at the papers of the judges, magistrates, and strikers, if they can be found and, when found, if one can gain access to them. Much that one learns on such journeys will never appear in the final book, but every nuance, every sentence, will be better informed, closer to the truth, more protected against one’s own biases (which can never be totally blocked out, and no responsible historian claims that they can be), than if such journeys were not taken at all. (….)

By a “source” the historian means material that is contemporary to the events being examined. Such sources include, among other things, diaries, letters, newspapers, magazine articles, tape recordings, pictures, and maps. Such material may have appeared in print before, edited or unedited, and still be a source. The term is meant to be restrictive rather than inclusive, in that it attempts to indicate that works of secondary scholarship, or synthesis, are not sources, since the data have been distilled by another person. (….)

Obviously one man’s scholarship is another man’s pedantry, and the point here is merely to say that with sufficient diligence American historians can expect to find the answer - or at least an answer - to most factual or non-value questions they may choose to put to themselves. As a result, American researchers tend to begin with the questions they wish to entertain first (Did failed farmers truly move West to begin life anew in the eighteen-forties? Did immigrants rein force older patterns of life or create new ones?), confident that the data can be found. European historians, on the other hand, are likely to begin with the available source materials first, and then look to see what legitimate questions they might ask of those sources. (Here are the private papers of Joseph Chamberlain, or of Gladstone, or of Disraeli. What do they tell me of British polities? Of Queen Victoria? Of the Jameson Raid? Of the development of British tariff policy? Of Colonial affairs? Of Ireland?) The result is, as the following essays will help show, that scholars of different nations do approach the problem of evidence somewhat differently - as surely any reader of detective fiction, aware of the differences between the American procedures in Elizabeth Linington’s Los Angeles Police Department and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct and the British procedural school of fiction in J. J. Marric’s Gideon of Scotland Yard and Maurice Procter's Inspector Martineau of Granchester, ought well to know.

Nor would I mean for my parallels between historical research and detective fiction to be taken too literally. There obviously is a gap between them, just as there is a gap between politics and scholarship. (….)’

Some introductions to the study of history including the principles of historical criticism

Harvard Guide to American History (1954, revised edition 1974).

Jacques Barzun & Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher (1957, 6th revised edition 2003).

G. Kitson Clark, Guide for research students working on historical subjects (1958, 2nd edition 1968).

R.J. Shafer, A Guide to Historical Method (1969, 3 rd edition 1980).Michael J. Salevouris & Conal Furay, The Methods and Skills of History (1979, 4th revised edition 2015). The first edition was titled: History: A Workbook of Skill Development (1979). 

John Fines, Reading Historical Documents. A manual for students (1988).  

John Tosh, The Pursuit of History (1984, 6th revised edition 2015). 

Jeremy Black & Donald Macraild, Studying History (1997, 4th revised edition 2017). 


Postscript Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae  

The quotation by John Vincent is taken from: An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History (1995). A more elaborate anthology of quotations from his book is to be found in a different section of Hereditas Historiae: “In pursuit of truthful history stories”.  

The (abridged) quotation by Robert W. Winks is taken from the Introduction of: The Historian as detective. Essays on evidence (1969). The book is an anthology of mainly historiographical and scholarly essays. All (edited) essays are supplied - by Robert W. Winks - with inspiring titles as “The Secret of the Ebony Cabinets: A search for “Lost” Manuscripts”, “The Case of the Man in Love”: Forgery, Impure and Simple” and “A Medley of Mysteries: A Number of Dogs That Didn’t Bark”.  

Robin W. Winks (1930 - 2003) was professor in History at Yale University while he edited this anthology. According to the “In Memoriam” published by Yale University, Professor Winks was a regular detective novel reviewer for the Boston Globe and The New Republic. His scholarly work explored the history of the British Empire, comparative American history, conservation history and the theory and development of espionage. He chaired the History Department at Yale from 1996 to 1999. In addition to his work as a historian, Professor Winks wrote extensively on detective fiction and was twice nominated for the Edgar Award, which he won in 1999 for his work Mystery and Suspense Writers. He is also author of Detective Fiction (1980), Modus Operandi (1983), Colloquium on Crime (1986) and Secrecy, Exile and Cunning: A History of Detective, Mystery and Spy Thriller Fiction (1998). (  

The chosen introductions to the study of history and the more specific guides of historical methods contain different approaches to the study of history and different styles in approaching their readers. The reading and comparison of the succeeding revised editions of the book titles is worth a  study of its own. The revisions are reflecting the changes in the field of the study of history, but also the manner in which students could be treated. In his subtlety of words Robert Winks quite possibly tried to deliver more than one message. Shortly after publishing this particular book, Winks was on leave (1969-1971) to serve as a diplomat in the American Embassy in London. So perhaps a lot of clues are to found in this book about the man himself and his personal choices. Apart from his Guide for research students working on historical subjects, George Kitson Clark also considered at large the (necessary) critical approach of the historian: The Critical Historian (1967). A warning for readers of Hereditas Historiae who have been reading the quotations in the section “In pursuit of true history histories” and experienced the writings by Sir Geoffrey Elton as being too patronizing: Elton was surely not the only professor in History in Cambridge who did have a certain style of addressing his students.

To make an easy confession: Irène Diependaal always loved to read detectives. On the junior level she read the books written by Enid Blyton. From about the age of 12 she started to read Agatha Christie and sometimes still does. Most of Christie’s books are very outdated in social aspects, but some of her plots - and inspiring titles - are still food for thought.