“The famous Lucius Cassius, whom the Roman people used to regard as a very honest and wise judge, was in the habit of asking, time and again, ‘To whose benefit?'”
–Marcus Tullius Cicero, 80 BCE
“Answer the question of who benefits or profits most directly from an action, event, or outcome and you always have the starting point for your analysis or investigation, and sometimes, it will also give you the end point.”
–Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1893.
So what the big deal about a missing photo? In the end, MHS found a copy in a research file, so it wasn’t really lost? Right?
Wrong. The image of the beam said to be from the scaffold that executed 38 Dakota men at Mankato in 1862 was a public document while it persisted in the Minnesota Historical Society’s cataloged photo collection, and while it remained listed in the MHS on-line Visual Resources Database or VRD.
When the photo was deleted from the VRD, it ceased being a visual resource for the public, and for the MHS staff who use the VRD every day.
That a copy of the lost photo turned up in a research file –a non-public reference maintained by MHS curators for internal use –and that it was discovered in a file for a different object –and that it is now, again, publicly available –are all twists of good fortune.
It speaks to the imagination of MHS Registrar Lolly Lunquist, who decades ago had the foresight to make a paper copy of the beam photo and tuck it into the research file on MHS’s noose. And it speaks to the curiosity of Ben Gessner, who was researching the noose and recognized the importance of the beam photocopy when he found it.
It also speaks to the new culture in the works at MHS. Before I contacted Gessner he’d already reached out and offered the photo to another institution that had research interest in the subject. He was also willing to meet with me and volunteered information that, being from an internal file, he had no obligation to share an outsider under the the old code.
That adds up to: MHS no longer thinks it is in its best interests to withhold the beam photo from the public. Most of us probably agree. (Although it was likely easier to be forthcoming about a controversial object held by another institution –the Blue Earth County Historical Society –than about one of the equally controversial objects in its own collections.)
But that begs the question: Why was the image removed from the public record after August 2004? To whose benefit was that act of historical erasure?
The only people who can answer that with certainty have moved on.
It has been nine and a half years since the image of the 1862 beam disappeared from the VRD. But the clues suggest one of the issues is even more resonant today than it was, then: a 1990 law called NAGPRA. And that is in part due to new (ancient), collectively powerful, players in the discussion: the Oceti Sakowin.
In the next part of this post, I will explore the intersection of NAGPRA and the Oceti Sakowin, with the story of the 1862 execution artifacts in the present, including the beam in the missing photo.
Regardless of the benefits motivating the people of the past, I think most of us realize that people in the modern-day are not immune to self-interest. The difference is that until recently, our corner of the history world operated on a polarizing us-versus-them model. The paradigm shift is that some have begun making choices that show them wising-up to the mutual benefit of acting together.