Thomas Lowry Admits Falsifying Document, Then Recants

by Fred Ray on January 26, 2011 · 15 comments

The saga of historian Thomas Lowry, who had admitted falsifying a pardon signed by Abraham Lincoln earlier this week, got a bit murkier today when he denied doing it.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Lowry recanted his confession and said he offered repeated denials to Archives investigators over the course of a two-hour interview but eventually wore down when they refused to believe him.

“I foolishly signed a statement saying I had done it,” Lowry said. “Now they’re portraying me as a fool, a liar and a criminal. I screwed myself by signing it.”

The Inspector General for the Archives was not impressed.

“He voluntarily provided a statement, written in his own hand, in which he elaborated on his actions and provided specific details on how he committed this act,” said Ross Weiland, the Archives’ assistant inspector general for investigations. “He subsequently swore to the statement’s accuracy and signed the statement. No threats, rewards, or promises of any kind were made to Mr. Lowry in return for his sworn statement.”

Sometimes the urge to make a story just a little bit better than it really was overwhelms ethics and good sense, and if caught doing it you may find yourself making an instant transition from famous to notorious. Recent examples include former history professor Ward Churchill, who fabricated sources purporting to show a smallpox epidemic deliberately started by the US Army, and former history professor Michael Bellesiles, who found information about gun ownership in documents that did not exist, not to mention plagiarism charges against historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose, who was also credibly accused of fabricating interviews. Still, all this pales compared to actually falsifying an original document, presumably to give it (and the author) a greater historical import. Lincoln signed many pardons, but changing the date made that particular one one of his last official acts before his assassination.

Acts like this (even if you give Lowry the benefit of the doubt, someone falsified it) are crimes against history and hurt everyone—his publisher, his colleagues, and the rest of the community of Civil War scholars, who will now have to deal with increased restrictions at the Archives. Lowry has done some good, ground-breaking work in the past, all of which will now be called into question.

What a shame, and all the more reason to remember that when a historical revelation seems too good to be true—it probably is.


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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

James W. Durney January 27, 2011 at 12:18 pm

I cannot understand how altering one document was never noticed. The court martial, sentence, reviews, imprisonment, schedule for execution and changes seem to have produced no documents. Looking at any of these, should have produced questions about dates. They did not keep people in cells for years prior to execution. The fact that he was not executed and/or released a year prior to the date on the pardon should have caused questions.

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John Koster January 27, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I know Dr, Lowry personally and he once compared two signatures from 1872 and 1921 for me in a professional and objective manner. (Two police officers, one with FBI training, independently came to the same conclusion that he did.) I think Dr, Lowry is too honorable and above all too intelligent to have perpetrated such a clumsy forgery. He may have knuckled under to pressure but I can’t believe he would forge a Lincoln document — he had ancestors in the Civil War and himself served as a U.S. Air Force medical officer. I think he was framed.

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Brendan January 28, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Framed?! How? Why? By whom? I’m not being condescending here; I’d really like to know. I would love to believe that Lowry is innocent. And I’ll admit that the timing for this story to go public is odd. But if Lowry was framed, someone would have had to have changed the date knowing that Lowry would find the document, realize its significance, and publish the find, right? Aren’t there easier ways to ruin someone else’s career?

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John Koster January 29, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Lowry was framed by threatening him with worse consequences if he continued to claim innocence and a better deal if he confessed. This kind of thing happens all the time in bad police work — some of my best friends are cops but there are bad ones too. The “framing” didn’t occur with the clumsy forgery on the document but with the insistance that a baffled 78-year-old man who wasn’t prepared to be badgered signed a statement he has since recanted. The only mystery is in the motivation — maybe they justed wanted him out of the National; Archives because he and Beverly took up too much space, or maybe they needed a culprit because they themselves had failed to detect somebody else’s patent forgery and Lowry was convenient as a suspect. FDR RUSHES TO CAPITAL: FAR EAST CRISIS GRAVE! (San Francisco Chronicle headline of December 5, 1941.) Seven days later, we read about a “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor that nobody in Washington ever could have expected. I know Dr. Lowry….I believe he was coerced to cover up somebody else’s forgery.

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John Koster January 29, 2011 at 11:00 pm

TYPO: should have been “December 1” — there were other front page stories as well. December 5 headline: JAPS ANSWER TODAY: BREAK NEAR and ACTION LIKELY IN PACIFIC — yet Washington was surprised? You can’t make this stuff up.

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Brendan January 31, 2011 at 9:54 pm

John, if Dr. Lowry is innocent I hope he is able to clear his name. He has contributed significantly to the study of the Civil War, shedding light across areas few dared to explore. If someone else forged the Lincoln document, chances are they would have had a reason. Perhaps there is another historian out there who previously cited the forged version of the document but did not receive popular credit for discovering it. I agree that the methods the NA used to elicit a confession seem sketchy. There is certainly reasonable doubt here, but unfortunately, the court of public opinion doesn’t require much to reach its own verdict.

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John Koster February 1, 2011 at 10:51 am

Brendan…you are clearly a man of honor and honesty, and I more than suspect Dr. Lowry is too. I know if for a fact. My own (American) speciality is the Little Bighorn, and as my sources often say in Lakota:
“Waschicu yey sinte-la…” The meant the feds, not honest guys like Tom Lowry.

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Fred Ray February 1, 2011 at 7:55 pm

“Somebody set me up” is the oft-invoked but seldom convincing defense when you get caught red-handed. Lowry certainly had the motive, means, and opportunity to forge the pardon, as well as the most to gain from it, especially since it was his first book. To have framed him someone would have had to have known he was working on the book then forged a document they figured he’d find and use. If that was the case, then why wait until the statute of limitations had run to bring it up?

I think we have to do better than saying Lowry’s a nice guy and the feds aren’t, so he must be innocent. Even nice guys succumb to temptation — look at Stephen Ambrose, a man I once greatly admired.

An alternative take is that Lowry did it, got caught, thought he’d admit it and that’d be the end of it, not counting on the Archives releasing a statement that ruined his reputation. I do agree that he’d have been much better off talking to a lawyer first.

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John Koster February 2, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Fred, “Don’t Shoot That Boy” wasn’t Lowry’s first book. His signature book was “The Story The Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell” — published by Stackpole in 1994, while the Lincold date forgery didn’t crop up until 1998. I believe Lowry also had a couple of medical books in print before 1998. My theory — he didn’t notice somebody else’s forgery because it gave the document an untoward importance, but he didn’t do the forgery himself. He’s too honest — ask anyone who knows him — and above all, he’s much too intelligent. The one document he evaluated for me was evaluated by two honest cops, one with pre-med and FBI training, the other a Viet Nam vet, experienced detective in a town full of banks and forgers, and by a German-educated librarian with an MLS from Rutgers. All three used the same techniques and came to the same conclusions as Lowry – almost certainly the same person at different life stages. No money changed hands. Watch out for those dates….

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Tom Lowry February 9, 2011 at 9:31 am

A blog currently under construction will include the polygraph exam I recently passed, as well as a discussion of how this might have happened.

Remember, cops are allowed to lie to a “suspect.”

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Tom Lowry February 12, 2011 at 5:33 am

In addition to the polygraph exam mentioned earlier, a certified forensic document examiner (handwriting expert) is preparing a report on the documents in question. A thought for those involved — I have never made a cent from my Lincoln research and as to fame? Denounced in the media and flamed in the blogosphere, how do those humiliations benefit me?

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