Half-Life of Facts: History

By Claire Layton

Dr. Frederick Strange. Photo Courtesy of the McCord Museum
In this series of artifacts of the week, we will examine the paradox that knowledge is in fact tentative in particularly consistent ways, through a number of examples right here in the house. We will trace how we come to understand particular things as ‘truth,’ and the importance of critical thought and openness to the precariousness of fact. The mission here is twofold, also acting as an example of the potential for valuable and relevant research within a historical library and archival collection; to not regard a museum as a static entity.

History is certainly not exempt from the paradigm of the ‘half-life of facts,’ with constant overturn due to new discoveries and additions to the knowledge about historical figures and events. In particular, the validity of oral history is always something to be questioned, manipulated knowingly and unknowingly by speakers, new additions, and new findings due to research. This is especially prevalent within the spoken history of a historic house. ‘Facts’ that we as interpreters of a particular history tell over and over again have the potential to be overturned with the uncovering of new documents and information.

One of the stories that is consistently told within the Hillary House regards Dr. Strange and how he moved to Toronto after only seven years of living at the Manor (Hillary House), because he was elected as a government official. Though, new research has revealed that he in fact moved to Toronto two years before being elected to his seat in Parliament, likely due to an attempt to repair his second marriage, however unsuccessfully. This was revealed in a recently released short paper written by Jacqueline Stewart about the life of Dr. Frederick Strange which is available for purchase at the Hillary House. This shows the changeability of historical accounts through the uncovering and scouring of historical documents and storylines.

Overturn of historical knowledge does not just occur on this kind of micro-scale. For example, the widely recognised historical axiom of witches being burnt at the stake in Salem was recently debunked. This common depiction is pervasive throughout literature, films, and even textbooks. However, according to Richard Trask, Town Archivist for Danvers (known originally as Salem), Massachusetts, English law was enacted in New England at the time. It was dictated that witchcraft was a crime subject to hanging, not burning at the stake. The Salem trials lasted from the early months of 1692 to the spring of 1693, where all the alleged witches were either hanged, or in the case of one accused 80-year-old man, crushed to death by heavy rocks (Andrews 2014).

It is likely that the previously understood ‘fact’ of Salem witches being burned at the stake arose from European nations’ (including Germany, Italy, Scotland, France and Scandinavia) purported penalties for accused witches, which did include burning and drowning.

There are endless examples of historical ‘fact’ being overturned, especially as previously silenced histories are being given a voice. It is important to not take historical ‘facts’ for granted and be prepared to continuously remain informed about new histories and modifications to accounts of the past.

Visit us and see if you can find these and any other examples from the past. If you have any questions about these items in our collection, please inquire or schedule an appointment to work with our curator to find out how other “facts” have changed over time.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Andrews, E. (2014, 08 13). Were witches burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials? Retrieved 08 18, 2017, from History.com: http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/were-witches-burned-at-the-stake-during-the-salem-witch-trials

Stewart, Jacqueline (2017). The Story of Doctor Strange: A brief biography of Frederick W. Strange.