Allan Powell: Accurate history is a personal trust

March 15, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

It was sheer good fortune to happen upon the very riveting account of “The Romanovs,” written by Robert M. Massie. His narrative of the brutal, barbaric murder of Russia’s royal family by the Bolshevik revolutionaries, their ghastly mode of body disposal and the secretive and dangerous process of uncovering such beastly acts show remarkable skill. The few heroes in this sordid tale deserve profound respect for their passionate commitment to finding and reporting a truthful version for the historical record.

On July 17, 1918, in the Siberian town of Ekaterinburg, 11 prisoners (the Romanov family, the family doctor and three servants) were rushed into the basement of a local mansion. The lead executioner began the slaughter with a point blank shot at Tsar Nicholas II with his revolver. This was a signal for the other executioners to gun down the remaining prisoners in cold blood. Their bodies were quickly tossed into a truck and, with great secrecy, hauled away in the darkness of night. In 20 minutes, a royal family was removed to be replaced by Bolshevik revolutionaries.

The bodies were carried about 12 miles into the woods and dumped into an empty mine pit. Later, they were secretly moved to a newly dug pit, sprayed with sulfuric acid and gasoline, covered with wood and set on fire. Finally, they were covered with dirt. It was not until 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Russian leader Boris Yeltsin authorized an opening of the burial site that had been discovered by Alexander Avdonin and Geli Ryabov, two courageous and gifted investigators. Ryabov had visited the basement room where the murders took place and was so moved by the sordid event that he declared, “I decided that I must get involved with this story. I felt a moral obligation, a mission that will stay with me until I die to write about all that happened to those people.”

These little-known heroes led the way in uncovering enough bones and bone fragments to ascertain that they were indeed the bones of the Romanov family and their servants. It is that sense of duty that makes it possible to find truth about history.

Some 20 years ago, I became aware of another contested murder closer to home. In his book, “Notes On The State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson accused Michael Cresap, the youngest son of Thomas Cresap, of the murder of Chief Logan’s family (numbering 13). This grisly slaughter took place on the east side of the Ohio River, several miles north of Wheeling (now West Virginia). Chief Logan believed (wrongly) that Cresap was the culprit and Jefferson accepted Logan’s view of how these friendly Indians had been killed. It was true that Michael was developing land along the Ohio, but was he in the area where the Logan family was struck down?

The best piece of evidence came by chance and convinced us of Michael’s innocence. While Joanie and I were visiting the site of “Logan’s Elm” where the treaty ending Lord Dunmore’s War was signed, we happened upon a monument in a small, little-known park just outside Centerville, Ohio. On the monument — in large print — was a sworn oath, signed by four residents of the region, that Michael Cresap was not guilty of the assault on Logan’s family. One signature was that of Ebenezer Zane, founder of Zanesville, Ohio. This was important because Cresap had led a rifle company of Maryland volunteers to Boston to support Washington against the British. Unfortunately, he became fatally ill and was buried in New York and unable to defend himself.

What is of interest, relative to finding truth in history, is the huge question as to why four settlers in Ohio would care about the reputation of the little-known citizen of Old Town, Maryland. Why would anyone want to challenge the words of someone as famous as Thomas Jefferson?

The answer in both cases of human cruelty was that we should be ever grateful that someone cares deeply that the historical narrative is accurate. There is always the possibility that those who have recorded events didn’t get it right in the first version.

Apparently, the Shawnee thought they had found the right culprit. They captured Daniel Greathouse, a border ruffian, and retaliated with savagery expected at that period. There is no need to give the specifics of the stomach-churning event; our interest is in filtering out truth from fiction, exploitation of events for ideological purposes or flattering the egos of the winners in the conflicts we face.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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