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Augustus C. Buell | Improving History Through Lies

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The John Paul Jones House in Portsmouth, NH.

The John Paul Jones House in Portsmouth, NH.

Justin Shatwell

In New England, historical plaques are as plentiful as grey squirrels and just as easy to overlook. But sometimes it pays to pause and read over these little shrines to history. Many of them have an interesting story to tell—especially the ones that aren’t true.

If you’re looking for a whopper, stop by the John Paul Jones House museum in Portsmouth, NH. On one of the exterior walls you’ll find a plaque from 1913 that commemorates the Helen Seavey quilting party. As the story goes, a group of Portsmouth women tore up their finest gowns to patch together an American flag during the Revolutionary War and presented it to famed sea captain John Paul Jones to fly over his ship as he harassed British shipping off the coast of Europe.

“It’s the story that saved the house,” says Maryellen Burke, former executive director of the Portsmouth Historical Society. Early in the 20th century, the home where John Paul Jones lived for a year while overseeing the construction of the warship America was in danger of being torn down. Boosters rallied around the quilting party story as they fought to save the house and ultimately transform it into a museum. There’s just one problem. “It’s not true,” Burke says. “None of it’s true.”

John Paul Jones did live in the home that now bears his name, but there’s no evidence that he received a makeshift flag from the women of Portsmouth. In fact, it doesn’t appear that Helen Seavey, who supposedly shredded her wedding gown to craft the banner’s flawless stars, even existed at all.

The story of the quilting party was the invention of Augustus C. Buell, a self-styled historian who soared to fame with the publication of a two-volume biography of John Paul Jones in 1900. Buell was a talented writer and the book was a gripping read, chock full of sea battles, romance, and general daring-do. The New York Tribune praised it as “a perfect biography.” It turns out it’s easy to write a great history when you’re making most of it up.

Buell’s lies went unnoticed for several years. To a casual observer the book seemed legit. Buell gave sources for much of his material. It wasn’t until 1905 that people realized he was citing documents that existed only in his imagination. As Samuel Eliot Morison, a later (and legitimate) biographer of John Paul Jones, would write, “He found it easier to write Jones’s letters himself than to use the genuine ones in the Library of Congress, which he never visited.”

Morison ended his 1959 biography of Jones with an appendix that attempted to parse the truth from fiction in Buell’s work. He goes chapter by chapter listing each lie and exaggeration he could find. It goes on for pages. His list of fallacies for Chapter XI begins, “the entire chapter,” then goes into details. Morison eventually tired of the exercise and cut off his catalogue of fabrications with a note that reads, “There are six more chapters equally bad.” He then ends his book with a plea to librarians across the globe to remove Buell’s work from their shelves or, at the very least, to reshelf it as fiction.

Today, Buell is something of a legend amongst historians. He’s a perfect villain, a boogeyman to scare grad students into double-checking their sources. Some have gone so far as to label Buell “the father of lies,” a title that in other circles is traditionally reserved for Satan.

But Buell never heard these barbs. He died in 1904, a year before an expose in the New York Times revealed the majority of his malfeasance and labeled his book, “the most audacious historical forgery every put upon a credulous public.” When he passed, he was still a star. He published three more biographies, each similarly embroidered with his own inventions, as well as a memoir of his time in the Union Army during the Civil War, which for a time was praised as the best first-person account of the Battle of Gettysburg until it was revealed that he joined the army several weeks after it was fought.

So if the Helen Seavey quilting party is nothing more than a lie concocted by history’s most notorious fibber, why leave the plaque on the museum? “You know historical people, we don’t take down anything,” laughs Gerry Ward, the curator at the John Paul Jones House.

He says there is value in remembering the story, even if it is a legend. It says a lot about how people choose to remember the past, often favoring myth over fact. And besides, without Helen Seavey there probably wouldn’t be a museum today. The lie helped save the house, so now the plaque is a legitimate part of its history, even if the story it tells isn’t.

Comments
  • I love historical fiction.If only it had been published as such!

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