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Earwitness to History

by Steven Utley

Not that I don’t think things are getting worse all the time, but a part of me resists the argument that everything used to be so much better. Documentation is clearly better these days, now that we have all kinds of electronic means of recording what people say and can play it back to them when they claim they said something else. If only our forebears had had the foresight to invent such recording techniques between 100 and 2000 years ago, when (we are constantly told) repartee approached apotheosis before falling into its present sorry decline, we might be able to confirm to our own satisfaction accounts of how well-spoken everybody used to be.

Who among us has not admired, for example, the 18th-Century rakehell and raconteur John Wilkes’ riposte to John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, who told his sometime-friend, in more or less these words, “I am convinced, Mr. Wilkes, that you will die either of a pox or on the gallows”? To this Wilkes replied, also in more or less these words, “That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your mistress or your principles,” thereby bringing down the house (either the House of Lords or a house of ill-fame: accounts differ) and earning immortality for himself.

We would have no reason to remember Wilkes, of course, had he been armed with only our lame latter-day notions of the snappy comeback. Yet I have to ask: how do we know that this exchange occurred as reported? How do we know that it ever occurred at all? Were there parties besides the Earl and Wilkes present who witnessed their exchange, and who then rushed off to disseminate, more or less accurately, accounts of what had been said, and is this why the accounts that have come down to us disagree as to exact wording?

Studies show that eyewitness testimony, contrary to popular belief, is not all that reliable; how much less reliable, then, must earwitness testimony be! Besides, can anybody who hung out with the likes of Wilkes have been a completely trustworthy character? Probably not.

If there were no witnesses, well, then, we have only the Earl’s word and Wilkes’ that they even exchanged repartee, witty or otherwise. It is hardly credible that the Earl of Sandwich would have told anyone afterward, “Boy, that Wilkes sure laid a zinger on me the other day — man, he got me good!” Aristocrats have their pride, and aristocrats in the 18th Century had it in spades.

And if we have only Wilkes’ word that he did zing his lordship, how do we know that it was the zinger reported, or even a zinger at all? How do we know that Wilkes didn’t yield to the only too human impulse to make himself look (or, more accurately, sound) good? How do we know that he didn’t think up his zinger after the fact, and let on to everyone that that was what he had actually said and not, “Oh yeah?” or “Up yours, m’lord,” or even, “Your lordship is as full of crap as a Christmas turkey”?

We don’t know, and can’t, and that’s all there is to it, and it calls into question all those other historical occasions when somebody is supposed to have said something memorable. Ford’s Theater was packed the night that other John Wilkes, Booth, leaped unexpectedly onto the stage, and afterward many people swore up and down that he had said, “Sic semper tyrannis!” But given the uproar of the moment, given the fact that Booth broke his leg when he landed onstage, given what we now know about the unreliability of witnesses unequipped with tape recorders and video cameras, we cannot be sure that Booth did not say something else altogether, like “Damn, that hurts!”

For that matter, how do we know that it was actually John Wilkes Booth and not, say, Clare Booth Luce? Come to think of it, how do we know that John Wilkes Booth and Clare Booth Luce weren’t the same person? Pedants will pooh-pooh this idea, of course, and mount specious arguments against it, claiming (for instance) that J. W. Booth was born in 1838 and supposedly died in 1865, while C. Booth L. was supposedly born in 1903 and died in 1987 — as though no fugitive has ever covered his tracks by adopting a new identity. JWB, one of the great actors of his day, could have passed himself off as a woman in his sleep, of course.

The clincher, though, is that no one ever saw, let alone photographed or videotaped, JWB and CBL together!

Deponent steps down.

Copyright © 2004 by Steven Utley

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