A Historian At Work: Using Facts to Build “Stories,” Part Four

Part One — Part Two— Part Three — Part Four — Part Five

So sometimes I trust other historians’ work. But — sometimes I don’t.

Take a look at another excerpt from the book. This is from pages 102-103 of my history of American beer, Ambitious Brew. The background is the “beer wars” of the 1890s and efforts to control industry competition:

In one contest, according to Adolphus Busch’s grandson August “Gus” Busch, Jr., a group of small New Orleans brewers resisted Adolphus’s efforts to control that city’s trade. A prolonged struggled drove the barrel price well below the profit zone. Finally Adolphus ended the conflict by informing the men that he planned to “control the price of beer for the next 25 years. . . whatever goddamn price I put on my beer, you go up [or down] the same goddamn price.”

Gus, who claimed to have witnessed the encounter, recounted the tale years later as evidence of his grandfather’s wily ways and masterful control over lesser men. If the Busches invaded, say, Peoria, they could afford to wait out the competition; could afford to absorb the losses incurred by selling barrels at cost. Small local breweries could not. More often than not, the conqueror drove the conquered into bankruptcy.

I found this anecdote, and Adolphus’s alleged quote, in Under the Influence, a book written by two St. Louis journalists, Peter Hernon and Terry Ganey. Ganey and Hernon heard the anecdote during an interview with Gus Busch. I discounted the accuracy of the tale. (Indeed, based on my reading of primary sources and other available evidence, I concluded that Ganey’s and Hernon’s book was an unreliable secondary source.)

Here’s what I wrote in the book:

The anecdote, though it captures the brutality of the struggle, is most likely apocryphal. The most ferocious beer wars unfolded in the two decades prior to Gussie’s birth in 1899. Adolphus’s health failed in 1906, leaving him frail and wheelchair-bound; from then until his death in 1913, he spent most of his time in California or Europe. Even assuming the event took place as late as, say, 1910, when Gussie would have been eleven years old, Adolphus would not have been involved and his grandson too young to comprehend the grown-ups’ conversation, let alone remember it accurately some seventy-five years later. More likely the tale evolved over the years as part of the mythology that surrounded a family of successful men with over-sized personalities.

Again, this is part of my work: I can’t take the evidence at face value. Instead, I examine many sources, and different kinds of evidence, and the facts (one of them, in this case, being the “fact” that Gus Busch wasn’t even alive when the events in question took place), and only then do I decide which evidence is reliable and which is not.

Is this art or craft? In my opinion (based on 25 years experience), it’s a craft. Historians learn how to use evidence based on experience, trial-and-error, and the wisdom acquired from that. Does that mean I’m always “right”? No. But I make the best judgments I can, using the evidence at hand.

Next time: the “story” part of the equation.

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