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

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

But how do I know which sources are reliable, and which aren’t? Most of the time, I assess the primary sources myself: I hold them in my hand, I read them, I vouch for them (my accurate reading of them).

But I don’t always rely on primary sources. Let’s look at another exerpt from that first scene:

Phillip finally arrived at the shop owned by A. J. Langworthy, metal worker and ironmonger. He presented himself to the proprietor and explained that he needed a boiler–a copper vat–for his family’s new brewing business. Would Langworthy fabricate it for them? The metalworker shook his head. No. “I [am] familiar with their construction,” he explained to Best, “. . . but I [dislike] very much to have the noisy things around, and [I do] not wish to do so.”

Here I had an eyewitness account to Best’s visit to Langworthy’s shop: Langworthy himself. But how do I know what Langworthy said to Best (the part in the quotation marks)?

Many years after the event, Langworthy himself recounted the episode. I found his account in a history of Pabst Brewing company written by historian Thomas Cochran. I don’t have Cochran’s book in front of me (and, maddening, I can’t find a digital copy), so I can’t check the source he used.

If I remember correctly, Langworthy was interviewed for a newspaper story sometime around 1890. For whatever reason, I didn’t read that newspaper report myself (could be that I was not able to find a copy). So I quoted from Cochran’s work, citing his book as my source.

I was comfortable doing that. I was familiar with Cochran’s career and his other work. I also verified for myself many of the sources he used. I knew he was a solid historian and that I could trust his work.(*1) S

o, although I did not have access to Cochran’s primary source (and I wish I could remember now what it was), I trusted Cochran’s ability to use his sources and his accuracy. I trusted, in other words, that Cochran’s secondary account (his history of Pabst Brewing Company) was itself a valid report on the primary source (Langworthy’s account of the encounter with Phillip Best.)

Yes, Langworthy was by then an old man. But he’d likely told the story many times, if only because Best himself went on to become an important and well-known man. I decided to trust his — and Cochran’s — recollection of the encounter.

That’s a big part of what historians do: we weigh the evidence and either accept or reject it, based on everything we know. Next time: A case where I rejected someone else’s sources and account.

_______________________

*1: Cochran had a long and respected career as an economic historian. Indeed, he was and is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most important scholars in that field. He wrote his history of Pabst Brewing with the blessings, and cooperation of, the sons of Frederick Pabst, Gustav and Fred, Jr. He had access to hundreds of documents that have since been lost or destroyed. As you might imagine, I was, and am, grateful for Cochran’s careful and thorough work as a historian.

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