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Tossing Lines: Historical skepticism, straight from the mouth of Colonel Ledyard

You’ll no doubt join my wife in questioning my sanity, but when Steve Manuel, executive director of the New London County Historical Society, mentioned he had Colonel William Ledyard’s tooth in his collection, I couldn’t get to his office at the Shaw Mansion fast enough. I’ve been extracting tidbits of the colonel’s life from the historical record, and this was a new level of physical connection.

The tooth, along with a fragment of wood presumably from the colonel’s coffin, was attached to a small index card, on which was handwritten “From the grave of Col. William Ledyard Aug. 1855.”

I stood transfixed, imagining the tooth in the colonel’s jaw, his words flowing over the enamel as he conversed with fellow merchants Nathaniel Shaw and Thomas Mumford, commiserating over the latest British policies that were killing New London trade. The colonel came alive before me.

I later brought photos of the tooth to my next dental appointment with Dr. Jason Campbell of Waterford. Though dental exams via photographs hardly allow for comprehensive analysis, Dr. Campbell could say that the tooth was a first upper molar with a spot of decay. He also deduced that the colonel was a tea drinker, a popular habit in the 1700s. With surprisingly little tartar evident, Dr. Campbell surmised that overall it appeared to be a fairly healthy tooth.

However, tempering my awe and fascination, whenever I shared my pictures of the tooth with others, almost all responded by suspiciously asking, “How do you know it’s really his?” Most quickly dismissed this intimate piece of local history as a worthless scam.

I was taken aback. Why would the average person so readily denounce such a historical artifact?

Maybe the seeds of skepticism were planted when my generation learned our school history books were full of tall tales. We now know Washington never said, “I cannot tell a lie,” Columbus didn’t discover America, not one witch was ever burned at the stake in Salem, Mass., Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, and pretty much everything we were taught about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving isn’t true.

Historians do play fast and loose with history. In an article titled “The Frailty of Historical Truth: Learning Why Historians Inevitably Err,” (American Historical Association, Perspectives on History), David Lowenthal, author, emeritus professor and honorary research fellow at University College London, writes that “hidden bias always skews evidence, secondary sources are ipso facto unreliable, and myriad minor errors betoken major sins (in interpretation). Every historian makes things up while writing — selecting, omitting, and reshaping data.” Lowenthal adds that there exists an “unbridgeable gulf between actual pasts and any accounts of them.”

Further complicating things, historians skew history. British historian Suzannah Lipscomb warns that any group of historians studying the same event, no matter how scrupulous, will come to different conclusions based on their own personality, prejudice, insights, beliefs and biases.

Honest historians will admit that history is far more complex than the written records they research. The lives they study are also biological, physical and intellectual, rendering truly accurate interpretation near impossible through the span of centuries.

So, skepticism today is understandable and even beneficial in filtering out questionable claims, providing it is based on rational thinking, which may be as elusive as the truth.

Richard Schenkman, author of “Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History,” sarcastically declares of many Americans: “Not only have they forgotten what they should remember, but they have remembered what they should have forgotten.”

Thus, the common man’s sullied perception of history.

In spite of spirited skepticism today, I see no reason not to believe the molar is the colonel’s. If the layman dentist who rudely pulled it from Ledyard’s decomposing jawbone was planning a scam, why claim it was William Ledyard’s, a man whose life historians ignore? Why not a more famous New Englander like Benedict Arnold, Paul Revere, or heck, even John Adams?

Also, as an artifact without verification, the tooth carries no monetary value, hence no financial incentive to lie. Plus, it serves no person’s or group’s agenda.

The date 1855, 74 years after the Colonel’s death, doesn’t necessarily concern me, as it is entirely possible that his grave was exhumed and relocated, as often happened over time. And, postmortem dental extractions were not rare occurrences, whether as souvenirs or for whatever rituals may have existed.

Perhaps the tooth’s DNA offers the only way to scientifically link it to an ancestor or to our existing artifacts of Ledyard’s life (his vest, shirt, and sword), thereby validating its authenticity, and converting the skeptics to believers.

But, that is unlikely, so my bizarre and fascinating remnant of Colonel William Ledyard may forever remain in the fog of historical uncertainty.

John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com.

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