When historians go to an archive or do research, we never know what we’ll find. We can get a general idea of what’s in a historical record or a database with the help of archivists and librarians, but we never know what might or might not be beneficial to us. When we approach our research material with a certain set of questions or analytical framework, we may be astonished, perplexed, or taken aback in unexpected ways.
I asked a simple question on Twitter: Historians, what was it in the archives or during your study that made you go, “Wait, wut?” At the time of writing, there had been over 300 replies and 450 quote tweets.
Historians, archivists, and other researchers shared amazing accounts about their archival discoveries and strange research experiences. These ranged in tone from amusing to unsettling to meaningful.
I’ve selected a few examples from each category to demonstrate the breadth of what historians have encountered in the area.
Many of those who answered reported strange (and occasionally hilarious) discoveries in the archives. Some were actual objects, such as Robert Cribb’s discovery of “17 tubes of processed opium, ready for smoking,” Daniel McKay’s discovery of “negatives of an early Australian prime minister naked on vacation,” and Susanne Wosnitzka’s discovery of “300 love letters from a woman to woman around 1760, partly written in blood.”
Others came across some intriguing correspondence. After a lawmaker wrote to Reagan to act against “dial-a-porn,” A.J. Bauer cited recordings of phone-sex calls in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Professor Phillip Hitti wrote a letter to his Princeton colleague Albert Einstein, accusing him of spreading false rumors about him to students, according to Yasmin Dualeh. A New York University debating team wrote to Soviet leader Josef Stalin “seeking support with their impending argument on capitalism,” according to Maurice Casey.
More bizarre stories came from newspaper reports and speech transcripts unearthed by historians during their research. Cesc Mainzer recalled reading in a Majorcan newspaper in the 1970s about “an elderly Belgian woman losing [sic] her denture when she bit a police officer’s leg.” Dustin Jones “came upon a speech given by John Wayne at a charity dinner Ford also attended, making absolutely one of the least accurate forecasts I encountered in my study” at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library and Museum. What was the movie star’s forecast? Watergate will be a footnote in history books in the future.