Historian Allegedly Tampered With Lincoln Documents

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Thomas Lowry, a 78-year-old retired psychiatrist and amateur Civil War historian in Virginia, has admitted to changing the date on an Abraham Lincoln presidential pardon in an effort to link the document with Lincoln's assassination, according to the National Archives. Lowry modified the date of the pardon--which was for a Union Army deserter facing the death penalty--from April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865, the date Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre. By replacing Lincoln's "4" with his "5," Lowry enhanced the pardon's historical significance by transforming it into one of Lincoln's last acts before he was killed, the Archives claims.

Archivist Trevor Plante initially raised concerns about the pardon because the "5" appeared to be written in darker ink over another number, and a year-long Archives investigation determined that Lowry used a fountain pen and fadeproof ink to make the change while sitting in a research room. The institution has banned Lowry from its facilities but cannot prosecute him because the statute of limitations on tampering with government property has expired.

Lowry himself has joined others in weighing in on the debate:

  • Lowry Was Initially Hailed for His Finding, notes Sam Roberts at The New York Times. Lowry's discovery in 1998 of Lincoln's "legendary act of compassion" before his death "was hailed by scholars as one of the biggest findings of Lincoln memorabilia in the 20th century," Roberts explains. Lowry "said he found the pardon among hundreds of untapped Lincoln documents in the National Archives ... and described it in a book the following year."
  • This Is Hard to Believe, states James Joyner at Outside the Beltway: "I'm not sure which is more amazing: that Lowry would go through so much trouble for such a minuscule amount of fame or that we've spent so much time and taxapayer money to correct the record. For that matter, even to my untrained eye, the forgery seems obvious. Why wasn't it noticed years ago, when Lowry's 'discovery' was being vetted? Presumably, the difference in ink color was at least as obvious then as now?"
  • I Was Pressured to Confess, claims Lowry, as quoted by the Times. The Archives says Lowry signed a written confession, but Lowry is now denying any wrongdoing: "It's against my code of ethics. I got leaned on for two hours with a mixture of pressure and false promises. While they weren't driving splinters under my fingernails, they said I wouldn't hear from them again." The Washington Post reports that Lowry's wife, Beverly, says a former Archives staffer altered the pardon's date--a claim the Archives denies.
  • I Don't Believe the Lowrys, says Gaius at Blue Crab Boulevard: "Lowry got momentarily famous for his 'discovery'. What motive would [an Archives] staffer have?"

Here's an Archives video explaining the affair:

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