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One Noose, Two Beams, Same Story

February 13, 2012

It has been a blessed, quiet weekend at our house, and on this blog, too. I’ve been channeling my blogging time into a new website for the book. That site won’t be public for a few more weeks. But one post I wrote is so timely that I thought some of you would enjoy it here, while the story is still unfolding in real time.

Like PBS’s History Detectives? Read on.

*****

Roughly a decade ago, a Blue Earth County Historical Society volunteer took a historian into the back room of their Mankato, Minnesota facility and unwrapped a huge wooden timber. The volunteer said it was reputed to be a beam from the scaffold that executed 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862.

The volunteer was unaware that this showing violated BECHS policy. When the historian (who is white) requested a second, closer examination of the beam through official channels, the historian was denied in writing on the grounds that the beam, as a relic of the 1862 executions, was a “sensitive” object that held sacred funerary significance for the descendants of those who died on it, so could only be viewed by Dakota people.

By the twenty-first century, I think the state’s historical societies would understand that the politically expedient –cover-ups, denials, administrative rulings –only make some historians more intent to discover the truth hiding beneath.

Sunday January 29, 2012, the subject of BECHS’s sequestered beam surfaced again in the opening article in Dakota War of 1862 sesquicentennial coverage in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In the article, reporter Curt Brown probed public opinion on the subject of another relic of the Dakota executions: a hangman’s noose sequestered in the bowels of the Minnesota Historical Society History Center in St. Paul where only Dakota people have been allowed to view it.

In the wake of the Strib. article, the Mankato Free Press, on Feb. 4, 2012 ran an article by Tim Krohn on Blue Earth’s own sequestered relic: the forbidden beam. Krohn’s article included a reprint of a 1927 newspaper story declaring the timber to be a beam from the 1862 scaffold. In it, the prescient reporter gave detailed dimensions and noted the remnants of a shipping tag affixed to one end of the beam.

Last week, Blue Earth County Historical Society (BECHS) Executive Director Jessica Potter took the 1927 specs to the back room and unwrapped the beam. The Mankato Free Press ran a follow-up story by Dan Linehan complete with photographs on Feb. 10, 2012.

Potter’s verdict: the beam does not match the 1927 description of the scaffold piece but may be an object described as an 1856 bridge timber accessioned by BECHS around the same time it acquired the piece of the 1862 scaffold.

However this bridge timber, as it is now identified, comes with a twist. Inside a small frame nailed to the end of the timber is an aged paper tag like the one the 1927 newspaper story attributed to the scaffold beam.

This story is missing pieces bigger than the hand-hewn notches in the timber.

BECHS once owned two beams. Between 1927 and 1987, Potter believes, the scaffold beam was lost and its tag switched to the bridge timber.

The beam they denied the white historian access to is nothing but an innocuous chunk of (likely) the wrong species of wood. An old hunk of bridge, that, it is said, modern Dakota people have wept and prayed over believing it to be a piece of the scaffold that executed 38 of their ancestors.

What makes something true? Denial? Belief? Tears?

That’s what makes history slippery.

It was true 150 years ago that relics of a grotesque execution were so treasured that one official planned to make a present of 38 nooses to his superiors in the nation’s capital who had authorized the mass hanging. Until a soldier detailed to remove the nooses from the necks of the executed Dakotas –the same guy who told this story –filched a noose, stuffed it inside his jacket, then slept with the knotted hemp like a giant pea under his mattress until the furor over the missing 38th noose subsided.

In the 143 years since the soldier donated the noose and its story to the Minnesota Historical Society, politically correct perceptions of “the truth” have made seismic shifts, especially in response to the American Indian Movement. MHS is now self-conscious about the things it once proudly collected and is scrambling to appear forthcoming about its past –we can hope including the collections and access policies it has a history of sealing, denying, deaccessioning, and legally covering-up.

A decade ago, why did not BECHS invite a historian with a measuring tape who had seen a photograph of scaffold beam into its back room and let the historian do what historians do? (The photo of the beam was subsequently lost by the Minnesota Historical Society.)

That’s the rub. If the people who collect history were routinely forthcoming, we historians would have to devote ourselves to more essential questions like, “What happened 150 years ago?” instead of following the rabbit trails and red herrings of forbidden objects locked in the basements of historical societies.

Why do historical organizations rebuff those who might help them make sense of their institutional past?

History suggests this new buzz-word, “truth-telling,” is inherently self-limiting.

*****

For the record, I am not the historian who was shown, then denied access to the BECHS beam. In the wake of MHS’s recent rediscovery of the noose and its accession story, I was invited to view the noose. I had not made up my mind about accepting when MHS removed the noose from the collection of potential exhibit objects open for comment. 

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