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What We See is What We Think

March 26, 2012

In history, as in life, what we see is what we think. Or maybe more precisely, what we see is what we think we see.

Have you ever brought home a piece of fruit from the store only to discover a bruise that was hidden by your hand when you were turning the fruit this way and that in the store? The perfect melon that appeared worth the price fifteen minutes ago actually has fast-creeping rot.

What we see is what we believe as long as other possibilities remain hidden from our view.

A month ago, I introduced you to the story of the Blue Earth County (Minnesota) Historical Society’s much-storied beam, which for almost a century has borne the reputed identity as a relic of the state’s “True Cross:” the scaffold that executed 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862.

As that post outlined, BECHS now disputes the legitimacy of that identity. Their accession books show another timber, a piece of a bridge, accessioned around the time they acquired the scaffold beam. But the possession of two timbers is beyond the memory of any living person. Today BECHS has only a one beam.

Within the past ten years, BECHS has denied at least one white historian access to its beam on the grounds that it is from the scaffold and therefore falls under NAGPRA protections for Native American graves and funerary objects. But now BECHS has determined the beam is most likely the bridge timber.

You could probably tell from the tone of my post that I wasn’t satisfied with BECHS’s conclusion. This is not because I have trump cards up my sleeve proving the beam is indeed from the scaffold;  I don’t. Rather, that bridge-beam conclusion is just too convenient to go unquestioned. It deflects public attention at the very time media everywhere will be revisiting the story of the largest mass execution in the history of the United States–upon its 150th anniversary.

In other words, BECHS may be seeing what it wants to see.

I would like to see outside historians to weigh in on the question. (Several years ago, someone pitched the beam story to PBS’s History Detectives. Instead, the producers chose to investigate a teaspoon engraved with an image of the 1862 executions.)

Here’s what I think: This question of the notches in the beam may be a historical red herring. It may be irrelevant evidence, not key.

1.) Meagher, the original owner of the beam, according to old Mankato newspaper stories, purchased the entire scaffold at auction. The majority of the lumber in the scaffold (depicted above),  was not notched for rope –although presumably all of it bore other cuts and holes from joinery. Meagher used the auctioned timbers to frame an addition on the back of his hardware store.  This means there were many piece of lumber in Meagher’s possession that legitimately were part of the scaffold.

2.) Among the many scaffolding timbers, only four 24-foot long pieces likely were notched for ropes.  So the question of whether any of the multiple notches in the BECHS beam might have been created for ropes –BECHS’s chief reason for discrediting the scaffold identity –may be irrelevant. BECHS’s 19 foot piece may be a genuine relic of an un-notched part of the scaffold, with the extant notches simply marking its re-purposed uses over time.

3.) It is true that the notches have long been attributed to those carved for the ropes. But that would be logical if any human being was shown a piece of wood said to be from the scaffold. Humans, seeing any notches, would naturally imagine they once accommodated nooses, seemingly authenticating the claim for the timber.

My conclusion:  it is possible the timber is legitimate relic of the executions even if further investigation disproves the theory that any of the extant notches were created for noose ropes. There are simply too many avenues of inquiry yet to be explored. Like the species of wood in the beam, the diameter of the noose rope at MHS, and the beam’s chain of accession prior to its return to Blue Earth County.

What we see is what we think. From what I can see, we need to gather more evidence before we know to think.


Photo credit: “Mankato Hanging Monument,” in Plains Art Museum, Item #49.

Illustration credit: painting by J. Thullen, 1884, in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Google Images.


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