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Tampering with History

February 3, 2011

A Washington Post article recently revealed a case of data integrity manipulation, specifically dealing with a National Archive treasure. The artifact at hand was a recently discovered pardon issued to a Union solider by President Abraham Lincoln. The document, which was handwritten by the President and saved the solder from execution, was found 13 years ago by junior historians Thomas P. Lowry, and his wife, Beverly.

Putting aside the act of uncovering a historical artifact, the main attraction surrounding the document is specifically the date of signage. At first glance, experts believed that the document was created on the same day President Lincoln was assassinated (April 14, 1865), just hours before the shooting. However, as details surrounding the discovery unraveled, experts realized their assumptions were inaccurate.

While the President did in fact issue a pardon for the soldier, it was actually written on April 14, 1864, exactly one year before his death.

How exactly were the facts mixed up, especially considering the date was written directly on the pardon itself, you might ask? Simple. After growing suspicion about the darkness of the number 5 within the date, officials compared the document to that of a reprint from the 1950s, which in turn showed a different date, that of 1864 to be exact. As it turns out, a year’s worth of investigations led the National Archives to accuse Thomas Lowry of altering the document, basically to heighten the sensation related to its discovery. (A document written by Lincoln in the 1800’s is a great find, but one written on the same date and year as his murder, is a historian’s golden ticket.) Lowry denies any wrongdoing, but experts insist that in 1998, he transcribed a 5 over the 4 with a similar style pen that Lincoln used to handwrite the year 1864.

While finding and presenting a piece of history seldom seen by everyday citizens is newsworthy enough, what we’re really interested in is the tampering side of the story, and what we hope is an opportunity for the National Archives to evaluate the best practices they are using to ensure the authenticity of its records. While Lowry maintains his innocence, and the Archives has banned him from all facilities for life, the fact remains that the basic authenticity of Lincoln’s document was in question. The Archives was without a solution that could have easily, legally and verifiably proven the legitimacy of Lincoln’s document. If Archive officials had taken the necessary steps to put “time-of-creation” integrity controls in place, such as a digital scanning and “sealing” process, the alteration never would have been under investigation for the amount of time that it was. Instead, it would have been immediately clear that the pardon had indeed been subject to manipulation, and suspicion, rumors and arguments would have been put to rest.

We’re happy that a conclusion has been made in this case, and the tampering has been detected. (Though we’re sorry it ever happened at all.) We just hope it reminds people of all walks of business that any document or record can be tampered with, regardless if it was written by a President of the United States or not. And since this isn’t the first time historical documents have been messed with, maybe it’s time historians take a hard look at current data integrity protection standards.

Bob Flinton
VP of Marketing and Product Management
Surety, LLC

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