Who's Checking the Facts?

My question is prompted by a recent book out about General James Wilkinson — An Artist in Treason, by Andro Linklater.  It just received a respectful review from NPR, which absolutely baffles me.

Wilkinson is a worthy subject for a book.  He was the general-in-chief of the U.S. Army from 1797 (or so) to about 1808.  He was a remarkable scoundrel, on the payroll of the King of Spain as a double agent and intimately involved in Aaron Burr’s Western expedition.

The book, however, includes some astonishing factual mistakes.  On two consecutive pages (pp. 215-16), it includes the following errors:

  • It describes Burr as “tall, elegantly dressed. . . ”  Though Burr’s story is often shrouded in mystery, the ONE thing we know about him is that he was SHORT.  All his life, he was called “little Burr.”  This error alone is enough to cause a reader to lose all confidence in the book.
  • It describes Wilkinson as sending Burr a note in May 1804 “immediately after landing in Charleston,” that Wilkinson wanted to spend the night with Burr.  Well, Wilkinson and Burr were New York City then, not Charleston.  Burr never lived in Charleston.
  • It states that Burr’s house in Richmond Hill “lay on the road from Charleston to Washington.”  Burr’s Richmond Hill estate was in Manhattan, which is hardly on that particular road.
  • It states that Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel because Hamilton stated that Burr was “a dangerous man unfit to be entrusted with the reins of power.”  Burr challenged Hamilton because Hamilton said he held an opinion of Burr “yet more despicable.” That term, in their time, implied sexual depravity.  For 15 years, Hamilton had been saying that Burr was unfit for power without drawing a challenge from Burr. 

And those are only the mistakes I happened to pick up in this two-page passage. 

Do these mistakes matter?  Only if you want to know what actually happened, why, and what it meant.

Why don’t book reviewers catch such howlers?  Laziness?  Ignorance?  You tell me..



  1. Tom Benjey on May 27, 2010 at 11:52 am

    Prior to working on the Craighead Naturalists book, I wrote about Carlisle Indian School football players, a topic that overlaps a bit with some recent books about Jim Thorpe. Like you, I am appalled by the basic errors present in these books from major publishing houses. The Thorpe books are based on the premise that the 1912 football game with Army finally gave the Carlisle Indians the chance to settle the score (metaphorically) with “the longknives,” as one of the authors put it. Little research is required to learn that the Indians first beat Army in what was a bigger game in 1905. The only problem with that game was that Jim Thorpe, Dwight David Eisenhower, Pop Warner and some other historical figures weren’t involved in the 1905 game and their absence would likely make that game less attractive to Hollywood producers. Coincidentally, both authors are well-known journalists and their books received much media coverage and praise. Football historians didn’t receive them so well.
    Recently, I became aware of a recent encyclopedia of the Redskins and became interested in it because Lone Star Dietz, whose biography I wrote, was their first coach. One paragraph on page three contained four major errors, one of which was egregious. Even casual football fans know that Jim Thorpe played for Carlisle Indian School not Haskell Institute (I’m not repeating the author’s error regarding the school’s name here). Again, the author is a journalist.
    Even if journalists are more interested in telling a good story than with accuracy, their editors and reviewers should catch such gross errors. You raise a good question for which I have no answer.

  2. Tom Baker on September 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    When it comes to this book, in particular, I agree with you. I made a list of gaffes when I read it. In addition to those you mention, they include several other geographical mis-identifications and various incorrect names (207:Arnesto for Armesto; 219:William Eaton for Rufus Eaton; 251:Donaldson for Donalson; 296: Blunt for Blount; 298: Duane is a newspaper editor, not the future treasury secretary; that’s his son). The most damning gaffe is a strange footnote (no. 212, p. 357) indicating that the signature “Jabiel Kingan” is a code name used to communicate with Jefferson, when, in fact, this is just a misreading of Wilkinson’s sloppy signature. This mistake leads me to believe that the author did not spend much time in archives looking at Wilkinson’s original correspondence. And although the dust jacket proclaims that the book is based on formerly untapped Spanish archival materials, I see no evidence of the fact. Precisely what explains these shortcomings I can only wonder.

    I am looking forward to your book, which I just recently learned about. I’m a scholar of the period with an interest in Burr and his circle. You might keep a lookout for an article of mine which is set to appear in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic. It makes the case, based on new archival evidence, that Burr did indeed seek to “steal” the election of 1800 from Jefferson.

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