Historian scraps with Wikipedia experts

A real historian, who knows a few facts about what really happened during the Haymarket riots, has crossed swords with Wikipedia editors who are insisting on pushing a fantasy history on the great unwashed.

Writing in the Chronicle, Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University and has been studying the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886. He has also written two books on the subject.

When a bomb was thrown during an anarchist rally in Chicago, America had its first Red Scare. There was a high-profile show trial and a worldwide clemency movement for the seven men executed.

Messer-Kruse decided to experiment with editing one particularly misleading assertion on Wikipedia that the prosecution, led by Julius Grinnell, did not offer evidence connecting any of the defendants with the bombing.

His quest to find out what really happened began after he read an identically worded statement in a history text book and one of his students pointed out that if the trial went on for six weeks and no evidence was presented, the question was what they talked about.

In fact, 118 witnesses were called to testify, many of them unindicted co-conspirators who detailed secret meetings where plans to attack police stations were mapped out, coded messages were placed in radical newspapers, and bombs were assembled in one of the defendants’ rooms.

There was also one of the first uses of forensic chemistry in an American courtroom, with the city’s foremost chemists showing that the metallurgical profile of a bomb found in one of the anarchists’ homes matched a piece of shrapnel cut from the body of a slain police officer.

The evidence was so overwhelming against one of the defendants that his lawyers even admitted that their client spent the afternoon before the Haymarket rally building bombs for self defence.

Messer-Kruse removed the line about there being “no evidence” and provided a full explanation in Wikipedia’s behind-the-scenes editing log.

However, within minutes his changes were reversed with the line that he must provide reliable sources for his assertions to make the changes to the article.

But Messer-Kruse had cited the documents that proved his point, including verbatim testimony from the trial published online by the Library of Congress.

Suddenly he found himself up against one of Wackypedia’s self appointed experts who informed him that “articles should not give minority views as much or as detailed a description as more popular views”. He told the historian off and said that he should not delete information supported by the majority of sources to replace it with a minority view.

In other words, Wikipedia does not support new facts, just old and popular misconceptions.

Messer-Kruse tried to edit the page again and within 10 seconds he was informed that his citations to the documents were insufficient, as Wikipedia requires its contributors to rely on secondary sources, or, as his critic said to him, “published books.”

Another editor told him that “Wikipedia is not ‘truth,’ Wikipedia is ‘verifiability’ of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.”

Messer-Kruse tried to edit it again and was told that he was a Wikipedia vandal. Two years later he published a book on the trial and now could source his own book.

However, the changes were still bounced. One comment was that if most historians write that the sky was green, but one says the sky was blue as individual editors, Wikipedia is not in the business of weighing claims, just reporting what reliable sources write.