Friday, December 14, 2012

The Tome of Testimony

I'm a gamer.  Sometimes phrases come to me when I'm writing my papers, phrases couched in terminology used by gamers, or in words that sound like it.  I put such a phrase in my paper on the suspension and removal of Al Cahill as sheriff of Duval County, Florida.  Cahill was suspended 30 January 1958.

The term was "the tome of testimony," by which I referred to the very thick -- something like 1100 pages -- transcript of grand jury testimony generated by the investigation into the charges made against Cahill.  The newspaper reported on the thickness of the transcript.  Governor LeRoy Collins remarked, when he received a copy of the transcript by permission of the judge in whose jurisdiction the inquiry was held, that it was "a foot thick."

The transcript probably contained a wealth of information about the case, information which probably would have answered many of the questions arising out of the event.

It is information we historians will never see.  Nor will anyone else.  Grand jury proceedings, and the transcripts thereof, are secret.  Forever.

This is something historians have to deal with, especially when we deal with history that touches on politics and law enforcement.  The "smoking gun" is not available.  We can only speculate about what information the Tome of Testimony holds, but we'll never get near it.

What I had to do for my paper was look very thoroughly into newspaper reports of the event.  It occupied a lot of space in the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville's newspaper, because it was a very big story.  There are some other sources.  There is a history of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office (formed from the old Duval County Sheriff's Office and the Jacksonville Police Department when the city of Jacksonville and Duval County were consolidated in 1968).  That book has some information on Cahill's predecessor, Rex Sweat, who was reputed to be corrupt.  There is very little on Cahill himself, as he's a character they'd probably rather forget.  There is a great deal on Cahill's successor, Dale Carson, a measure of the regard in which he is still held in the Sheriff's Office and the city generally.

There is a popular magazine article on Rex Sweat which also has useful information in it.  There are a few items concerning the case in the LeRoy Collins Papers at the library at the University of South Florida, Tampa.  One repository I have not yet had a chance to check is the state archive, which I will do before I submit the paper for publication.

The largest source in this case was the newspaper reports, which have to be approached carefully.  We have to watch for "loaded" words or words which could be interpreted in more than one way.  We have to account for the various meanings or the emotional charge a word may carry.  We have to be aware of possible reporter bias or the bias of the newspaper, and we have to take into account the possible agendas of the people being reported on.

It is possible to tell the story of an event from such scant sources, and to perform some analysis of the event and the people involved in it.  There will be questions remaining to be addressed by others with different interpretations.  There will be questions which will forever remain unanswered.  That does not mean that we should not ask them, nor does it mean that we should not try to tell the story.

But there it is, intrepid players of the game of history.  Seek thou the Tome of Testimony, only to find that it is concealed forever behind the strongest of magic spells and castle walls.  Then seek thou other sources, and use your powers of analysis to crack their secrets.

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