Fringe history has long been a staple of the publishing industry. As one editor noted, “Bunk sells, debunking doesn’t.” In the realm of television, documentaries dealing with topics of fringe history, e.g., Ancient Aliens, get far more airtime than mainstream historical documentaries. Though it might not have been so in the past, current books and documentaries about fringe history exhibit high production values. It all looks pretty impressive and convincing to many members of the general public. The problem is that fringe history is ultimately based on flimsy to irrelevant to misinterpreted or misconstrued evidence. References to legitimate primary sources that support theories are vague to nonexistent. To demonstrate these contentions, Colavito gathered 148 documents commonly cited by fringe historians, annotated them, provided full bibliographic citations, and supplied a commentary of their context. Interested readers can study the origins of fringe theories and better judge their validity and plausibility. A fine piece of scholarly editing of historical documents and a welcome resource for studying and teaching critical thinking and the methodology of historical research.
A story published in the Daily Beast this past weekend left me dumbfounded. It’s a little outside my usual territory, but it is closely related in theme, if not substance. According to the story, a teenager has successfully challenged the growing academic consensus that widespread discrimination against Irish immigrants never occurred in the United States and was a myth designed to promote ethnic solidarity. That alone stopped me cold, for I had no idea how anyone could believe such a thing. It is prima facie ridiculous to anyone who has read nineteenth century media in any detail. For example, the Scottish writer James Macaulay, writing in Across the Ferry in the 1860s, said that “It is common in advertisements for servants in New York, as in London, to append ‘No Irish need apply.’ The words grate rather harshly on the ear in a land where all are supposed to be ‘free and equal.’” As a Scot he had no particular reason to lie about this, and the hundreds of similar testaments should have made the reality of anti-Irish discrimination quite clear.
But according to the Beast, scholars abdicated their responsibility to work with primary sources as soon as a respected professor announced that the Irish were not subject to overt racial discrimination. Richard J. Jensen, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago published “No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization” in the Journal of Social History in 2002, in which he argued that the type of advertisement I referenced above was exceptionally rare, and that prejudice against the Irish was highly exaggerated by a literate elite drawing on English models, where discrimination against the Irish was widespread. He believes that the 1862 song “No Irish Need Apply” created rather than reflected a perception of widespread discrimination.
The NINA [“No Irish Need Apply”] myth fostered among the Irish a misperception or gross exaggeration that other Americans were prejudiced against them, and were deliberately holding back their economic progress. Hence the “chip on the shoulder” mentality that many observers and historians have noted. As for the question of anti-Irish prejudice: it existed but it was basically anti-Catholic or anti-anti-republican. There have been no documented instances of job discrimination against Irish men.
Jensen also claimed that there was no contemporary evidence of any business ever having a No Irish Need Apply sign, and the crux of his argument revolves round whether such signs were displayed in windows, and whether the exact phrase “No Irish Need Apply” (rather than a variant) was used in his electronic search of various databases, which he conducted in the early 2000s when digitizing newspapers was in its infancy. Clearly, databases have improved since 2002, and today similar searches yield different results.
Jensen’s argument was quickly caricatured as claiming anti-Irish discrimination never occurred, and as such it apparently became widespread across the Anglosphere, where in parts of the British Commonwealth prejudice against the Irish as IRA terrorists apparently persists. (I had no idea, but it is what the Daily Beast tell us.) Vox magazine, well-known for its track record of error, declared the No Irish signs fake only a few months ago, based on Jensen’s work, and claimed that the No Irish hoax is still casting an unfair shadow on American immigration policy. Yes, even this obscure claim has a direct political effect.
As with so many pseudo-historical claims, a study of primary sources uncovered the truth. A fourteen-year-old girl named Rebecca Fried, reading the Vox article at her father’s behest, decided to try to confirm Jensen’s claim. She used the power of Google to search primary sources—old newspapers—and quickly discovered a wealth of “No Irish Need Apply” advertisements such as the ones I found this morning and mentioned above. Indeed, as I found there were also editorials in the 1860s, such as an 1864 editorial from the Philadelphia Herald excoriating journalists for accepting such prejudiced advertisements for the sake of making an extra twenty-five cents. According to Kerby Miller, a retired history professor who tried and failed to oppose Jensen’s claim, “for various reasons, most historians, social scientists, journalists, et cetera accepted or even embraced Jensen’s arguments.” Miller says that Jensen’s claims played into a particular political ideology, and that acknowledging Irish victimization was risky because it made the advocate seem like an IRA sympathizer, or as anti-American. “A lot of people were getting sick of this, but were afraid to speak out,” he said, noting that scholars either did not want to challenge Jensen or felt unable to do so. Miller said that when he tried to criticize him, Jensen accused him of political bias on account of being Irish and Catholic. Miller is not Irish or Catholic.
Fried collected scores of examples of No Irish advertisements, and she worked with Miller to present them in an academic article published in the Oxford Journal of Social History this summer. Jensen denied that Fried’s article refuted his thesis, arguing that she failed to find a single window sign, despite collecting scores of newspaper advertisements. She had, in fact, found enough material on window signs to appear on two pages of her article. “You began this conversation by stating that the article ‘did not claim to find a single window sign anywhere in the USA,’” she wrote back. “I think we now agree at least that this is not correct.”
This is a weird and somewhat disturbing case study because it seems to confirm the worst about what fringe historians assert about academia: that it is dogmatic, hierarchical, and beholden to untruths passed off as collective wisdom in service of some obscure agenda. Yet at the same time, it also demonstrates that better arguments will find a voice and legitimacy if presented appropriately.