Yesterday I started reviewing the new book from Jim Vieira and Hugh Newman, Giants on Record, and today I’m going to continue the agonizing slog. I will likely surprise none of my regular readers if I offer a couple of spoilers: the book is chock full of bad research and contains several obvious instances of cut-and-paste plagiarism from the internet.
The authors’ joint preface to the book begins by recounting the silly saga of the “satirical” article from earlier this year that claimed that the Smithsonian admitted to destroying giant skeletons. The two authors recognize this as a hoax, and they argue that the willingness of readers to believe it speaks to a real problem in gigantology. To that end, they summarize a few of the most famous fakes, ranging from the Cardiff Giant to recent creationist Photoshop hoaxes, and then leave it to the reader to determine whether the accounts they adjudge to be true are worth considering.
This leads to the first of two introductions, this one by Hugh Newman. It isn’t directly relevant to the book since it describes the legends of giants prevalent in Great Britain in the Middle Ages. Newman wants us to take medieval legends at face value, though without providing any reason we should do so, and as always with fringe figures, he has no interest in doing the work of finding the primary sources he claims to use as evidence if they are even a little difficult to work with. To wit, when he claims that King Arthur’s skeleton was that of a giant, he sources a quotation about it to this website rather than to the original medieval account of Giraldus, Liber de Principis instructione, Distinctio I, folio 107b (c. 1193). I mean, at least make an effort.
The most important takeaway from this introduction is Newman’s description of his convoluted path to gigantology. According to his telling, in 2008 he toured the United States by couch-surfing from New England to California and spent some time in Arizona housesitting for David Childress (!), in whose library he read Ross Hamilton’s Tradition of Giants, which in turn inspired Newman to organize a conference on ancient mysteries to which he invited Hamilton. Jim Vieira was there, too, and the group of men developed an intense bromance centered on their mutual obsession with other very large men. It really is a small world in fringe history.
The second introduction is Jim Vieira’s, and he picks up on the theme of developing a monomaniacal obsession, likening his growing mania for giants to Alice falling down the rabbit hole. “I was never able to think the same about the past,” he writes. He describes his journey as moving from his professional work as a stonemason to an interest in Native American stonework, to an obsession with lost giants. Interestingly, he does not describe critical thinking in his account of rummaging through old books and newspapers and thrilling to various accounts of large skeletons, particularly those found in George Sheldon’s archaeological scrapbook, a collection of newspaper and book clippings about giant skeletons now in the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association Museum and the prototype for all future gigantology newspaper collections. Vieira describes how Hamilton and Newman turned him into a full-time giant obsessive following their meeting at Newman’s conference.
Vieira is not a strong writer, and his introduction is at times clunky and confusing, particularly when he lists a mound as “dated to 7,500 years” without indicating whether the missing word at the end of the sentence should be B.C. or ago. It makes a difference. The mound, a child burial at L’anse Amour, Newfoundland, dates to 5,500 BCE, just to be clear.
After all of the various front matter and introductions, we finally hit the meat of the book, which is a disappoint repeat of the material from all the standard gigantology sources, give or take a few newspaper articles. It’s a set of newspaper articles and book excerpts wrapped in some brief commentary. The first chapter covers “Early Explorers” and is based primarily on secondary sources which the authors have data-mined for references to giants. It’s disappointing because at times the authors do reference primary sources (primarily those they can access online), which makes it all the more baffling that they seem to prefer to use pre-digested quotations run through other people’s work. Why might that be? Oh, right: It’s because the authors are plagiarists and are happy to cut and paste their way to a book.
I don’t make that accusation lightly. The fact is that the text changes voice from time to time, and it made me wonder why the authors seem to have trouble with consistency of language and syntax. I wondered if it were due to the two authors’ styles being insufficiently married, but not: When I checked, it was just copy and paste plagiarism. Consider this example from Chapter 1, compared to text that appears on this website:
Now, granted, the authors provide an endnote giving the URL from which they have stolen the text, but they never indicate that these are not their own words, freely running the text within their own paragraph.
Anyway, the material in the chapter is your standard mix of Spanish chronicles and early English sources, explored with all the critical thinking you’d image that two gigantologists can muster. For example, they repeat nearly verbatim the claim of Richard Thornton and “People of One Fire” that the otherwise unattested Duhare area of the Carolinas appearing in Peter Martyr’s De orbe novo 7.2-3 is named for people who are Irish, despite the fact that I documented in great detail why the claim could not be true back in 2013. A moment’s familiarity with Latin and Spanish, along with reading the primary source in its original language, would have made this clear to our authors, who actively choose to avoid engaging in the depth of analysis needed to support their own claims.
As the chapter progresses, it breaks down from a narrative into a scattershot collection of excerpts from texts, gradually becoming a set of newspaper excerpts, largely without evaluation or narration. The authors (along with Ross Hamilton, who makes a guest appearance as the compiler of some of the accounts) seem to take it as settled that the measurements the conquistadors provided for Native Americans are equivalent to American standard measurements in use after the eighteenth century, whereas units like “palms,” “spans,” and even feet and inches were not standardized to a scientific degree.
The fact of the matter is that the Spanish conquistadors used Spanish customary units, which don’t match British imperial units (or American standard, which are close enough to call the same, both deriving from English standard units) except in a rough way. So, when a Spaniard of the time used the word “feet,” he was referring to the pie, which was a fraction less than 11 British inches in length, though with variants by time and place. Now, while that doesn’t seem like a major difference, if a Spaniard were to report a Native American as being siete pies (seven feet) in height, as our authors note many did, in British imperial units, that is actually around 6 foot 5 inches. Given that the Spaniards were not using measuring tapes and merely estimating based on their own feet, the chances are good that the relatively short Spaniards overestimated. At any rate, once the history of metrology is taken into account, the “giants” vanish into human-sized Native Americans whose size matches known Native American skeletons of the era, more or less, and are in line with basketball-player-sized people encountered as late as the nineteenth century. In sum: You can’t assume that the same word has the same meaning from culture to culture, and ethnocentrism creates illusionary “giants.”
Our authors, of course, scorn academics and therefore lack the background to recognize differences in measurement units and what those using them meant by them.
The second chapter, on presidential interest in giants, is similarly poor in its research. They report, for example, that during the French and Indian War George Washington discovered seven-foot-tall “Indian” skeletons at Fort Loudoun (the one in Virginia), but they cite no primary source, only Mac Rutherford, author of Historic Haunts of Winchester (2007), who gives no source. I am unaware of the source, if there is one, but it may be related to nineteenth century claims of seven-foot skeletons found in the area in the years before 1850. The authors similarly report that Thomas Jefferson “was said to have opened an Indian burial mound,” apparently oblivious to the fact that the excavation was reported in Jefferson’s own words in his Notes on the State of Virginia. They also accept without question J. Houston McCulloch’s claim that Thomas Jefferson requested that a specific mound in Ohio—one alleged to resemble a menorah—be surveyed as proof of Lost Tribes of Israel in America, a claim that rests solely on Jefferson’s request for information on “those works of Antiquity,” the mounds in general, even though, as Anthony F. C. Wallace points out in Jefferson and the Indians, Jefferson loudly and vociferously decried any claim that the earthworks were non-Native.
Our authors, in discussing this, cut and paste from McCulloch’s website, plagiarizing verbatim the following paragraph in which McCulloch actively ignores Wallace’s book, his acknowledged source: “Jefferson's Presidential interest in these specific earthworks may explain why the Corps of Engineers would have taken the trouble in 1823 to map structures that had no conceivable contemporary military value. The fact that the 1823 map depicts precisely those earthworks surveyed by Lytle c. 1803 strongly indicates that there was a more than coincidental link between the two surveys.”
And that was about all of the plagiarism, poor research, and outright misinformation that I could handle for one day.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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