The story of Maj. John Pitcairn’s death—like a lot of other dubious stories I write about here on Boston 1775—demonstrates a phenomenon I call “memory creep.” Legends grow not because people set out to tell false stories, but because as time goes on they let their stories become a little clearer and more meaningful, their ancestors’ actions braver and more determined, their home town heroes more significant.
A recent email from the New England Historic Genealogical Society brought my attention to an essay from Dr. John Agnew of Fort Myers, Florida, pleading for truth in obituaries, which shows memory creep at work today:
I read an obituary of a man described as a veteran of World War II, and the dates supplied indicated that he was 12 years old when the war ended. There are two possibilities: he really was in the war at that age, therefore his death should be reported in detail on the front page, or the family should check those numbers again. (A Marine won a Medal of Honor at age 14, but that was hardly an everyday event.)Similarly, it sometimes appears that almost everyone who lived through the American Revolution and died in the U.S. of A. had been a staunch Patriot throughout that conflict. Well over half the men who served in the Continental Army around Boston in 1775-76 appear to have fought in the actual Battle of Bunker Hill (a surprising number of them shooting Maj. Pitcairn). And it’s hard to find Patriots in Boston who’ve never been placed at the Tea Party.
The next area involves placing a person’s life in Historical Perspective. Another News-Press obituary related that a man enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor and fought in the Battle of Wake Island, which events actually began concurrently. Family legends tend to grow like that, a trend that began long before World War II and should be rectified, or at least reconsidered. . . .
When it comes to Interpersonal Relationships, particularly of the marital sort, one should be especially careful. I first thought about this several years ago, when a television newsman died. A lengthy magazine obituary reported that he was “a devoted husband and father,” and also that he had been married four times and had many affairs, during and between. I thought then that “devoted husband” must have some alternative meaning that I had missed.