Part 14 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

It’s not exactly the same as the excuse: “The dog ate my homework.” But, it’s close. And it is certainly one of the more bizarre happenings surrounding Michael A. Bellesiles’ book Arming America. I’m alluding here to his claim that all the notes for his book got wet, a flood rendered most of them useless, and they were destroyed.

In our interview with Bellesiles at Columbia University (4/19/2001), he explained, testily: “Of course it’s a true story. In the history building (Bowden Hall at Emory University), the plumbers were in there working on a Sunday and they did not reconnect the pipes. They turned the water back on and all my notes got wet.” All the notes for his entire book? Yep. He says: “Most of them were useless and have been pulped. They were thrown away.” A friend of Bellesiles’, Law Professor Paul Finkelman of the University of Tulsa, says, in an email, that Bellesiles had “about 100,000 pages of notes” — which is a lot of notes.

But, as is all too often the case, the way Bellesiles tells things does not appear to be the way events actually occurred. The Emory Report (May 8, 2000, Volume 52, No. 32), which is published by the administration of the University, says, in part: “On the evening of Sunday, April 2, a connector on a sprinkler main broke on the building’s third floor. Contractors had been working on the plumbing. When the flow of the water was finally cut off about 25 minutes later, standing water was two inches deep in some places, and practically no part of Bowden Hall escaped completely dry.”

Now, if a scholar at a university had all of his notes destroyed for a well-known book which took more than 10 years to write — as Arming America did — you’d think this would be big news and a lot of folks would know about such a disaster. But, we’ve been unable to confirm Belllesiles’ story. In fact, we’ve found much evidence to contradict his claim.

For example, the previously mentioned Emory Report quotes Janice Mohlhenrich, preservation coordinator for Emory University, as saying of the Bowden Hall Flood: “We were able to look at things that professors thought were irretrievably lost, but we looked at them and said, ‘Sure, we can fix this.'” In an interview, when asked about the extent of damage to Bellesiles’ materials, Mohlhenrich said: “I don’t know. I know that we brought a number of his things over to the preservation lab and dried them out for him.”

    Q: Did Bellesiles bring a lot of stuff to you?

    A: “No, not a great deal.”

In a story about the flood in the Emory student newspaper The Wheel, four professors were mentioned whose offices were in Bowden Hall. Bellesiles is not mentioned.

In an interview, Barney Gimbel, editor of The Wheel who wrote the story about the Bowden Hall flood, was asked: “Are you aware of any professors who had serious and major damage to any of their work?” He replied: “No…. It really wasn’t that bad of a flood in all reality.” He says he has never heard the story about all of Bellesiles’ notes being destroyed. Indeed, he says that, at the time, he called Bellesiles but Bellesiles never returned his call. He adds, regarding Bellesiles: “[He’s] not a very friendly person. I can say that because I had a class with him. He’s a very snide guy. He’s very full of himself. He’s a prima donna.”

History Professor Patrick Allitt, who also has an office in Bowden Hall, tells us no, he, too, never heard from Bellesiles or anybody else that all of Bellesiles’ notes were destroyed.

Dr. Walter Adamson is head of the History Department at Emory. In an interview, he tells us that the only person he remembers as sustaining damage from the flood was Associate Professor Cynthia Patterson who had some photos of Greece destroyed. When asked if he was aware of Bellesiles saying that all of his notes for Arming America were destroyed?, he says: “No, I’m not aware of any damage that substantial.” He adds that 100,000 pages of notes “sounds like more than anybody really accumulates.” Dr. Adamson refers us to Rosalyn Page, the History Department’s administrative assistant in charge of dealing with insurance claims filed by professors who had materials damaged in the Bowden Hall flood.

In an interview, Page — who says that all insurance claims have come through her — says: “We were very, very fortunate in that all of the contents [damaged] were all replaceable and repairable.”

    Q: “Do you know if any professors suffered any major damage to their works, to their notes?”

    A: “Not that I know of. I assume if that was the case, you know, I would know.”

    Q: “Do you know Professor Bellesiles?”

    A: “Yes, he’s in our Department.”

    Q: “Did he make any kind of claim as as you know?”

    A: “Yes, he had some materials that needed to be replaced.”

    Q: “Was it much damage?”

    A: “No. Like I say, we were very fortunate. Most people didn’t have a whole lot of things.”

    Q: “And you are thoroughly familiar with everyone who filed a claim and everybody’s damage?”

    A: “Right.”

    Q: “So, you know of no one in the History Department who suffered any damage to his work?”

    A: “Right.”

    Q: “And you would know if such major damage was suffered by any professor?”

    A: “Right.”

Finally, David King is senior vice president of Disaster Services Incorporate, the firm who cleaned up and dried out Bowden Hall. He was first on the scene and went office-to-office to see the flood damage. In an interview, he tells us he’d “be shocked if anything was destroyed, to be honest with you.” He agrees with preservation coordinator Mohlhenrich who says that most of what was damaged was saved.

Hmmmmm. “To be honest” with us, eh? Sounds like, from what we’ve been able to learn, that, once again, Michael A. Bellesiles hasn’t been.