Part 25 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

Emory History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles, author of the thoroughly discredited book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000), has, to put it mildly, been conspicuously unsuccessful in his embarrassing attempts to back up certain key claims he makes.

One problem, Bellesiles told us, with a straight face, in an interview (4/19/2001), is that all the notes to support his book were destroyed when his office was flooded. All of his notes? Yep, that’s what he said. How many notes? A friend of his has said, in an e-mail, that he had “about 100,000 pages” of notes. When we told this to Dr. Walter Adamson, head of the History Department at Emory, he said this “sounds like more than anybody really accumulates.” Indeed.

And then there’s Bellesiles’ problem with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He has said that some of his probate record data came from research he did in San Francisco. But, officials in that city familiar with the particular time period which Bellesiles says he investigated say that this information doesn’t exist because it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire.

But, there’s more. There’s the alleged so-called hacking of Bellesiles’ web page. When some of the information on his web page was exposed and proven to be false, Bellesiles said he believes “dedicated individuals” hacked into his web site “altering and deleting material.”

Bellesiles says with, again, presumably, a straight face: “Most outrageously, and this would be funny in other circumstances, someone had gone through the book section of the probate material and inserted Cleland’s Memoirs in several book listings.” He says someone informed him that these Memoirs are the famous early work of pornography, Fanny Hill, published in the 1760s as Memoirs Of A Woman Of Pleasure. Bellesiles says: “After I discovered these alterations in my web site, I called Emory’s web administrator and asked her to shut down my web page.”

Interesting. In fact, downright fascinating. But, there is no confirmation that Bellesiles’ web page was hacked.

In an interview, Jan Gleason, a public relations spokesman for Emory University, tells us: “I can’t confirm it.” He says a “thorough and continuing investigation” of Bellesiles’ allegation is being conducted. But, “I can’t confirm any hacking occurred…. We’ve been unable to confirm any hacking.”

The New York Times (12/8/2001) reports that “several scholars, including one of Mr. Bellesiles colleagues at Emory, said they doubted that story” [that his web page was hacked]. Robert A. Paul, the interim dean at Emory College, is quoted as saying: “I can neither independently confirm nor deny that Professor Bellesiles’ web site was hacked.”

In a letter-to-the-editor of The Chronicle Of Higher Education (10/29/2001), Boston University Law Professor Randy E. Barnett says, in part: “Unless and until Professor Bellesiles produces the original data on Vermont guns he says he first posted on the web, and makes them available for examination to interested researchers, we are entitled to be skeptical of this latest story” [that his web site was hacked].

In a posting (10/8/2001) to the H-Law online discussion group, Robert Churchill of Princeton University makes this same point and more. He says, in part: “If Bellesiles’ web site has been hacked, it has been hacked twice. The hacker would have to have changed the language Bellesiles reported for individual gun estates, while leaving intact Bellesiles’ claims that guns were present in only 11.4 percent of estates. That overall finding was on the web site when I first viewed it a week after it was created, on February 16.

“The hacker would have to have inserted alterations entirely consistent with the alterations Bellesiles made in the Providence records. These alterations must have been made within weeks of the original postings. The hacker must then have struck again in the last week or two to add the references to pornography that Bellesiles mentions but that did not exist on September 3.

“A clever hacker indeed. It is time for Bellesiles to support these claims. I would ask that Michael immediately provide a copy of his ‘original’ un-hacked essay on Vermont probate records to the editor of this list.” Churchill concludes by noting that even though Bellesiles says all his notes for his book were destroyed, “he should not, however, need notes to reconstruct his methodology. It is time to put this matter to rest.”

OK. So, these are just a few of the things that have, supposedly, plagued Bellesiles and his wretched book — flood, earthquake and a computer hacker. One wonders: what’s next? Will he claim abduction by aliens and a forced lobotomy to excuse the fact that Arming America is a fraud?

As for Bellesiles himself, based on his own say-so, putting this matter to rest — fat chance. Increasingly, very few people believe anything he says about anything. So, don’t hold your breath waiting for Bellesiles to explain everything — unless you look good in purple.