“I saw it with my own eyes!”

eyewitness

Most people think that eyewitness testimony is the best first-hand evidence you can get.” I saw it with my own eyes.” You just can’t get better testimony than that. It has to be true because that guy saw it…with his own eyes!
But as most attorneys will tell you, eyewitness testimony is often the least reliable. Memory is a funny thing and is affected by many factors. As time passes recollections pass as well, and people’s perception is influenced by external factors such as tension, noise, fear, distraction etc.
When I was researching Master Detective, I read lots of court transcripts, newspaper articles, memoirs, and magazine pieces, especially about the Lindbergh kidnapping. I was often struck by variations between first-hand accounts. Magazines seem to be the worst offenders but newspapers can get the facts wrong as well. And simply getting a second source, while a good idea, does not guarantee accuracy. You may have noticed when you’re looking something up in a search engine on the Internet that different sources writing about the same subject will use the exact same phrasing and sentence structure. Clearly they have all simply copied the same, earlier version. As long as the earlier version was correct that’s fine, but many times it isn’t, and the multiple sources simply perpetuate the inaccuracy. Many accounts of the Lindbergh kidnapping I read spoke of the step breaking on the kidnap ladder (It was even shown that way in the movie version), but the ladder step didn’t break; the side rail split lengthways. This is a basic fact that is very easy to verify, but some sources still get it wrong.
This tendency to remember things inaccurately extends to even the most basic level. Recently I found an old photograph of myself taken in our backyard when I was a child and sent it to my sister who lives in Texas. In the background of the picture was a picket fence which had been there the entire time we lived in that house. My sister however had no recollection of a picket fence, even though she spent the first 14 years of her life in that house.
Of course my memory is no better than hers so I’m sure there are some things she remembers clearly that I don’t. The point is that whether researching a book, or simply reminiscing, never assume something is true simply because someone says that it is. Always look for a collaborating source, but be suspicious of one hat uses identical wording.

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About johnreisinger

retired engineer and author of historical fiction and non fiction. My current book is Master Detective, the story of America's Sherlock Holmes and his involvement in the Lindbergh kidnapping investigation.
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