Sunday, May 15, 2011

Historians' ethics and the search for salt and pepper

My dissertation topic--antitrust policy as it may or may not have applied to coal dealers in Toronto and Chicago from 1880 through 1940--is about as dull as it gets for the hapless non-specialist who, for some inexplicable reason, might decide to read my dissertation. So it's always nice to find an amusing anecdote to spice things up a bit. I have found one, but using it presents some ethical problems.

The anecdote--actually a series of anecdotes--is the doings, mostly correspondence, of a coal dealer in Toronto. This dealer is unusual first because she's a woman. Among the better established coal dealers, women were exceedingly rare, and this woman was quite well-established in the city's coal trade even if she wasn't one of the major overall players. She is unusual, second, because she made her voice heard. A lot. She corresponded frequently with government officials, and the records of the Ontario Fuel Controller, the legislative assembly of Ontario, and the Toronto City Council, have copies of her actual letters and multiple references to other "communications" that I haven't yet been able to find.

So far, so good. But she is also unusual because of what and how she wrote and the things she did. In fact, and I say this with respect, she appears to have suffered from some form of mental illness. There is a record of her complaining to a Toronto governing body that oversaw the regulation of telephone lines about how Nazis were using the phone lines in her office to pump in natural gas and asphixiate her. (This was in the late 1930s.) Many of her letters, at least the ones I have uncovered, are rambling and suggest she perhaps wasn't thinking clearly when she wrote them. It is not so much that she may have lacked education in proper business letter writing etiquette; it's more that what she writes borders on nonsense.

What good would come of using her letters in my dissertation? Well, there is one thing she did in the winter of 1922-1923 that made life very difficult for Ontario's Fuel Controller. The controller had been appointed as an emergency measure to deal with a severe shortage of coal that winter (a huge strike in the United States drastically reduced most of Ontario's coal supply), and the controller had to do all he could to convince the US government not to embargo all coal from the US. Some in the US, especially New York and New England, protested that Ontario already had more coal than it needed, and they were clamoring for just such an embargo. Well, in this context, the coal dealer in question put an inquiry into the Boston market for coal, offering to sell her supply at a very high price, which added grist to these protesters' mill when it came to their claim that Ontario had more than enough coal. (This is all relevant to my dissertation because it shows the ways in which Ontario and Canada tried to manage competition in a period of a coal shortage: the short answer is that in Canada, government officials were more likely to work with the coal dealers while in the US they were more likely to prosecute them for "profiteering" or for "restraint of trade."

Here are the problems with using this coal dealers' letters as a source:
  • The actual letters are not necessary to discovering the controversy. There is enough evidence from the government documents for me to say "one Toronto-based coal dealer's tender to sell coal in Boston fed the outcry in the US for an embargo on coal to Canada" without mentioning even this coal dealer's name. My footnote would refer to the letter of the Fuel Controller where he complains about this coal dealer.
  • There is the "middle way" of citing this coal dealer's letter but redacting her name. But if I did this, it would pique the curiosity of the reader, and every instance I include references to her would be one more invitation for the reader to go to the Ontario Archives and find out for herself. [See update #2 below]
  • Our society has a lot of ways of approaching the issue of mental illness: avoidance, institutionalization, out-patient treatment. One of these ways is humor, often caustic humor, that treats those with mental illnesses as someone to be made fun of, to be "othered." My inclusion of any more information beyond the fact of the coal tender, mentioned above, could only plausibly serve to put her in a bad light, to make fun of her, for her difficulties.
  • Aside from the controversy over her Boston tender, She was not Charles Guiteau; she did not kill anybody or do anything so horrible that her her mental health is legitimately an issue for a historian to ruminate on [see update #1 below]. All she ever did that was "bad" was violate a few coal ordinances and face prosecution as a "public nuisance." It would be arrogant of me, a non-specialist (to put it mildly) when it comes to diagnosing others' mental health. Even if I were a specialist, it would be further arrogant and irresponsible of me to make such a diagnosis from what amounts to, at most, 20 pages of typewritten documents (and that includes the references to this coal dealer that do not come from her letters). Maybe she had no mental illness, or had only rare episodes.
  • My including her correspondence still puts her in a bad light personally. I doubt she would want to be remembered, or her family would want to remember her, as a crank who wrote embarrassing letters to government officials.
I should say that this question does not appear to be a legal issue. All the sources from which I have found her letters or other references to her are public, probably on the assumption that the governments of Ontario and Toronto have decided that anyone sending such letters to them had to expect that they would be made available to the public. I will shortly consult some "restricted" documents from Toronto in the 1930s--assuming I can get clearance--and if any of her letters are in those--and if they are not redacted--the issue of whether to use those would, presumably, be of legal import.

Update #1 5-15-11: I suppose there could be legitimate reasons to study this coal dealer in such a way that would have to deal with her eccentric behavior. A biography of her, for instance, could be interesting for a lot of reasons: she was one of only a few women in a male-dominated trade in which membership in male-dominated trade associations was an invaluable form of social capital. Someone doing research, for example, on how eccentricity or "mental illness" was handled in the public sphere might find this coal dealer's situation enlightening: she was brought up on charges of being a "public nuisance" (although I do not know the disposition of the case), but before then and afterward, she continued to show up to city council meetings and write letters, and as far as I know she wasn't ever civilly committed. These exceptions prove my rule: a biography of her, if thoughtfully written in accordance with what is considered the elements of the historian's craft, would be sensitive to all the nuances, problems, challenges, and contradictions of this coal dealer's life. A historian studying the history of how mental health ought to be aware of the ethical issues involved in protecting others' privacy. The topic of my dissertation, however, really doesn't require me to touch on most of what she did, outside of the 1922-1923 stunt and, maybe, an incident that happened during World War I.

Update #2 5-15-11: Even if the reader of my dissertation isn't interested in finding out who this coal dealer is, my inclusion of sufficiently redacted information does not answer one of the other objections to including this evidence: it feeds the notion that mental illness is something to be made fun of or something to be dismissed with eye-rolling glances and quite chuckles.

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