OR: THE CASE OF THE TWO SLATTERYS
Over the last few weeks I've been listening to more Serial episodes and watching the original 1990 BBC House of Cards. And while on the surface there might not be too much in common between a true crime mystery podcast and a tale of British political intrigue, both stories hinge heavily on usually intelligent people ignoring or even blatantly misconstruing damning empirical evidence. In Serial's story, the police fixate on one possible suspect early on and then disregard any evidence that seems to complicate or muddy the desired narrative. Meanwhile, in House of Cards, the tenacious but naive journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) can't see past her own infatuation to realize that her confidant and mentor Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is behind all of the conspiracies and scandals embroiling the Conservative Party.
I've been devoting much thought to this phenomenon, having recently committed a similar act of evidentiary bias in my own research. First, a bit of chronology:
Harry A. Slattery was sworn in as the third Administrator of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) on September 26, 1939. His predecessor, John Carmody resigned his position on July 1, 1939 in protest of REA's recent absorption into the USDA.
In previous posts, I've described the collection of letters I've been pulling evidence from for my first chapter, which mainly consist of correspondence between Bill Phillips, an REA information officer, and Roland Wank, Chief Architect of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the set from 1939, other letter writers occasionally appear in the file—mainly other REA staffers and Wank's assistant Mario Bianculli. In May 1939, a new correspondent appears: one Mr. Slattery. Roland Wank sends Mr. Slattery numerous letters over the next few months, often describing minute details of the REA building program including office furniture aesthetics, choosing a manufacturer for the agency's new neon signs, etc.
I immediately got very excited. It seemed that soon-to-be Administrator Harry Slattery was SO excited about REA's architecture that he was corresponding with Wank and Phillips even before his official tenure began! This seemed to fit with Slattery's later behavior - in the early 1940s he frequently endorsed the building program and made generous monetary allotments to support it. I was so thrilled by this discovery that I conveniently ignored the following:
1. Wank's letters were addressed to L.P. Slattery. At first I tried to justify this as either an oversight or maybe the abbreviation for some official title (Harry Slattery was previously Undersecretary of the Interior). But the mistake, if it was that, was consistent and continued to appear in later letters.
2. The address on the letters is in the REA building in Washington, D.C. It would have been very irregular for Harry Slattery to maintain an office at an agency where he was not yet officially working.
3. As much as Slattery can verifiably said to be interested in the agency's architecture later on, it seems implausible that he would be taking time away from his ongoing job at the Department of the Interior to help Wank pick furniture out of the Sears & Roebuck catalog.
Finally all of this evidence got to be too much and so I did a little digging. Sure enough, L.P. Slattery and Harry A. Slattery were two distinct people. How do I know for sure? The following letter, from Administrator Slattery's second year in office is addressed to both Slatterys:
Well, it was a very good story, and like Francis Urquhart's innocence or Adnan Syed's unassailable guilt, too good of a story to be true. Fortunately, this mistake cost me but a morning's work and rewritten chapter conclusion. Let it be a cautionary tale for the fellow archivist, detective, or eager journalist!