Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Old Files and Untold Tales

I wrote briefly the other day about about in connection with the Interactive Wall. The website has actually more to offer that just the Wall. In its brief introduction, the website says:

“ is a place where original historical documents are combined with social networking in order to create a truly unique experience involving the stories of our past. The collections feature documents, most never before available before on the Internet, relating to the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, WWII, U.S. Presidents, historical newspapers and naturalization documents. is more than just an online repository for original documents. In addition to hosting millions of records, Footnote supports a community of people that are passionate about a variety of topics relating to history. creates an environment where members can share their content and insights, ranging from major historical events to personal accounts and family histories., together with its members, is revealing a side of history that few have seen before.”

I’m not a history buff, in fact, I have trouble remembering when I was born most of the time -:) But I have used the National Archives website a few times and I almost went bald with pulling my hair in frustration. So I am extremely pleased to see the archives' records in Footnote. In its first year, has added over 25 million images of original historical documents, including records from the American Revolution, the Lincoln Assassination, FBI Case Files, and even UFO reports from Project Bluebook. Want to check out your great, great grandfather’s passport application? Go and see the Passport Applications from 1795-1905. I’m not a historian either but I imagine that Footnote must be a historian’s paradise online (there is free access and also paid membership). Click here to do a quick tour. Anyway, I looked through the Passport Applications series (beats me why). The series consists of letters and application forms for passports. Included with the typical application are supporting letters and affidavits from friends and relatives concerning the applicant's citizenship, residence, and character. The letter or application also contains information regarding the applicant's immediate family, date and place of birth and (if foreign) of naturalization, occupation or business, and physical characteristics. And I stumbled upon Herman Melville's Passport Application. Yes, that Melville of The Whale fame. Page 1 of the application indicates that Melville was 37 years old, 5 feet 8 inches with a medium forehead, blue eyes, straight nose, medium mouth, round chin, an oval face, dark brown hair and fair complexion. Page 2 of the application is Melville’s handwritten note dated October 6, 1856 to Secretary of State William Marcy, which says: “Sir – I am about to visit Europe. Will you be good enough to supply me with a passport? I sail four days hence.” Signed, Herman Melville.

Tee-hee! And here I thought things have changed much! I hope my ACS friends are getting more than four days notice these days. I must confessed relief that the new passport application no longer require that I provide information about my chin! And you should be, too. Imagine if you are doing the passport window and being asked constantly “how would you describe my chin?” or “What should I say about my forehead?” or “What should I put down for mouth?” I supposed that the 7th Floor must also be relieved that the passport applications these days are no longer addressed directly to the Secretary of State; or she wouldn't be able to go anywhere, shuttle diplomacy or not.

For those not in the know, ACS folks work at the American Citizen Services (ACS) Branch in our Embassies’ consular sections worldwide. Although visa work often gets the press especially if there is a 45+ day - wait time for interviews, ACS work really takes the cake when it comes to stress, personal time and emotional labor. These are the folks who talk to American citizens who are rape victims and other victims of crimes overseas, they are the ones who inform next of kins when loved ones die abroad, they assist those poor lost souls who find themselves penniless overseas, they talk to runaways to convince them to return home and they visit incarcerated Americans in foreign jails. More often than not, these are the same folks who get called in the middle of the night when a local husband dumps his American citizen wife in the dangerous part of town, or when an American citizen is abducted or subject of a “welfare and whereabouts” inquiry from family members in the U.S. Most of the work and support that the ACS staff does, do not make it to the front pages of your newspapers (the ACS in Bogota for instance, maintains an in-house flower fund through personal contributions, for fresh roses to be placed besides the Post One photos of the three Americans held hostage by the FARC in Colombia since 2003). The reason is quite simple, really. Those with great trips simply return home to their familiar lives; and the unfortunate ones, don't want to talk about their bad experience overseas with anyone, much less the newspaper. And yes, these are the same folks who have to deal with passport emergencies at embassies overseas - from those with a sudden death in the family to "the dog ate my passport and I have a plane to catch tomorrow" applicants. Just to give you an idea why I'm a wee fond of this lot...

I can't very well look through passport applications and skip the FBI Case files, can I? This series cover important investigations including tales of espionage during World War I, case files for German aliens who were politically suspect, records pertaining to Mexican neutrality, and reports dealing with alleged violations of Federal laws. Apparently, the files include "serious, as well as far-fetched accounts [that] will give users a fresh insider's perspective to the history of this time period." But the only one I've bumped into so far was a Los Angeles FBI Report on William Randolph Hearst dated 10/10/16 which says:

The following telegram was received from the Chief:

The Department of State has received repeated suggestions that William Randolph Hearst secretly financing Mexico revolt near his ranch in Mexico, is helping to fit out Military Expedition in this Country directed against Mexico. See also copy of Findaly’s (?) report July first your files, regarding purchase cartridges, rifles, machine guns, etc. Send Special Agent to ranch to ascertain present activities and take all other steps possible to discover if any violation neutral laws contemplates.”

Agent Webster being on his vacation, and Agent being alone in the office, sent the following telegram to Local White Slave Officer Gershon, San Diego:

“Proceed Los Angeles soon as convenient service out of town.”

Sounds awfully familiar, TDY and all. And I imagine that our poor officer in Mexico in 1919 must have nursed quite a giant headache (and a big tequila) on this one.


Digger said...

Bad Diplopundit! Bad! Pointing me to a site that allows me to wallow in my genealogical research obsession is NOT good for my productivity! (I joined the instant I found a premium document I wanted to see and it wouldn't let me!)

DS said...

Uh-oh! Sorry, bad me! I've only been accessing the free materials for minor obsessions. Check out the contact page or call the number below. There doesn't seem to be tech support or FAQ page as far as I could tell. I hope either of these two would help you sort out the premium access.


Consul-At-Arms said...

Oh, I can see this would be a true vortex of time and attention. I already found my great-grandfather's naturalization record.

I've quoted you and linked to you here: