As I start work on Salmon Chase, I am greatly indebted to John Niven. Starting in 1984, Niven led a team of scholars that gathered the papers of Salmon Chase. They published both a microfilm edition AND a five-volume printed version of Chase papers. In the midst of this massive project, Niven published in 1995 his own biography of Chase.
One would think that, having gathered and organized and published all this material on Chase, Niven would be accurate in his biography of Chase. Sadly, as I gather my own material, and read it against the Niven biography, I find some errors.
I am taking notes today on 1857, when Governor Chase learned that the prior Democratic treasurer (John Breslin) had embezzled funds from the state treasury and that the current Republican treasurer (William Gibson) had covered up the crime. Niven states on page 196 that “a special legislative committee and Sparrow questioned Gibson closely but he managed to avoid criminal prosecution.” As I read that today it struck me as odd, since I had just read (in Niven’s notes to the Chase diary) that Gibson was indicted.
Warner Wolf, the famous sports announcer, used to say “let’s go to the videotape.” That is what I say to myself in such situations, except that the “videotape” for the nineteenth century are the newspapers. A few minutes of research on newspapers.com revealed the following.
In July 1857, an Ohio grand jury indicted Gibson and Breslin for embezzlement. Breslin had already fled to Canada; Gibson posted bonds so that he could remain “free on bail” before the trial.
Gibson was tried in December 1859 and found guilty of embezzlement. Gibson was jailed for at least a while, but in February 1860 the court granted his counsel’s motion for a new trial, and Gibson was again released on bail. In July 1861, the Cleveland Daily Leader reported that Gibson’s bail had again been renewed, and the case continued until the next term of court.
In this same month, according to Wikipedia, Gibson organized a regiment, the Forty-Ninth Ohio, which he led as colonel and then general for the next three years. After the war, Gibson was a Republican leader and unsuccessful candidate for Congress. He died in 1894.
One might say that this is a minor matter, whether William Gibson faced criminal charges. But the Breslin-Gibson embezzlement was the main issue in Chase’s campaign for re-election in Ohio in 1857. Democratic papers charged that Chase himself was responsible, that Chase was a close friend of Gibson, and that Gibson was an indicted criminal. So this kind of detail does matter; it is part of the texture of one of Chase’s key political campaigns.
This is not to say that I have never made such errors; I have. But my goal is to avoid such errors, to get it right on dates and facts, as well as on as well as on larger questions of character.