Updated April 23, 2002

Why do historians accept some things as historical fact and not others? How do historian's deal with conflicting accounts of events and people? Bailup looks at some reasons why historical events are disputed, while others are accepted.


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Understanding Memory and Oral History

The aim of this website is to try to get as close as possible to the facts. I am predominantly interested in what can be proven - not what we might believe. That is why in my research I rely on documented events or facts from contemporary sources of the time, rather than oral history and hearsay. The prevalent Kelly story relies to a large degree on oral history. Oral history should not be discounted simply due to its being unable to be substantiated. Oral history has value, but it should be presented in context, rather than as 'fact'.

Why I treat oral history differently

When examining the Kelly chronicle closely, I differentiate between what can be relied upon in an historical sense, and the less reliable 'oral history'. Oral history will be treated in a more circumspect manner than facts. The reasons for this are simple - eyewitness accounts are subjective, and memory is unreliable.

Contemporary documents written at the time or shortly after events are as reliable as the eye-witness/author. Also they are written in the knowledge that they may have to pass the scrutiny of peers and others who may have shared the experience. Their main appeal is that they are as true today as the day they were written. They are not altered over time, or by being handed on from one person to another. This is an important distinction from accounts told orally over the years, or retold by another person entirely (i.e. hearsay).

A clear example can be seen in Constable McIntyre's statements about the events of Stringybark Creek in October 1878. The statement he made the next day in the Police station is vastly different to the statements he made under oath 2 years later in a courtroom. The first statement will most likely be the most reliable. Had the initial statement not been recorded, we would be unaware that his version of events altered. The difference in the two statements clearly demonstrates the effects of time and of post-event information or inference.

Memory and how it works

For an event, circumstance or person's profile to be encoded into and stored in the short term memory, then transferred to long term memory store, kept alive intact, and then retrieved accurately, is a complicated process to say the least. Errors in this process are to be expected. Not a lot is known scientifically about the neural and biochemical processes of encoding, maintaining and retrieving bits of information stored as memory. At this point in time it would be fair to say, that research into memory is far from complete.

What scientists know
Once memory was believed to be like a video played back over - the details reported accurately and unchanged no matter how many times, or from how long ago. This perception of memory however, has been found to be vastly inaccurate.
When memory is viewed with reference to past events, it becomes clear that memory representations can deviate from reality in many different ways. An event or person's profile stored in memory can, and often is, altered by time, and influenced by perception. Even the way a person is questioned on an event can contaminate and alter the memory being retrieved. Also memory is only concerned with what has been remembered, not what has been omitted. Thus there can be variance between what has been recounted and what actually occurred. Memory is therefore not merely a passive representation of events that occurred.

Oral History and Memory

Oral history can be influenced by any number of factors, the most significant of which would be personal perception, and errors in memory process.

Eyewitness accounts, for instance, can be distorted by reconstructive inference, particularly inference based on post-event information. Therefore it stands to reason, that inaccuracy of memory construction for personally experienced states and events can and does occur.
Memory is not a random process. It can be assisted by cues such as mood and context. A problem can even arise from forgetting the original source of the memory. A thought or imagined event, or an account from an outside source, can be incorrectly perceived as direct memory. The original source can be difficult to monitor, especially over time. Whether wholly invented, or partially altered, memory can be mistaken for an impartial retrieval of an actual event - when it may be no more than an imagined story from a forgotten source.

Recounting someone else's oral history (i.e. hearsay) is open to even more potential errors in memory process. The reason for the increased degree of error is obvious. The story recounted is not simply one person's retrieved perceived memory of an event. It is another person's retrieved perceived memory of a story heard, not an event in itself. The more times this is repeated the more chance of error in process.
Also, eyewitness accounts when told many years after an event, or particularly when recounted not from ones own memory, but from stories heard from another person (such as a father or aunt) are strongly prejudiced by emotion. Faithfulness in reporting stories or events is therefore limited.

A major defect historians find with eyewitness accounts and oral history, is that people do not always tell the truth, be it partially or completely. It is impossible to determine a lie from the truth without corroborative, or alternatively, contradictory evidence.

Public Memory

Yet another difficulty with 'oral history' arises when the more an event or story is repeated, the more it is generally accepted as fact regardless of whether it is true or not.

A good example of this in the Kelly Story would be the story of the gang's mutilation of the dead body of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark creek in October of 1878. This was an assumption made after discovering Kennedy's body with at least part of his ears missing. The subsequent coroner's examination explained the ears had most likely been gnawed off by wild animals in the time between Kennedy's death and the discovery of his body. This finding was made public within a fortnight of the events of Stringybark Creek. Yet despite this rational and objective alternative, the highly questionable story or 'oral history' of mutilation has survived and is widely believed, to the present day.

 

How I acknowledge my sources

It is for the reasons outlined above that my work on this site examines the history of the Kelly story not in absolutes, but with qualifiers. When something has not be substantiated or authenticated as 'fact', it will be reported as "believed" or "alleged". I make distinctions between what is known fact, what is likely, what is unlikely, and what has been disproved. In each individual category or subject examined, I will be attempting to sort through and separate facts from oral history and hearsay, regardless of the source.

Researched, tabulated, written and presented by N. Cowie

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