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FRONTLINE: History

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PBS Comes to Swarthmore
History Detectives investigates a mysterious Quaker map.

Chris Densmore, curator of Swarthmore’s Friends Historical Library, doesn’t want to spoil the show. So he won’t say what he told History Detectives researcher Gwen Wright, who showed up this past winter with an old map, a theory and a camera crew for the popular PBS summer series. Still, those familiar with both Densmore’s knowledge of Quaker history and his natural skepticism might conclude that he blew whatever theories Wright posed right out of the water.

History Detectives, which began its fifth season in June, attempts to solve four historic puzzles in a span of 60 minutes. Was an antique Chinese scale used to measure opium? Did an antique shotgun belong to Nazi chief Herman Goering? Did this dress belong to Sacagawea?

Produced by Manhattan-based Lion Television, the acclaimed series combines modern technology and lots of legwork to piece together a credible tale by connecting the dots between interesting objects and what are often little more than family legends—and hopefully producing serious history in the process. Viewers suggest 75 percent of the show’s topics.

In this case, Wright, a Columbia University professor and HD detective, produced a clearly old and hand-drawn map of Quaker meetinghouses in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Was it, she asked, intended to help runaway slaves locate abolitionist Quakers who might help them escape?

Interest in Quakers is not common among popular historians. Most focus on “great” men who, says Densmore, are often “famous for being famous.” And Quakers were often among the most committed opponents of great men. Perhaps that’s why the late historian Francis Jennings, in a not-too-complimentary 1996 biography of Benjamin Franklin, described his Quaker sources as “so lightly consulted that, in effect, they are new evidence.” A majority of Densmore’s patrons are academic historians who tend to publish in small-circulation journals, along with genealogists.

History Detectives, however, approaches history through the lives of average people—and its sources are necessarily eclectic. Wright, for instance, considers her specialty to be urban history while her colleagues have chosen “pop culture” and “social context.” In the process, the show has delved into the archives of organizations as disparate as Harley-Davidson and Alcoholics Anonymous. Not bad company for a quiet Quaker library.

The History Detectives episode will air on PBS in July or August. Check your local listings for time and date.