Yesterday I was researching a short piece on Melville Davisson Post, the magazine short story writer who created Uncle Abner, a Jeffersonian-era detective from the backwoods of what was then Virginia. For a time at the start of the twentieth century Post was apparently the best-paid magazine short story writer in the United States. His first creation, a crooked lawyer named Randolph Mason, drew criticism because many people felt his techniques for evading justice would give the criminal fraternity ideas. In fact Post, who started out as a lawyer, used the Randolph Mason stories to expose loopholes in the law. Here are a few examples of his stories.
So far so good I thought, but I hit problems when I tried to establish and verify Post’s birth and death dates. My first port of call was Wikipedia, which claimed he was born on April 19, 1869 and died on June 23, 1930. Of course you can’t stop with Wikipedia, so I looked at several other sources, including Webster’s Biographical Dictionary (1995 edition), the venerable Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler (1976), which I bought in a book shop in Santa Rosa, California a few years ago, and Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure (1941), which gives brief biographies of detective fiction writers. They disagreed. Webster’s claims he lived from 1871-1930, Steinbrunner and Penzler picked 1869-1930, while Haycraft, whose book was published only 11 years after Post’s death, says 1871-1930. Finally, I looked at Find a Grave, an excellent website which helps you do exactly that. Find a Grave listed 1871 as his birth year.
After all that I was thoroughly puzzled. I asked on Twitter to see if anyone had any ideas, but still couldn’t get confirmation. In the end I resorted to emailing Katina Peters, who lives in West Virginia and provides photographs of headstones to people researching the whereabouts of their ancestors through Find a Grave. She very kindly sent me two links to pages at http://wvculture.org which states its mission “is to identify, preserve, protect, promote, and present the ideas, arts, and artifacts of West Virginia’s heritage, building pride in our past accomplishments and confidence in our future”. It carries free online copies of birth and death records for West Virginia residents, including Melville Davisson Post. And here they are:
Note that the death certificate claims he was born in 1871; that’s probably where the error crept in. This kind of discrepancy is surprisingly common in official records and after years of working on this kind of thing I have come to the conclusion that a great deal of what we believe to be true about the past is actually invented. Curiously many sources claim Post died after falling from a horse, but whether he had a fall or not, he also had some kind of cirrhosis which his doctor cited as the primary cause of death.
Find a Grave will be updated.
Edit July 9, 2009: Image of headstone added.