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Most people are aware that not everything we read is true. In fact, a lot of things are completely falsified. And while we are often led to believe that they are infallible, History books and historical writing can also fall victim to over-exaggeration, embellishment, in the least.
I like to imagine people gasping in horror as I write this. It makes it more fun.
This is a problem (depending what side you are on) that historians deal with all the time and that archivists like to use to demonstrate their own value in providing evidence through documentation.
Now, disappointing as it may be, I am not going to get into the whole philosophical discussion about the Truth of History and all that. I did that at the dinner table with my Dad last night. Instead, I have a real-life, in my family, “historical” writing, that I know to contain untruths. And that, I would like to share today.

Some background, Dr. Henry S. Cunningham was a prominent physician in Indianapolis at the turn of the 20th Century. He was beloved and worshiped and the stories passed down through family history about how fantastic he was. The stories stemmed from this passage from Pictorial and Biographical Memoirs of Indianapolis and Marion County Indiana: together with biographies of many prominent men of other portions of the state, both living and dead published in 1893. Here is his biography from page 88.

“Dr Henry S Cunningham. The value to any community of a professional man is not marked merely by his learning and skill, his proficiency in medical and surgical practice, but also by his character, both private and professional, his honorable adherence to medical ethics and his personal integrity and benevolence of purpose. When a physician combines these characteristics it is with great pleasure that we record his life work, and such a man do we find in Dr Henry S Cunningham. This physician of Indianapolis had his birth in Armstrong County, Penn., September 1, 1839, and remained in his native county until eighteen years of age. Being left an orphan at a tender age he educated himself and is a self- made man in every particular. He has known the demands of poverty, but his honesty, goodness, energy and stick-to-it-iveness have brought their rewards, which he and his family are now enjoying. He attended the public school and when thirteen years of age entered tjhe academy at Worthington, Penn., to study higher branches. There he remained until eighteen years of age, working his way, after which he entered grammar school at New Haven, Conn for a year. After this for a number of years he taught school and worked at mechanics. In 1862 he began the study of medicine with Starling Loving at Columbus, Ohio and graduated from Starling College there June 30, 1865. He then came to Indiana, Hancock County, and located at Warrington, but owing to ill health did not enter upon his practice until April, 1866. He remained at Warrington until the spring of 1869 when he located at Winchester, Randolph County, where he continued until the spring of 1871. From there he went to Montreal, Canada, and entered the medical department of Bishop College where he graduated April 4, 1872, with the Canadian C.M., M.D. degree. In April of the following year he came to Indianapolis and from the first had a successful practice. For two years he was on the staff of Bobb’s Free Dispensary in the early seventies, Professor William B Fletcher, superintendent. He is a member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Province of Quebec. He was one of the charter members of Marion County Medical Society, but is not an active member now. He was a member of the original Academy of Medicine during its existence. Dr Cunningham is the author of “Lectures on Physiological Laws of Life and Hygiene,” published in 1882, which was kindly received by the profession and has had an extensive sale. He was physician to the German Protestant Orphan Home at Indianapolis, from October, 1887, up to October, 1891, when he resigned and was regularly appointed as consulting physician, a position he yet occupies. The Doctor is a member of the Western Association of Writers and at the annual meeting in June, 1893, at Spring Park, Warsaw, Ind. he read a paper before that body on “Man’s Individuality and Responsibility.” He is a man of education, a ready writer, and is well known in the city as one of the leading practitioners. He is also a member of the present executive board of Western Association of Writers. Socially he is a member of the Masonic Order the IOOF AO of D and Chosen Friends. He has served as president of the board of health of Indianapolis. In the year 1864, he was married to Miss Emma Mills, a native of Pennsylvania, and three children have been born to their union. Mrs Cunningham died of consumption, but the children are living. The Doctor’s second marriage occurred in 1876 to Miss Carrie Fairfield, a native of Syracuse NY and a daughter of John D and Charlotte Knapp Fairfield. She died on December 18, 1887. The Doctor adheres to the platform of the Democratic party. ”

Makes sense that he was so well thought of for so many years. Until, that is, someone did the math and figured out that his first wife, my ancestor, was actually still alive when he married his second and those living children were actually living with her. To be fair, she claimed she was a widow as well. We have since discovered that he had at least three wives, was a wagon-maker for awhile, and deserted his unit during the Civil War. An interesting character in the least. I am looking forward to matching documentation to the events listed in this biography.

Do you have any fun ancestors with colorful pasts? Any myths you would like debunked?

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