On a bright Saturday afternoon earlier this month, 30 or so of us gathered to give James O. Hall the send-off he deserved. Appropriately enough, the memorial service was held in the James O. Hall Research Center of the Surratt House museum, in Clinton, Md., 12 miles south of Washington. Mr. Hall died in February at the age of 95, leaving no immediate survivors. The 30 who showed up were instead neighbors, friends, a pair of nieces and random hangers-on who, like me, had known him only slightly but who honored him as a giant in a long and noble and underappreciated line.
I don’t think there’s a good word for what Mr. Hall did: "researcher" is too dry, "historical investigator" carries hints of melodrama, and "archivist" suggests a dutiful drudge, which Mr. Hall was not. "Amateur historian" probably fits best, though it sounds vaguely derivative and second-tier. Following a career with the Labor Department — he retired in the early 1970s — Mr. Hall turned himself into the world’s foremost authority on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Historians, pros and amateurs alike, sought him out for his knowledge and access to his exhaustive files. As one of them put it, James O. Hall knew more about Lincoln’s murder than anyone who ever lived, including John Wilkes Booth.
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"I had to teach myself genealogy," he said. "Not because I liked genealogy, but because it’s how you find things that have been lost." Over the years, he tried to trace the descendants of everyone even remotely tied to the assassination. When he found a new great-granddaughter or the grandson of a nephew, he politely peppered that person with letters and phone calls, asking the descendant to rummage through attics — or offering, even better, to do it himself. His industry never flagged, and it led him to some of his greatest discoveries. In a dusty cubby in a forgotten archive, Mr. Hall made one of the major Lincoln finds of the past 50 years: a letter of self-justification Booth wrote the morning of the murder.
Typically, in 1977, Mr. Hall chose to publish this astonishing find in the Lincoln Log, a newsletter for buffs. Its circulation was minuscule compared with the slick magazines — National Geographic or American Heritage — that would have loved to showcase such a find and maybe make its discoverer famous. But Mr. Hall was without professional vanity; that’s what it means to be an amateur, after all.
At the end of his life, Mr. Hall treated his vast archives with the same modesty and discretion. At least two well-endowed universities made a play for the contents of his file cabinets. Instead, he gave them to the small, homespun Surratt House museum, once the country home of the Lincoln conspirator Mary Surratt and a favorite gathering place for buffs. With a single stroke, he transformed the museum into the Alexandrian library of assassination studies. It was a gesture of confidence and fellow feeling, made to all amateur historians from the best of their kind.
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