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History Detectives Comes To Hartford For Investigation

By ROGER CATLIN | Courant TV Critic

June 30, 2008

They'd make a good league of superheroes: Bookish professors and appraisers by day whose alter egos answer calls for help from the public during the summer break and put their well-honed skills to use for the good of all.

But the academic foursome called into action again tonight on public television take on another iconic American genre, all but donning fedoras and gumshoes.

"History Detectives," starting its sixth season tonight on PBS (locally on CPTV at 9 p.m.), scours the country investigating artifacts or edifices or family stories in the manner of "Antiques Roadshow," but that results in not a price, but a deeper investigation, usually involving travel.

That's what brought Elyse Luray to the Connecticut State Library, which is inside the State Supreme Court building across from the state Capitol in Hartford.

Luray, an appraiser, licensed auctioneer and historian of popular culture, was investigating a Connecticut story about Jewish settlements at the turn of the last century. A homeowner had looked at a deed and wondered why there were so many residents of apparent Eastern European descent in a short period of time.

The investigation took Luray from East Haddam to the records at the state library last month. The marble surroundings there impressed her.

"It's gorgeous," she said. "I was shocked when I walked in. You're really lucky to have this here. The archival vault is fabulous, just to die for."

At a time when a generation is growing up thinking that research begins and ends with Google, getting out to see actual historical records is important, Luray says.

"You have to go through the records yourself, so you can look at the footnotes that will lead you to the next clue," she said. "The best part of the archives is you can find something you would overlook on the computer. You're always discovering something."

Luray's trip wasn't the show's first to Connecticut. The series' first season included a report from Mystic Seaport, investigating whether the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship ever carried escaped slaves.

It was a story mentioned only briefly in a new book of stories from the show, "The History Detectives Explore Lincoln's Letter, Parker's Sax and Mark Twain's Watch: And Many More Mysteries of America's Past" (Wiley, $19.95), published this month.

The volume is based on investigations by Luray and the other detectives on the show. These include Wesley Cowan, founder of Cowan's Auctions in Cincinnati and an expert in Americana; Gwendolyn Wright, a professor of history and of architecture, planning and preservation at Columbia University; and Tukufu Zuberi, head of the sociology department and director of the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

In tonight's premiere, Luray looks into whether a family heirloom, a French coin, was indeed shot by Annie Oakley, as family legend had it.

"Everybody has family folklore," Luray says. "We show how folklore connects to American history."

Aside from the stories, though, "The premise is how objects teach you a lot about history and the process of learning about American history from projects like this and how, through research, everybody can be connected to American history."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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