Priests Didn't Hang Heretics for Earthquake


#1

Sourceless Winchester

When challenged Tuesday night at the Washington, DC, bookstore, Politics and Prose, to name his source for the charge in his new book, A Crack in the Edge of the World, America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, that priests “roamed the streets” executing suspected heretics in the wake of the
massive 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, best-selling author, Simon Winchester, was unable to do so. Initially he responded to a question from the audience with great seeming confidence that he had very good sources (plural), and that they could be found in his bibliography. He seemed genuinely taken aback that anyone could question the veracity of his assertion, but in spite of his self-assuredness, his authority on the matter had been undermined somewhat by the questioner, who had noted that in his presentation he said that the priests had had the suspects burned, while in the passage from his book quoted by columnist, George Will, they had been hanged.

“Which is it?” he was asked.

“Probably some of each,” he said, airily, “but I prefer burning,” and this produced a large laugh from the audience.

On the matter of the sources, he put the questioner off by saying that if the questioner would see him after the book-signing was over, he would point them out in his bibliography. However, at the end of the evening, with no one left but some close friends with whom he was planning to have a late dinner, Mr. Winchester could not think of who his source might have been. His manner, however, was gracious, and he did say that if the charge against
the priests proved to be unsustainable by the evidence he would inform the columnist, Will, so that he might write a correction, and that he would duly modify his book in any paperback edition that might come out. His increasingly conciliatory attitude might have been influenced by the fact that he was presented with a copy of the 4-part research work by Theresa Carpinelli entitled, “Journalistic Un-Integrity,” that he was told shows beyond reasonable doubt that no such priest-ordered executions took place. E-mail addresses were exchanged and he promised that as soon as he had refreshed his memory with a browse through his bibliography he would do his best to identify his sources.

In spite of his promises, any changes or retractions that Winchester might make with respect to those hanging/burning Portuguese priests will be very difficult for him because the charge is absolutely central to his message. That’s right, “message.” Hearing him speak one realizes that he is more
than a polished, charming, witty raconteur who has learned a good deal about geology, but he is something of an evangelist, talking up “science” and “reason” and atheistic secular-humanism, which he juxtaposes against “ignorance,” “superstition,” and “religion.”

“I am not a religious person,” he said at one point. “I believe in
evolution.”

If he were to describe the reasonable actions of the Portuguese, both clergy and laity, in the wake of the great Lisbon earthquake on a more factual basis, his message would be diluted almost to the point of complete ineffectualness. Moreover, his outrageous charge against the church is not only winning converts to his cause, but it is doubtless helping him sell more books. After all, that was the only thing in his book that George Will cited, and it is through Will’s widely-syndicated column that most people
probably learned about Winchester’s book.

At Politics and Prose, a mainstream left-liberal bookstore where readers of The Washington Post and listeners to National Public Radio go to have their prejudices reinforced, he was preaching to a very enthusiastic choir of 50+ people. Many of them lined up patiently after the talk to get copies of the book signed by the author. In his presentation he had kept them in the palm
of his hand with many fascinating anecdotes–the truth of which one must now question–about the great San Francisco earthquake and fire.

About two-thirds of the way through the talk, he changed from storytelling to philosophizing. The San Francisco quake, he said, had been something of a “tipping point,” where scientific explanations for them had begun to dominate over more primitive, religious explanations. Then he went immediately into the story about the priests in Portugal burning the suspected heretics who were presumably thought to be responsible for the calamity.
END

Teresa Carpinelli article
part 1
catholicexchange.com/vm/PFarticle.asp?vm_id=2&art_id=27280&sec_id
part 2 catholicexchange.com/vm/index.asp?vm_id=79&art_id=27337
part 3 catholicexchange.com/vm/index.asp?vm_id=2&art_id=30604
part 4 catholicexchange.com/vm/index.asp?vm_id=2&art_id=30616

George Will quoting Winchester
washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/10/AR2005101001168.html


#2

His manner, however, was gracious, and he did say that if the charge against
the priests proved to be unsustainable by the evidence he would inform the columnist, Will, so that he might write a correction, and that he would duly modify his book in any paperback edition that might come out. His increasingly conciliatory attitude might have been influenced by the fact that he was presented with a copy of the 4-part research work by Theresa Carpinelli entitled, “Journalistic Un-Integrity,” that he was told shows beyond reasonable doubt that no such priest-ordered executions took place. E-mail addresses were exchanged and he promised that as soon as he had refreshed his memory with a browse through his bibliography he would do his best to identify his sources.

Well done him :slight_smile:

Anyone can make mistakes - mistakes which put the Church in a better light than it should be are as truly mistakes as those which give the opposite imporession. He’s undertaken to correct his mistakes, so with any luck he won’t be hounded for not being infallible. Personally, I have nothing but respect for him.

I very much hope that his Catholic critics will be equally conciliatory. ##


#3

Indeed, it is entirely possible that Simon Winchester has made an innocent mistake, choosing to believe a poorly-supported allegation which dovetailed so nicely with the message that he clearly badly wants to get across. As they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.” Let us see, now, if Mr. Winchester is as good as his word and does take serious steps to see that the error is corrected.

So far, the signs are not good that he can be taken at his word. I find it very, very hard to believe that he would completely forget the source for his very incendiary allegation. Has it really come to this, that one can smear Catholics so blithely, hardly taking any heed of where one learned a calumny that one passes on to millions in a book? Just subtitute the word “rabbis” for “priests” and then imagine an author writing such a thing in this country in 2005 and then claiming that he doesn’t even remember where he learned of it.

Even so, at this point, Mr. Winchester is not the primary villain in the story. Notice that the title of Ms. Carpinelli’s series is “Journalistic Un-Integrity.” If you read what she has written you will see that The Washington Post, one of the most anti-Catholic publications one will ever encounter, has demonstrated its lack of intergrity in spades. Their initial article to which she responded framed the allegation between quotes from respected church historian, Martin Marty, leaving the reader with the impression that he was the source of the information, which he most assuredly was not. Carpinelli pointed out their error to them. Not only did they take no steps to correct it, but they allowed their columnist, George Will, to repeat it and sent the calumny out to the members of their syndicate. Furthermore, all of the journalists who picked up the initial slander and repeated it as if it were gospel truth have simply blown off Carpinelli when she tried to set them straight. This has not been the case with a Protestant minister and a Protestant historian/college president, one of whom has publicly corrected his error and the other who is in the process of doing so, I believe.

It’s true that Simon Winchester has been a professional journalist, but he is apparently now a full-time author of books, so his standards might have gone up a bit. We shall see. We shall also see about George Will. Stay tuned.


#4

I found this thread because in reading the introduction to the adaptation of *The Day the World Exploded *which was issued in 2008, on pages 10 and 11 I read that, "As late as 1755, when the city of Lisbon in Portugal was leveled by an immense quake, all believed it to be the work of God, and as a result hundreds of heretics--as non-Catholics were called-- were burned at the stake as an apology."
I found that difficult to believe, but found the same accusation on quite a few Internet sites. Knowing how anti-Catholic many of those sites are, I came searching here.
Apparently Winchester has not corrected anything because this adaptation, which is an abbreviated version with lots of pictures, has this same claim. I am particularly appalled that children, to whom this adaptation would appeal mostly, are likely to read this and believe it. I would have believed it myself since I had believed Winchester was just a good reseacher and story teller, but this statement smelled intellectually bad.
Has anyone else heard anything about this? Where did this historical lie come from anyhow?


#5

[quote="katy, post:4, topic:38242"]
....Apparently Winchester has not corrected anything because this adaptation, which is an abbreviated version with lots of pictures, has this same claim. ...

[/quote]

When you say "pictures" I presume you mean drawings and not photographs -- since the camera wasn't invented until around 1830.


#6

The book I meant was about the volcanic explosion of Krakatoa, and the pictures and drawings were about that and other volcanoes. I see didn’t mention that. The reference to Lisbon was in describing ways that the benighted people of previous centuries responded to natural disaster such as earthquakes and volcanoes. The general drift was that all religion is false, an explanation for natural events, and we are beyond all that now. Then he went on to a fairly good explanation, aimed at kids, of Krakatoa.


#7

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