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
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.
Teresa Carpinelli article
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