Monday, April 2, 2018

From the Tennessee Supreme Court Case Files... The Theory of Superposition of History

By Caleb Knies

Too often the thought is to first “make” the history without understanding or appreciating the theories that guide well-crafted, balanced and fulfilling definitions of history. Bits of historical evidence, like Supreme Court records, photographs, even things as unexpected as landscapes, soundscapes and most other quanta of historical data are used as evidence to support a particular historian and the narrative he or she is weaving; However, those same items of historical quanta can also be used to evidence new theoretical constructs. Searching for evidence to support a new historical theory can be taxing, however, on occasion, a bit of evidence fits the model so adeptly it is impossible to stifle. A letter drafted by Lytle “Boss” Bingham, connected to four Supreme Court records, is that piece of evidence.

On the dark and snowy night of Jan. 14, 1931, Lytle “Boss” Bingham, cashier at the Hardin Co. Bank, phoned his assistant and brother, James “Jiggs” Bingham, telling him to withdraw all cash-on-hand at the bank and bring it to Boss’s home. The state bank examiner was coming the 15th or 16th, and Boss needed to make sure the cash was deposited with the Federal Bank in Jackson. Boss left home in Saltillo around 9 p.m. heading toward Jackson on TN 5/US 45. In the early morning hours, a car was heard speeding down the highway. A short time later, a warm glow emanating from the horizon sparked little interest in a farmer, but soon his son would find the cause – a burning car with a body in it. The body, believed to Boss’s, initiated a chain of events that led to the discovery of the letter from Boss on the desk of the bank president and the four state Supreme Court cases for Boss’s insurance payouts.

Somewhat like Boss’s letter, these photos are re-creations of the accident scene where Boss’s burned car was found in the early morning hours of Jan. 15, 1932, with a body inside. The original accident scene “lives” in the superposition history - it both exists and does not exist. It clearly happened, but being in that moment again is impossible. Therefore, crime scene photographs and illustrations seek to re-claim any essence of originality left, but will always fall short of being able to capture the ‘reality’ of the scene. Photograph from Mary L. Bingham v. Modern Woodmen of America, Tennessee Supreme Court Records, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Boss’s accident occurred on a dark and snowy night, these photographs show no signs of snow. The testimonies from the cases all detail the damage to the car, yet the car in this image is undamaged. A person’s sport coat replaces the lap blanket found intact over the hood of Boss’s car. But, these pictures help us (and the courts) collapse the wave function of Boss’s accident into observable bits of historical quanta/evidence/data/etc. It is the observer then, who creates the particle or wave narrative for the quanta. Photograph from Mary L. Bingham v. Modern Woodmen of America, Tennessee Supreme Court Records, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Before going much further, it is pertinent to introduce the theory. Quantum history is the growing historical field that uses the theories and principles of quantum mechanics to guide the theories and principles of the historical method. One of the key points of quantum physics and quantum history is the appreciation for the state of superposition. For physicists, this is the state of unmeasured particles - both everywhere and nowhere at once, operating as both individual particles and particle waves (also at once). Measured particles only act as particle or wave depending on the observer, any measurement ends the superposition state which is known as “collapsing the wave function.” For quantum historians, history exists in superposition. It is both alive and dead, past and present, yours and mine, ours and theirs - all at once, all in superposition; However, measuring history, like measuring photons, collapses the wave function and bends history to the want of the observer/historian. Unless, as is thought to be the case with the letter, observation/measurement is impossible.

Boss’s letter lives only in historical superposition. The physical letter is missing from the historical record, but the text is held within witness testimony of three state Supreme Court cases (mentioned in the testimony of the fourth, but the actual text of the letter was not entered as evidence). The letter “exists” in the fact that it was a verified piece of evidence in a state court case, and the text of it was entered as testimony in the case; however, the letter itself as mentioned, does not exist. Boss’s letter both exists and does not exist, depending on how “existing” is appreciated and understood by the observer. Interpreting Boss’s letter as either existing or not collapses its wave-function and eliminates its state of superposition.

This is the text of the note written by Lytle “Boss” Bingham to his boss at the Hardin County Bank. The note was found the morning a body, many thought to be Boss’s, was found burning in a car outside of Saltillo. The note itself is missing, but the text was entered into Supreme Court records through the testimony of Dr. L. A. Parker, president of the Hardin County Bank, and finder of the note in question. Image from Mary L. Bingham v. Modern Woodmen of America, but the text also appears in Mary Bingham v. Business Men’s Assurance Co. of America and Verna Bingham, guard. v. Business Men’s Assurance Co, Tennessee Supreme Court Records, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

This ephemeral state of superposition adequately describes the aforementioned letter, and the whole of historical data. It shows that the observer is in control of the outcome of the evidence, to control the outcome of the historical narrative. The historical observer “measuring” historical quanta collapses his or her wave function(s) into existing as either “particle” or “wave.” Erwin Schrödinger was one of the foremost quantum physicists, actively creating, researching and developing the field long before many others even accepted its findings. Well-known, but misremembered, his cat/box paradox was a thought experiment to show the absurdity of quantum physics. Despite memetic errors, it still functions as an appropriate model for understanding how Boss’s letter, and all of history, “lives” in superposition until measured/observed by us, those seeking to interpret its information.

On one hand, the letter may be understood to not exist; the historical implications for that allow for a distinct narrative in which word-of-mouth, oral histories, and the like might fill the gap of the nonexistent letter and create a history where the meaning comes from some of the gaps in the narrative. On the other hand, the letter could be understood as existing; which creates a different narrative than a nonexistent letter, because the evidence is interpreted differently by the observer. The implications for this interpretation may be a disregard for the context surrounding the note and taking it at face value, a reliance on “factual” history and creation of historical narratives where evidence is assumed unquestionable. While interpreting the letter as either existent or not is a minor part of the larger whole of Boss’s story, the way historians interpret historical evidence deeply matters to the histories we use, create and assemble. Not unlike scientific quantum physics, Quantum History analysis can adopt and adapt the thought experiment to analyze itself and historical information.

One of the deeply intriguing collections at the Tennessee State Library and Archives is the Tennessee Supreme Court Records, home to all of the cases heard by the state Supreme Court. Scores of records (due to volume only 19th and early 20th century cases) are cleaned, folded, and ready for the public - with more added daily. The Tennessee Supreme Court Records includes cases concerning debt owed on livestock purchases, land and title debates, murders and even insurance suits. Four cases out of the many thousands held at the Library and Archives revolve around the mysterious disappearance and supposed death of Lytle “Boss” Bingham. While the full details of the Bingham cases warrant their own forthcoming blog post, a key piece of evidence in the trial is also the key piece of evidence for understanding a new historical theory.

If you are interested in researching Tennessee Supreme Court cases, check out our online index:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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