PBS’s ‘History Detectives Special Investigations’ going deep

07/02/2014 12:00 AM

07/01/2014 6:22 PM

If you’re a history buff, the long-running PBS series “History Detectives” may by now feel like an endless diet of crudités, so you might be intrigued by the news that for July the show is altering its format to allow longer investigations.

The revised show has been branded “History Detectives Special Investigations,” but it turns out to be not all that special. Still interesting, just not particularly pithy or full of revelations.

In a usual “History Detectives” episode, experts like Wes Cowan (an appraiser and auctioneer) take objects thought to have a connection to some important moment in history and investigate the stories – often family lore – behind them. Was this picture frame really made from a piece of wood salvaged from the Titanic? Was this Woolworth’s sign part of the backdrop for a famed civil rights sit-in?

Generally, at least three stories constitute an hourlong episode, but for July, Cowan and two colleagues, Kaiama Glover (a Barnard professor) and Tukufu Zuberi (of the University of Pennsylvania), devote each of four episodes to just one mystery. You’d hope this would give them a chance to do some real historical digging that would produce new, surprising information, but the subjects they choose have been pretty thoroughly mined. The “detectives” mostly serve as guides to work done by others.

The opening installment looks into the catastrophic burning and sinking of the steamship Sultana on the Mississippi River in April 1865. An estimated 1,800 people died, many of them Union soldiers trying to return home from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps.

The history detectives like to create the illusion that they are discovering something new when they aren’t, and that is certainly the case in their investigation of the Sultana disaster, which has been studied by professionals and amateurs alike.

Two of the subsequent episodes are a bit sexier, if only because the events they examine are recent enough that they still have living witnesses. That’s especially true of the episode Tuesday, on the disappearance of the bandleader Glenn Miller during World War II.

Miller was on a flight to France from England that apparently crashed. The wreckage has never been found, and speculation – a secret spy mission? bad weather? – has ranged far and wide ever since. Among the lines of inquiry the history detectives pursue is a friendly-fire theory. It isn’t new, but their reconstruction is fascinating.

On July 15 the so-called servant girl murders in Texas in the 1880s receive the detectives’ scrutiny, and on July 22 it’s back to more recent times, with a re-examination of the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

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