Sir: As an academic historian and municipal coroner for the borough of West Podunk Falls, Greene County, I should like to take this opportunity provided by my discovery of an unaccounted-for first-class stamp in my liquor-flask drawer to protest against the sloppy habits of too many of our historians.

It is common for physicians to say of living persons that they would refuse to make a diagnosis without an examination. That is, the physicians would refuse to make a diagnosis. I do not mean to say that the living persons would refuse to diagnose the physicians. Nor do I wish to imply that physicians are not living persons. They are, until they are not, as my long experience in one of my lines of work has taught me. At any rate, to make a diagnosis, the physicians say, it is necessary to examine the patient, and they refuse to pronounce on whether such and such a politician or celebrity has such and such a disease, which is exactly the right way to approach such a question.

Yet once the subject has shuffled off this mortal coil, to quote the so-called immortal bard (who nevertheless, I should like to point out, seems to have done his share of coil-shuffling), these restraints are forgotten, and our historians feel qualified to make pronouncements on the cause of death, even though they have not examined the corpse, and would not have the necessary qualifications to make a pronouncement even if they had had that privilege.

For example, they say Sir Thomas More died of decapitation. But how do we know? Maybe he had cancer. It is true that historical records tell us reliably that an executioner removed his head from his body, but we cannot determine that to be the cause of death without examining said body. Likewise, Alexander Hamilton might have been bitten by a black mamba just before Aaron Burr pulled the trigger. We do not know: only an examination by a qualified forensic pathologist such as myself could make a proper determination, and it is probably too late for that now, the body being in a poor state of preservation.

Therefore, I urge our historians to consider their language, and stop implying that they have knowledge they could not possibly possess. Instead of saying that More was killed by decapitation, we ought to phrase it thus: “On the orders of the king, Sir Thomas was decapitated by the executioner. At very nearly the same time, he died of causes that were not properly determined on account of the primitive state of forensic pathology at the time.”

Since I have also found my liquor flask in my liquor-flask drawer, I am probably not going out anywhere this afternoon. But once I do get back on my feet and mail this letter, I should be very much obliged if you would print it. It would be a great favor to all of us who make our livings as historians and forensic pathologists. —Sincerely, Zephaniah W. Harpthwacker, West Podunk Falls Municipal Building.