Department of Corrections: Diana Nyad on People are Talking, 1989

A few weeks ago, Laura Dean, a musician who created a program called “Heart And Place: Music Of The Westward Expansion,” emailed me to ask how many violins I thought the Lewis and Clark Expedition carried: one or two? In my opinion, I told Dean, they carried one.

Let me back up for a moment. I play the violin, and I used to present a show about one of the fiddlers with Lewis and Clark. I learned in 1997 that the expedition included two fiddling crew members: Pierre Cruzatte and George Gibson. I also learned that Cruzatte, the expedition’s half-French, half-Omaha boatman, is best-known for accidentally shooting Captain Lewis in his rear-end. Cruzatte’s story was ripe for the telling.

Image courtesy of Michael from McKinley Elementary, Santa Monica, circa 2001.

By 2000, I had prepared a one-person show about Pierre and his role in the expedition. Cruzatte and I never made it to Manhattan like The Swimmer did. But we traveled to places like  Charlottesville, Virginia, and Astoria, Oregon; New Town, North Dakota, and New Iberia, Louisiana; and many wonderful places in between.

Dean noted that some people disagreed with me about the number of the expedition’s fiddles. Because it had been so long since I’d looked into it, I asked if she could point to a source.

William Clark’s drawing of a sage grouse from March 2, 1806. Via the National Park Service’s “Scientific Encounters.”

She soon sent me an excerpt from the journal of Private Joseph Whitehouse. Six expedition members kept journals during the trip, Whitehouse among them. Without those journals, we’d know very little about the expedition.

With them, we know a lot. On December 25, 1804, Whitehouse wrote: “The Men then prepared one of the Rooms, and commenced dancing, we having with us Two Violins….”

Now, back when I first started researching Lewis and Clark, it didn’t take long for me to think that I knew everything there was to know about the expedition’s music (see the Dunning-Kruger Effect). I read Whitehouse’s entry and assumed that he made a mistake. He must have meant “two violinists,” not “two violins.” Pierre Cruzatte and George Gibson must have traded off using the same instrument, even though few people would do that today.

Revisiting Whitehouse twenty-three years later, it occurred to me that I not only twisted his words but also assumed that my late 20th century Los Angeles vantage point eclipsed his, out there on the trail with Cruzatte and Gibson.

I became a convert to the two-violin theory. “In hindsight,” I wrote to Dean, “I have to assume that what Joseph Whitehouse says goes unless there’s an overwhelming reason to doubt him. I had no legitimate basis to do that.”

Just like I had no legitimate basis to doubt Ashley Harrell when she wrote in “Jack and Diana”: “In 1989, Nyad appeared on a live TV talk show People Are Talking with the caption ‘Raped by Coach’ beneath her name.”

When I first read that, I assumed that Harrell must have gotten the date wrong. After all, 1998 was the earliest I’d seen Nyad alleging abuse. I figured that I knew better and that Harrell transposed the numbers. But she remained almost certain she hadn’t. Still, I assumed she must be wrong.

I tried to find episodes of People Are Talking from 1998. No go. Of the talk shows with that title, all had gone off the air or morphed into something else by the early nineties. That should have been a sign, but I just assumed IMDB was wrong too.

P.A.T x 3.  Left, on WBZ/Boston, with Tom Bergeron; middle, on WJZ/Baltimore, with Richard Sher and Oprah Winfrey; right, on KPIX/San Francisco, with Ann Fraser and Ross McGowan.

Then last weekend, I came across a pair of articles about a 1992 Nyad appearance in Elgin, Illinois. “Diana Nyad no doubt surprised her audience at the Community Crisis Center’s annual dinner,” states one, “when she told how she was brutally raped by her swimming coach when she was 16.”

A brief web search revealed that two versions of People Are Talking produced new episodes in 1989. One incarnation aired on KPIX in San Francisco, a station where Nyad had worked. I haven’t found a copy of the Nyad episode yet, but if it’s out there, it’s labeled “1989.”

All of this is to say that I apologize to Ashley Harrell. She had the video playing right in front of her, just like Joseph Whitehouse had two fiddlers playing right in front of him. I shouldn’t have doubted either of them.

This morning being Christmass, the day was announced by the discharge of our Swivels,* and one Round from our small arms of the whole company…. The Men then prepared one of the Rooms, and commenced dancing, we having with us Two Violins & plenty of Musicians in our party. (Joseph Whitehouse, December 25, 1804)

*A large blunderbuss or small cannon.

Cruzatte and Gibson, © Michael Haynes, via Discovering Lewis & Clark. Used gratefully by permission of the artist.

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