In August 2019, the city of Bielefeld, home to about 340,000 people in northwest Germany, launched a new marketing campaign based on an old internet joke. In 1994, Achim Held, a computer science student at the University of Kiel, had jokingly spread the rumor that Bielefeld did not actually exist.1 Twenty-five years later, the city’s marketing agency put a new spin on the so-called Bielefeld conspiracy by offering a reward of €1 million for proof that Bielefeld, indeed, did not exist. For once, German humor—quite surprisingly to some—attracted attention far beyond national borders: Entries arrived from participants as far away as China, India, and Australia. Their purported proofs used arguments from such diverse fields as history, physics, and mathematics. In order to make sense of the more complex contributions, the marketing agency’s jury even consulted researchers at Bielefeld’s university and archives. Somewhat less surprisingly, none of the competitors ended up taking home the prize money.2 Proof of nonexistence, apparently, can be quite a nut to crack.
Having lived in Bielefeld since 2012, I have been confronted with the Bielefeld conspiracy many times at academic conferences and dinner parties across German-speaking countries, and sometimes even beyond. I moved to Bielefeld in order to obtain my MA and happened to stay around for my PhD in history. As a nonlocal, I never took that well-rehearsed joke too seriously but would placidly smile in secret annoyance at some people’s lack of conversational originality. Therefore, I was not expecting anything like the Bielefeld conspiracy to seep into my professional life when and where it did: in the context of archival research I was conducting in the United States.
Completely unrelated to Bielefeld, my dissertation project traces the construction of the U.S.-American “tropics” in medical and public health discourses after the Spanish-American War of 1898. That event marked the beginning of American overseas expansion into territories such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and the Panama Canal Zone. In this context, I explore the ways in which medical and public health experts constructed and treated the American South as “tropical,” diseased, and unhealthy, drawing on their experiences in the overseas colonies. I am particularly interested in medical agents of empire who worked in more than one overseas locale before, as many did, returning to the mainland, and thus contributing to what I understand as a translocal medical discourse on the American tropics.3
One such actor, who I first encountered at an early stage of my research, was a U.S. Army surgeon by the name of Charles Francis Mason. His writings initially intrigued me because they directly compare the prevalence of various diseases he encountered both abroad and in the U.S. South; on the basis of those comparisons, Mason’s texts assess the dangers that tropical surroundings presented to American soldiers. What’s more, a 1903 journal article of his refers to his own military-medical career: Mason had been briefly stationed in Puerto Rico before his deployment to the Philippine province of Panay. These career steps and his 1903 article fit perfectly with my project.4 Thus, shortly before departing for a two-month research stay at the GHI Washington DC, I tried to locate any personal papers Mason might have left behind in U.S. archives, but this search came up empty.
I did not cross paths with Dr Mason again until a few months later, when I was at the Rockefeller Archives Center in New York to collect material about the public-health campaign accompanying the construction of the Panama Canal. This time, he surfaced in the minutes of a meeting between two prominent health officials on the issue of recruiting medical personnel for the sanitation of the Panama Canal Zone, which seemed to indicate that the experience and expertise he had previously gathered in Puerto Rico and Panay had significantly advanced his career.5 I was thrilled at the idea of being able to integrate the 1903 document I had previously worked with into a broader discursive chronology of documents produced by Mason across different colonial locales. After all, I was looking for potential shifts as well as continuities in the way colonial medical personnel thought, talked, and wrote about the American tropics.
Curious to find out more about Mason’s biography and background, I consulted several issues of the Panama Canal Record. This contemporary weekly, published by the Isthmian Canal Commission, contains important information about not only the construction process and related topics but also social life around the building site. As expected, a high-ranking officer such as Mason made regular appearances in the Record from 1909 onwards.6 What confused me, however, was that his full name was sometimes given there as Charles Field Mason. Seeing as neither Charles nor Mason were particularly rare first and last names during my research period, it was not entirely unlikely that I was in fact dealing with two different gentlemen.
Next, I turned to Ira Bennett’s 1915 History of the Panama Canal, which contains a rather helpful biographical register of all U.S. government–employed officials who had participated in the canal building campaign. According to that, one Charles Field Mason—in striking similarity to the first Mason—served during the war of 1898 and was stationed in Puerto Rico and subsequently the Philippines. He carried the rank of major from 1901 to 1909, was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1910, and became chief health officer in Panama in 1914.7 Based on Bennett’s register, I was able to verify Charles Field Mason’s existence in the 1870 Census for the State of Virginia (he was about six years old at that time) and in the American Medical Association’s “Deceased Physicians Masterfile.”8 Finally, I searched the 1900 Annual Report of . . . [the] Military Governor [in] the Philippine Islands for any and all individuals by the last name of Mason. This effort yielded just one Charles F. Mason, major and surgeon, who had been stationed in Panay province that year.9
In the end, this little exercise in historical detective work left me with a growing sense of archival vertigo. I had learned quite a few things about Charles Field Mason’s origins, biography and medico-military career. I had not, however, been able to contextualize or even verify the existence of Charles Francis Mason, who had left behind a single journal article, published in 1903. His one-time occurrence, at least in the archival materials I examined, strongly suggests that “Francis” was nothing more than a glitch, an anomaly for which there might be several explanations. Apparently, middle names (and second surnames) were used in a rather liberal manner in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,10 so it was not entirely unlikely that Mason himself had changed his from “Francis” to “Field” at some early point in his career. If it was not a conscious decision, then perhaps a mix-up occurred in any one of the numerous forms that military medical personnel had to fill out, and maybe Mason never bothered to have his military record corrected. Or the journal editors made a mistake back in 1903.
But it is impossible to ignore another option altogether. As unlikely as it might seem, there is still a possibility that there had once been a man named Charles Francis Mason who had lived long enough to produce at least one public document, the one subsequently printed in the Journal of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States. After all, that source belongs to a highly standardized textual genre with a fair amount of formal credibility attributed to it—as opposed to, for instance, a hand-written letter. As small and insignificant as it may seem, the existence of Mason’s article, in combination with its author’s name, turns this source into a statement that I cannot simply ignore in the context of my work. In light of that one text, the absence of other documents relating to Charles Francis Mason does not, in effect, prove that he was identical with his much more prominent near-namesake. The question of whether or not Charles Francis Mason ever existed became moot the moment he was conjured out of nowhere by the archive itself.
To be fair, the aura of mystery surrounding the doubtful existence of Charles Francis Mason will most likely be reduced to little more than a footnote for the sake of transparency in my ever-growing manuscript. Yet the hours I spent grappling with Mr. Mason’s elusive archival presence taught me what I consider an important lesson about the detective work that we call historical research. As historians, for better or worse, we are forced to rely on what archives hold in store for us. In her widely acclaimed book, These Truths, Jill Lepore reminds us that
History is the story of what remains, what’s left behind . . . All of it together, the accidental and the intentional, this archive of the past . . . is called the historical record, and it is maddeningly uneven, asymmetrical, and unfair.
For better or worse, we have no choice but to rely on the documentary record, although “even its absences speak.”11 In turn, we cannot simply ignore the sources we stumble upon. We must engage with them and their unruliness to the best of our fact-checking abilities without letting crucial inductive and deductive reasoning short-circuit the process. Although it is true that we are inevitably selective about the stories we end up telling, our professional ethics require us to exert extreme caution in making those selections and to be equally sensitive to those archival clues that simply will not fit in, or those that apparently should not have existed in the first place.
The only real winner in this story, it would seem, is the city of Bielefeld—or, more precisely, its marketing agency. Not only was the tongue-in-cheek competition of 2019 a huge success in terms of publicity; it also taught me a valuable lesson about the difficulty of delivering proof of non-existence in the face of credible sources that say otherwise. The Charles Francis Mason of that 1903 medical article will most likely remain a shadowy figure, an archival Schrödinger’s cat whose presence cannot be trusted, yet whose absence cannot be fully substantiated either. But I am fairly certain that, if this Mason really did exist, he would have been thrilled at the idea that someone did her best to find out more than a century after he had left that fleeting trace in the archive.
Julia Engelschalt is a research fellow (wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin) in history at Bielefeld University. Her Twitter handle is @germsinhistory.
The author would like to thank Adam Bisno (Naval History and Heritage Command), Stephen J. Greenberg (National Library of Medicine), and Bobby A. Wintermute (Queens College, CUNY) for their help in the research process.
- “City of Bielefeld offers €1m for proof it doesn’t exist,” BBC News, last modified August 22, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-49432677. Achim Held has elaborated on the origins of the Bielefeld Conspiracy in numerous interviews. The idea sprang from a humorous conversation that took place at a student party in 1993. Shortly afterwards, Held passed by Bielefeld on the Autobahn and noticed that all exits to the city were closed for construction work, adding further credibility to the tale. Held subsequently posted the conspiracy joke to an online newsgroup, where it resonated much more than he had anticipated: Marc von Lüpke, “Ich habe die Bielefeld-Verschwörung unterschätzt,” Der Spiegel, May 15, 2014, https://www.spiegel.de/geschichte/bielefeldverschwoerung-interview-mit-erfinder-achim-held-a-968319.html. ↩︎
- “Bielefeld verkündet das Ende der Bielefeld-Verschwörung,” Bielefeld Marketing, last modified September 17, 2019, https://www.bielefeld-marketing.de/pressemeldung/ende-bielefeld-verschwoerung-million-achim-held. ↩︎
- I use the term “translocal” to underline the unstable and transitional character of knowledge on tropical environments produced by medical agents of empire. Those men not only moved back and forth between the colonies and the continental United States but also were intensely concerned with locality itself in the context of their work. In doing so, I follow the preliminary theoretical considerations outlined in Ulrike Freitag and Achim von Oppen, “Introduction: ‘Translocality’: An Approach to Connection and Transfer in Area Studies,” in Translocality: The Study of Globalising Processes from a Southern Perspective, ed. Freitag and Oppen (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 1–21. ↩︎
- Charles Francis Mason, “Notes from the Experiences of a Medical Officer in the Tropics,” JAMSUS 13, no. 5 (November 1903), 306–14. ↩︎
- Conference between Surgeon-General W C Gorgas and Mr Rose at Mr Rose’s office on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 26, 1915, Rockefeller Foundation Records, RG 5: International Health Board/Division, Series 1: Correspondence, Sub-Series 1_02: Correspondence – Projects, FA# 115, Box 1, Folder 1, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York. ↩︎
- Isthmian Canal Commission, ed., Panama Canal Record, vol. II (Ancon, 1909), 291. ↩︎
- Ira E. Bennett, History of the Panama Canal: Its Construction and Builders (Washington, DC: Historical Publishing Company, 1915), 477. ↩︎
- 1870 census for Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, Virginia, Records of the Field Offices for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872, M1913, RG 105, roll 74, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; index card for Charles Field Mason, 1922–, MSC 556, Box 172, American Medical Association Deceased Physicians Masterfile 1906–1969, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland, United States. ↩︎
- Arthur MacArthur, Annual Report of Military Governor of the Philippines, vol. I (Manila: 1900), 62. ↩︎
- Personal communication with Bobby A. Wintermute (Queens College, CUNY) on June 26, 2019. ↩︎
- Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: Norton, 2018), 4. ↩︎