Hamburger WhoDunIt Part IV: A (Swiss) Cheesehead Tale

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(The fourth part in a series of seven)

“…with each recollection the memory may be changed.”

“Memories don’t just fade, as the old saying would have us believe; they also grow. What fades is the initial perception, the actual experience of the events. But every time we recall an event, we must reconstruct the memory, and with each recollection the memory may be changed – colored by succeeding events, other people’s recollections or suggestions, increased understanding, or a new context.”

From Witness For the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory On Trial, by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham (St. Martin’s Press, 1991)

When you’re a reporter, you often find yourself interviewing sources to try to get a broader perspective on the story. Reporters will often quote the source directly. If the source offers a fact that may be controversial, a good reporter will try to obtain the same information from a second, independent source. This represents a form of fact checking you might call “Journalism 101.”

Police investigators and trial attorneys face similar challenges when interviewing witnesses. They realize memory can play tricks. As time goes by, memories can develop holes. Dr. Samuel “Sam” Beckett in the TV series Quantum Leap described this phenomenon as the “Swiss cheese effect.” Once these holes develop, it’s easy to fill them in with anything that sounds reasonable. Indeed, there have been cases where investigators and prosecutors, by using a certain line of questions, have placed false memories within the minds of the witnesses they are questioning.1

To overcome this challenge, like the journalist, legal analysts will seek a second, independent witness to provide corroborating evidence. But what happens when that second witness does not exist? Then the investigator must search for other forms of corroborating evidence.

That’s our mission in the next two episodes of our “Hamburger WhoDunit” serial.

Let’s start by tackling the story of Charles Nagreen, a.k.a., “Hamburger Charley,” as he’s known by the friendly folks in Wisconsin. This shouldn’t be confused with “Hamburger Charlie,” the proprietor of the World Lunch Room, located at 165 South Commercial Street in Salem, Oregon, who placed a want ad in 1909 seeking “500 men to dirty dishes for two dishwashers.”1

The “Hamburger Charley” we’re talking about here, as near as we can tell, first appeared in the newspapers 10 years later proudly advertising the fact that he “will serve refreshments at the big picnic at Binghamton Sunday, June 15th.”2

Hamburger Charley (or “Hamburger Charlie,” as newspapers refer to Nagreen both ways) began selling hamburgers at the age of 15 when he took his horse-drawn cart 20+ miles from his home in Hortonsville to the first Seymour Fair. Immediately after, he went to the New London Fair, only to be turned away. He then proceeded to the Oshkosh Fair, but lost the $30 he earned in Seymour along the way. He borrowed $10 and entered the Oshkosh Fair upon the invitation of Ira Parker, president of the Oshkosh Fair, who reportedly said, “come in, set up your stand, and do business.” On his way back home, an unknown farmer returned the lost $30 to Charley.3

This was the story told 49 years after the fact in 1934. Charley was interviewed by The Post Crescent, the local newspaper that covered his town (“Hamburger Charley to Celebrate Anniversary,” Wednesday, September 26, 1934, p.5). It is the first recorded telling of the story as far as research has been able to identify. Oddly, that article didn’t mention anything about him making hamburgers. Within a week of publication, 81-year-old James Christensen wrote back to the paper saying he was the unknown farmer.4

Now that’s corroboration. In this subsequent story (“Identity of Honest Man Learned After 49 Years,” The Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin), Thursday, October 25, 1934, p.2), we finally see this quick sentence, “Mr. Nagreen launched his first hamburger stand at the Seymour fair in 1885.”

Thanks to James Christensen, it appears we have an independent second source to confirm Hamburger Charlie’s story – at least about losing the $30.

As with all these stories, there’s no contemporary “smoking gun.” There’s no newspaper article saying, “so-and-so invented the hamburger at this year’s fair.” All we can do is piece together circumstantial evidence that supports the story.

Charley gave us a few more facts we can double check. And, since all good reporters don’t want to be accused of “fake news,” we double check the facts we have. In this case, we have Charley’s statement that he attended “the first Seymour Fair” and then attended the Oshkosh Fair after being rejected from the New London Fair. So we have a specific event (the “first” Seymour Fair) and a sequence of subsequent events (the other fairs). We also have access to contemporary newspaper articles to verify these facts. Here’s what we found out.

The “first” Seymour Fair in fact did occur in 1885, (“A Notable Success – Seymour’s First Annual Fair an Unprecedented Triumph,” Appleton Post, Thursday, October 15, 1885, p.1). Score another corroboration point for Charlie. As long as the New London Fair followed immediately, and the Oshkosh Fair followed after that, then Hamburger Charlie is in the clear.

This is where the problems begin. The Seymour Fair was October 6th, 7th, and 8th. The Oshkosh Fair was almost a month earlier (“The Oshkosh fair will be held Sept 14 to 18,” The Neenah Daily Times, Tuesday, March 24, 1885, p.1). And there was no New London Fair that year.

In fact, New London didn’t hold its first fair until September 18th, 1891, (“The New London Fair,” The Oshkosh Northwestern, Friday, September 18, 1891, p.1).

Looks like we found a hole in Charles Nagreen’s story. Just for fun, I checked the 1891 dates of the Seymour Fair and Oshkosh Fair. It turns out the Seymour Fair occurred immediately before the New London Fair in 1891 (“Seymour Fair – Seymour’s Fair, September 14th, 15th and 16th,” The Appleton Crescent, Saturday, September 12, 1891, p.8). Furthermore, the Oshkosh Fair took place right after the New London Fair (“Races at the Fair… Oshkosh, September 22 to 25,” The Oshkosh Northwestern, Friday, July 10, 1891, p.1).

It gets worse still. The 1934 retelling of Charles Nagreen’s hamburger origin story claims Ira Parker, president of the Oshkosh Fair, invited the young Hamburger Charley to set up his stand. This would have been quite a feat for Ira in either 1885 or 1891. Ira Parker was living in Chicago at this time. He didn’t move to Oshkosh until 1896. Furthermore, according to his 1934 obituary, he “had been connected with the Winnebago County Fair association, as a director, for 24 years, and he held the office of superintendent of privileges each year during the fall exposition.”5 This means his affiliation with the fair began in 1910.

The 1891 sequence matches the oft-repeated Charles Nagreen story. Does this mean he actually invented the hamburger in 1891? Or does it simply mean he lost his $30 in 1891? We can’t tell for sure. What we do know is that our corroborating evidence more likely addresses the lost $30 story than the hamburger creation story. And where does Ira Parker really fit into this? In the end, we’re left with nothing to corroborate the idea that Hamburger Charley first put his flattened meatballs between two slices of bread at the Seymour Fair in 1885. The entire story, for all we know, may have simply been an exaggeration for the benefit of local readers (and customers).

But what about the Menches Brothers? Did they also encourage local reporters to exaggerate their tale? They certainly had a business motivation to do so. This might explain why newspaper accounts detail multiple – and conflicting – versions of their claim. We’ll visit these competing stories of our final contender and determine which story is most likely the real story next in…

CSI: Hamburg(er), N.Y.

(continued next week)

1“A Case Concerning Children’s False Memories of Abuse: Recommendations Regarding Expert Witness Work,” Henry Otgaar, Corine de Ruiter, Mark L. Howe, Lisanne Hoetmer & Patricia van Reekum (2017), Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, Volume 24, 2018 – Issue3, 365-378, DOI: 10.1080/13218719.2016.1230924]
2“Wanted,” The Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), Monday, September 13, 1909, p.4
3Advertisement,The Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin), Saturday, June 14, 1919, p.5
4“Hamburger Charley to Celebrate Anniversary,” The Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin), Wednesday, September 26, 1934, p.5
5“Identity of Honest Man Learned After 49 Years,” The Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin), Thursday, October 25, 1934, p.2
6“Former Paint Company Head Dies Suddenly,” The Oshkosh Northwestern, Thursday, October 11, 1934, p.1

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