Policing history: Philadelphia may license tour guides

Is it a crime to say George Washington slept where he didnt?

If Ron Avery has his way, Philadelphia tour guides will stop telling you things that will make you flunk your history test.

They'll stop saying that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln once dined together. Or that Ben Franklin had not one, but 69, illegitimate children. That basement kitchens had outdoor exits so as to spare the furniture should the cook's skirts catch fire. Or that a house would be left to burn if it didn't display an insurance company fire mark.

Mr. Avery, a part-time tour guide and retired reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, is out to halt what he sees as "nonsense" parading as history among those paid handsomely to tutor tourists. He compiled a list of 80 inaccuracies he has heard – or heard of – while traveling incognito over the years on tourist trolleys, double-decker buses, and horse-drawn carriages in this most historic of American cities, where both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were drafted in the late 1700s. Avery sent his list to the city council, where he found a friend in Councilwoman-at-large Blondell Reynolds Brown.

Like Avery, who started his career as a high school history teacher, Ms. Brown is a former teacher and abhors misinformation. "I think we have the responsibility to offer up the best face of our city. If there are inaccuracies, we have the responsibility to do something about it," she says.

So Brown introduced a bill last spring to educate, test, and license guides who offer tours for money on public property in Philadelphia, which brought forth not just the nation's political system, but many of its most important cultural, scientific, and social institutions. Comment on the measure resumes next month in anticipation of a vote later this year. A $150 fee has been suggested, as have training classes and manuals, annual testing, and a $300 fine for giving a tour without a license. No penalty has yet been set for those who place Lincoln and Washington at the dinner table together.

If enacted, the law would almost certainly make tour guide certification mandatory. Though other cities – including New York and Washington – have ordinances governing tour guides, the Philadelphia bill is by no means assured of passing. Avery simply wants all guides to know a handful of accurate details about each historic site. Of the potter's field that became today's idyllic Washington Square, for instance, they might be required to know that it contains the remains of 2,000 Revolutionary War dead, as well as the tomb of that war's unknown soldier. The fact that George Washington himself – breathing through a straw – sat for the cast of his statue that's in this park, or that there's a very small chance the remains in the tomb may actually be those of a British soldier, would be optional and not tested.

A city commission would be established to ensure that the officially sanctioned history is true, referring to well-known books, expert historians, or even an original letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail. A story with a less ironclad source might still make a guide's personal cut. "Let's say the story was in a book written by two old ladies in the 1920s or so, and they heard it third hand," says Avery. If it's more curiosity than essential history, he asks, "Who am I hurting if I tell it?"

Few in the tourist industry have lived the kind of life that has enabled the opinionated Avery to become tour guide extraordinaire. A lifelong city resident, author of three books on the city, newspaper reporter for 35 years, and teacher of Philadelphia history courses at a local university, the gray-bearded Avery turns a walk through old Philadelphia into a feast for the mind. He can give you two hours on virtually anything you want, depending on which corner you turn, which building you pass, what question about art or literature or architecture or government you ask. He leads the way through crumbling graveyards and refurbished courtyards, over brick sidewalks and cobblestone alleyways, asking – a la Socrates – endless questions: "What language was this?" "How could you tell what really happened?" "Why does this make sense?" "Why not that?"

Then: "You want to sit in the pew where George Washington used to sit?" And no matter how many times you've heard that name, you catch your breath.

Over the clippetty-clop of a passing horse-drawn carriage, Avery gives a listen to what the driver says about a nearby house. "Well," he says of the guide, "he made [the original owner] a governor, when he was [actually] a mayor." But the commentary suggests that the driver has been inside the house, a good sign.

Guides inside top historic sites – the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Valley Forge National Park, and such – are National Park Service-trained personnel, and wouldn't need licenses under the Brown bill, says Jeff Guaracino, of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, which favors the legislation. Of the 27 million annual visitors to the region, only a fraction take private tours, he guesses. While no one knows what percentage of them hear wrong information, the numbers don't matter, he says. "Our goal is that every single story you hear in Philadelphia is authentic."

Objectors think the bill unfairly singles out guides, and they wonder whether hotel concierges, visitor center personnel, park rangers, and others should also be licensed. Some say regulation risks censorship, with accuracy itself a subjective notion, given the imprecise, organic nature of history. Many operators already thoroughly train and regularly test their guides, they say, suggesting that a reputation for inaccuracy would put them out of business. Says tour operator Jonathan Bari, humans – however well-trained – will always make mistakes. "The only way to really avoid them would be for every tour to be scripted, vetted and recorded verbatim for accuracy and then played back to visitors," he has told the city council.

David Yadgaroff, of all-news KYW radio, editorialized that the proposal is "excessive," and suggested instead that scripts be presented for review to historians from, say, Ben Franklin's own University of Pennsylvania. "The last thing Philadelphia needs is another layer of bureaucracy."

The Philadelphia Business Journal wrote that no bill "would stop tour guides from embellishing or making up facts to make their tours more exciting." And it suggests that council members be the ones sent for history lessons, "if only to be reminded that onerous taxes and senseless rules were once grounds for revolution."

Whatever the outcome, Avery believes that his fight has already served notice to the private tour companies, several of which have hired him to clean up their scripts. "Even if no law comes about, there's going to be some good that's going to be done," he says.

What would the Founding Fathers, who took up the cause of liberty in this very place, make of the efforts – 200-plus years later – to tidy up their stories? What, for example, would Ben Franklin say?

Ron Avery isn't going to wax philosophic about freedom: "He would say 'Set the record straight: I was charming with the ladies, but I did not father 69 or 80 children.' "

Class dismissed.

[Editor's note: The original sub-headline misstated the reasons for possible fines.]

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