While doing research in 2013 at the American Heritage Center for the National History Day competition, I came across an amazing discovery.
Many History Day students strategically (and wisely) first pick a collection at the AHC and then base their competition topic on it. That year, I had already settled on the topic of the Hindenburg disaster and was not expecting to find any research materials relevant to my topic. After all, there were no significant connections between Wyoming and the disaster, which occurred in New Jersey on May 6, 1937.uch to my surprise, the AHC held a collection of materials from one of the federal investigators who investigated the Hindenburg crash. The investigator, Denis J. Mulligan (1900-1983), had a long career in civilian and military aviation. He served as Chief of the Enforcement Section, Investigator and Legal Advisor of the Bureau of Air Commerce of the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1934 and was its final director until 1939.
The cause of the Hindenburg crash is still unknown – although sabotage, lightning, a puncture, or a fuel leak have all been speculated as the cause. Mulligan had his own idea. He had traveled on the Hindenburg just months before the crash. From this, Mulligan thought that faulty work from making the blimp longer and the mixture of air and hydrogen inside caused the fiery crash.
Mulligan’s papers at the AHC had not yet been fully processed, so discovering actual burnt materials from the crash was an incredibly exciting moment. Did these fragments help me unearth some new perspective on the disaster? No, but discovering something so tangible from an event which occurred nearly a century ago is something few people are lucky enough to experience. It provided me with a personal connection to history that captivated my scattered teenage attention span and inspired a lifelong interest in history.
I created a documentary to publicize these Hindenburg documents, which were unknown to Hindenburg researchers previously, but more importantly, to share my love for the AHC and its wealth of resources.
Looking back on it now, it’s clearly the creation of a high school student with the technology I had available at the time, but the message about the AHC’s incredible collections still holds true.
Please note that the documentary incorrectly states that the Hindenburg disaster happened in 1939.
Post contributed by London Homer-Wambeam, June 2023. Additional text about the Denis Mulligan papers added by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.