Newspapers used to be fascinating.
No, this isn’t a post about how “newspapers were better back in my day.” We’re talking about way before my day. As in my great-grandfather’s day.
If you’re an Ancestry member, you’re familiar with the “hints” they frequently offer. To explain to the rest of you, the app is constantly offering little bits of documentation of the lives of the people on your tree. It might be something highly informative, such as an obituary (the “survived by” part is very helpful in establishing relationships) or a death certificate, or a photo you didn’t have. Some are less so — a mention in a city directory, which tells you little more than that someone lived in a certain city at a certain time.
But the most fun “hints” are pages from old newspapers. I don’t know how much you’ve delved into papers from a century or more ago, but they offer fascinating glimpses into the details of life in those times and places. They accomplish this by telling you every tiny, pettifogging detail of what was going on in that community — about a group of young men who have formed a baseball team, or an odd incident in which a mentally disturbed person did something odd in public, or who attended a wedding, or simply spent the weekend with someone in town.
As a newspaperman, I try to imagine what that was like. These smaller papers (such as, say, The News of Frederick, Md., which inspired this post) likely had tiny newsrooms. An editor, and maybe a cub reporter or two to help. But these people people did yeoman’s work in recording what was happening around them. And everything went into the paper. A single inside page of one of these papers will keep you engaged for quite a while. There is an ocean of type on a single page, sometimes more than you’d find in an entire edition of a modern paper. I get the sense that these people sat there writing these things all day and all night, like a benzedrine-fueled Jack Kerouac typing on a roll of butcher paper.
And one thing Ancestry does not do is tell you where on that page your ancestor appears. So you have to hunt. Which is fun.
Today, I was offered two such hints about my great-grandfather, Alfred Crittenton Warthen of Kensington, Md. This is great, because I know so little about him. He died when my Dad was 8 years old, and he remembers almost nothing about his grandfather.
On the first page, I found him right away, because it contained his obituary, so he was in the headline. This was in 1937, and obviously something of value for the tree.
With the second, he was mentioned in the last line of a tiny item about work he was doing to remodel several rooms in the Montgomery County courthouse in Rockville. He charged $2,700. This was literally the last item I read on the page, of course. I had supposed I would find him among the guests at the wedding of Miss Amy Magdelene Derr, who married the Reverend Elmer F. Rice. Or perhaps he’d be in the “PURELY PERSONAL” column, under the subhed “Pleasant Paragraphs About Those Who Come and Go.”
But while searching, I got to reading about John W. Munday, by his own account a recent resident of an asylum in Pennsylvania, who “created a sensation” by driving into town “with $5 and $10 bills twisted in and around his ears and in his hair.” The floor of his buggy “was carpeted with greenbacks.” He was arrested on the charge of “being disorderly in the public square.” Fortunately, we are informed, “The county physician will inquire into his mental condition.”
But I was especially struck by the item immediately below that one. Here it is:
First, did you know that that was a punishment being legally meted out in 1913? I did not. And while I’m not necessarily advocating its return, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate punishment for such a crime. It certainly fits this outrage better than, say, drunkenness aboard one of Jack Aubrey’s ships. And it seems to have worked, at least for the moment. As we see, he was “very meek” after the whipping. Although a Royal Navy bosun’s mate from Aubrey’s day might have questioned whether the lashes were truly “well laid on,” since “no blood was drawn.”
Turning to a lighter matter, there was a lengthy story about the fact that regular Tuesday and Friday night dances were to “commence in earnest” at the Braddock Heights pavilion. These events were apparently organized or sponsored by “the railroad,” although which railroad is not specified. I suppose everyone knew, and that this was somehow a normally thing for railroads to do back in that day.
But the best part was that most of the story was dedicated to the scandalous goings-on among some young people at such events, and how the manager appointed by the railroad would try to keep a lid on it. An excerpt:
Those wacky kids. They just don’t seem to realize what a watchful eye the manager has.
I subscribed to The Philadelphia Inquirer archives to research my folks in the 19th century. You’re right about all the stories, from a women falling into a vat of scalding water to a pick pocket getting caught to a couple of Irish guys illegally setting up a sidewalk stand, there’s a lot of stories crammed onto a page.
One thing I didn’t find was a weather forecast or a record of the day before weather (no weather satellites in 1876?). I wondered when my Great Grandad was killed in a train accident if he slipped in the snow or ice.
Regarding Ancestry and Newspapers.com: First there’s a fee to sign up to Newspapers.com then an additional fee to access some specific newspaper archives I want to see (including The Charlotte Observer). Same way with the Military records Fold3. It’s sort of a scam really. My wife asks me every month what are all these Ancestry charges on my American Express. I tell her my genealogy hobby is cheaper than playing golf…for now.
If you have a Richland County Library card ( perhaps other counties too) you can view Newspapers.com, Library version of Ancestry and other sources for free. I discovered this a month ago and I’m obsessed.
Go to Richlandlibrary.com not Libby or Overdrive
Ah, there’s one of those “if only” things that bedevil me.
“If only you had wings, you could fly.
“If you had a billion dollars, you wouldn’t have to work.”
“If you had a Richland County library card, you could do all sorts of things…”
You’ve hit on one of my pet peeves. All these decades that I’ve spent most of my waking hours in Richland County — day after day, year after year — I have not been allowed that privilege, because my house is across the river.
I guess it rankles slightly less now, when I seldom cross the river. But it’s still a pain to me.
Why, oh why, can’t we have a statewide public library that all of us can use? This would be especially useful with e-books (as well as such assets as Newspapers.com), because the book we want would be available somewhere, even if not in our own county?
County libraries, available only to county property taxpayers, are very, I don’t know… 19th century?…
Did you check your county? Also, libraries may give you privileges if you work in the county.
During quarantine a few months ago I paid for Charleston Library privileges so I could have a better chance at checking out the books I want. I could have nagged my daughter to loan me her card but I felt like the cash was going to a good cause.
Better there than upgrading my paid Ancestry to International (which is REALLY infuriating!)
No, I haven’t checked my county. Here’s why….
I think my library card has expired because it doesn’t seem to work online. This is because I seldom use it.
My wife, a very regular library user, tells me I’ll have to actually GO there to sign up again.
I suppose I will at some point. And when I do, I’ll ask about this. And if they have it, I’ll be using it a LOT…
At least, I’ll be using a lot if its accessible from home. Less so if it isn’t…
I can’t figure out how to cut and paste but this was in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1890:
“The lifeless body of Mary Collins was found in a ditch the Eighth Ward yesterday. The woman is about 35 years old. It is believed the woman took her life to escape the brutal treatment of her husband. When found part of her body was on the bank of the stream while her head was in the water.”
Also, looking through these newspapers the number of industrial accidents that killed and maimed seemed really high. People can complain about government regulations and OSHA whatever but it’s no wonder life expectancy was so short back then.
Obviously, a dozen lashes would be insufficient in that case. And for that matter, it was insufficient in the case of G. Kline. Using the Aubrey analogy again, flogging around the fleet would come closer, with Mrs. Kline’s arm in a sling….
In this case, flogging around the fleet would be insufficient…
I saw the governor dancing…
By the way, this being the last day of Black History Month, I should probably call your attention to this item from that same page in The News:
Actually, that seems a relatively light punishment. Consider the fact that John W. Munday was white (if he hadn’t been, it would have been mentioned) hadn’t even hurt anybody, and he ended up locked up. Of course, I suppose that was largely done for his own protection.
Which leads us to the conclusion that Harry Fox was also “colored.” The light fine — even if it were only for disorderly conduct — would seem to seem to be evidence of the value placed then on a black man, which of course is where the phrase “Black Lives Matter” comes from.
It’s like the judge said, “Forget what she did to Harry. Let’s fine her for being a nuisance…”
By the way, does anyone know the precise meaning of saying the charge against her “was not urged?”
That’s a new one on me.
It sounds as though the charge was not pursued, or not pressed, or dropped. But she did get fined. Maybe the charge of cutting Harry Fox was dropped, and the fine was for a lesser charge.
I don’t know…
Did you notice that Kline was sentenced to be flogged “yesterday,” and the sentence was carried out that afternoon?
Whatever you think of that as criminal justice, it was certainly more convenient for journalists. You could just go ahead and tell the whole story, all at once. No months and years of turn-of-the-screw headlines such as “Court holds 2nd hearing on motion to have scourging sentence vacated,” etc….
Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, housed in the Library of Congress and available on-line, has been a valuable tool for me in researching my ancestors in Lancaster and Kershaw Counties. I’ve found both saints and scoundrels in the family’s past.