Monday, March 7, 2011

Ephemeral Newspaper Notices

One of the fun parts of researching is getting distracted by reading the numerous notices that appear in mid-nineteenth century newspapers. Some are intended to be humorous, while others are just short pieces of information that are clearly intended to do nothing more than take up some extra white-space. Some express various tragedies, which have always helped sell news; others are just town gossip recycled from other papers. Some notices are separated by break lines, while others are marked by the popular pointing finger.

On attempt at humor...and one has to wonder if they really found it funny back then, was in the Frankfort Daily Commonwealth in the winter of 1859-60. It stated: "A couple of wild girls have been arrested in C---- for indulging in the amusement of breaking their neighbor's windows. They no doubt thought with Pope---" 'Tis woman's part to ease man of his panes." Another, in the October 22, 1859 issue of the Daily Louisville Democrat stated: "A lady correspondent in the Paducah Herald says that the ladies of that city use more tobacco than the gentlemen. They chew the snuff. It is supposed to be retaliatory - a sort of quid pro quo." Other humorous notices were only a line or two. "PARADOX.-When is a man most down in the world? When he is hard up." Or, "WAR TO THE KNIFE.-A tough goose." I suppose our humor has evolved somewhat in the last 150 years.

An example of gossip is found in the October 21, 1859 edition of the Louisville Daily Democrat. It referenced the Uniontown News and stated: "GAMBLING-Public rumor states that there is a good deal of poker-playing in our town, and that good-sized piles of money pass from one person to another, on games of hazard nearly every night."

A tragedy notice in the November 11, 1859 edition of the Paris Kentucky Western Citizen stated that, "A drunken man was run over by the passenger train near Midway on Saturday last, and one of his arms taken off. He was lying drunk on the track, and it was impossible to stop the train after his discovery by the engineer. His name was not given." Another, in the same town paper but printed a couple of weeks before stated: "FIRE-The stable on the property of John R. Williams, near town, was burned down early on Sunday morning last. Mr. Hagan who has the property leased lost about $100 worth of provender. We do not know the value of the stable. The fire was, undoubtedly, the work of an incendiary [arsonist]."

Not surprisingly, a number of these notices that I have recently ran across deal with some aspect of slavery or African Americans. For example, in the December 17, 1859 issue of the Covington [Kentucky] Journal there were two short notices. The first listing stated: "A slave of Mrs. E.B. Coleman, was missed by the family in Lexington, Ky., four weeks ago; a few days since her body was found in a pond near the house. The affair is involved in mystery, as no one knows of any cause that could have prompted the suicide." This notice stands out to me for a couple of reasons, and like much research, it bring up more questions than it answers. The first reason it stands out is that it was apparently assumed that the slave committed suicide. It appears that all speculation of foul play has been dismissed. Is it possible that it was an accident and not a suicide? It seems that the editor would not even consider the possibility that merely being a slave; without the control over one's own life decisions, would make one contemplate ending their life.

Another notice in the same paper and on the same page stated: "Two negroes were frozen to death on Tuesday night last, near the city of Louisville. They were both under the influence of liquor at the time." Interestingly, the notice directly above it stated: "On Wednesday the citizens of Greencastle, Indiana, demolished every liquor establishment in the place. The outbreak was occasioned by some poor fellow who froze to death the night previous, while in a state of intoxication."

These two notices were right beside each other, but contained what, at least to me, seem to be very different messages. Race, of course, figures into the accounts. The blacks in Louisville appear to have received what they deserved for being intoxicated, while the "poor fellow" in Greencastle received the power of the community to effect change by destroying the chance for his misfortune to happen again.

Some notices came from far distances. One in the Frankfort Daily Commonwealth on December 30, 1859 stated: "They have had a fugitive slave excitement in Dakota City [Iowa?]. An Alabamian caught one of his runaway negroes there. He had him arrested, but while being taken before a U.S. Commissioner, the officer was beset by a crowd of Abolitionists, and the negro succeeded in making good his escape."

As previously mentioned, these short ephemeral notices often leave us with more questions than answers, but they do give us some insight into the social and cultural atmosphere of the mid-nineteenth century that can often not be found elsewhere. Plus, they provide pleasant diversions when one gets bogged down and saturated with their research topic.

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