newspapers the agony and the ecstacy

Despite the very high price, I subscribe to for two reasons: First,  it’s an outstanding resource for a historical novelist, because it gives me access to images of documentation (for example, birth and death certificates; citizenship applications) and to census pages which in turn tell me a lot about the way people lived. If I need to name a character and I’m stuck, will rescue me. If need a sense of how much a bricklayer earned in 1880, a little digging there will provide that information. 

Before you ask: yes. I do need this kind of information. Historical novelists are the personification of OCD.

Second, a full subscription gives me access to

Not so long ago I had to have access to a university library’s off-site research databases before I could look things up in historical newspapers. Now there are many free online sources, including the Library of Congress. is not free (and not cheap) but the database is huge, and includes papers from small towns as well as big urban centers, going back in some cases to Revolutionary era publications.  If you are writing about the Civil War, there’s nothing you can’t find through  

For my own purposes, I have looked for (and found) reliable information on a wide range of topics including:

  • The materials used in different kinds of clothing, and the price ranges;
  • What vegetables could be put on the table fresh from the market on a given day;
  • What an 1884 obituary  looked like, and who they were about (hint: not poor people);
  • Society wedding details;
  • What was being sold in which stores, for how much;
  • Public opinion on matters as diverse as elevated trains and vaccinations;
  • What a dressmaker did, and what s/he earned;
  • Crimes, small and large, in detail, including robberies, kidnappings, assaults, gang fights, forgery, impersonation, and fraud
  • Arrests for gambling and prostitutions.

Here’s an interesting example of an unusual story that I clipped. I may never use it, but it caught my eye.  From the New-York Tribune, Friday, 30 November 1883. Page 2:


As useful and wonderful as is, it is not flawless. Its usefulness depends on the quality of its search engine, which is iffy and can be terribly frustrating at times. So for example, I used it today because I wanted to get a sense of when the term ‘intern’ began to be used for medical students. I searched ‘intern’ in newspapers published in New York (state) from 1875-1885, and I got 3,613 results. While I didn’t go through every return, I’m fairly sure that ‘intern’ was not used to refer to medical students in a clinical training setting. In fact, only one of the returns had anything to do with medicine. In an 1880 NYT article intern was defined as a “representative of the [medical] staff” in describing a hospital internal dispute.

The problem is that optical character recognition still has some way to go, and the proof is right here. In searching for ‘intern’ gave me newspaper articles with the following words highlighted:

  • systems
  • Winters
  • interest
  • lantern
  • of
  • tavern
  • interview
  • letters
  • intend
  • William
  • interpose
  • intense
  • interment
  • patent
  • association
  • Eastern
  • internal
  • international

‘Internal’ and ‘international’ make sense, but William, tavern, patent, Eastern?  So I wasted an hour looking through multiple pages with false returns like these. This has happened in the past, and I wrote to customer support at the time outlining what was going on. I never heard back from them. 

Is worth the expense, given this unfortunate glitch? For me it is, but then not many people worry about the price of a lamb chop in 1884. Or how infants were offered for adoption:

Researching Names for Writers of Historical Fiction

I read a lot of 19th century newspapers for all kinds of reasons, but this clip from the NYT (November 1885) is a great example of one of the ways I find names.

NYT November 1885

NYT November 1885

Here we have Giuseppe Giudici who shot and killed Maggiorini Dagahiero, as well as Ling Chun, Ling Yum, Chun Fong and Lung Mow who are all involved in a perjury case.

central reporter title page

Click for full size. Central Reporter. 1886 on cases heard in September 1885.

A word of warning: even the NYT was really bad at getting the names of immigrants right. Maggiorini Dagahiero strikes me as off, anyway, so I see if I can turn up either half of it elsewhere and find that even mighty Google produces  not a single example of the name Dagahiero beyond the one in this very newspaper article. However, Daghiero does come up — in fact, if you search it will bring up a whole story that is in itself interesting.

Death penalty cases were appealed, I assume, automatically, as they are today. This publication provides both details of the crime and the legal ruling. Because the book is long out of copyright, you can download the whole pdf through Google Books or (my preference). I can almost guarantee that if you sit down to skim through a volume like this, you will find many stories waiting to be told, the majority of them tragic in one way or another. Some of them bordering on the farcical. 

In this case the details just raise more questions, for me at least. 

I haven’t yet looked into Ling Chun and Ling Yum, but I can predict, based on past experience, that it will be next to impossible to get any details. First, because the crime was minor and didn’t involve bloodshed (newspapers then, as now, subscribed to the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ rule) but also because Asian names were so regularly and extremely mangled.

In case you’d like to know more about the murderous baker (the details of the legal appeal are missing):

Appeal to Death Penalty Case

This is a large graphic. Click to open it on another tab, and be patient.


***Newspapers & Racism in the 1880s

married-a-mulattoIt won’t come as a surprise that there was blatant racial discrimination in the 1880s, but once in a while I am still taken aback by things I come across in the newspapers of the times.

In this case (click for a larger image) on 23 December 1883, the New York Times reports (page 3) that  a woman is seeking a divorce because she came across evidence that her husband of a short while is part African American (the term used is  mulatto). She first claims she had never heard of such a thing, and then that the very idea gives her great distress. She sues for divorce.

Stories about mixed race marriages show up on a regular basis (He married a Mulatto!) and are generally short. Most of the feature outraged family.

What is surprising here is that the paper argues that if women were to ask for divorce solely because they find their in-laws objectionable in some way, things would quickly get out of hand.

I’m unclear on what to make of this: is it meant to hold her up for ridicule as ignorant, or prejudiced? 

Then weeks later there is a front page, two-column article also in the NYT with the provocative title “The Real Southern Darky: A He Coon, A She  Coon, and a Lively Young Coon” dated 3 February 1884.  It is as fine a crude and moronic piece of Amos-n-Andy or minstrel-show performance as you could find anywhere .

The final piece for comparison is from a Michigan newspaper and dated 1880. In Toronto a woman of mixed ancestry, someone hired to teach on a temporary basis (as a substitute, it seems from the wording) in a white school, faces but overcomes racism in the community. 

10 January 1880

10 January 1880

Things are never straight-forward, and generalizations are dangerous.


not-so-secret vices: old newspapers

I spend untold hours reading the smallest print stories in newspapers issued in 1882-1885 Ninety percent of it is relevant to what I’m writing (how much did a house cost in Manhattan? In rural Connecticut? With a few acres? A furnace?). Some of it isn’t. But I get ideas that often bear fruit, so I’m declaring myself not addicted, but appreciative.

Two recent examples from the NYTimes in 1883:

Skinney stabbing vaccination disaster

The first case is typical, but it gives me information on where such hearings took place and where crimes like this happened (I have a big wall map full of pins). You may not notice if I send a character to trial in the wrong court, but that kind of thing makes me break into a sweat.

The second article is a mystery to me, and I’m going to send it to various physician friends to see if they can give me any insight. What comes to mind is that Mrs. Mathews was trying to save money (which is odd, because vaccinations were free for the poor), and that she used a dirty knife or similar instrument. Just a year earlier President Garfield died a terrible death after an assassination attempt, because the many doctors attending him pooh-poohed anything looking like a germ theory, and operated in dirty shirtsleeves with dirty scalpels and probes. Garfield had a bullet lodged in the fat behind the pancreas and would have survived easily if somebody had deigned to take those upstarts Lister and Pasteur seriously (other U.S. doctors were, in fact, using sterile methods at this point) seriously.  But I’ll let you know what I find out.