You have to love the small town weeklies, I know I do. By the 19th century most villages had one. Evidently all that was needed was a printing press, some paper, a cranky, opinionated editor and you were in business. Ever wonder how a small 19th century paper managed to learn of news from across the country and world? News syndicates, that’s how. Starting in 1865 the syndicates sent subscribing editors the newspaper with national and world news already printed on one or two pages, the editors then printed their news and ads on the remaining pages.
About half real news and half gossip and ads, these scandal sheets are chock full of genealogical tidbits. For instance, I now know that in the fall of 1891 my 3x great Uncle Michael O’Hora was wrongly accused of robbing a shoe store. The local weekly quickly came to his defense… well sort of. The editor wrote, “Michael is a fine reliable young man, though somewhat addicted to the use of intoxicating substances.” Huh? Apparently Uncle Mike would have been a great guy if he had just lain off the sauce. His younger brother Daniel was later arrested for selling hooch illegally. Uncle Dan however was rightfully accused and plead guilty.
I learned that their father, my 2x great-grandfather James O’Hora, was from County Carlow, Ireland , that he was a successful farmer, that he always voted a straight Democratic ticket, (as most immigrants did), and when his priest Father Lee died, James bought his horse. I learned that his daughter Sarah suffered from “deforming rheumatism”, that his oldest son James Jr. died of “rheumatism of the brain “, (huh? again), that his son Michael ran a successful threshing business and his son Daniel, (the rum runner), worked for a time as a foreman at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. That’s quite a lot of information, and only a tiny, tiny fraction of what was found in their local paper. When his sister in law Bridget McGarr Kinsella died the paper went all out, I quote: “…her tender heart and loving nature ever showered upon her children a mother’s care that will keep such love green and fragrant in memory’s casket until life’s close.” Green and fragrant? Memory’s casket? Talk about purple prose, that one’s magenta!
These editors had no qualms about insulting people. Take the August 25, 1883 edition, therein we find, “The editor of the Phelps newspaper is too ill to attend his duties; the paper already shows a marked improvement”. They would print almost anything, things that today would earn you a condemnation by the NAACP or a defamation lawsuit. But only if they liked you. After studying them for years, I’ve come to the conclusion that only subscribers and the village drunk appeared in their columns very often. The O’Horas made the cut at least once a month, and no, not for being drunk. Meanwhile, my Tipperary ancestors, who were illiterate and therefore had no use for a subscription, were rarely mentioned.
Vintage newspapers aren’t hard to come by either. Most if not all states have a newspaper project. Some newspapers are digitized and others like New York State have microfilmed their papers. Those films can easily be borrowed through inter-library loan from the NYS Library, I know, I’ve done it. Local libraries and historical societies sometimes have microfilmed copies available for viewing, I’ve done that too. New York newspapers are also online at http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html.
There are other newspaper archive sites online too, but often they only have newspapers from larger cities. Those have their place, but are nowhere near as slanderous and amusing as the small town weeklies. They are well worth checking out, even if you don’t find your family mentioned by name you will still gain a better feel for the time and the place they called home.