November 10, 2014

What's Black and White and "RED" All Over?

What's Black and White and "RED" All Over? A Newspaper! 

Of course you knew the answer but did you know how much fun historic newspapers are and what great stories you can find about an ancestor? Sometimes you find an obituary or a bankruptcy notice. Other times you find a lurid story of death and deceit. 

Leamington Spa Courier - Friday 17 March 1905
 As genealogists we love those exciting bits of news, so much so that I often think we lose sight of the humanity attached to the story. I try hard not to forget about the sorrow, the pain and yes the joy experienced by the ancestors I read about in newspapers. But it is easy to forget they were just like us and felt the same emotions we do. 

Yesterday I found a newspaper article from 1905 about the death of a friend's ancestor. I was pretty excited because the headline was "FATAL FALL" and the very first sentence began with  

"Richard Booker was indicted for feloniously killing and slaying Frederick Mustin...."

Leamington Spa Courier - Friday 17 March 1905
A murder! Wow. Who doesn't want an ancestor who was murdered? Or better yet, was a murderer? As I read on, my initial reaction of excitement changed to  disappointment. It turns out that Frederick, 84 years old, was arguing with Richard, a much younger man. When Frederick raised his crutch to threaten Richard, Richard pushed him away and Frederick fell. And that was it. The verdict was that Frederick died of a heart attack, no doubt brought on by the excitement and commotion of the argument. After a trial Richard was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter. 
And thus what I hoped was a lurid story was simply a story of two men arguing and a sad accident leading to the death of one of them. I hadn't given one thought to Frederick's daughter who was in the house at the time. What would her reaction have been to the sounds of the argument and the sight of her father lying dead on the sofa? And what about Richard Booker? How did he feel? According to the newspaper story he was quite distraught over what had happened.

What other family did Frederick leave behind? How were they affected by his death? These are the questions I try to ask myself when I find a newspaper story about an ancestor. It is too easy to get caught up in the "the more lurid the better!" mentality of genealogy research.

I suspect that our fascination with the lurid, the dramatic and the unusual is due to the very nature of genealogy research. It's essentially a dry study - full of names and dates and a few essential facts but with no real substance.  Rarely do we get a sense of the person behind the name attached to birth, marriage and death dates. Were they a good person or a nasty bit of goods? Would we like them? It's not easy to learn the character and personality of an ancestor from the ordinary events of life. So finding a newspaper article with something exciting and out of the ordinary is a way of not only putting meat on those bones but also of perking us up and bringing some excitement to what otherwise can feel at times like drudgery. 

Don't get me wrong - I love researching my ancestors! I have been hooked since I was 14 years old. I love the thrill of the hunt, the excitement of the chase and the joy at finding one tiny little tidbit of information. But let's face it, it can get tedious looking at frame after frame or page after page or hunting for days, weeks, months and years for one fact. 

But I do think we need to remember that our ancestors lived, laughed, cried and loved just as we do. So the next time you find an exciting and dramatic event in your ancestor's life, take a minute to reflect on how it affected that person and everyone who loved them. 

And if you aren't subscribed to any historic Newspaper sites you might want to think about asking for a subscription to one for Christmas. You never know what you might find.


Michael Harris said...

What was the argument about? A woman, money, baseball game?

Mary Foxworthy said...

IMHO such stories serve to remind us that our ancestors were merely human, just as we are. In my family anything negative was never talked about as though we could erase the non-saints. I'm always reassured to find that I'm not the only imperfect person in the clan.

Dana Leeds said...

I have found two murders in my family in the past few months... one was the murderer & one was murdered. I also know of one other & one on my husband's side. I wonder if everyone has murders hiding in their tree just waiting to be uncovered? With both cases, I did pause and think about the family members & how it affected them. What a heavy load!

Winnie M. said...

I LOVE searching newspapers. It hasn't proved successful for all my lines, but for 2 of them, I have filled in a lot of details. I have one stack of articles on a g-g-grandfather that is about 1 1/2 inches thick! It makes me feel I really got to know him.
And I have accomplished this with free sites (Newspaper Archives which I can access for free with my library card; chroniclingamerica which I can get through; and lastly, but by no means least, which is a MUST for anyone with ancestors in NY state, especially small towns.