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Newspaper Archives as Controls or Filters April 18, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

Beachcombing spent more time than was strictly necessary last summer looking at nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspaper archives. It is an extraordinary world. You constantly find yourself caught up on headlines (‘Sea-monster seen in the Channel’, ‘Germans eat the French’) that cannot easily be ignored and then you take one last look over the page and are struck by yet another title and so it goes on. In the end, after thirty minutes, you are still on p. 2, 4 May 1901, the Torrington Herald with nothing but curiosities to show for your troubles. So much virgin territory, so many jigsaw pieces that fit nowhere…

Beachcombing was so struck by the experience that he still uses the newspaper archives to try and verify material found elsewhere. Take, for example, the rolling head story from yesterday, or the Benbecula mermaid story from c. 1830 or, for that matter, the Robert Stephen Hawker’s mermaid fake from 1825. All three stories describe events that were explosive in their communities. All these stories rely on non-newspaper accounts. And, most confusingly, all these stories are absent from contemporary newspapers.

Beachcombing feels that this should be significant. One of the most fascinating questions about newspapers, particularly for ‘bizarre’ stories is how receptive these publications are to tales from their heartlands. Given some of the junk that they publish it seems almost impossible that mermaid sightings or the decapitated head of the devil could escape their notice especially given that it involved (allegedly) an important part of the community.

So what are we seeing in these three instances? There seem to be two possibilities. First, the anecdote is false and the newspaper can act as a control: Beachcombing certainly has his suspicions about the two mermaid stories and Invisible this morning has sent an email (just put up) that calls the Owens’ account into question.

The second possibility is that newspapers just were not interested. In the case of the Benbecula mermaid perhaps the newspapers in question were too far away. In the case of the Cornish mermaid perhaps, say, the editor had illusions of grandeur and wanted to avoid Fortean tat.

Beach can’t help thinking that it would be useful to gather together twenty nineteenth-century anecdotes that involve community reactions  and to search for them through the newsprint. Whether we are dealing with false stories or just the ability of peculiar happenings to escape the notice of the print barons would be something of great interest. History, after all, is what happens when no one is looking. The problem, of course, would be to divide the false anecdotes from the overlooked ones. That would be – Beach suspects – impossible and so an interesting exercise would become an ambiguous one.

Any thoughts on this search for anecdotes through newsprint? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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22 April 2012: Invisibile writes in: Invisibile writes in: ‘You mention using the newspaper archives to try and verify stories such as the mermaid tales. I should think that the reverse would obtain: that anything found in a 19th century newspaper should be regarded with the utmost suspicion. It was the golden age of hoax stories, the best of which are difficult to distinguish from true forteana even today. I’ve been wrestling for some time with the veracity question and still haven’t got the hang of it. I’ve enjoyed obvious hoaxes, but have also verified stories that seemed patently impossible. It’s the more reasonable, plausible hoaxes that drive me mad. To state the obvious, some caveats in using 19th century newspapers: Distrust and verify. Damnably, hoax stories often contain names of real people and places.  Context can be everything. One doesn’t cite an apparently serious account of an early flying machine if the author was known to have previously written only tall tales.  Local knowledge can be invaluable. When a newspaper article mentions secret treasure caves in a place called “Mt. Nebo” in the northeastern corner of Ohio, it’s useful to know that a) Mt Nebo is in the southeastern part of the state and b) the caves, as situated by the article, do not exist and cannot exist due to the local geology. Recurring lurid stories about neighboring communities may reflect rivalry, rather than reality.  Genealogy sites are useful, if tedious, for verifying the reality of persons mentioned in a story. However, they are not infallible.  It is astonishing how far tales traveled–even the smallest of small town newspapers have articles about killer meteor showers in Persia or the habits of ostriches in South Africa. The degree of exaggeration is a natural tip-off.  I think it is safe to say that the 200-foot-long Hideous Ice Worm was a journalistic invention. But what about the Two-Headed Baby of Morrow County? Or the Girl Buried Alive For Three Weeks? (Both actual events, although the burial was a publicity stunt for a “fakir.”) Sometimes, maddingly, stories will have no endings. I’ve been collecting stories about panics and local sensations (“Ghostly Woman in White Seen Again!” “Women Fear the Gum-Shoe Man!”) Some run over a series of weeks or even months. Others run for a few days and then stop. Nothing is ever heard on the subject again. Are these just hoaxes that had run their course? Newspapers weren’t shy about exposing supernatural hoaxers, as you might have gathered from the file of “joke” ghost stories I sent you a while back—they were very severe on sheeted young men jumping out of the bushes, scaring the womenfolk. So why did these stories have no official end? Or did they merely trail off in real life with no satisfactory ending? That said, I’m very grateful I can search and retrieve 18th- and 19th-century newspapers without going through microfilm motion-sickness. And sometimes you just want to enjoy a good yarn.    To use a much later example, in response to your suggestion about studying historical anecdotes in the light of newspaper reports, I was struck by the irregular media coverage of a tragic local story. The story went that a number of teenagers had been hit by lightning at a mysterious stone structure known as Frankenstein’s Castle or Witches’ Tower. Naturally the marks of the burns were still visible on the stones and the ghosts of the victims were to be seen at the tower on stormy nights. It was an excellent ghost story, but I assumed it was the sort of folkloric tale that is told about any strange castle-like structure—except that I kept hearing it from librarians and public officials who had remembered it for 30 years and who swore that it was true.    So I went in search of documentation. There was absolutely no news coverage in the Dayton/Kettering papers, even though the tower stands on the edge of downtown. I spoke with some older local firefighters and police officers who said they remembered the case, knew it had happened in the 1960s, but nobody had any specifics. Eventually I wrote about it as a local legend. It wasn’t until several years ago that Curt Dalton, a local historical researcher, found a small article about the tragedy in a Van Wert paper—a community over 90 miles north of Dayton. Armed with the names in that article, Curt located this article http://www.daytonhistorybooks.com/frankenstein.html in a Xenia paper—a community about 30 miles from the death site and about 10 miles from the dead girl’s Bellbrook home. It is a mystery to me why this sensational story never made it into the local papers. Thanks Invisibile!