Researchers today enjoy many new tools at their fingertips – figuratively and literally. Any number of new digital repositories can give a researcher access to out-of-print books, rare books, census materials, state agency publications, city directories, maps, national records, international records – the list continues to grow. A recent and still growing database allows researchers to peruse newspapers – newspapers.com and Chronicling America by the Library of Congress.
These scanned newspapers are indexed and searchable. As with any such searchable data the savvy researcher will understand that such a search engine is only the start. A search may seem overwhelming due to the number of “hits” returned on the word or phrase checked but one must remember that even though exhaustive such a search cannot and does not find all instances of the word or phrase. In addition to such an initial search a researcher should use good old fashioned legwork in the newspaper – using a microfilm edition – to see if there are things the data-search missed.
One interesting side-benefit of having a searchable database of newspapers is that a researcher can see the way a story spreads across the news. In this world of instant social media where a YouTube post can trend and become an international sensation in a matter of hours, it is interesting to trace an arc of a story across United States newspapers in the 19th Century – to see a story, in effect, go the equivalent of 19th Century viral.
For example, information on the infamous Lowery Gang that hailed from Robeson County in post-Civil War North Carolina traveled across the United States as one paper after another picked up the thrilling exploits and eventual demise of the gang. Lowery was a mixed-ethnicity individual who resisted conscription by the Confederate army, eluded capture by the US army and evaded all post-war attempts by civilian authorities to permanently capture him. A newspaper reporter from the New York Herald came south to interview Lowery and his gang in March 1872. Henry Berry Lowery was reported as deceased prior to the reporter’s arrival. The story of his death reverberated throughout the nation. The reporter nonetheless interviewed gang members. His correspondence to his editor was published and this story too began to echo across the U.S. The twin events – Lowery purported death and the reporter’s story – went “viral.”
The Wilmington Star (Wilmington, NC) reported Henry Berry Lowery dead in the March 6, 1872 issue. About the same time a Raleigh paper ran a similar notice of the death of Lowery. By April 1872 the Newberry Herald of Newberry, SC reported “dailies have teemed of late with the rumored accounts of the …killing of Henry Berry Lowery.” Papers around the country picked up the Wilmington or the Raleigh death article. The Wilmington account spread quickly and widely. On March 7th it appeared in a Washington, DC paper. On March 8th papers in Alexandria, VA, Wheeling, WV, Baltimore, MD, Rock Island, IL, and Richmond, VA carried the same notice. By March 14th the local paper in Upper Sandusky, OH ran the account on the front page. The next day it appeared in a Bolivar, TN newspaper. The Raleigh version popped up on March 7th in Charleston, SC. A week later it was in an Eaton, OH paper. On March 15th the local Albany, OR paper ran the Raleigh account of Lowery’s death. The Raleigh story appeared in a Washington, DC newspaper on the 18th and reached Paw Paw, MI on the 22nd.
When the New York Herald ran the story written by the correspondent in the March 18th, 1872 paper that story too “went viral” and in a matter of days found its way to Winchester and Columbia, TN, St. Paul, MN, Staunton, VA and Charleston, SC. Elements of the article would continue to appear in newspapers across the US for many months to come. It is interesting to see how such sensational stories as the Lowery Gang captivated an audience and spread out over the media of the time – newspapers.
Of course, it may be that checking microfilm of papers during this time period may yield other examples of the story bouncing around the continental United States. Due diligence serves every researcher.
[Search “Henry Berry Lowery” on the Chronicling of America database for more newspaper stories and to see how new information repeated the cycle of propagation of news about the gang.]
Another thing to consider when looking and researching in newspapers is how to handle missing issues. Inevitably, the newspaper in the town where your research interests have you looking for information is missing the years or issues germane to your research needs.
Is the town or area in question near a railroad station? Is the community connected by rail to other nearby or even far away towns? For example, Weldon, NC is at one end of the Wilmington and Weldon railroad. If you can’t find the issue of the paper you need perhaps looking in the Wilmington papers a week or so after the event might get you the repeat of the Weldon newspaper story.
The same is true for anything along the railroad line that ran from Charlotte to Raleigh – is the Hillsborough Recorder missing the year your ancestor died? Check any paper along that rail line from Raleigh to Charlotte and see if the death notice is picked up; particularly by local papers closer to the point of interest. A marriage notice might not gain much traction outside the immediate community but a death notice might – or, say, a murder. If you are looking for information on a local hotel in Salisbury but the Salisbury paper yields nothing – go down that rail line and see if a local paper elsewhere might be advertising that hotel. After all, if you see ads in the Salisbury paper for the Raleigh Yarborough House then you might expect the reverse to be true – Salisbury establishments in Raleigh newspapers. Railroads connect people and towns but also ideas and industry.