newspaper research genealogy

The Good Old Days Actually Kind of Sucked

by Kerry Scott on 5 April 2011

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I’m working on an interesting case.  I have a young widow, Emma Scheiber Ackermann, who married a guy named Marshall Milton Mashburn in Milwaukee in 1901.  Emma’s father was the court commissioner for Milwaukee at that time, and he served as the officiant.  I learned this by looking at the marriage registration, which has another interesting tidbit:  In the place where the marriage license number was recorded, the words “License No.” have been crossed out, and “Order of Hon. L. W. Halsey Circuit Judge dated Sept. 17 1901″ has been written in.

That’s a new one for me.  I’ve never seen people married based on a court order.  I went down to the Milwaukee County Historical Society library, which has circuit court records for this era.  Unfortunately, because of the way the filing system works, I apparently can’t access them unless I can find them in the index.  The index is by plaintiff and defendant, and I searched for both Emma and Marshall in both, but I didn’t find them.  Since Emma’s family was prominent in Milwaukee at this time, I thought maybe this sort of thing would have been mentioned in the local newspaper.

I did find I five-paragraph story about Judge Halsey and his colleagues’ work on the day in question.  He granted permission to marry to Minnie H. Reynolds, who had been divorced and wanted to remarry before the one-year waiting period was up because her eyesight was poor and she couldn’t work anymore.  She had received a proposal and thought it best to accept it so she wouldn’t starve, and had to go to court to be granted permission.  Mrs. Della Maloney (wife of Frank, a telegraph operator for the Milwaukee Road) filed for divorce and was granted a restraining order against her husband.  Mrs. Sarah D. Clark had to be appointed a guardian before she could file for her divorce, since she was not yet of age.  She’d been married for over a year.  Four other couples either filed for or were granted divorces on that day, but my Emma’s situation wasn’t mentioned.  People think divorce was unheard of back in the day…but when you read old newspapers, you hear of it quite a bit.

One thing I realized almost immediately when I started was that the President McKinley had been assassinated just before Emma and Marshall’s wedding.  In fact, they were married on the day of the funeral, when the entire country was shut down in mourning.  Shops were closed, railroads stopped, streets were empty…and Emma and Marshall were getting married.  It was not an auspicious beginning for them at all (and in fact, I’m awaiting a copy of their divorce record).

In the eight days’ worth of Milwaukee newspapers I reviewed (which were mostly filled with news of the president’s death and funeral), here’s a sampling of the other stories I saw:

  • People (more than one!) committing suicide, supposedly because of their grief over the president’s death.
  • A guy who was sentenced to three months in jail for publicly stating that he was glad the president was dead.  This was only 2-3 days after the president died, so it must have been a speedy trial indeed.
  • A rich guy who had been murdered in Kenosha.  He was last seen out and about with a wad of cash.  Foul play was suspected.
  • Am 18-year-old heiress in Chicago, who had gone shopping and never returned.
  • A guy who was spurned by a 17-year-old girl he liked.  He brutally murdered the girl and two of her younger siblings.  He was described variously as an Indian and as a “half-breed.”  A manhunt was underway, and the paper crowed that lynching was likely.
  • A husband who stabbed his wife, who was pregnant with her seventh child.  He cut open her abdomen.  She didn’t die right away, either…it took a day or two.  The guy was in protective custody, lest he be lynched too.  He expressed no remorse.

Sometimes when I read the paper today, it feels like the world is coming apart, and like things are getting so much worse.  It’s perversely comforting to go back 100+ years and see that bad stuff happened then too.  This is one of the great things about studying history up close; it gives you perspective you can’t get any other way.

The world isn’t getting worse.  It’s always been messy.

Photo by GollyGForce

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith April 5, 2011 at 10:50 am

Oh, yes. I primarily read Colonial/Revolutionary period bios/non-fiction… people are people, just language, costume, hairstyle are different. Behavior has not changed… ;-) Enjoyed you selections! ;-)

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Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith April 5, 2011 at 11:09 am

Oh, yes. I primarily read Colonial/Revolutionary period bios/non-fiction… people are people, just language, costume, hairstyle are different. Behavior has not changed… ;-) Enjoyed your selections! ;-)

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Susan Tiner April 5, 2011 at 11:58 am

Kerry, this is why I love reading history so much. I’m currently in Britain and Europe circa 1860s and I like it. See you in the future some time!

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Greta Koehl April 5, 2011 at 6:00 pm

“The world isn’t getting worse. It’s always been messy.” This sounds like my husband reading the editorial pages or reading history books. He says people don’t really know history and have no perspective. People aren’t more litigious these days, either. I am either appalled or in awe at how often my ancestors sued one another.

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Linda Gartz April 5, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Couldn’t agree more. We may decry the way teens spend all their time on video games — It’s a heck of a lot better than what they did for entertainment in the “good ol’ days,” which (according to my dad’s stories of his contemporaries) often involved torturing animals in one way or another! Yeah, let’s get back to the good old Henry VIII Days (was reading Wolf Hall and the very unpleasant things that happened to people who dared read the Bible in their own language (after Luther translated it–big affront to Rome) So humans have always been a cruel group. It’s harder to hide those bad acts these days with a video camera in every hand. Glad you posted this to help us keep all in perspective.

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Jennifer Trahan April 5, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Another thing I have noticed is that newspapers were not at all concerned with privacy. If regular Joe Blow had committed suicide, all the details would be there in the newspaper. Today, unless the person was famous, the newspaper would rarely report something like that. I assume that’s at least partially due to families preferring to keep that kind of thing private, and partially due to no one caring about Joe Blow anymore.

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Margie April 6, 2011 at 6:13 am

I couldn’t agree with you more! I often get off track while searching my ancestors in newspapers just browsing the news of the day. Many times I forget I am reading a paper from 100 years ago because events of murders and other crimes seem right out of today’s headlines. Anyone who thinks the world was a safer place in 1911 needs to read the articles of that time period. I also agree with Jennifer above that they had less respect of privacy. They also were more descriptive of grisly details.

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Kerry Scott April 6, 2011 at 6:18 am

That’s so true. I have a great-great-grandfather who died in 1907 by falling down an elevator shaft. The details in the newspaper article are so graphic and so grisly that I can’t even blog about them. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for his widow and children to read that in the paper while mourning his loss.

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Yvonne April 6, 2011 at 6:54 am

Your “Mashburn” jumped off the page at me. Can you let us know what happened when you find out?

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Kerry Scott April 6, 2011 at 8:44 am

I’m not sure how much this record is going to yield (it’s from 1917, and based on the amount they charged me on my credit card, I can tell it’s not very many pages).

I do plan to send you a link to my Ancestry tree when I get this Mashburn family entered (although at the rate I’m going we will both be little old ladies by then). Marshall was from Little Rock, so I have no idea how he met Emma up in Milwaukee. They lived in Arkansas for most (if not all) of their marriage, and were divorced in 1917. Marshall died a few years later in Dallas.

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Kim Stankiewicz April 6, 2011 at 8:21 am

Great topic! I often do divorce look ups for people, which I love because they are so fascinating. Oftentimes, I am appalled at the way people treated each other over 100 years ago and the reasons for divorce. Usually I think of people ‘back then’ as religious and good citizens. But then I realize after reading so many divorce cases and newspaper articles that times have changed but people have not. People are people, always have been and always will be. And the number of divorce and criminal cases in the indexes is amazing….thousands upon thousands upon thousands! Of course, I live in a big city, but still! When I tell this to non genealogists, they look at me like I’m crazy as they have the same thoughts about people ‘back then’ that I used to, that they were innocent and wholesome, which we know from our research just isn’t the case.

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Debi April 6, 2011 at 10:27 am

I’m amazed at the lack of privacy in the newspapers back in the “old days”. I really don’t think people needed to hear every last detail of how these people died. On the other hand, I’m sure glad they reported that stuff becaue it makes for interesting information for us!

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Linda Gartz April 6, 2011 at 11:13 am

I couldn’t resist adding this quote from Russel Baker’s memoir, Growing Up (he is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for the NYT, born in 1924. His first job in journalism was for the Sun in Baltimore in 1947. He wrote about his first 2 years there: ” I spent those years prowling the slums of Baltimore, studying the psychology of cops, watching people’s home burn,…hanging around accident wards listening to people die…On a slow night a suicide might merit three paragraphs if the deceased had found an interesting way to finish himself off. On a normal night [he's get a] single paragraph; on a busy night his final deed on earth went unrecorded….” Baker covered a fire. “A whole family on the top floor of one of those rotting slum houses. Father’s still dying. Four kids [perished]. I won’t use his actual words — too graphic. So it was in the good old days.

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Dee April 6, 2011 at 6:57 pm

I think everyone should spend about 6 months doing family history research. That’s the way you finally figure out that people are today the way they have always been – muddling along through life, making choices.

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Nira April 7, 2011 at 9:42 am

This post is timely for me as I’ve been spending days, and I mean days, browsing through the “Mount Vernon Republican” newspapers from June 1877 to October 1879. History has a way about it that tends to erase it’s true nature, but looking at old newspapers brings history’s truth forward for all to see.

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Kelley April 9, 2011 at 10:59 am

I hear you, Kerry. My great-grandfather was beheaded in a tain accident in 1900 in Philadelphia, and reading the accounts of not just the dead, but the injured, from back then made my stomach turn the first time I read it. People say today’s generation is violent due to the graphic nature of video games and movies and such… but the accounts of violence and such from back then give me more willies then some of the movies and that generation is now looked at as a “good old one”…. kind of makes me wonder what future generations will think of us.

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Kerry Scott April 11, 2011 at 6:10 am

That’s an interesting point. Many kids 100 years ago were exposed to death and real-life gore (farm accidents, exploding boilers, industrial accidents, runaway horse accidents, etc.). Most middle-class kids aren’t exposed to that stuff today.

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Mavis April 10, 2011 at 12:02 am

You’ve been selected for the One Lovely Blog Award. You can pick it up at Georgia Black Crackers.

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Kerry Scott April 11, 2011 at 6:08 am

Thank you very much!

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Debbie Sargent April 27, 2011 at 9:40 am

Now that was interesting…will be looking into the era papers of my ancestors for sure now..

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