Using historical newspapers to write fiction

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I discovered the value of historical newspapers on my second visit to Kansas to research Daniel Read Anthony and his family.

An eloquent packet

While at the Spencer Library, University of Kansas, I found a packet of news clippings neatly folded and tied with a black grosgrain ribbon. My breath caught in my throat as I gently untied it. There I found a couple of newspaper articles recalling how, in February 1889, Susie Anthony (named after Susan B.), had died by drowning in a pond while skating with friends. This little packet spoke as nothing else could of Daniel and Annie’s grief at losing their daughter..

Wax and wane of Daniel’s strength

Here’s another important detail I learned from historical newspapers. This one is dated several years before Susie’s death. It appeared in the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY, which was Daniel’s home in his 20s.

I sat up and took notice. Here’s why:

  • This clipping describes D.R. as “incompetent to defend himself” owing to the impairment of his right arm. In his younger years, people feared and admired him for his daring and physical strength. But apparently that changed ten years before this news clipping, when a bullet to the right side of his neck nearly killed him. At the time I read about his wound, I wondered whether he sustained a permanent injury from that episode. This article strongly suggests that he did.
  • Also, although he couldn’t use his arm to protect himself, he still didn’t pull any punches with words. The same belligerent attitude that got him shot in the first place prevailed even when he could no longer defend himself physically.

This concludes my three-part series on ways to learn about historical people. Biographies, census records, and family trees can help us glimpse the skeleton of a person. But to discover their thoughts and feelings, their temperament, and how they responded to their place and time requires considerable more digging.

Plotting events on a timeline, reading newspaper articles about them, and visiting places that historical people frequented, give further details that put flesh and blood on the skeleton and present a much more satisfying account.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the toolkit of a historical researcher. BTW, here’s a link to Newspapers.com, where you can subscribe to hundreds of old newspapers. Enjoy!

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About Jeanne

After writing Susan B. Anthony And Justice For All in 1994, Jeanne Gehret began giving costumed portrayals of Susan B. Anthony. In 2017 she released The Truth About Daniel, whose subject is abolitionist Daniel Read Anthony, Susan's brother.