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Robert McNamara

Robert's 19th Century History Blog


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Looking Back at Newspapers

Thursday May 29, 2014

While preparing for a major redesign at About.com, I've been looking at some old blog postings and deleting some that are no longer relevant. But I've also picked out a few favorites that I'll maintain going forward on the new improved version of the History1800s site.

Stampede on the Brooklyn Bridge

Wednesday May 28, 2014
A week after the Brooklyn Bridge opened in May 1883, a holiday crowd on the walkway panicked when a shoving incident escalated into a frenzied stampede. When it was over, a dozen New Yorkers had been crushed to death. Hundreds were injured.

The disaster on the bridge dampened what had been a celebratory first week for the bridge. During 14 years of arduous construction, doubters had claimed the massive structure would never be finished, or that it would collapse into the East River. When it opened, people wondered whether the anticipated traffic would actually show up.

If anything, the bridge was too successful. And on Decoration Day, May 30, 1883, holiday strollers enjoying a beautiful late afternoon were plunged into tragedy.

A week earlier it had been very different. President Chester A. Arthur presided over festivities in New York, and as word traveled along the telegraph wires the entire country celebrated.

The Decoration Day disaster ruined a number of lives. But in the public mind it passed quickly, and people were not discouraged from using the Brooklyn Bridge. And, of course, it's still in use today by many thousands of commuters.


March of the Unemployed in 1894

Tuesday April 29, 2014
In the 1890s many Americans were jobless, and a prosperous businessman, Jacob Coxey, became determined to do something about it. He organized a march of unemployed workers which would walk from Ohio all the way to the U.S. Capitol, where they would demand action from Congress.

The idea of government intervention to assist the unemployed was something new and different at the time. But that didn't bother Coxey, who had a flair for dramatic action.

The great march, which left Ohio on Easter Sunday, became known as Coxey's Army. It passed through Pennsylvania and Maryland, trailed by reporters who sent dispatches via telegraph. The progress of the march became a feature on front pages around the country.

As the unemployed marchers got close to Washington 120 years ago this week, tensions began to rise. The federal authorities, fearing some sort of violence, if not an outright insurrection, even called out the cavalry.

Coxey's Army, in the form of hundreds of marchers, peacefully walked into the city of Washington on May 1, 1894. They approached the Capitol grounds, but were blocked from entering the building. There were scuffles with the police, and some people, including Coxey, were arrested for trespassing.

It appeared that Coxey's Army was a dramatic failure. Yet Jacob Coxey had touched a nerve in America. The idea that the unemployed should not be helped by government intervention faded, and early in the 20th century reforms such as unemployment insurance began to be viewed as entirely reasonable.

And it could be said that Coxey's Army, and the cascade of publicity it inspired, changed the way Americans thought. The idea of a protest march, which Coxey pioneered, would be used again throughout the 20th century.

There was talk of Coxey running for president, and that never happened. But his flair for innovative thinking, and his concern for the plight of workers, had a lasting effect.

Labor History:

Photograph: Coxey's Army on the march/Getty Images


Newspaper Sunday: Shiloh

Sunday April 6, 2014
In early April 1862 the Battle of Shiloh delivered a shock to Americans. The first clash of the Civil War to result in mass casualties, it was an indication that the war would be much bloodier than anyone could have predicted.

A look at the newspapers of the day show how startling the great battle must have been. In the days before the clash in rural Tennessee, the focus of the press in the North was on General George McClellan's campaign in Virginia.

It actually took a few weeks for the name Shiloh to become known, and the first reports of the engagement referred to "a great battle" somewhere "near Corinth." Within days, reporters were able to piece together startling accounts of the brutal fighting. Readers must have been horrified by some of the details.

Thousands of troops on both sides were reported killed and wounded. And a front-page story in the New York Tribune mentioned that a horse couldn't be ridden across a field because of the dead bodies piled on it.

A month after the battle, on May 6, 1862, the New York Tribune sharply criticized the military for the lack of information it had provided:

"In short, all that the People really know of these battles, beyond the fact that our troops were beaten back on the first day, but were reinforced at night, and attacked and finally drove the Rebels on the second, they have learned from newspaper correspondents, who are quite commonly regarded and treated as barely tolerated (sometimes as intolerable) nuisances in the camps. But for them, the whole affair would have been involved in mystery, and in many points utterly inexplicable."

There's no doubt General Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had other pressing business. But there is a possibility they did not want to alarm the public with details of how horrific the fighting had been.

This week in Newspaper Sunday we look at news reports of the Battle of Shiloh. Note: The links below lead to excerpts of newspaper articles at the Chronicling America archive of the Library of Congress. Click the "persistent link" on the excerpt page to view the full page of the newspaper.

  • New York Tribune, April 9, 1862: Very sketchy details of fighting on April 6 had arrived at the War Department in Washington.
  • New York Tribune, April 10, 1862: While the epic Battle of Shiloh had already taken place, the front page of the New York Tribune was still focused on the Army of the Potomac and its position outside Yorktown, Virginia.
  • New York Tribune, April 10, 1862: The fighting at Shiloh, referred to at the time as Pittsburg Landing, received headlines and a map on the last page of the New York Tribune.
  • New York Tribune, April 11, 1862: The full importance of the battle was evident on April 11, when stacked front-page headlines gave details (some of which were inaccurate).
  • Staunton Spectator, April 15, 1862: A Virginia newspaper published a report on the great battle from a Confederate perspective.
  • New York Sun, April 19, 1862: One of the sensationalistic New York City papers, The Sun, published an illustration of a Confederate general at Shiloh with a critical headline: "Beauregard Tried and Found Wanting."
  • New York Tribune, May 6, 1862: A month after the fighting at Shiloh, the New York Tribune published a blistering condemnation of General Grant and the War Department for not having published a comprehensive account of the battle.

Illustration: Depiction of General Grant at Shiloh/Library of Congress

Related: The Battle of Shiloh


Opening Day In the 1890s

Monday March 31, 2014
As baseball season begins again, it's a good time to look back and see what Opening Day was like 120 years ago. In 1894, the New York Giants traveled to play the Baltimore Orioles to begin the season on Thursday, April 19th. And a New York City newspaper, The Evening World, featured prominent coverage on the front page.

A group of New Yorkers had traveled to Baltimore by train, and joined a parade through the city to the ballpark:

"The procession started for the grounds at 1 o'clock. Of course, it was headed by a brass band. Then came the newspaper men, followed by the two nines. Managers Ward and Hanlon had a smart-looking rig all to themselves. Catchers Farrell and Robinson were in the last of the ball-players' carriages, and behind them came the usual contingent of 'leading citizens.' It was really an imposing parade.

"It seemed as if everybody here saw the parade. The windows and doorways of factories, stores, and residences were filled with heads, and the people stood on the sidewalks ten deep."

A large crowd for that era, 12,000 spectators, crowded the ballpark, where many simply stood behind ropes beyond the outfield. In the second inning the game had to be stopped for 15 minutes to allow fans who were still arriving to "find places."

The New York team lost the first game, and would lose the entire three-game opening series at Baltimore. That's not too shocking. The Orioles, in that era, were a dominant team, with stars like John McGraw and Willie Keeler, who is now remembered as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.

The Orioles traveled to New York City at the end of April to play at the Polo Grounds. During that era baseball fans were called "cranks." So when vocal Baltimore supporters showed up in New York, the New York Evening World printed the headline, "Baltimore's Crank Contingent With Loud Voices and a Good Yell."

It rained during the April 28, 1894, Polo Grounds opener, which dampened the mood, though the Giants beat the Orioles. The rivalry between the two teams would go on all that season. The Orioles eventually won the pennant, with the Giants in second place.

However, the Giants got some satisfaction that year by winning the Temple Cup. A predecessor of the World Series, the Temple Cup was awarded after a playoff series between the two top teams in the National League (the only major league at the time).

Illustration: Amos Rusie of the New York Giants, opening day pitcher in 1894/Library of Congress


Possible Photo of Lincoln's Funeral Found

Thursday March 20, 2014
The Washington Post published an interesting story by Michael Ruane this morning: a Maryland man, while looking at the Flickr feed of the National Archives, may have discovered previously unknown photographs of Abraham Lincoln's funeral in New York City.

The photos in question show the facade of Grace Church, a landmark Episcopal cathedral located where Broadway bends at the corner of 10th Street. In one, a large crowd has gathered and something passing by appears as a blur.

Is it Lincoln's funeral procession? It could be. The funeral observances for Lincoln included a large procession up Broadway. There is no question the horse-drawn hearse carrying Lincoln's body rolled past Grace Church on its way to a ceremony held at nearby Union Square.

And it's also true that photographer Mathew Brady owned a studio near Grace Church. So it's conceivable, even likely, that one of his staff photographers would have aimed a camera out the window to capture the scene.

However, it's worth noting that Lincoln's funeral would not have been the only massive public event on that corner. Two years earlier, General Tom Thumb had been married at Grace Church in a colossal event promoted and publicized by Phineas T. Barnum.

Could the event in the photo be Tom Thumb's wedding? I suspect not, as the spectators in the newly discovered photo do not seem to be dressed for very cold weather. And Tom Thumb was married in the winter, on February 10, 1863.

A number of spectators seen outside Grace Church hold umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun. And umbrellas can also be seen in another photo taken along Broadway on April 25, 1865, the day of the Lincoln procession.

Could it be another event in warm weather? Perhaps. One enormous public event which comes to mind would be the funeral for Ulysses S. Grant. It also featured a massive procession up Broadway. And it was believed to have drawn an even larger crowd than Lincoln's funeral.

Grant's funeral procession in New York City took place on August 8, 1885. And the New York Tribune, on its front page the next day, mentioned crowds gathered at Grace Church.

To our eyes, the spectators near the church do not seem to be dressed for an August day. But if they had gathered for a funeral procession, it's likely the spectators would have been dressed fairly formally despite the heat.

What may rule out Grant's funeral is perhaps the year, not the season. It was 20 years after Lincoln's funeral, perhaps too late to have been captured on a glass negative belonging to Brady.

The largest public funeral in New York City before Lincoln's would have been that of Bill Poole, a bare knuckles boxer and enforcer for the Know-Nothings.

Poole was murdered, perhaps at the behest of boxer and future congressman John "Old Smoke" Morrissey. And newspapers claimed 100,000 people lined the streets for his funeral procession.

To be honest, I am very curious about the funeral for Bill Poole, and would be fascinated by any photographs of it that might surface. But it's unclear if Poole's funeral passed Grace Church. And it took place in March 1855, which is likely outside the time frame.

So it's entirely possible that the photograph spotted in a Flickr feed could be Lincoln's funeral. If it is, it doesn't tell us much we didn't already know. But it's still fascinating to look at the people in the photograph and think of what they might have been experiencing that sunny yet sad afternoon on Broadway.

Incidentally, when I first saw the photo in the Washington Post this morning I immediately recognized it as Grace Church. Years ago, I happened to live directly across the street from the church, in a college dormitory. A few months back I posted my own vintage photo of the church, which I snapped when I was 19, for Twitter's "Throwback Thursday."

Update: March 23, 2014: After thinking about this, something that nags at me is what should be in the photograph but isn't: visible signs of mourning.

Confirmed photos of Lincoln's funeral procession taken only blocks away, at 13th Street and Broadway, show mourning crepe on buildings as well as a lamppost that is shrouded with black fabric.

Yet in the newly discovered photograph there is no black crepe to be seen at all. There is a visible lamppost, and it is unadorned.

The newspapers described how the entire city was decorated for mourning. It's odd that Grace Church is undecorated in the "new" photo (especially as one newspaper report mentioned that Trinity Church, the other fashionable Episcopal church in New York, was "entirely draped in black").

And the New York City government had issued guidelines for the public which requested that men wear a "badge of mourning" on the left arm. The spectators in the newly discovered photograph don't seem to be wearing mourning accessories.


Photograph: Detail of photograph showing crowd outside Grace Church/U.S. National Archives


"Old Smoke" Morrissey: Bare Knuckles Champ to Congressman

Monday March 17, 2014
In the 19th century Irish Americans gravitated toward politics. In New York City Tammany Hall became a bastion of Irish power in the time of Boss Tweed, and even the St. Patrick's Day Parade became a political symbol.

One immigrant from Tipperary achieved something remarkable: he rose to become a boxing champion in the brutal bare knuckles era, and then kept rising to be elected to Congress in the 1860s. Only in America!

John Morrissey, who arrived in upstate New York as a child, began brawling as a teenager. Moving to New York City, when boxing was still illegal, he found meaningful work as a political enforcer. When Know-Nothings tried to prevent the Irish from voting, Morrissey's enormous fists ensured the sanctity of the polls.

In the fight ring, Morrissey showed unusual tenacity and was nearly unbeatable. On the side, he ran gambling joints in lower Manhattan. And when his life calmed down a bit, he was offered a chance to run for a New York City congressional seat. And, of course, he won.

He became bored in Congress and only served two terms. But he was known as a genial figure in the Capitol, where visitors always wanted to shake his hand.

Known as "Old Smoke," a nickname he'd earned in a brutal saloon fight, Morrissey was beloved by the Irish community. And he acquired interesting friends in New York society, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man alive.

When Morrissey died in 1878, the New York Sun devoted half its front page to a dramatic account of his final hours. There would never again be anyone quite like Old Smoke.

Full story: John "Old Smoke" Morrissey

Illustration: John Morrissey in his boxing days/Library of Congress


"12 Years a Slave" Wins Best Picture Oscar

Monday March 3, 2014
Anyone who loves history had to be thrilled to see "12 Years a Slave" win the best picture Oscar last night. It's an astounding and challenging film about a subject many people would choose to avoid. So it's especially gratifying to see it being appreciated so widely.

The story of Solomon Northup had been overlooked for many decades, but winning the Oscar puts it into the cultural mainstream. And it ensures that his memoir, which startled Americans in 1853, will never be forgotten.

And, of course, Oscars awarded to Lupita Nyong'o for playing Patsey and to screenwriter John Ridley for adapting Solomon Northup's memoir are also worth celebrating. Ms. Nyong'o's portrayal of a tragic character was riveting. And John Ridley's respect for Solomon Northup as a man and a writer has been evident in interviews and acceptance speeches he has made during Oscar season.

It's easy to laugh at the frivolity surrounding Oscar night. But the success of "12 Years a Slave" means that other worthy stories which may have been overlooked might someday gain wide recognition. And that alone is something we should all welcome.

And, of course, the Oscar win means the film will be seen by many more people. It comes out on DVD this week, and it will likely be watched for many years.

If you haven't seen the film yet, I would recommend it. It is disturbing, of course. It would have to be. There are not many acts of violence in it compared to most movies. But the violence is palpable, brutal acts committed to characters we care about. Hard to watch, yes. But perhaps some things should be witnessed.

I recall that last year I was paying attention to the Oscars because "Lincoln" was nominated. And I was especially disappointed that Tommy Lee Jones didn't win an Oscar for his amazing portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens.

Last night the Oscar news was much better. And I must say, I could get used to caring about a Hollywood awards show every year because some awesome history has been thoughtfully portrayed.


Photograph: Director Steve McQueen holding the Oscar for Best Picture/Getty Images


A Fatal Duel Between Members of Congress

Monday February 24, 2014
Just outside the city of Washington, on the afternoon of February 24, 1838, two members of the House of Representatives fought a duel. A rising young politician from Maine was killed.

The reasons behind the shocking incident were murky. And it was suspected in the North that the victim, Jonathan Cilley, had been set up by crafty political antagonists from the South and West.

In his short time on Capitol Hill, Cilley had shown a willingness to aggressively challenge southern politicians. And his friends in the North, including his college classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne, would always believe Cilley had been a martyr to the regional conflicts which would deepen and eventually split the nation.

Henry Clay, one of the most powerful men in America, was widely suspected to have played a malicious role in arranging the violence. His connection to the duel would emerge as a political issue when he later ran for president.

The congressional colleague who fatally shot Cilley, William Graves, had chosen to use rifles in the duel. The Kentuckian was proficient with a rifle. Cilley was not.

The men missed each other entirely during the first round of shots. And they missed again in a second round. Graves then contended he had not gotten "satisfaction" for some perceived slight. On a third round of shooting he struck his target.

Cilley was hit in the leg. An artery was ripped open and he bled to death within minutes.

A few days later, on February 27, 1838, a funeral for Cilley was held in the U.S. Capitol. The nation was shocked by the incident, and it was never entirely forgotten. Henry Clay's connection to the duel became an issue in 1844, when he ran for president, and lost.

And people would wonder for decades whether the death of the promising politician from Maine was simply a peculiar misunderstanding that somehow got out of hand or part of a calculated and ruthless political strategy.

Full story: The Fatal Duel Between Congressmen

Illustration: Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Maine/Library of Congress


Solomon Northup Shares Win of Scripter Award

Sunday February 9, 2014
A man who was kidnapped into slavery and wrote a startling memoir about his experience shared in the win of a prestigious screenwriting award last night. As the Scripter Award, bestowed by the USC Libraries, honors both the author of the screenplay and the author of the source material, Solomon Northup, whose book was written after he secured his freedom in 1853, shares the award for "12 Years a Slave" with screenwriter John Ridley.

Accepting the award at a formal event held at USC's Doheny Library in Los Angeles, Ridley gave an emotional acceptance speech.

"Until I read Solomon's memoir, I didn't know what being a writer was all about," Ridley said. "The way that Solomon wrote, the clarity with which he wrote, and more importantly, the strength of his character, what he went through without bitterness, without hate, that really taught me something."

Struggling to hold back tears at times, Ridley also acknowledged descendants of Northup who were in attendance at the dinner.

Ridley's work has been nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, and "12 Years a Slave" has been nominated in nine Oscar categories.

Solomon Northup had been kidnapped into slavery in 1841, and was finally freed in January 1853. His book Twelve Years a Slave was published later that year. (The book title used the word "Twelve" while the film title uses numerals.)

Arriving in the hands of the public a year after Uncle Tom's Cabin, Northup's book was bound to be controversial. Northup obviously knew his story would be questioned and even denounced by the defenders of slavery. To establish that his story was not fiction, the final few dozen pages of his book contained the legal documents related to his case.

Northup died in obscurity. But it's heartening to know that his story lives on. And, in a remarkable occurrence, he was able to share a prestigious award of the film community 161 years and one month after he was freed from horrific servitude on a Louisiana sugar plantation.

Read onward: The Real History of Solomon Northup

Photograph: Screenwriter John Ridley arriving at the Scripter Award ceremony, February 8, 2014/Getty Images


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