Newspapers are the first draft of history, and reading the actual 19th century coverage of historic events will provide fascinating details.
The sunken treasure of vintage newspapers remained far from public view for many decades. But thanks to recently digitized archives, we can now see exactly what rolled off the printing presses in the 19th century.
The blog items in this collection feature links to actual newspaper headlines and articles about significant events, as seen when the ink was still fresh on the page.
The eruption of the enormous volcano at Krakatoa in the western Pacific was unusual for many reasons, including the astonishing fact that the news of the cataclysm reached Europe and the United States within hours. Recently installed undersea telegraph cables carried frantic transmissions from present day Indonesia detailing the massive explosion and its aftermath.
The breaking news of Krakatoa was not the end of the disaster. For months afterward weird red sunsets, which we now know were caused by volcanic ash in the atmosphere, frightened people. And the newspapers covered both the spectacle and the speculation about the spooky sunsets.
In the years following the Civil War, Americans needed some distraction in their lives. And they got it when a new invention known as the velocipede came along. An early version of the bicycle, velocipedes began appearing on American streets in the late 1860s and accounts of people riding them turned up in newspapers.
The initial coverage of what would become bicycling is interesting because no one seemed to think of the devices as useful for practical transportation. But as odd attractions the velocipede craze enjoyed a heyday in the press.
When the former president and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant died in the summer of 1885, the United States seemed to pause and reflect upon the passing of an era. Grant's enormous funeral in New York City involved a vigil at City Hall, and a procession up Broadway consisting of 34,000 marchers. No one ever took an accurate count of spectators, which could have been more than one million.
The newspapers, of course, covered Grant's funeral in detail, even down to the details of how the site of his tomb overlooking the Hudson River had been selected.
The New York City political machine known as Tammany Hall played rough. And one of its leaders in the late 19th century, Richard Croker, ascended in the ranks thanks to his quick mind and some considerable street-fighting skills.
On Election Day in 1874, Croker got into a street corner scuffle, a pistol was fired, and a man named McKenna fell dead. Croker was arrested and charged with McKenna's murder. The newspapers covered every nugget of vivid testimony in his trial.
In the end, the jury was deadlocked. Croker was set free, and he went on to rule Tammany Hall and collect a fortune in bribes until he eventually retired to his native Ireland.
In late 1864 the Confederate government tried to launch an audacious attack that would disrupt the presidential election and perhaps put Abraham Lincoln out of office. When that failed, the plan transformed into an elaborate arson plot, with Confederate agents fanning out across lower Manhattan in one night, intent on setting fires in public buildings.
Fear of fire was taken very seriously in New York, which had suffered from cataclysms like the Great Fire of 1835. But the rebel arsonists, due mostly to ineptitude, only succeeded in creating a chaotic night. The newspaper headlines, however, spoke of "A Night of Terror" with "Fire Balls Thrown About."
The death of Zachary Taylor marked the first time the telegraph transmitted the shocking news that a president had died in office. The president, an old soldier who had come to the presidency thanks to his service in the Mexican War, had taken ill following a July 4th observance in 1850.
The reporting around Taylor's state funeral ranged from the grandiose to the mundane, and even included accounts of how a pickpocket worked the crowd in the East Room of the White House.
In the summer of 1863 New York City was rocked by an explosion of violence prompted by plans to draft more soldiers into the Union Army. Poor workers in the city, primarily Irish and German immigrants, felt they had already given too much to the war effort. And they rioted.
In several days of chaos, rampaging mobs attacked federal offices, the police, and black residents of the city. The newspapers in the city kept publishing, though their offices sometimes resembled barricaded fortresses. And what they reported was shocking.
In the weeks before the epic Battle of Gettysburg, telegraph wires crackled with puzzling reports about Confederate cavalry troopers riding through western Maryland and turning up in Pennsylvania.
The ironworks owned by the outspoken abolitionist Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens was attacked and burned, an obvious act of retribution. Reading newspaper reports, it's obvious that no one knew if the rebel troops intended to burn Harrisburg or Philadelphia, or simply steal horses and supplies and escape back to Virginia.
The death of Andrew Jackson in June 1845 marked the end of an era. The news took weeks to spread across the country, and as Americans heard of Jackson's passing they gathered to pay tribute.
Jackson had dominated American politics for two decades, and given his controversial nature, newspaper reports of his death ranged from barely muted criticism to lavish praise.
Cornelius Vanderbilt became enormously wealthy partly because of his intensely competitive nature. And in 1847 "The Commodore" chose to promote a new addition to his steamship line by racing it on the Hudson River against a competitor's boat.
The newspapers naturally covered "The Great Steamboat Race." Thousands lined the waterfront to watch the 300-foot paddle wheel steamers churn the Hudson's waters in what must have been an astounding spectacle.
Related: Cornelius Vanderbilt