Houdini: Remembering the Magical Life of Erik Weisz

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn about the remarkable life of the great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.

As this 1915 newspaper article declared: “Everyone who reads the newspapers and magazines is familiar with the name and reputation of Houdini.” The statement was fitting then and is still fitting a hundred years later. Houdini’s power to captivate an audience lives on. Even my 13-year-old daughter, peering over my shoulder as I found images for this blog article, knew who Houdini was.

photo of the magician Harry Houdini, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 16 December 1915

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 16 December 1915, page 4

Houdini’s Beginnings

Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. His family immigrated to America and became a success story. Young Weisz was attracted to magic and performing. As early as age 9 he was performing tricks as a trapeze artist as “Erik, Prince of the Air.” He ran away from home to pursue his dreams, but was shortly after reconciled with his family. He continued to perform in seedy beer gardens with his brother Theodore (later known as Dash Houdeen).

article about the magician Harry Houdini, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 10 March 1912

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 10 March 1912, page 25

Houdini’s Wife & Mother

He met Bess Rahner while performing. After their marriage, she replaced his brother Dash as Houdini’s stage assistant. Bess was never able to have children and spent her married life “starving and starring” with Houdini. She was no shrinking violet herself and the two had a lively relationship. Throughout all this, he adored his wife and remained faithful to her.

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His two great loves were his wife and his mother. Houdini had been raised as a poor immigrant so it is not surprising that he wanted to shower his mother with the nice things in life once he had the means. He ostentatiously did this when he reportedly purchased a dress made for Queen Victoria for his mother to wear.

article about the magician Harry Houdini, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 24 June 1928

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 June 1928, page 3

Robert-Houdin

Erik Weisz took the name of Harry Houdini after his hero Robert-Houdin. Harry was obsessed with this master magician and he read everything he could get his hands on. Harry was an ardent student of magic and his collection of books on the subject are now a part of the Library of Congress. Robert-Houdin was considered the “Shakespeare of magicians” and was an obvious choice for a childhood hero. However, as Harry studied and learned more about Houdin and magic, he discovered that many of the claims made by Houdin were fraudulent. Many of the tricks that Houdin claimed were his own were actually created by others many years earlier. Harry felt that it was immoral for Houdin to make false claims. Eventually, Harry exposed Houdin as a fraud in a book titled The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.

Houdin 'Unmasked' by Harry Houdini, Boston Herald newspaper article 5 May 1908

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 May 1908, page 5

Because of his disillusionment over his hero Houdin, Harry spent significant time, energy, and money in uniting magicians. He felt that doing so would help regulate the industry, so to speak, and help prevent fraudulent activity and intellectual theft.

Spiritualists Are Frauds

Of particular concern to Harry were spiritualists. The spiritualists claimed they could talk to the dead. Harry felt this was a fraudulent claim, and he spent considerable energy trying to stamp it out. His efforts drew the wrath of many of his contemporaries including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Harry made a plan with his wife to prove that spiritualists were frauds. He announced that he would give a passcode (known only to his wife) to the medium after his death if there was any way for him to communicate it. For 10 years after he died, his wife held an exposition séance to show that the medium could not provide the passcode. Others continued this tradition for many years.

article about the magician Harry Houdini, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 19 December 1915

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 19 December 1915, page 42

Harry Handcuff Houdini

Houdini got his start with a handcuff trick. His stage name at the time reflected this: “Harry Handcuff Houdini.” He would travel around challenging the local police to lock him up and let him try to escape. Involving the local officials was a success and he soon learned to include even more groups. To get the local people involved, he would stage challenges like the two advertised below.

ad challenging the magician Harry Houdini, Grand Rapids Press newspaper article 13 January 1915

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 13 January 1915, page 1

ad challenging the magician Harry Houdini, Boston Journal newspaper advertisement 20 November 1914

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 November 1914, page 12

Master Escape Artist

As the master of escape, he continued to stun audiences. He performed the milk can escape, where he was sealed into a large milk can filled with water. This trick was further enhanced by locking the can into a wooden crate, or having it padlocked shut. He also performed the Chinese water torture trick where he was lowered upside down into a tank of water. His feet were bound and sometimes a cage was inserted into the tank that restricted his movement. This led to the straitjacket escape where he was suspended above the crowd hanging from a crane by his feet.

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He even tried being buried alive. This, he discovered, was more challenging than first thought. He was buried six feet under, but the weight of the earth was too heavy. Houdini had to be rescued after clawing out just far enough to expose his hand before passing out.

Houdini even learned to fly and was one of the first people to fly in Australia. He starred in several movies including one called The Grim Game. Two biplanes collided during filming, although no one was killed, and the script was rewritten to incorporate this dramatic crash scene.

photo of the magician Harry Houdini, Anaconda Standard newspaper article 14 December 1919

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 14 December 1919, page 21

article about the magician Harry Houdini in the movie "The Grim Game," Oregonian newspaper article 31 October 1919

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 31 October 1919, page 6

Houdini’s Death by Blows?

The seemingly invincible Houdini was taken down by the smallest of acts. Controversy surrounds the circumstances, but it appears that J. Gordon Whitehead asked to test Houdini’s strength by punching him in the stomach. Houdini was reclining on a couch and may not have been prepared for the punches to the gut. The force may have caused his appendix to burst. Houdini rejected medical attention and continued with his performance. He persisted in feverish pain for two days before he finally relented to receive medical attention for his appendicitis. By then it was too late and he died in Detroit on Halloween, 31 October 1926, at the young age of 52.

article about the death of the magician Harry Houdini, Jewish Chronicle newspaper article 12 November 1926

Jewish Chronicle (Newark, New Jersey), 12 November 1926, page 12

Houdini’s funeral was held in New York City on 4 November 1926, and he was buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens. The crest of the Society of American Magicians is part of his gravesite memorial.

photo of Harry Houdini’s gravesite

Photo: Houdini’s gravesite. Source: Anthony 22; Wikimedia Commons.

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Old Halloween Recipes from Our Ancestors’ Kitchens

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to find recipes used by our ancestors to celebrate Halloween.

Getting ready to entertain some ghosts and goblins? How about trying an old Halloween recipe for your party? I know it can be difficult to come up with Halloween-themed foods (after all, you can only eat so much candy). In my many years of celebrating Halloween I can only think of two recipes that I’ve enjoyed that were specific to the occasion. One involves a punch that includes lemon-lime soda, sherbet, and dry ice (great for that spooky fog affect). The other is a brownie that is cooked in the shape of a pumpkin, with the aid of a pizza pan, and then decorated to look like a jack-o’-lantern with orange frosting and candies.

But what types of Halloween recipes did previous generations enjoy? Looking through old newspapers gives us a sense of what yesteryear’s Halloween hostess may have served at Halloween parties.

Witch Cake, Goblin Pie & Gnome Salad

For example, in 1912 Halloween meant Witch Cake, Goblin Pie and Gnome Salad all washed down with some Caldron Punch. If sugar truly makes children hyper than this punch with its one pound of sugar and ginger ale might just do the trick!

Halloween Recipes, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 20 October 1912

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 20 October 1912, section 2, page 11

Hot Drinks, Doughnuts & Pumpkin Pie

Helen Robertson’s 1930 article “Games to Play and Things to Eat on Eery Halloween” in the “Women’s Magazine and Amusements” section of the Plain Dealer asserts that for Halloween:

Not that we would ever want to serve real party dishes—they have no place in the Halloween’s feasting, for custom has long banished them in favor of pumpkin pie, cider, doughnuts and coffee.

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In multiple Halloween food columns I read, there was confirmation that it’s a night for hot drinks, doughnuts and pumpkin pie. Surprisingly, while Robertson does suggest adding some decorations to pumpkin pie, there are no recipes for the traditional feast. Instead she has everything from Witch’s Salad to Halloween Sandwiches (made with gingerbread, butter, and American cheese and then decorated to look like faces) to Sardine Rarebit that is made from sardines on toast.

Halloween recipes, Plain Dealer newspaper article 26 October 1930

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 October 1930, page 52

But in case you would like some pumpkin pie and doughnuts (and quite frankly I don’t know why you wouldn’t), the following recipes from 1919 include a pumpkin pie without eggs. I was surprised that this recipe called for canned pumpkin. I had assumed that that was a more modern shortcut used by today’s busy pie makers.

Halloween recipes, Patriot newspaper article 17 October 1919

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 17 October 1919, page 17

Pimento Cheese Halloween Sandwiches

I love how newspaper recipes give us a glimpse of how life has changed. In this food column from 1931, Halloween sandwich recipes include one for Harlequin Sandwiches—which is basically buttered bread using alternating white and wheat slices—and a Pumpkin Salad which isn’t really made from pumpkin but instead is largely made out of pimento cheese shaped and decorated like a pumpkin.

Halloween recipes, Boston Herald newspaper article 28 October 1931

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 28 October 1931, page 13

Sliced Bread!

Interestingly enough, the Harlequin Sandwiches call for slicing the bread in ½-inch slices. But at the bottom of the page a large advertisement for bread announces “Good News for the Bread Lovers of New England. SLICED!” Considering the time it would take to slice an entire loaf of bread to the correct thickness, sliced bread seems like the way to go. The old news advertisement also announces that you can still purchase unsliced bread if you prefer.

ad for sliced bread, Boston Herald newspaper advertisement 28 October 1931

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 28 October 1931, page 13

Must-Haves for Halloween Parties

It would appear that two things the newspaper Halloween recipe articles agreed on was that the color scheme should be orange and black, and that super sugary sweets to drink and eat are the rule of the day. But when they start suggesting other foods for the party, it becomes more interesting. Adding a Halloween word to a recipe like “pumpkin” “ghost” or “deviled,” as in the case of this Deviled Tuna Salad, is all one needs to transform humdrum into a Halloween feast.

Halloween Recipes May Be Helpful, Oregonian newspaper article 26 October 1935

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 26 October 1935, page 4

On the same page as the Deviled Tuna Salad recipe is a photograph of a child and a cake with a caption that reads:

Halloween is a children’s holiday and the refreshments served should not only be appropriate color but they should be flavors and foods which the young people will like.

I couldn’t agree more.

photo of a girl and a Halloween cake, Oregonian newspaper article 26 October 1935

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 26 October 1935, page 4

What’s on your table this Halloween? Is it all treats or are there some types of healthful foods as well?

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Are You Celebrating Mother-in-Law Day?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to learn more about a special day coming up this Sunday: Mother-in-Law Day.

They say that there is a holiday for everything—so it should come as no surprise that Mother-in-Law Day is a time-honored tradition, at least in parts of Texas.

Modeled on the more-familiar counterparts of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Mother-in-Law Day was the inspiration of newspaper editor Gene Howe of Amarillo, Texas. He apparently adored his wife’s mother and, using the power of the press, created this special day in her honor.

However, many unkind rumors exist about its origins.

One is that it was started after Mr. Howe discovered his mother-in-law in tears about an unkind remark printed in his newspaper. Mrs. W. F. Donald, his wife’s mother, denied this, so the original story is true—Mr. Howe just had a natural affection for this kind woman in his life.

His mother-in-law said:

Gene never did anything to offend me in his life. I’ve lived with the Howes for fourteen years, and he’s the finest son-in-law anywhere.

article about Mother-in-Law Day, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 26 December 1937

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 26 December 1937, page 4

The first observance was on 5 March 1934 in Amarillo. Two years later Texas Governor James V. Allred signed a proclamation making the special day a statewide observance.

article about Mother-in-Law Day, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 5 March 1936

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 5 March 1936, page 11

Mother-in-Law Day was moved to the fourth Sunday in October—which is this upcoming Sunday.

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So what is the perfect gift for a mother-in-law? Certainly none of those unkind jokes floating around the universe. If I had to pick one special present, it would be an outing with family, and especially our little granddaughter. Of course, your mother-in-law may prefer timeless favorites such as a nice card, flowers or chocolates which are always in vogue!

So don’t forget to honor your mother-in-law in a special way—and if you can, please let us know how her day went.

article about mothers-in-law, Evening Star newspaper article 5 April 1938

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 5 April 1938, page 33

Some of you may be wondering if there is a Father-in-Law Day. Yes there is. It’s always on July 30.

Perhaps you missed it—so this year be sure to mark your calendar for Mother-in-Law Day this Sunday, October 26, and also add next year’s counterpart for the kind father-in-law in your life.

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Annie Edson Taylor: 1st Person to Barrel down Niagara Falls

For years, male daredevils had gained fame and fortune by daring to brave the rapids near Niagara Falls while floating in barrels—being very careful not to go over. However, it was a destitute, widowed, female school teacher who took the ultimate plunge: on 24 October 1901 Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Although suffering a scalp wound and some bruises, she survived her daring feat without any broken bones—but, as noted in the newspaper article below, she was “somewhat hysterical” after taking her plunge. And little wonder!

photo of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel

Photo: Annie Edson Taylor. Source: Francis J. Petrie Photograph Collection; Wikimedia Commons.

Taylor claimed to be in her 40s, but her historic adventure actually occurred on her 63rd birthday. In front of a mocking crowd she went over the falls in a large pickle barrel, using cushions for padding. The press reported her astonishing feat, and she went on a speaking tour to capitalize on her sudden fame. Sadly, that fame proved fleeting and no fortune rewarded her efforts; she died poor at the age of 82 on 29 April 1921 at the Niagara County Infirmary.

article about Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, Boston Journal newspaper article 25 October 1901

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 October 1901, page 1

The old newspaper article reported:

“Niagara Falls, N.Y., Oct. 24.—Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor, 50 years old, went over Niagara Falls on the Canadian side this afternoon and survived, a feat never before accomplished and, indeed, never attempted except in the deliberate commission of suicide. She made the trip in a barrel. Not only did she survive, but she escaped without a broken bone, her only apparent injuries being a scalp wound one and one-half inches long, a slight concussion of the brain, slight shock to her nervous system and bruises about the body. She was conscious when taken out of the barrel. The doctors in attendance upon her tonight said that, though she was somewhat hysterical, her condition is not at all serious and that she probably will be out of bed within a few days.

To the Abyss and Over

“Mrs. Taylor’s trip covered a mile ride through the Canadian rapids before she reached the brink of the precipice. Her barrel, stanch as a barrel could be made, was twirled and tossed and buffeted through those delirious waters but escaped serious contact with rocks. As it passed through the smoother, swifter waters that rushed over into the abyss it rode in an almost perpendicular position with its upper half out of the water. As it passed over the brink it rode at an angle of about 45 degrees on the outer surface of the deluge and descended as gracefully as a barrel can descend to the white foaming waters 158 feet below. True to her calculations, the anvil fastened to the bottom of the barrel kept it foot downward, and so it landed. Had it turned over and landed on its head, Mrs. Taylor’s head must have been crushed in and her neck broken.

After the Drop

“The ride through the rapids occupied 18 minutes. It was 4:23 o’clock when the barrel took its leap. It could not be seen as it struck the water below, because of the spray, but in less than half a minute after it passed over the brink it was seen on the surface of the scum-covered water below the falls. It was carried swiftly down to the green water beyond the scum, then half-way to the Maid of the Mist Landing. It was caught in what is known as the Maid of the Mist Eddy and held there until it floated so close to the shore that it was reached by means of a pole and hook and drawn in upon the rocks, at 4:40 o’clock or 17 minutes after it shot the cataract.

“Ten minutes later the woman was lifted from the barrel, and half an hour later she lay on a cot on First Street, in Niagara Falls, on the American side.

“She thanked God she was alive, thanked all who had helped her in any way, said she would never do it again, but that she was not sorry she had done it, ‘if it would help her financially.’

Few Moments Unconscious

“She said she had prayed all during the trip except during ‘a few moments’ of unconsciousness just after her descent. The barrel in which Mrs. Taylor made the journey is 4½ feet high and about 3 feet in diameter. A leather harness and cushions inside protected her body. Air was secured through a rubber tube connected with a small opening near the top of the barrel.

“Mrs. Taylor is a school teacher and recently came here from Bay City, Mich.”

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To date she is the first and only woman to ever go down Niagara Falls in a barrel.

article about Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, Centre Daily Times newspaper article 12 January 1976

Centre Daily Times (State College, Pennsylvania), 12 January 1976, page 7

Did any of your female ancestors pull off a remarkable daredevil stunt that made the news? Tell us about them in the comments section.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s Death as Mysterious as His Stories

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan describes the puzzling circumstances surrounding the death of writer Edgar Allan Poe, a real-life story as mysterious and macabre as any tale or poem he ever wrote.

Edgar Allan Poe died 7 October 1849 after a mysterious medical condition that lasted several days prior to his demise. Nearly two hundred years later most people have heard of Edgar Allan Poe, and many have experienced the thrill of reading one of his stories of mystery and the macabre. He was the inventor of the detective story, whom even Sherlock Holmes’s author honored. Poe’s literary style was not moralistic or allegorical. He told a story simply for the thrill of the story.

But the story of his final days is also a thriller full of mystery and confusion. Let’s examine some of the documentation and discussion of the mystique around his death.

portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, Evening Star newspaper article 18 January 1931

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 18 January 1931, page 78

What Happened to Poe?

There are multiple accounts of Poe’s last days. Although he had been feeling unwell for some time, he was rekindling a romance with his childhood sweetheart—and things seemed to be going well in his life. However, on 3 October 1849—Election Day—he was found in a Baltimore street gutter in a disheveled and incoherent state. He was in clothes that did not belong to him and was unable to account for his current state. The friend that found him took him to the hospital where, after several days of illness and incoherency, he died on the 7th of October. He was 40 years old.

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Many believed that he was drunk, but there is some dispute on whether or not he smelled of alcohol. Other theories, historical and modern, include: “delirium tremens, heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, meningeal inflammation, cholera, and rabies.”* Poe was also an acidic literary critic and it has been suggested that something malicious could have happened to him as a result.

There was one person, Dr. John Joseph Moran, who remained with him during the extent of his brief hospital stay. However, this man’s story changed over time—a story he gave in exchange for money—and the last words he claimed Poe uttered (“Lord, help my poor soul”) didn’t seem plausible to his friends and were unlikely in his medical condition. These things lead one to question the reliability of this source.

Missing Records

Tragically, all documentation during Poe’s last days, including hospital records and even his death certificate, are missing. What is still existent are newspaper articles, both contemporary and reflective. In the following article, written 100 years after his death, the reporter tried to trace the last days of Poe. He also tried to incorporate nearly every theory of his death into one.

article about the death of Edgar Allan Poe, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 2 October 1949

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 2 October 1949, page 79

Unfortunately, the statements given are not cited or even attributed, making it impossible to evaluate their accuracy. Without more information it is hard to tell what is first-hand (primary) information and what is second-hand information—or even intentional mythology. But it makes for interesting reading.

Rufus Griswold

Poe appears to have been a polarizing character. He had staunch friends and bitter enemies. Many of these people were prolific writers and had great influence. Some of these enemies, especially Rufus Griswold, took advantage of the inexplicable circumstances surrounding Poe’s death to assassinate his character. Griswold was a contemporary writer with whom Poe had repeated interaction, including possibly a love rivalry. Poe had been critical of Griswold’s work, and “Griswold succeeded Poe as editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe’s.”**

Griswold seems to have undertaken a calculated attack against Poe after his death. His disparaging obituary written under the pseudonym “Ludwig” went viral and left a lasting scar on Poe’s public image (see article below). Many people, even today, have been hoodwinked by Griswold’s depiction of Poe as a wild, depraved drunk who happened to write chilling horror stories. Some feel that this scandalous image helps to make his writings even more thrilling.

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Griswold cruelly began the obituary:

Edgar Allan Poe is dead…This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. He had readers…but he had few or no friends.

obituary for Edgar Allan Poe, Enquirer newspaper article 16 October 1849

Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 16 October 1849, page 4

Farewells from Friends & Fans

Not everyone was of the same mind as Griswold. A more complimentary article announcing his death opined:

Mr Poe was equally remarkable for his genius and his acquirements…He had acquired accomplishments rarely attained by men far more advanced in years.

obituary for Edgar Allan Poe, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 23 October 1849

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 23 October 1849, page 1

Another writer naively stated:

His literary abilities were unquestionable; and had they been properly chastened and exerted under the guidance of a clear heart and head, he might have left a name among the first upon the list of those who have enriched American literature with productions of lasting interest and value.

obituary for Edgar Allan Poe, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 9 October 1849

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 October 1849, page 2

While it was generally assumed that Poe had drunk himself to death, his friend actively defended his sobriety. He had struggled with excessive drinking in the past, but had been under control for some time and had even signed a sobriety pledge shortly prior to his death. While it is possible he fell off the wagon, there are witnesses who say his breath and person did not smell of alcohol.

article about Edgar Allan Poe, Portland Daily Advertiser newspaper article 20 October 1849

Portland Daily Advertiser (Portland, Maine), 20 October 1849, page 2

Who Was the Real Edgar?

So who was Edgar Allan Poe really? Was he a depraved drunk? Was he a troubled man? From my readings, Poe emerges as a sympathetic character with literary genius and a challenging life surrounded by the untimely deaths of many of those closest to him, including his father, mother, wife, and close friends. He dealt with these challenges and with the artist’s stereotypical mood-swings using escapism: gambling, drinking, and running away when he perceived it necessary. He had strong opinions about his trade and was fearless in their expression. He needed to be loved. His writing remains influential and he was one of the first authors to attempt supporting himself on his pen alone. It is highly unfortunate that more original documentation about his life does not survive to give us a clearer picture of him.

Perhaps a fitting tribute would be to read one of his stories this Halloween, or perhaps print and frame a copy of one of his famous poems from a newspaper article? Make sure you peruse through the Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser which published some of Poe’s earliest poetry.

Here’s an example, this one from a Vermont newspaper.

poem "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe, Vermont Phoenix newspaper article 28 February 1845

Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, Vermont), 28 February 1845, page 1

Genealogy Challenge:

Investigate the newspaper archives and sleuth for more clues surrounding Poe’s mysterious death. Please share you finds with us in the comments.

————-

* Unless otherwise attributed, all information comes from old newspapers and Wikipedia’s article, “Edgar Allan Poe”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Allan_Poe, accessed October 2014.
** Wikipedia’s article, “Rufus Wilmot Griswold”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rufus_Wilmot_Griswold, accessed October 2014.

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Do You Celebrate Birthday Traditions Like Your Ancestors Did?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find stories about birthday traditions celebrated by our ancestors.

Chances are you celebrate some of your birthday traditions the way your ancestors did—and not just extravagant gatherings with cakes, balloons and presents. Many cultures have unique and fun ways to commemorate a birthday.

photo of a Chinese birthday party

Photo: Chinese birthday party. Source: Library of Congress.

Birthday Traditions

This list of birthday traditions came from the following websites:

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Birthday traditions around the world:

  • Do you pull one’s earlobes for each year of one’s life? Then you might come from Argentina.
  • Does your family host barbeques with fairy bread for the children? Then you may have Australian roots.
  • Is a one-year-old surrounded with toys and watched to see which one is picked first? In China, the selection is said to represent a future life pursuit. The child typically receives gifts with tigers which are said to protect children, and noodles are served at lunch.
  • Do you receive a cake shaped like a man? Then perhaps you are connected to Denmark.
  • Is a girl’s 15th birthday celebrated with a waltz, 14 young dancing couples and a new pair of shoes from her father? This is reported to be a tradition in Ecuador.
  • How about a wooden wreath placed on a table with candles representing your age during a Geburtstagsparty (birthday party)? This is common in Germany.
  • In many Hispanic cultures there are fiestas, complete with traditional food and piñatas filled with candy. Guests take turns trying to break it open with a stick while blindfolded.
  • The Irish are known to tip a child upside down and bump him/her gently on the floor.
  • In Jordan, many make a wish while cutting the cake with the wrong side of the knife.
  • In parts of Russia, pies are baked with greetings carved into the crust.
  • In Vietnam, a birthday is called a tet, and it is said that many celebrate them on New Year’s Day rather than on the actual birthday.

This boy celebrated his third birthday with a piñata.

article about Tony Perez's birthday party, Prensa newspaper article 12 October 1945

Prensa (San Antonio, Texas), 12 October 1945, page 2

Birthdays of Leaders, Presidents & Royalty in the News

Early reports in newspapers focus more on celebrations of leaders and royalty than ordinary citizens. The birthdays of presidents, and in particular George Washington, were frequently observed with parades and special dinners. At least one party was held at a tavern in his honor. This 1782 newspaper article notes that the entertainment for Washington’s birthday was elegant, and the whole festivity was conducted with exquisite propriety and decorum. One can almost imagine the toasts said in his name!

article about a celebration for George Washington's birthday, Massachusetts Spy newspaper article 21 February 1782

Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 21 February 1782, page 2

This earlier article from 1711 notes a special present for the Prince of Prussia’s mother—she was to receive a thousand ducats annually “on the Birth-day of the young Prince.”

article about the birthday of Frederick William, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 21 May 1711

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 21 May 1711, page 2

This is one of my favorite birthday announcements. In 1820 the Emperor of Russia issued an imperial Ukase abolishing all the war taxes that had been imposed eight years earlier.

article about the Emperor of Russia's birthday, Arkansas Weekly Gazette newspaper article 20 May 1820

Arkansas Weekly Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas), 20 May 1820, page 3

Researching Birthdays of Our Ancestors

Although GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives search page doesn’t have a specific category for birthdays, you can be successful by searching for ancestors in other ways. A fun way is to research a celebration in the Photos & Illustrations category.

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If you get lucky, you’ll find a photo of a child or adult and a description of the birthday festivities. Try entering your ancestor’s name and then include “birthday” in the keyword field.

Many accounts, including this one for Miss Cora Van Fleet’s 17th birthday party, include a list of attendees.

article about Cora Van Fleet's birthday, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 1 November 1914

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 1 November 1914, page 21

Since early newspapers rarely described birthdays for ordinary citizens, also try searching for descriptions of parties within news article stories. Although this account from 1833 was entirely from the author’s imagination, one can appreciate the frivolity and excitement one might feel from receiving a birthday party invitation delivered by sleigh.

article about Aura's birthday, Salem Gazette newspaper article 15 October 1833

Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts), 15 October 1833, page 1

Coming of Age Parties

If your ancestors celebrated a coming of age party, such as a quinceanera (15th birthday party for Mexican females) or Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah (Jewish parties typically at age 12 or 13), you may find accounts in the papers, including Henry Sahlein’s from 1863.

article about Henry Sahlein's barmitzvah, Jewish Messenger newspaper article 16 January 1863

Jewish Messenger (New York, New York), 16 January 1863, page 21

And finally, I’ll leave you with this happy image, to remind us all how much fun birthday parties can be!

photo of Norma Horydczak and friends at her 8th-year birthday party

Photo: Norma Horydczak and friends at her 8th-year birthday party. Source: Library of Congress.

Do you have a special tradition to celebrate birthdays in your family? If so, please share it with us in the comments section.

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Remembering the Young: Children’s Death Records in the News

I was reading this old newspaper and noticed that obituary after obituary was for young children.

children's obituaries, Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics newspaper article 28 August 1875

Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 28 August 1875, page 3

So many reports of very young children dying early deaths in this old newspaper article:

  • Martha Banks, aged 1 year, 11 months and 2 days
  • Arthur Lincoln Vaughan, aged 6 months and 12 days
  • Caroline E. Hein, aged 11 months and 13 days

August 1875 was clearly a brutal month for children and their families in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

It is so tragic that their lives ended at such a young age.

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It would be easy for this information to be lost, leaving these children’s short lives forgotten. It’s comforting to know that I can find these death records in GenealogyBank, knowing that these youngest members of the family will not be lost to the family history we are compiling—that their lives, though painfully short, are permanently recorded in the family tree.

Because newspaper editors were so good about including their age in years, months and days, it is easy to compute their dates of birth from the information contained in the death records.

Make every effort to find and document every person in your family tree.

We can do this.

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Filling In My Family Tree with Stories in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott shares some of the family stories he’s learned by searching through old newspapers—stories that help him get to know his ancestors better than just the names and dates on a family tree.

Everyone who enjoys working on their family history knows that nothing enhances your family tree and attracts more family to your work than the stories you weave together in your research! My family tree is full of interesting stories—and I am always on the lookout for more of them to add to our family history every opportunity I get. One of the best places I have found for discovering these stories is in historical newspapers—and GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives are my “go to” source for those newspapers.

GenealogyBank’s newspapers have given me some of the biggest leads in my genealogy work, as well as having added real sparkle to, and interest in, our family tree.

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My Great Grandfather the Union Man

It was a newspaper discovery that really helped me break down the brick wall that was my maternal great grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha. My breakthrough genealogical find was this 1896 newspaper article that stated: “J. K. Vicha of the Clothing Salesmen’s union was nominated and elected by acclamation.” With this tidbit of knowledge that my great grandfather had been the president of the Central Labor Union, I was able to begin following his career through the years.

article about Joseph Vicha being elected president of the Central Labor Union, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 January 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 January 1896, page 3

It was then with particular interest that I read an article from the same date but published in a different Cleveland newspaper, titled “Peanut Reform. How the Central Labor Union Regards the School Bank.” It seems that with my great grandfather as president, the Central Labor Union was protesting the establishment of savings accounts at public schools…something that I well remember from my own younger school days. I guess he must not have been successful in his protest on this matter!

article about the Central Labor Union protesting the establishment of savings accounts at public schools, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 9 January 1896

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 January 1896, page 8

My Mother’s First Engagement

Another fascinating fact I found concerned my own mother. While I was looking for any possible newspaper articles regarding her marriage to my dad, I happened to find this 1942 article. It was a brief story regarding an engagement announcement made by my grandmother for my mother, Laverne Evenden. However, I quickly noticed it was to a man she never ended up marrying. What a fun family find! Plus it brought a great opportunity for me to hear the whole story of what happened from my mom later on.

engagement notice for Laverne Evenden and Lincoln Christensen, Plain Dealer newspaper article 4 January 1942

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 January 1942, page 50

My Cousin & Minnie

Of course one of my all-time favorite story finds in the newspaper for my family tree—as regular readers of this blog have heard me talk about before—was the story of one of my cousins, Joseph Kapl, who as a zookeeper was almost trampled to death by the “loveable” Minnie the elephant!

article about zookeeper Joseph Kapl and Minnie the elephant, Plain Dealer newspaper article 23 March 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 March 1915, page 4

The West Side “Dean”

In one instance I was able to find, in an obituary, wonderful details about the life of another of my ancestors, Dr. J. J. Kotershall. While I am accustomed to finding worthwhile genealogical information in obituaries, Dr. Kotershall’s held some real gems. His 1945 obituary explained that he was “instrumental in bringing to Cleveland the city’s first X-ray units in 1903.” It also reported: “Born in Cleveland of Bohemian parentage, Dr. Kotershall had spent the major part of his practice among the Bohemian, Slavic, Polish, and German groups on the West Side.” The old news article even listed where he attended college and conducted his internship. It was a real gold mine.

obituary for Dr. Joseph Kotershall, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 December 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 December 1945, page 6

Pictures of the Pretty Twins

On another occasion I was working on a branch of our family tree that included two sisters, Josephine and Florence. I had the feeling they might be twins since their births were listed as the same on the 1920 U.S. Census. Then I discovered a 1937 article with the headline “Twins Choose Dissimilar Careers.” This old newspaper article confirmed my suspicion that the sisters were indeed twins, plus it featured photographs of the twins as well—and provided a very complete review of their formative years. The best, however, might have been the fact that it also listed their parents and home address.

article about the twins Florence and Josephine Kotershall, Plain Dealer newspaper article 7 June 1937

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 June 1937, page 3

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A Genuine Country Fair

In addition to our ancestors’ stories that we can find in newspapers, there are also those stories we can discover that add to our understanding of places and events in our own lives. For instance, as a youngster I remember when the week of the county fair was something that my buddies and I looked forward to all year long. The rides, the midway, the games, the booths, the animals, and naturally the food! In just a few minutes of searching in the newspapers I found an 1896 article showing that the fair began as the “West Cuyahoga County Fair” and was advertised in the newspaper back then as “a genuine country fair.”

article about the West Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 September 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 September 1896, page 10

As this 1927 newspaper advertisement shows, it is evident that the fair had become “the” fair since it was billed as simply the “Cuyahoga County Fair” complete with horse racing and the King’s Rodeo.

ad for the Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 28 August 1927

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 August 1927, page 10

It was even more fun when I came across a 1967 news article. Oh, how that one brought back memories! My best boyhood friend Matt and I would marvel at the sideshow barkers while we tried to make up our minds as to which show we would spend some of our hard-earned paper route money to see! Those were the days!

article about the sideshow barkers at the Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper article 18 August 1967

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 18 August 1967, page 8

Over and over, newspapers provide us with key leads, great stories, and many details about the times of both our own lives and our ancestors.

What are some of your favorite stories you have found in the newspapers as you work on your genealogy and family history? I’d love to hear them so please leave a comment!

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Newspaper Crossword Puzzles & More Games Our Ancestors Played

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena shows some crossword puzzles and other games from old newspapers, giving a glimpse into the times our ancestors lived in—and, potentially, providing genealogy help because some of the names and addresses of contest winners were published in the newspaper.

Newspapers provide so much more than the news. Sure, there are the obituaries, legal notices, and vital record announcements that are so valuable to family historians. And as genealogists we all know the value of newspaper advertisements, social pages, and shipping news.

But there are also the bits that we don’t normally consider having historical or genealogical value. It’s important to remember that all parts of the newspaper contain not only a snapshot of our ancestor’s time—but even the possibility of names and information appearing in places in the newspaper you wouldn’t expect. One section that may not seem important is that containing games and puzzles.

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Today, everyone is glued to their smartphones playing online games individually or with friends. Most likely you know someone who passes time playing Angry Birds, Candy Crush or Words with Friends. For our nineteenth and twentieth century ancestor, participating in a newspaper game or puzzle might have resulted in their name, and perhaps even address, being published.

Lone Ranger’s Nephew’s Horse: the Crossword

Although not the only type of puzzle found in the newspaper, crossword puzzles are probably the one we are most familiar with. The first crossword puzzle, which looks slightly different than the crosswords of today, appeared in the New York World in 1913. By the end of the 1920s, crosswords were found in newspapers nationwide.* While we might most associate the New York Times with newspaper crosswords, they actually didn’t print their first puzzle until 1942.**

Here’s an early crossword puzzle, from a 1915 Cleveland newspaper.

crossword puzzle, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 January 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 January 1915, page 5

Crosswords were strategically placed in the newspaper, often next to advertisements. This placement forced readers to see advertisements, and potentially generate revenue for advertisers and the newspaper, as they searched for their beloved puzzle.***

It’s probably no surprise to learn that puzzles, and clues to those puzzles, change over time and reflect current events. According to the book Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles from Then and Now by Ben Tausig, puzzle clues from the World War II era included geography questions and foreign currencies. In some cases, puzzles found in the newspaper focused on current events, as in this 1945 Military Maze which includes military titles held by men who would be marching in World War I Armistice Day parades.

word puzzle, San Diego Union newspaper article 11 November 1945

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 11 November 1945, page 3

Puzzle Contests

Working a puzzle isn’t just a solitary pursuit. In some cases the puzzle was also a contest. Newspaper contests provided cash prizes to children and adults.

puzzle contest, Boston Journal newspaper article 25 October 1910

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 October 1910, page 8

In some cases prize award announcements might include names and addresses of winners, as does this 1924 Dallas newspaper article announcing that Miss Hazel Cobb, living at 5201 Live Oak Street in Dallas, had won first prize due to her correct answers.

Dallas Woman (Hazel Cobb) Wins Crossword Puzzle Prize, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 12 October 1924

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 October 1924, page 1

Children and Their Puzzles

Puzzle pages could also be found on newspaper pages dedicated to children. Marketing to kids has always been a successful advertising tactic, and with a page dedicated to kids that includes their names, social activities, games and jokes, the paper guaranteed itself revenue. This Massachusetts Boys and Girls Page from 1944 is a great example of what newspapers offered their child readers, including puzzles, riddles, stories, quizzes and scientific facts. One of the most interesting pieces on the page is the Defense Blunder which shows a cartoon of two women talking in the forest. Children are asked to name the mistake the women are making—keeping in mind that World War II was going on at the time. The answer reminds the children that forest saboteurs might be hiding listening for information, and they may be trying to set fire to precious timber/lumber supplies.

The Boys and Girls Page, Springfield Republican newspaper article 19 March 1944

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 19 March 1944, page 42

What newspaper games did your ancestors play? Better yet, what prize did they win by participating in newspaper games and contests?

Do you love solving crossword puzzles like your ancestors? Search the newspaper archives to find thousands of printable crosswords to have fun sharpening your wordsmith skills.

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* American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Brief History of Crossword Puzzles, http://www.crosswordtournament.com/more/wynne.html. Accessed 26 August 2014.
** About.com 20th century History. The first Crossword Puzzle. http://history1900s.about.com/od/1910s/qt/firstcrossword.htm. Accessed 26 August 2014.
*** Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles from Then and Now by Ben Tausig. p. 13.

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History of American Mail: Letters of Our Ancestors & the News

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan explores the history of American mail and shows how the mail system and newspapers have been closely connected—with the postal system delivering newspapers, and newspapers doing the work of the post office by alerting readers to unclaimed mail. These “uncollected mail” lists in old newspapers are a valuable genealogy resource for family history researchers.

The postal system and newspapers—especially lists of uncollected mail—have long been connected in American history, and provide another avenue of research for family history researchers.

Mail in Colonial America

The first organized mail service in colonial America began in 1692, mostly to get mail to and from Europe. The first postmaster was Andrew Hamilton, the governor of New Jersey. Then England purchased the project in 1707 and appointed Andrew’s son John as the Crown’s official postmaster.

England had a long history of interfering in colonial American communications. For example, there was the Stamp Act, the closure of colonial newspapers that seemed to criticize the Crown, and the search and seizure of private papers.

Ever the innovator, Benjamin Franklin instituted the penny post concept. Mail was delivered to the post office and the recipient was to pick it up there. However, for a penny, Franklin would have it delivered to the person’s home or office. However, Franklin was removed from his position as postmaster due to his revolutionary leanings.

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Franklin was also a newspaper man. At that time newspapers were produced as a way for printers to make a little on the side when the press didn’t have any other work. These newspapers were often sent by post to distant locations. Franklin was an advocate of getting the mail (and the news) out on time, and with the best business practices he knew.

Genealogy Tip: Newspapers published lists of people who had letters waiting for them in the post office. Checking these lists can help you pin down your ancestor to a place and time.

Letters in the Post-Office at Newport, Newport Mercury newspaper article 15 July 1765

Newport Mercury (Newport, Rhode Island), 15 July 1765, page 3

History of the American Postal Service

As things heated up between England and the American colonies, mail services became even more challenging. One way to subdue an enemy is to prevent communications between those in charge and the troops on the ground. Since the Crown owned the mail system, they held the advantage in communications.

The Battle of Concord was in April of 1775. The following month the primary business for the Continental Congress was to establish a mail system. Benjamin Franklin was the obvious choice for the first postmaster. Originally, the main purpose of the postal service was to get news and information out for military purposes.

Newspapers of the time, which focused on business and politics, were anxious to get information from other states. Many newspapers lacked much actual news reporting and simply parroted months-old news from other papers. They would subscribe to distant newspapers and would copy the articles word for word into their own paper. The lack of any copyrights allowed this to occur without even an attribution of the original writer or publishing newspaper. In fact, there was rarely an acknowledgement of the author in the original paper. News was published anonymously. (It wasn’t until World War I that the author of each article was regularly listed. This was a military move to ensure that the author was held accountable for the information he or she disseminated that might go against the censorship laws.)

During this time the paper’s printer was also the publisher, editor, and news collector all wrapped into one. Using other newspapers’ articles allowed them to publish more information with limited investment. This early newspaper practice means that you may find information about your ancestor in distant newspapers.

Genealogy Tip: Begin your searches in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives nationwide rather than just selecting one state’s papers to view, since news was published far away in places you wouldn’t expect.

Newspapers not only used the mail service to gather information, but also to disseminate it. Readers could subscribe to a newspaper regardless of where they lived and have it delivered via the postal service. This increased the number of potential readers for a paper, thereby increasing the print load and profits of a newspaper service. This eventually led to the need to hire more staff and to increase the speed of the printing process. The news could become a business in its own right instead of a side job to keep the printing press busy.

This map shows an old trail that was used for “mail and express service” in Missouri.

trail map of Howard County, Missouri, Kansas City Star newspaper article 11 November 1915

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 11 November 1915, page 4

Uncollected Mail

Originally, mail was delivered to the post office and recipients stopped by to collect it. In the city, large companies hired clerks to make the mail run, carting mail to and from the post office multiple times a day. In rural areas, the post office became a place to gather, especially in more isolated areas. Going to get the mail was a big deal. Families dressed up to go to town to collect the mail and spend time socializing with their neighbors. However, not everyone could make it out every month to check for mail. When an item of mail remained uncollected at the post office, an advertisement was run in the local paper to alert the intended recipient. This is a valuable resource for modern-day genealogists.

uncollected mail list, Illinois Weekly State Journal newspaper article 11 March 1842

Illinois Weekly State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 11 March 1842, page 1

Genealogy Tip: These lists show the names of people (women and men) who lived in the area. This can help a family history researcher establish the location of an ancestor.

This resource is especially beneficial in instances where two or more people who initially appear to be one and the same can now be separated, thanks to these mail lists.  In addition, the appearance of a name over several months can indicate that the person in question may have moved, was ill, was temporarily out of the area, or possibly even dead. This is an alert for the genealogist to do more investigation into their ancestor’s life during the time the name appears. Because women also received mail, their name may be listed. They may even be listed by their own name and not by the more commonly used feminized version of their husband’s name: Mariah Johnson rather than Mrs. Simon Johnson.

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It would be especially helpful to find the name of an ancestor in a list of letters remaining at the post office in the place they had just moved from. For example, if you know Simon Johnson was living in Crawford County, Indiana, after 1845—but you weren’t sure where he moved from—you could search for Simon Johnson’s name in the postal lists. Finding his name in a Randolph County, North Carolina, mail list prior to 1845 would not prove that he came from there. However, it does provide a clue to begin searching for him in the records in that area.

One thing to keep in mind is that the lists were often alphabetized by the last name. This means the name will appear last name first: “Johnson, Mariah.”

Genealogy Tip: Entering a first and last name into GenealogyBank’s search engine will allow for the name to appear in reverse order, so no special search techniques are needed. However, you can narrow the results by entering a keyword such as “letters,” “post office,” or “mail.” Use only one keyword at a time and remember that the word must appear in the article exactly as you typed it.

unclaimed mail list, Salt Lake Daily Telegraph newspaper article 17 May 1866

Salt Lake Daily Telegraph (Salt Lake City, Utah), 17 May 1866, page 3

Unfortunately for us, the actual “unclaimed” letters did not appear in the newspapers. Although many letters were republished in newspapers because of their informative nature, that was done by consent and not because they were unclaimed. The unclaimed letters lists were simply lists of people’s names.

Expanding the American Mail Service

The goal of the postal system has always been to reach every person. As the population spread across the newly created country, the mail system improved roads to reach them. As the postal roads became safer and more passable, more people moved to outlying areas. And so a chicken and egg situation was created. Did migration expand the postal system or did the postal system increase migration? The answer is: “yes.”

Newspapers were certainly not the only pieces of mail that went through the postal system. But to give an idea of how many newspapers were being delivered around the country, Richard R. John in Spreading the News claims that the post office delivered 2.7 newspapers per person in 1840!* Outside of the largest urban areas, the news was still delivered weekly at this point. But that is still a lot of mail!

By 1847, stamps were minted and the sender now paid the postage. Building on Franklin’s penny post delivery system, the postal service delivered the mail for two cents. In 1863, urban mail was delivered for free—if the city had adequate sidewalks and street lighting in addition to named streets and house numbers. Sixty-five percent of the American population lived outside of these metropolises in the 1890s when rural mail delivery finally became free.** Mail boxes began in 1912 and were required by 1923.

Here’s subscription information for the Idaho Statesman in 1898, giving terms for delivery by mail or carrier.

subscription rates for the Idaho Statesman, Idaho Statesman newspaper advertisement 10 August 1898

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 10 August 1898, page 2

Lost Mail a.k.a. Dead Letters

Sometimes, mail was lost or became undeliverable. The “dead letter office” began in 1825 to gather all of these documents. The local post office was required to advertise the existence of the mail in the newspaper before forwarding it on to the dead letter office. Once there, any valuables were removed and the rest of the letter was burned. This office has a long and interesting history that can be found in the newspaper archives.

Genealogy Tip: Enter the phrase “dead letter office” into the “Include Keywords” field in the search box to find articles.

Here is a sampling of dead letter office articles.

In 1925 in just one post office, 200 letters had been sent in “absolutely blank envelopes,” 600 parcels had been mislabeled, and an astonishing 20,000 letters in one year had been forwarded to the dead letter office!

article about the post office's "dead letter office," Repository newspaper article 31 May 1925

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 31 May 1925, page 8

Here is an excellent and informative article from 1846.

article about the post office's "dead letter office," St. Albans Messenger newspaper article 29 April 1846

St. Albans Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 29 April 1846, page 1

Here is a picture of a dead letter office from 1985.

article about the post office's "dead letter office," Advocate newspaper article 1 November 1985

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 1 November 1985, page 30

So don’t forget to include mail lists in your searches. These informative lists are another example of how valuable newspapers are to family history research.

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* Richard R John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 4.
** The United States Postal Service, An American History 1775-2006 (Washington DC: Government Relations, 2012), p. 22.

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