Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Herald-Leader's ancestors deliver news, a few laughs

History books tell us what happened, and what historians think it all meant. But to know the small details of community life — what people were doing, thinking and talking about long ago — you must read old newspapers.

For example, the Lexington Public Library's copy of the Kentucky Gazette of April 13, 1793, tells me that Hawkins Kearby found a dun-colored mare on Clear Creek in what was then Fayette County. It's not much, but it's one of the few things I know about my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

I own six editions of Lexington newspapers published before the Civil War, the oldest from 1819. They chronicle events large and small and provide a candid — and often unintentionally humorous — snapshot of what life was like in places now familiar.

I don't know which seems stranger in those old newspapers: articles that refer to Henry Clay in the present tense, or advertisements showing that, even then, your loved one could be buried by a Milward.

A reader in Versailles, Sue Hart Littral, recently mailed me a fragile, folded copy of the The Lexington Daily Press of July 1, 1877. This ancestor of the Herald-Leader is still a great read.

There wasn't much big news reported that day, although one "telegraph" article reported on "Indian troubles" in California. There were lists of commodity prices from Chicago and New York, racing news from Monmouth Park in New Jersey and reports of local horse sales.

A colt by the famous stud Lexington sold at Woodburn Farm for the princely sum of $3,100. A man from New York said he would have bid $800 more, but he arrived too late because his carriage driver didn't know the way.

There are notices of upcoming events: A picnic at Woodland Park to benefit St. Joseph Hospital, a Sunday school meeting, and a show to be put on by the young ladies of Lexington to benefit the Home of the Friendless.

There are essays sternly warning of such dangers as eating between meals and buying on credit:

"The credit system is one of the most pernicious evils which afflict a community. ... A man or woman will buy more and will pay better prices under the credit system than if they were obliged to pay cash. And here is where the difficulty lies; people contract debts without knowing it, and if they pay them they bankrupt themselves, and when they do not they bankrupt the trader. In any event, the system has a tendency to make everybody poorer."

And to think, this was a century before anyone had a Visa or MasterCard.

There are advertisements, and a few articles shamelessly touting the newspaper's advertisers: "We would call the attention of our readers to the advertisement of D. Honaker ... One very important feature about the matter is that when he promises to have your boots or shoes ready, he will not disappoint."

It's easy to guess the best-read stories that day: There are several tales of illicit sex and lurid crime, written in the most purple of prose.

A story headlined "Scandal in Georgetown" tells of a prominent Baptist preacher who, at age 55, left his family and took up with a young lady "said to be endowed with many personal charms and to be possessed of singular beauty."

Another story, headlined "A Crime Most Foul," doesn't mince words: "A peaceful little home at Lexington was entered by one Ed. Roberts, a brakeman on the Big Sandy railroad, who persuaded a bright little girl, thirteen years old, to submit to his hellish passions. ... The man who would deliberately lay his plans and accomplish the ruin of a child in this manner is capable of any crime in the catalogue, and the devils in hell will hold high carnival when they claim him for their own."

And then there is an item about a young man in the Frankfort jail who was to hang later that month for killing his father-in-law. He's described at the beginning of the paragraph as "one of the most cruel and blood thirsty murderers in the annals of history," and at the end as "only twenty-eight years old and has altogether a very pleasing countenance."

As I follow the economic challenges of today's news business and see the chronicling of community news shift from ink on paper to electronic bits online, I wonder what people a century or two from now will know about the details of our lives — what we were doing and thinking and talking about.

Will future generations be able to search Ancient Google for our small news? Or will it, like us, just disappear into the ether?