Saturday, January 14, 2012

Digging for Dirt in Newspapers

I find it interesting that in marketing their website focuses on what we'll find in obituaries and leaves it there. While it is true that you can find quite a bit of information in an obituary, if you are lucky, I think they could expand their efforts to let people know that there is so much more to find.

My first real foray into newspapers began with a bang. It all started with a clue I found in the Ross Coller files, about one of my distant relations at the WMU Archives, Henry Harrigan. Henry had been arrested in New York City for whacking a man on the head with his cane, a blow that proved fatal. Needless to say, I wanted to learn more. My first stop was the online New York Times Archive. I knew the incident occurred in 1889 and was able to narrow my search accordingly.

I found several articles describing the incident. In a nutshell, Henry left a saloon in the wee hours of the morning when he was accosted by Patrick Reedy, who Henry claims was a stranger. Another account suggested that they were already acquainted and had argued. Either way, a scuffle ensued, Henry struck Reedy over the head with his silver-headed cane. A nearby policeman apparently heard the altercation and took both men to the police station, with Reedy resisting arrest. Reedy died days later after refusing a trepanning procedure to relieve the pressure on his swelling brain. Henry was called before a coroner's jury and claimed that Reedy tried to rob him. The attractive, athletic, dapper Henry was readily acquitted.

Another interesting tidbit that came out of the newspaper account was that Henry had “dropped $6000” on a horse race between the time of the assault and Reedy's death. In 1889, $6000 was equivalent to between approximately $730,000 (based on the amount of work by an unskilled laborer required to reach that amount) to $1.2 million (based on economy's average output per person and closely related to average income) in 2010 currency, depending on which calculator is used at Measuring Worth.

Although these newspaper accounts showed me but one slice of Henry Harrigan's life, it gave me much more than that. First, it gave me a physical description of the man. I also learned that he was interested in horse racing and gambling. Other minutia included his silver-headed cane, his friendships with a known sprinter and a baseball umpire and that he had been making a tour of New York (apparently attending other horse races). The newspapers also gave his current address in the city and mentioned that he was from San Francisco, a place I have yet to place him in any records. Clearly, the man got around. If you want to read more about Henry's run-ins with the law (as discovered in newspapers) read No Stranger to the Law.  And for a clue that led me to believe Henry probably never lived in San Francisco see Little Clues, Big Insights.

The big question I had from all of this was: where did he acquire all of that money? I have a better idea now and it required more digging in newspapers. But that is a story for another day.

For more information on what you may find in newspapers see: Beyond ObituariesAdding Context, Casting a Wide Net and Search Tips & Tricks.

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