Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Lake Erie by Way of Guangzhou: Or, The Other Canal Boom

What do you do when you can’t stop yourself from falling into a ditch?

In my case it was “Clinton’s Ditch”—better known as the Erie Canal, opened in 1825. It seemed that every time I went to America’s Historical Newspapers to research my dissertation—I write on the politics of early American trade with China—every query, no matter how carefully constructed, returned discussions of canals. With every “search” button clicked, I felt De Witt Clinton (he of “Ditch” fame) drag me a step more away from the salty tea-clippers at Canton, and further into the freshwater depths of the New York backcountry, yammering all the way about locks, average elevations, and the glorious future of the wheat flour trade.


De Witt Clinton, A Man with a Plan (for a Ditch)
(Source: Rembrandt Peale, Portrait of DeWitt Clinton
oil on canvas, 28 5/8 x 23 3/8, 1823, Wikimedia.org)

Clinton, a political impresario who served as a U.S. Senator, mayor of New York City, and Governor of New York State, was the chief force behind the creation of the Erie Canal, the new nation’s most ambitious and successful infrastructure project. In the early nineteenth century, waterways were the quickest and most reliable way to move freight. Unfortunately, nature did not always provide—but building canals to the hinterland, it was thought, would shrink the distance between pioneer farmers in the West and the hungry urban markets of the East. Boosters predicted that new canals would create a virtuous cycle of agricultural expansion, population growth, and increasing wealth—a recipe for national greatness.

Lake Erie by Way of Guangzhou: Or, The Other Canal Boom


Loving the "City of Homes" and its Historical Newspaper Archives

Many years ago my first drive through the residential neighborhoods of Springfield, Massachusetts, hooked me into a lifelong passion to know more of her and her people. From viewing the 1870’s brick row houses on Mattoon Street to the gilded age mansions of Ridgewood and Maple Hill, it did not take a lot of imagination to conjure up a vision of the city’s glory days. The architecture and beauty of the homes spoke clearly. My research began.


Court Square, c. 1910, the downtown heart of the City of Homes

The Registry of Deeds launched my exploration with a legal skeleton of house information: names, dates and land descriptions. The local history room at the Carnegie-built public library offered a variety of volumes, but, best of all, scrapbooks. History buffs and library staff over the decades had filled un-indexed volumes with clippings from newspapers. Browsing through the random pages, I became acquainted with the individuals that gave the city life. Microfiche of newspapers were then available on bulky readers, and occasionally I stumbled upon specific information I sought, but Lady Luck played a large role in such fortuitous events. Eventually the computer age came to the rescue with digitized records, search engines and printing capabilities.

Loving the "City of Homes" and its Historical Newspaper Archives


The Nanjing Atrocities Reported in the U.S. Newspapers, 1937-38

Click for more info on bookThe German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, is conventionally regarded as the starting point of World War II. However, war broke out much earlier in Asia. On July 7, 1937, after claiming that one of its soldiers was missing, the Japanese launched attacks at the Chinese positions near the Marco Polo Bridge in a Beijing southwestern suburb. During the following weeks, the Japanese continued with their attacks in North China, capturing Beijing, Tianjin, and other cities in the region.

While Japanese forces were engaged in conquering warfare in North China, tension built up down south in the Shanghai area. Shots were fired on August 9, 1937, in a clash in which two Japanese marines and one member of the Chinese Peace Preservation Corps were killed near the entrance to the Hongqiao Airfield in a Shanghai suburb. After rounds of unsuccessful negotiation, the clash led to the outbreak of hostilities in Shanghai on August 13. Street fighting soon escalated to ferocious urban battles when both sides rushed in divisions of reinforcements.

With heavy casualties inflicted on both sides, the war continued for three months before Shanghai fell to the Japanese on November 12, 1937. Even though Chinese troops fought persistently for months in and around Shanghai, they failed to put up effective resistance west of Shanghai, due to a chaotic and hasty evacuation. Taking advantage of the situation, the Japanese swiftly chased fleeing Chinese troops westward, reaching the city gates of China’s capital, Nanjing, on December 9.

The Nanjing Atrocities Reported in the U.S. Newspapers, 1937-38


The Untold Talent of Joseph Redding: Profiling a Polymathic Chess Expert

The ability to access newspaper databases such as America’s Historical Newspapers has revolutionized research in the history and culture of chess. Some aspects of this research require detailed chess knowledge; for example, finding specific games of old masters or tracking changes in chess styles over the years. Other aspects of chess research require no specialized knowledge to appreciate: the atmosphere of chess clubs; rivalries between players, nationalities, and ethnic groups; and the often peculiar personalities of individual players.

Some interesting traits of individual chess players fit with common stereotypes; great masters frequently combine brilliance and unworldliness in a fascinating mixture. As James Mortimer, a 19th-century chess writer, said: "It will be cheering to know that many people are skillful chess players, though in many instances their brains, in a general way, compare unfavourably with the cognitive facilities of a rabbit." Thus, it is said (I believe apocryphally) that world champion Emanuel Lasker's attempt to run a poultry farm failed because he did not realize that this required animals of both sexes.

With access to America’s Historical Newspapers, I sought to learn about chess players who made news in areas ignored by the chess press. Chess was popular in the 19th century, but there were few opportunities for players from different parts of the United States to compete against each other. It was believed that except for a handful of players who would visit the East Coast, all the best players lived in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. Players occasionally found surprisingly strong opponents in Chicago, New Orleans, and St Louis, but these were considered exceptions.

The Untold Talent of Joseph Redding: Profiling a Polymathic Chess Expert


Murder! Or the Remarkable Trial of Tommy Jemmy, 19th-Century Seneca Witch-Hunter and Defender of Indian Sovereignty

Click for more info on Dennis' bookI never read murder and mayhem stories in the newspaper. Such sensationalist accounts have been a mainstay of the U.S. popular press since it was invented in the early American republic, and they remain a prominent feature today. But the tawdry details of homicidal doings, breathlessly recounted, hold little appeal for me. And yet a few years ago one such story caught my eye and drew me in, sending me on my own investigative journey.

I read of the nefarious deed, not surprisingly, in the New York Post. Actually, the story appeared in the New-York Evening Post, not the well-known contemporary Gotham tabloid, and it recounted an event that had occurred nearly two hundred years ago, in western New York. (The Evening Post’s story was reprinted from Buffalo’s Niagara Journal of May 8, 1821.) The “crime” reported was murder, allegedly committed by a Seneca Indian man, Soonong-gize, commonly known as Tommy Jemmy. Death, even violent death, was not uncommon on the frontiers of the early republic, and Buffalo in 1821 was a frontier town. But the snippet account revealed this to be no ordinary homicide, nor was the case a simple whodunit. Tommy Jemmy never denied taking the life of the victim (a Seneca woman identified elsewhere as Kauquatau), but his defense would center on a surprising claim—that the act was not in fact “murder.”

Murder! Or the Remarkable Trial of Tommy Jemmy, 19th-Century Seneca Witch-Hunter and Defender of Indian Sovereignty


A Reverend Revealed: The Real Identity of One of the Most Influential (and Simplistic) Thinkers of the 19th Century

Pulitzer Prize winner William H. Goetzmann of Yale and the University of Texas was secure enough in his scholarship to be his own severest critic. About Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism, the last book he wrote before his death in September 2010, Goetzmann lamented to this writer (who contributed one of the book’s backcover dust jacket reviews) shortly after its publication that he had forgotten to include a few thinkers he had intended to discuss. For a second editon, I would have suggested to him that he slightly modify the subtitle to read “...from Paine to Premillenialism,” and to have dedicated a chapter at least as long as that on Paine to a relatively unknown but enormously influential character called Cyrus Ingerson Scofield—when he wasn’t being called by his criminal alias “Charlie Ingerson.”

A Reverend Revealed: The Real Identity of One of the Most Influential (and Simplistic) Thinkers of the 19th Century


Playing Hardball: Brushing Off the Memory of a Civil Rights Giant

Many scholars consider Rube Foster’s impact on the civil rights movement as important as that of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, or any other early twentieth-century figure. Today, with the exception of diehard baseball fans, few people recognize his name. However, Foster earned a mild resurrection with the recent release of his portrait as part of a U.S. Postal Service set of stamps honoring early Negro Leagues players.

Rube Foster Negro League Baseball Stamp - 2009
© USPS. All Rights Reserved.

In 1920, World War I was drawing to a close, fueling the first indicators of a looming Great Depression. Unshaken, baseball player and entrepreneur Foster braved a forbidding business climate and launched his Negro National League in Chicago. Born in 1879 in the cotton-belt region of Texas, Foster had already learned the tough lessons of an unfavorable economy.

Playing Hardball: Brushing Off the Memory of a Civil Rights Giant


"Thrills and Funerals": Researching the Board Track Era of Motorcycle Racing in America's Historical Newspapers


Motorcycle board track racing was the deadliest form of racing in the history of motorsports. Hundreds of lives were lost, both racers and spectators, during the relatively short-lived era of the boards. Yet in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, the dangers, motorcycle board track racing in the 1910s was one of the most popular spectator sports in America. Races attracted crowds of up to 10,000 fans. Young riders knew of the dangers, but chose to ignore them because the payoffs were so lucrative. Top racers could make $20,000 per year racing the board tracks, nearly a half-million dollars in today’s currency.



Click to view large pdf image
From America's Historical Newspapers.

The reasons for the lethal nature of motorcycle board track racing were easy to understand. Motorcycles, even in the 1910s, the heyday of the board track era, were capable of speeds approaching 100 miles per hour. The boards were oil soaked and slick due to the engines being of “total loss” design, meaning oil pumped by the riders to lubricate exposed valves and springs sprayed freely into the air behind the speeding bikes. Riders raced with just inches between them, sometimes even touching as riders jockeyed for position. The machines had no brakes, and spectators were separated from the speeding machines by just couple of 2x4 boards nailed between fragile posts.



"Thrills and Funerals": Researching the Board Track Era of Motorcycle Racing in America's Historical Newspapers


Nineteenth Century Imperial Manhood in Clipper Ship Cards

Gallant warriors charging into battle. Frontier conquerors. Wild landscapes. Noble Savages. Patriotic images from the early republic. Glorious clipper ships sailing to distant lands. Such visions might resemble sensational Hollywood depictions of the wild United States frontier. In fact, they represent one of Readex’s most interesting collections of nineteenth-century ephemera. Known as Clipper Ship Sailing Cards, they offer scholars a myriad of opportunities to explore relationships between maritime commerce, cultural representations of U.S. expansionist policies, and mid-nineteenth constructions of gender.

When gold was discovered on the American River near Sacramento, California, in January of 1848, news spread quickly and northeastern clipper ship companies scrambled to transport large numbers of prospectors to the west coast as fast as possible. Scholars estimate that within ten years, well over 500,000 men made the trip, with most braving the long voyage in clipper ships sailing around the tip of South America. In order to compete for passengers, ship companies began promoting the size, weight and speed of their ships by displaying 4 x 6 inch, vividly illustrated cards in office windows throughout port districts of cities such as Boston and New York.

Nineteenth Century Imperial Manhood in Clipper Ship Cards


Improving Public Policymaking with the Help of Digital Archives


Adam Smith (1723-1790) predicted the financial crisis of 2008. Well, sort of. He favored numerous small producers over a few large ones, especially where the big companies were corporations, which he loathed because they were generally so poorly governed. After examining the historical record and thinking through the economic incentives involved, Smith concluded that corporations would strive to become monopolies and that they would suffer chronically from agency problems, including the ability of corporate managers to bilk customers and stockholders. Smith would have seen the subprime mortgage and concomitant crises as simply the latest battle in a centuries-long war between principals (owners) and their agents (employees, in this case management). Managers won this time by paying themselves huge irrevocable bonuses on the basis of ephemeral paper profits. It was not the first time managers were able to expropriate significant value from stockholders and it certainly will not be the last.

Improving Public Policymaking with the Help of Digital Archives


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