Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


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


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


Directing Student Research in Original Sources: A Radical Republicans Experiment


As a full-time high school teacher who aspires to be an independent scholar and a mom, I am always multitasking. My lesson plan for teaching about the Radical Republicans of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era was conceived to serve more than one purpose. On the one hand, it would provide the core of our class discussion and individual engagement with the subject of the Civil War Era. Students would employ and develop their skills for research, writing, and presentation. They would work alone and in groups. Best of all, they would make contributions to my own research project—about Radical Republicans—turning up original documents and making connections that I can hope to include in my forthcoming book, The Revolutionary Republicans, which will be published in 2014 by Hill and Wang.

Directing Student Research in Original Sources: A Radical Republicans Experiment


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


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


Defying Destiny: How Nineteenth-Century Newspapers Survived a Disruptive Technology

It was, announced one newspaper headline, "a great revolution approaching." A new communications technology threatened to create a dramatic upheaval in America's newspaper industry, disrupting the status quo and threatening the business model that had served the industry for years. This "great revolution," one editor warned, would mean that some publications "must submit to destiny, and go out of existence." 1 To modern ears, this all sounds familiar: America's newspapers are grappling with the advent of the internet, and several of them have declared bankruptcy or ceased publication. But this prediction was made in 1845, and the revolutionary technology of the day was not the internet, but the electric telegraph.

Just a year earlier, in May 1844, Samuel Morse had first connected Washington and Baltimore by wire, and sent the first message, in dots and dashes: "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT." The second message to be sent down Morse's line was of more practical value, however: "HAVE YOU ANY NEWS?" As a network of wires began to spread across the country, it was obvious that the technology would have a huge impact on the newspaper industry. But would the telegraph be friend or foe?

Defying Destiny: How Nineteenth-Century Newspapers Survived a Disruptive Technology


Of Presidents and Papers

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, established at Princeton University, is preparing the authoritative and comprehensive edition of the correspondence and papers of our nation’s third president. As historians editing Jefferson’s incoming and outgoing correspondence, we are responsible for gathering documents and making them available to posterity in an accurate, transcribed, and contextualized format through our published and digital editions. Our “humanities laboratory” (as our general editor Barbara Oberg refers to it), consists of folders of more than 70,000 photocopied manuscripts gathered from over 900 repositories and private collections. These manuscripts line every wall and fill almost every surface area of our small space and are the core of our collaborative scholarly enterprise.

We never tire of sharing with others the process of producing a documentary edition. When we hosted an annual documents-based seminar for high school students last year, the teenagers looked incredulous when we explained that our compilation of Jefferson correspondence, some in multiple versions, is the single most comprehensive resource of its kind in the world. The techno-savvy students were equally intrigued by the clunky object that, until recently, occupied a corner of our office. We explained that this microfilm reader had enabled us to search thousands of documents from federal repositories and other smaller collections. As we demonstrated this alien technology to a texting and tweeting generation, we were reminded that not long ago these microfilmed manuscripts or microcard collections were the only access points to archives short of in-person visits.

Of Presidents and Papers


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