Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


The Lost Prince of American Bohemians: The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Ralph Keeler, Literary Vagabond

Ralph Keeler is the most extraordinary American that you’ve never heard of—a performer, traveler and writer who blazed a trail through the heart of literary scene on both sides of the continent in the decade after the Civil War. His astonishing adventures—and, particularly, his equally enigmatic end—can be traced through the pages of America’s Historical Newspapers.

 

A potted biography can hardly do justice to the vicissitudes of Keeler’s short life: as a runaway child, Keeler became part of a minstrel troupe that travelled around the country, including a stint along the Mississippi River in a showboat. Leaving that life behind to pursue an education, he made his way to Europe where he enrolled as a student at Heidelberg University. Returning to America after the Civil War, he gravitated to San Francisco—at that moment, the capital of Bohemian life in the newly reunited nation. It was an apt choice: Keeler’s flamboyant personal style soon captured the attention of the city’s literati, and he became friends with writers like Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Charles Warren Stoddard. At first he worked as a teacher: notice of his address to the “The State Teachers’ Institute,” in his role as “Principal of the Foreign Evening School,” appeared in the Weekly Alta-California, the city’s leading newspaper, in May 1867.

The Lost Prince of American Bohemians: The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Ralph Keeler, Literary Vagabond


Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers

Born on January 12, 1856, in Florence, Italy, to American parents, John Singer Sargent—one of the most important portrait painters of his time—lived all his life in Europe, including Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. He did not touch U.S. soil until 1876 when he was 20. However, his U.S. citizenship and his ancestral roots in New England were sufficient enough for historians to classify him as a prominent American artist. More importantly, Sargent himself considered it an honor to be American; he remained an American citizen all his life, although he chose to live in Great Britain from 1884 until his death in 1925. In 1912 American newspapers reported that he would have received the British Order of Merit had he become a British subject. [1]

Largely due to his American identity, in particular after he attained distinction as a portrait painter of upper-class Europeans, United States newspapers continuously carried news about Sargent during his lifetime. They were, for the most part, generous with their praise of his achievements and success, regarding him as “a master of technique, and as one of the most brilliant artists of his day, with no equal among the men of his generation.”[2] When Sargent was elected a full member of the British Royal Academy in 1897, the Cleveland Plain Dealer went so far as telling its readers that “Sargent has beaten his master, Carolus Duran, on his own ground. He has surpassed Romney in a painter’s skill, while his vivacity is only equaled by Millais. He is almost worthy of the jealousy of Velasquez.”[3]

Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers


Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers

I am finishing a history of antebellum black politics, a little-studied topic for which many of the usual sources are unavailable: white politicians did not record their correspondence with black men, and the latter rarely donated personal papers to libraries, for obvious reasons. However, America’s Historical Newspapers (AHN), used with precision, can produce extraordinary insights into the quotidian fabric of American politics and culture, evidence otherwise unavailable. 

Three examples illustrate its unique capacities.  First, AHN can be extremely productive in combination with another archival base—the decennial manuscript census of the U.S. The latter can be searched online to locate name, state, county, and municipality going back to 1790 (I use archives.com, but there are other genealogical databases).  Prior to 1850, the information is very limited, in that only heads of households were named, with numbers of household members distributed by sex and age range; race is indicated in various ways. Starting in 1850, however, much more information is available: full names of all family members, house numbers, exact ages, employment, real property, literacy, place of birth, and more. The census, combined with hundreds of individual name searches in AHN, has allowed me to construct a prosopography of the black political class in Portland, Maine; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and Providence, Rhode Island.

Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers


The Mysterious Mr. Carter: Transatlantic Adventures in Early American Finance

In August 1799, as partisan antagonism heated up in advance of the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, the Republican press worked hard to paint the Federalist establishment in the colors of an imperial court. Drawing comparisons with Caesar’s Rome, these newspapers pointed out that leading figures in the political and business elites of the new nation were tied to each other by more than just their shared social position.

“General Hamilton,” wrote a correspondent to the New London Bee, “is married to the daughter of Gen. Schuyler, of New York sister of Mrs. Church. Mr. Church then called Carter, was co-contractor in the army with col. Wadsworth, both of whom made great fortunes by the war. And the son of Mr. C.,” the writer went on, “is about to marry the daughter of Mr. Bingham of Philadelphia, the federal Senator. Thus are our advocates for war cemented together.”

The article was soon reprinted in the Philadelphia Aurora. Its message was clear: if the Quasi-War with France were to escalate, as men like Hamilton seemed to wish, it would be ordinary folk doing the fighting and the dying, while the Federalist aristocracy would be the ones to benefit.

The Mysterious Mr. Carter: Transatlantic Adventures in Early American Finance


Runaway! Recapturing Information about Working Women's Dress through Runaway Advertisement Analysis, 1750-90

Indentured and enslaved women in the American colonies provided domestic, agricultural, and commercial labor, but left behind little documentary evidence of their lives. Some women chose to abscond from service. In Figure 1 below, a runaway woman’s master has recorded details of her appearance in a newspaper advertisement which seeks her return. Written from the master’s perspective, such runaway ads often state the name of the woman, describe her visual appearance, record the clothing she wore when she eloped, and occasionally mention personality quirks and aptitudes. These ads offer intriguing glimpses of women whose story is otherwise difficult to tell through other documentary sources.

Runaway! Recapturing Information about Working Women's Dress through Runaway Advertisement Analysis, 1750-90


Gun-barrel Censorship of a Crusading Editor: Southern Honor, at War with Freedom of the Press

On January 15, 1903, a little before 2 pm, South Carolina Lieutenant Governor James H. Tillman shot N. G. Gonzales, the unarmed editor of The State newspaper. The shooting occurred in Columbia, South Carolina, on the northeast corner of Main and Gervais Streets across from the State House, the bustling intersection of local business and politics. Gonzales had been on his way home to lunch. Tillman had just adjourned the state senate over which he presided, and walked out of the capitol accompanied by two unsuspecting state senators, George W. Brown and Thomas Talbird, who joined him for what they thought would be a pleasant stroll back to their hotel. The corner on which the shooting took place housed a clamorous streetcar transfer station, guaranteeing that there were many witnesses.

Gun-barrel Censorship of a Crusading Editor:  Southern Honor, at War with Freedom of the Press


Finding John McKinley: Fresh Discoveries about a Forgotten Supreme Court Justice

When I moved to Alabama in 1998 to take a faculty position with Auburn University’s Department of Political Science, I already knew a great deal about two of the nation’s most notable Supreme Court justices appointed from that state. John Archibald Campbell resigned from the Court at the outset of the Civil War only to return later as an attorney to argue several important cases before his former colleagues. Hugo Black, the first Supreme Court appointee of Franklin Roosevelt, spurred an expansion of the protections contained in the Bill of Rights against state and local government infringement. Upon arriving in Alabama, however, I was surprised to learn of a third justice from the state—a man named John McKinley—who was the first Alabamian to serve on the United States Supreme Court upon his appointment in 1837. McKinley intrigued me. For much of the next decade, I kept my eye out for material about him, but my own academic research and writing took me down a different path.

By early 2007, I had started to devote more time to McKinley, but quickly learned that this justice was forgotten in part because so little information was available. In all of the books and journal articles discussing McKinley that I could find, the cumulative record of his life amounted to approximately one hundred pages, and much contained in those sources was duplicative. I resigned myself to completing no more than a short article on McKinley’s life and legacy.

Finding John McKinley: Fresh Discoveries about a Forgotten Supreme Court Justice


Slow Reading the News: Gandhi’s Philosophical Experiments with His South African Newspaper

During his South African years (1893-1914), Mohandas Gandhi started a printing press and a newspaper, Indian Opinion. One of the world’s great intellectual archives, Indian Opinion constitutes an experiment with reading and writing that fed into Gandhi’s ideas on satyagraha or “passive resistance.” 

Writing in an age of vertiginous acceleration via telegraph, train and steamship, Gandhi grappled with an industrializing information order in which readers were bombarded with ever more reading matter. In this context, Gandhi saw reading and writing as ways of managing the tempos of the industrial pressure. Such strategies questioned the relationship of speed with efficiency, a link that lay at the heart of satyagraha and its critiques of industrial modernity. 

Gandhi’s ideas on reading and writing hence have much to say to our frantic, information-smothered lives. In a recent book, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Harvard University Press, 2013), I explored these themes of speed and sovereignty, satyagraha and reading. 

Satyagraha and Reading

Satyagraha is generally understood as a political practice of non-violence, civil disobedience or non-co-operation. But it is equally a mode of building swaraj or “self-rule,” which for Gandhi meant literally that, namely, rule of the self. In his thinking, such self-rule or independence cannot be conferred on a person; it has to be built up painstakingly by each individual. 

Slow Reading the News: Gandhi’s Philosophical Experiments with His South African Newspaper


The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia (Washington, D.C.) as told in the Washington Evening Star

From late 1877 until his death in early 1895, Frederick Douglass was the most prominent resident of Anacostia, the historic area located in Washington, D.C.’s Southeast quadrant. An internationally known writer, lecturer, newspaper editor, and social reformer, Douglass was a man of his neighborhood. He spoke regularly at nearby churches, invested in the area’s first street car line, and opened his Victorian mansion, Cedar Hill, to students from Howard University, where Douglass served on the Board of Trustees. Douglass’s many contributions to Washington, D.C. have been overlooked for too long.

With the digitization of the Washington Evening Star, researchers can now systemically track the growth of Anacostia, which became D.C.’s first subdivision in 1854, and the life and times of Frederick Douglass in the nation’s capital. Douglass moved from Rochester, New York, to Washington, D.C. in the early 1870s to publish and edit The New National Era, a weekly newspaper devoted to covering Reconstruction, the Republican Party, and black Washington.

Click image to view full pdf.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia (Washington, D.C.) as told in the Washington Evening Star


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


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