Thursday, March 4, 2010

Reading Old Newspapers

According to the newsletter I got from my local councilmember, March is Women's History Month. Pass it on.

So yesterday, in accordance with the promise I gave myself, I got dressed up in one of my pretty new dresses and headed downtown to the library and the microfilm reader in the Texana room. As far as I can tell, the only surviving local newspaper from the Civil War is the San Antonio Semi-Weekly News, E.G. Huston, editor; R. Finch, publisher and proprietor. On the one hand, this means I can reasonably expect to get through the whole war in a reasonable period of time; on the other hand, the San Antonio Semi-Weekly News is a crappy paper for what I want to know, which is what happened in San Antonio. Local news appears on page 2 (which soon becomes the last page; paper shortages threatened the publication as early as May 1862), distinguished by a bullet point shaped like a pointing hand, and seldom occupies as much as five column inches. The rest of the paper consists of news, well-laced with rumor, picked up from other papers; nationalist propaganda ditto; paid ads; miscellaneous filler ranging from poetry to domestic hints; and reprints of public proclamations, such as changes to the conscription rules, the declaration of martial law, and calls for volunteers.

This is the more frustrating as, having done a fair amount of more general research already, I catch the spoor of fascinating stories all over the paper. The first issue I looked at had a large ad for Gamble's Circulating Library, open all hours, getting "LARGE ADDITIONS" to its stock of history, biography, novels, essays, etc. at a rate of $0.50 per month or "a reasonable price" to borrow a single volume. Ad space seems to be sold in blocks of time, usually a month, so I wouldn't have thought anything of its disappearance had I not already read the transcript of Mr. Gamble's hearing before the military commission for distributing abolitionist literature.

Don't think too highly of him - the "abolitionist literature" consisted of a couple of books he hadn't read, one of them a religious tract with a chapter about the baptism of a slave and the other a British travel book which expresses sympathy for Indians. He mounted his own defense, and in his closing statement he points out (with justice) that these works are inadequate to convict him and that the provost marshall, having confiscated his entire stock, had plenty of time to come up with actual abolitionist books, had any existed. His defense includes statements such as "The Bible is the best pro-slavery book extant, the warrant which the Christian and Philanthropist has for this institution," and that the abolition sentiment found is trivial, incidental, and "so gross nauseous as to carry with them their own antidote." He was convicted.

Here's a tidbit from July, 1862 that would have been merely baffling had I come to this newspaper cold:
[quote]Who are they? A person who arrived here las Saturday, from Laredo, gives the information that when near old Fort Ewell, on the Nueces River, he met some 30 armed men on horseback, well-armed and equipped. Coming into hailing distance he accosted them, but could get no reply. He supposed they were bound westward. He met them at night, and thinks they were all Americans. Who are they? [/quote]

Mention of the Nueces added to the time of year answers the question for me: they are fleeing the martial law and conscription in the German-settled area around the Pedernales, and they will soon be overtaken, massacred, and the few survivors, plus their relations, dragged to San Antonio in chains. When the Texana room closed at five, I'd reached Monday, August 11, 1862; at which time the military commission had been sitting for over a month without rating a mention in the Semi-Weekly. The Massacre/Battle of the Nueces occurred on August 10, so perhaps there'll be a follow up; but since the straggling return - bearing smallpox - of Sibley's unsuccessful New Mexican expedition is noted only by a couple of lines, I'm not hopeful about it.

To be fair, the paper is only a semi-weekly with limited room, and one presumes that local news was circulating by word of mouth faster than Messrs. Finch and Huston could print it. Their subscribers may well have been better served by reprinting the war news than by repeating what they'd already learned by hanging out at the market two days ago. Also, they were laboring under censorship. Well before the declaration of martial law, in the opening days of succession, arbitrary and violent authority was exerted against the press when the Unionist Express offices were burned and the printing press dumped into the river by a paramilitary outfit led by no less a person than Ben McCullough (after whom a major local street is named).

But I'm also finding frustrating snippets like "We learn that the town of Bastrop was nearly consumed by a large fire lately." WHAT!? After the ads, in what is presumably the "Stop Press" section, we get a little more information: that "Wednesday night last" (this being the Thursday, July 10 issue) a hotel, a block of brick buildings, and ten stores had burned down, leaving only one store standing. Nothing else, no follow-up telling how the fire started or anything else about it in the Monday edition. I hope it was covered in the missing issues of the San Antonio Herald (the library has microfilms of the Herald, but not, as far as I've found so far, from the war years), because Bastrop is only 93 miles northeast San Antonio and many local people probably had family, friends, and business affairs concerned in it. Local murders and accidents are similarly given short shrift, with space taken up instead with dramatic accounts of burglary in Galveston, a young lady drowned in Clinton (north of Dallas), the mourning of Queen Victoria, the appearance of the acrobat Blondin in Liverpool, and (most annoying of all) the creative effusions of "Dr. Williams," who is to be commended for offering to treat the families of active servicemen for free but who I confess annoys me when he takes up whole column inches with his mediocre literary efforts, that could be used to tell me how those of my characters who sat out the war in San Antonio were faring.

The ads are good to me. A grocer announces that, due to the current "extraordinary" prices, he will stop dealing in produce except on consignment from the supplier (local farmers); but he will also distribute, at 6:00 A.M. Wednesday and Saturday, 50 loaves of bread "to all who may be in need." In January, Mrs. Potsschiusky advertises that she and "one of Singer's largest sewing machines" would sew for customers; she holds out for awhile but by July is no longer placing ads. Too bad; I was rooting for Mrs. P, but the lack of any industry, except cottage industry, for turning Texas's cotton and wool into fabric was doom for dressmakers. I wonder what growing girls did for stays in those days? By spring the dry goods stores are advertising for what they want more often than for what they have on offer. A small news item offers examples of the grocer's "extraordinary" prices - coffee and black pepper $1 per pound, tea $4 to $5 per pound, milk ten and a half cents per quart, soap (which is manufactured locally - Mr. S. Menger advertising for grease to produce it) a dollar a bar.

You may ask yourself: So what does any of this have to do with the lesbian western? Does she need the local papers if they don't give her local news and she knows more from other sources than they can tell her? What does she think she's going to find that she can use?

And the answer is: If I knew what I was going to use, I wouldn't have to read the whole run of the paper, would I?

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