In the news

Alicia Crane WilliamsLooking at one’s family at any particular point in time can be educational. Recently, I was interested in 1881 because three of my grandparents were born that year and the fourth was born in December 1880, which is close enough. I was wondering what their parents would have been reading in the newspapers at that time.

Online digitized newspapers are big business these days and there are plenty of pay sites like,, (for English papers),, and Newspapers that are still in business often have their own archives, such as the New York Times and Boston Globe, although they require subscriptions, too (you may be able to access these free through your local library).

All of these sites have search functions to look for names, but none of my ancestors were newsworthy enough to be in the papers. I wanted to browse through 1881, so I used’s browse function, which gave me a list of the papers in Massachusetts with their years of publication. I found that for 1881 the choices were the Boston Daily Globe, Boston Morning Post, Boston Post, Boston Sunday Globe, and the Boston Weekly Globe. I went for the Boston Post and the next selection was to choose the year, then the list of issue dates. I can view the pages as a JPEG or PDF, download the whole page to my computer and/or create a clipping that can be downloaded and/or printed. Tip: I download the full page as a PDF to Dropbox, then open and read on my iPad – much easier to read and transcribe.

The newspaper in this era was only four pages and most of the “news” is on the second page. The rest of the paper consists of such things as railroad and port news and schedules, advertisements, gossip, and snippets of interest. Therefore, I usually only have to read page 2 of each issue to see what was going on.

For the issue of Monday, 24 February 1881, published a day after my grandfather Ed’s birth in Natick, Massachusetts, the big news was clearly the “Great Storm.” I know about the 1881 storm that happened on January 22, because whenever we here in New England have a blizzard, it is compared to that event – even the blizzard of 1978 came nowhere near breaking its record: it had just never occurred to me before that it took place a few weeks before my grandfather was born.

Heavy snow was reported along along the coast from New Jersey to New Brunswick. Property damage in New York City, including many trees in Central Park, was estimated at over half a million dollars. Pittsfield reported that wind, hail, and snow delayed trains struggling with drifts. Newburyport called the storm the “severest for many years. The snow is five to six feet high in some places; the roof of the horse railroad stable fell through, injuring the cars, sleighs and carriages….” There was even a report – certainly unrelated to this storm – that New Orleans had an inch of snow.

Reading old newspapers gets addictive, fast, but seeing the world the way our ancestors’ did is well worth the effort.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

32 thoughts on “In the news

  1. I use the newspaper databanks constantly in my work (historic preservation) and often find the names of people you might think weren’t “newsworthy.” In the late 19th and most of the 20th century tons of community news was printed in daily & weekly newspapers: complete lists of students in public & other schools; births, marriages & deaths were listed (sometimes just a line or two); sports events, house and land sales and other public records. Police and court reports also are given with full details (including home addresses). I would urge everyone to make a thorough search through these databases for family members, remembering that names often get mangled in both the original reporting and in the search software. Sometimes I get a break just using a last name if it is a bit rare and using addresses. A final note, I have come across the names of many otherwise respectable folk in crime reports during Prohibition. In New Orleans (where I live) drinking was never considered a crime!

    1. Harriet, I’m still waiting for some of the really small newspapers to be digitized and posted online. Once they are, I expect I will find newsworthy relatives, especially that elusive one who was arrested for something, but I don’t know when, what or where.

  2. You can sometimes find sad or shocking stories in newspapers. I discovered that my great-great-grandfather Johannes Schmidt (John Smith) committed suicide in 1878, the day before his son John Jr. died of consumption (tuberculosis). This was in an article in the Hagerstown MD Herald and Torch Light, entitled “A Sad Case of Suicide – A Double Affliction”. My great grandmother, his daughter Mollie, would have been 13 at the time. Subsequent articles, all found on, concerned the administration of his estate and his wife’s appointment as legal guardian of the children. None of this was told to me by my family (though I do have a book of sermons belonging to him, in which his marriage and son’s birth are recorded). I wonder if they knew, or this had been hushed up long ago?

    1. Sorry, there is a mistake in the above: these articles were found using not

  3. I love old newspapers! Not only might you find birth, wedding (I’ve found a couple of very detailed descriptions of a wedding which were so fun!), or death announcements on your relatives, but you may find out about graduations, parties, lawsuits or bankruptcy, etc. I have used and but also have found it helpful to browse “Chronicling America” website. I’ve also found stories written by my ancestor – who was a journalist among other things. I’ve searched with initials and a last name, a full name, sometimes just a surname, and sometimes you might find results for a woman under “Mrs.” John Doe, for example. Explore all options. Sometimes just looking at the ads on a page is amusing – or learning about historical events – like a snowstorm – can be very interesting. I found articles about the opening of the Statue of Liberty in 1886 and think one of my ancestors was there! One question I have is if someone might know if one can search “Harpers Weekly” from about 1860s – if possible, by author of an article.

  4. An Aberdeen, Scotland newspaper solved a mystery for my “brick wall” ancestor who I could find no death information for. It was reported that he died at sea, being washed overboard in a gale with four other crew members off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada! They gave an account of the entire incident, from storm through the ship limping back to port in Aberdeen, and mentioned my ancestor’s wife and four children that were left behind. I will definitely spend more time with newspapers from now on!

    1. Kathy, that is great. Now that findmypast has English newspapers, I’m eagerly waiting for the local papers to see if anything comes up, especially about groups/families of locals migrating to U.S. in the 1880s.

  5. Hi Alicia,
    Here’s a tip for items you want to download as PDF and make the downloaded text searchable. This eliminates the need to make a manual transcription. Get FoxIt’s PhantomPDF software, and when you open the downloaded file in the application window, you can run the “Recognize Text” tool, which runs the PDF image through an OCR process. If you want, at the end PhantomPDF will display the words/objects that didn’t OCR correctly, and give you a chance to correct. In older, handwritten documents, this can be very helpful. Then you can save the updated file, and it will contain both the PDF image, as well as the text contained in it, as Metadata. Very helpful for things like maps that often have textual labels mixed among the graphic elements. PhantomPDF has a free trail, then you need to go to the FoxIt website to download the free add-on tools, like the OCR engine. Make sure you download the OCR dictionary for all the languages that you are going to be dealing with, that greatly increases the accuracy of the OCR recognition. They have quite a few languages available. Try it, you’ll like it! I do NOT work for FoxIt, I just find it very helpful in my research.

    1. Steven, thank you. I have downloaded the App on my IPad and will report back on how it works for me — usually takes a little bit of a learning curve.

  6. I’m a new reader of vita-brevity, it look lovely and I’m so glad I found it. I will go back and read all I can. having found my connection to the Alden Family two years ago, I didn’t not know of your associations. I may have found a yet unknown Hall Winslow family connection.

    1. Catherine, Welcome and I hope you enjoy all the good stuff in the past blogs. Let the Alden Kindred know about your new find. Lilly Cleveland, the Genealogist, can be helpful.

  7. Newspaper obituaries and marriages have given me important family information not found elsewhere. But the most fun has been finding the black sheep and unusual occurrences not handed down in family lore. One surprise was finding on the front page of the New York Herald in 1848, a family member who was a philanderer. Another who in the late 1800s was reported on for his business practices—he turned out to be the “Bernie Madoff” of his day. One other family member, a preacher in Brooklyn, died as he stood preaching thunderously to his flock. Newspapers have added color to my family history otherwise lost.

      1. In addition to the black sheep, I’ve found newspaper articles about my cousin who survived the Titanic, the prominent actor in Hollywood silent films, and an operetta star performing throughout the country in the late 1800s. After profiling almost 800 members of my family going back more than 300 years, I’ve definitely found some individuals more colorful than others–but mostly I’ve found just plain ordinary folk. I have a subscription to GenealogyBank and use Old Fulton NY Post Cards for more clues.

  8. I’m really glad you published This particular article. I ran into a website called Rare Newspapers. They sell old newspapers not reproductions but the actual lease papers. The great thing is they give you an insight into the publisher while showing you excerpts from the papers. It’s helped me to zero in on what papers I might want to look at in my library. And I’ve found stories that my family has talked about that happened in the towns they lived in. It was amazing to think That my ancestors were a part of the story and they were living through these events. One of my family was a captain in Washington’s army on the Hudson Highlands and would’ve been witness to the end of the revolutionary war and evacuation day. Later I found an article celebrating the hundredth anniversary it showed an artist concept of what the event would look like. I found a very compelling to think that my family would be reading this.

  9. I’d love to start exploring old newspapers online, but I’m intimidated by the many sites you mentioned that are available. I’d be happy to pay for a subscription, but how does one choose which one? As a member of NEHGS and also, is it worth checking there first? How do I get started? This sounds like it might be a good topic for NEHGS to offer as a webinar.

    1. Though perhaps not quite as easy to use, Chronicling America (Library of Congress) is free: Most user friendly site, I think, is but you need a subscription. If you have an Ancestry account, they offer a combination subscription that could include and you can link a result to a person in your tree. But I’ve found a lot of stuff at too – also a site that charges for the service. Not sure if NEHGS is offering newspapers but I’ll bet someone else will have the answer. Happy hunting!

    2. Judy, Janice’s answer is good. The sites overlap collections, but none have everything yet and each involves learning a different system for searching, copying, printing. A lot depends on location and newspaper. NEHGS does not have newspapers at this time — the webinar is a good idea. Try and see how it goes.

    3. Dear Judy, I subscribe to two newspaper databanks, GenealogyBank ( and Newspapers ( GenealogyBank is the most comprehensive site I have found (fee-based or free) but as Alicia points out, there is no single source. However, the most important thing is to find a databank that offers newspapers that are most relevant to your family history, almost always a matter of place. You can look through the newspapers offered by a website BEFORE subscribing. Go to the website and poke around a bit to find the list. Unfortunately, these lists are not well organized. Sometimes the newspapers are alphabetical, as opposed to city or state! Also be sure to look at the dates covered. All too often the newspapers online are for the last decade or so when they began publishing digital issues as well as print. If you have any questions email the databank. The fee-based ones are usually v. good about getting back to you with thorough answers. The others, no so helpful.
      ALSO, I would like to mention another online source that has not been touched on: Google newspapers. The online giant began offering free access to dozens of newspapers several years ago without any fanfare. Their list has some overlap with other databases but also includes some newspapers not available anywhere else. The downside is the WORST organization of any newspaper databank I have ever seen. The list is alphabetical by name of the newspaper. There is no way (that I have discovered) to search through the list by state, county, or town. You just have to methodically go through the hundreds of names looking for publications you want. Here is the link:
      good luck, Harriet Swift

      1. Just looked around that google newspaper website you mentioned and it is quite interesting. I saw a newspaper published in Glasgow, Scotland in 1830! Unfortunately, unless you know the name of a specific newspaper and have a specific date, you’ll be lost for some time because the newspapers are not searchable. That is to say, you can’t type in a name, place and time-frame to tailor a search. Maybe Google will get around to offering that capability – though I’m sure it would cost. Still, thanks for the tip Harriet because it could be a lot of fun browsing!

    1. Michael Harris, that doesn’t mean they won’t be in the papers. Gory farming accidents were well-reported. The kerosene stove which exploded? You can read which arm was found on which side of the garden!

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