Conan Doyle arrives ... Lieutenant Peary abandons pigeons

Posted: Jul 14, 2003 12:00 AM

FAIRLEE, Vt. -- One way to size up a local community is to buy its local paper. So I did, forking over $5 for a newspaper originally priced at 4 cents. The price represents quite a mark-up until you realize the issue I bought is over 100 years old, and the junk store it came from is bilking the summer tourist trade as best it can before the snow flies (which could come any time now judging by the air of mistrust that true Vermonters regard a sustained July heat wave).

This barely tattered and lightly sepia-ed edition of The United Opinion printed on Friday, Oct. 5, 1894, could be the only copy (out of the 2,000 made) to have survived unburned, uncrumpled -- even unrecycled -- through the first couple years of the 21st century. On the day this eight-page broadsheet was new, Grover Cleveland was into his second term as president, the Pullman strike had recently made labor history, Hawaii was a republic, and a border dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana was raising tensions between the United States and Great Britain.

However, none of that news is mentioned in The United Opinion. "KILLED HIS SISTER" runs the headline to a story datelined Worcester, Mass., one of two that dominate the front page. The other lead story pertains to a now-forgotten war between China and Japan that China would lose, exposing both the weakness of the Manchu dynasty and revealing Japan to be the rising power in East Asia -- a rise that would continue unchecked until World War II.

Of course, United Opinion readers had no crystal ball in which to see this.

Besides, they were probably more taken with the details of the Carr murder story, a real-life tenement melodrama among the mill workers.

"William Carr Expressed No Regret at His Awful Crime," the headline continues, "But One Dollar Left Him In His Mother's Will -- It Filled Him With Rage Against Other Members of the Family." Of course, when it comes to dramatics, nothing in the paper compares with the advertisements: "Can it be that Insanity is Staring Me in the Face?" Try: Dr. Greene's Nevura blood and nerve remedy.

Other front-page news consists of briefs stacked in columns -- as the Wall Street Journal does to this day -- covering fishing news, mill strikes, election returns and a challenge by Bob Fitzsimmons to "Gentleman Jim" Corbett for the heavyweight championship of the world -- a title Fitzsimmons would win from Corbett in 1897.

One local brief stands out: "A crowd of roughs in Lebanon (N.H.) attacked a party of six Dartmouth students and treated them to a dose of eggs and stones ... Finally the students opened fire, and shot a man named Marson in the arm ... More trouble is likely to follow."

Inside, a vivid section called News of the Week bombarded late-19th-century readers with the era-equivalent of nonstop news bites: "The czar is improving in health ... A Whitman (Mass.) business building was burned -- A train crew routed robbers near Temple, Texas ... Schooner William Home and six of her crew members were lost on Lake Michigan," the section reports.

"Lieutenant Peary says homing pigeons as messengers in the Arctic region are a failure ... Frederick Douglass says President Garfield intended appointing negroes as ministers and consuls to white nations ... Mrs. Parana Stevens created a scene with a tradesman at Newport, R.I. ... Ex-Vice-President Ezeta of Salvador is continually guarded by detectives. ... Conan Doyle, the English novelist, arrived in New York."

The primary beat of the paper is, of course, local, preserving rhythms of daily life seldom sensed a century later. Reporting on some 22 towns, The United Opinion offered a close, if unelaborated, look at life in 1894: "Dr. and Mrs. Hanson are visiting in town. Mrs. Harriet Bailey is reported to be improving in health. Mr. C.B. Botsford of Boston has been ... actively engaged in temperance and religious work of various kinds. John Sawyer's colt ran away Tuesday, no serious damage was done. The paring bee at G.A. Johnson's on Tuesday evening was well attended, the apples were well pared as were the young people who at a late hour wended their way homeward."

Did reporters cull the counties for these human-interest stories? Or did interested humans tell the paper of their (and their colts') exploits? There can be little doubt how the following news came to the attention of The United Opinion staff: "During Tuesday night some miscreant fired a stone against the large plate glass window of the OPINION office." The stone, it seems, left a one-inch hole. The paper offered a $10 reward for "information as to who the party was who committed the act." Which is one story I'd like to see followed up in the next edition.

In some ways, this paper full of 19th-century news validates the old adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same." In other ways, it reveals how completely the American way of country life has disappeared. We remain curious about our various worlds, as were our forebears, but just as society has become more interdependent globally, we have disengaged at the most local level. Which is too bad.

Because sometimes, I'm quite sure, a paring bee would be just the thing.