Monday, February 18, 2019

Missing Newspapers

In our quest to learn more about an event in our family history (see previous post: The Mysteries of Family History: Naming Names), my Dad and I have done quite a bit of research in libraries, archives, and online.

Newspaper accounts of the event in question have been indispensable: the first big find on microfiche blew up long-held family myths about what happened and how. Over time, stories get exaggerated, changed, embellished. And then eventually the stories are wrong, a shadow of the truth.

The news reports set the record straight. The articles we found from the 1870s gave names, dates, and facts, and shared the public opinion in the matter. This is from the Indiana State Sentinel in 1874: 

"Adverse to the accused"

Naturally, we are eager to read the Attica Ledger's account of what happened. Public sentiment seems to be a huge factor in this case, and that feeling appeared to change over time. But there a gap in the archives: it seems that at least ten years’ worth of newspapers are missing from the records, specifically the Attica Ledger from Fountain County, Indiana. We're trying to track down newspapers from the years 1874-1876. (There's a single issue of the Attica Herald - which apparently published from 1873-1874 -- somewhere in the Boston Public Library; they know it exists in their archives, but a recent move and reorganization has made it hard to locate, and they're still searching.)

Hoosier State Chronicles, Indiana's historic digital newspaper program, has been a fantastic resource. But the Chronicles don't have these issues, either. and add new papers every day, but they have to have the papers to add. I'm told that libraries are their primary resource, and none of the local or regional libraries have the Ledger from this time period. A very helpful genealogist went so far as to contact a private collector on my behalf. No luck on those missing issues. "They're gone," he told me. 

We've heard that the Attica Ledger archives were housed in a storage facility during a move, then lost or forgotten about. 

It happens easily enough. One of our own relatives loaned a small collection of newspapers and documents to a curious friend who never returned them. Another showed me two of three precious photo albums with family history documented inside. The third he loaned to a family member decades ago. "I never got it back," he told me last fall, his face full of regret.

How do we get back what's been lost? A friend and colleague pointed out that the story of the missing newspapers is also a family story. In addition to sending letters to potential relatives of the jurors and community members involved in the trial and subsequent pardon, I recently sent letters to people who share a name with one of the newspaper proprietors in Attica at the time. Maybe someone knows what happened to the missing papers. Maybe someone has a stash in their attic. What can I say? I lean toward optimism, most of the time. 

Attica Ledger classifieds invoice 

And yet: it's a pessimistic time for newspapers. With the current decline of print newspapers and the constant reorganization of digital journalism, what will happen to the public record? Who will tell the stories of communities and individuals? 

Librarians have been like helpful detectives throughout this process. I'm in awe of how much I've learned from them as we try to piece together the past. I'm trying to imagine the processes involved in archiving and cataloging so much information. Stacks and stacks of deteriorating documents. The storing and housing of paper that could be digitized and shared, if only we could find it.


  1. Hi Sarah,
    If there is any research you could use help with, I'm retired and would be glad to help.

  2. Keep pushing. They're out there somewhere. Tade knows you're looking for him.