Sunday, 9 February 2014

Literary Assassination

November 2013 marked fifty years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. I am always interested in how such moments in history were covered by the media and spent some time viewing old reports. Later I looked back to April 1865 and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Many parallels have been drawn between the two men and the number of coincidences surrounding both their lives and deaths.

One comparison which cannot be drawn between the two is in the media coverage. In 1963 instant communication methods meant the news was reported in the United Kingdom at almost the same time as it did in the USA. A century earlier it took days for the news to filter through and newspapers, at least in local terms, were produced weekly and reports of President Lincoln’s death appeared, in real time, after the ten-day search for John Wilkes Booth had ended in the killer’s death. This also tempered the mood of other reports: in 1963 even the sports pages lacked the usual exuberance, in 1865 columns went unchanged. Alongside the belated reports of the assassination and its aftermath I found the following stories.

No mention of Lincoln’s assassination was found in the first newspaper after the 14th April, news had yet to filter through. However the mood of optimism across the Atlantic was covered, with a mention of how American newspapers had seen the appearance of four eagles circling the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome in Washington DC. This could only mean a good time for all lay ahead under the new presidency. Note this was simply the local rag repeating what had been printed in US newspapers.

A rather odd story came from Prussian Poland, where but two passenger trains ran between Lissa and Posen each day. A similar number of livestock trains were seen daily but government legislation banned any human passengers save for the handlers of the livestock, for which a perfectly acceptable carriage was coupled up. There were no exceptions to this rule, even medical personnel had been turned away resulting in a number of deaths. It was not clear how many, if any, could have been saved had the doctor been allowed to travel. An enterprising German innkeeper saw a possible loophole and purchased advertising space at the station offering his goat for hire. For the equivalent of sixpence (equivalent of £2 today) for every station travelled in each direction this would allow any passenger to travel on the livestock train. The advert also pointed out the goat could be handled by anyone being “so tame it could be controlled by just a slender silk ribbon.”

Silly season sees all sorts of weird stories being covered. Yet surely we could never be so desperate as to include a conversation such as that following the announcement of an engagement. It seems the lady had been asked time and again just why she was contemplating becoming Mrs (name withheld), when he was clearly so different from other men? She responded the questioning with: “Well if he is very much unlike other men, he is more likely to make a good husband.”

A similarly odd subject was covered in the story of a letter written by a lady from Bristol. It seems Alice had written to a well-respected gentleman of the city, stating how she had tried time and again to be formally introduced to a man she had admired from afar adding, “If you are wondering why a mere girl such as I would wish to meet a man of your stature, meet me at the post box outside the chapel at 7:30 that Sunday evening.” No Victorian gent could ever entertain leaving a young lady standing around and so he turned up. He was not pleased to discover he was one of between thirty and forty gentlemen milling around the post box trying to appear nonchalant. For reasons I have yet to fathom they were still there at 8:00pm when the congregation emerged from the chapel. It was suspected Alice was among those emerging from the chapel as there seemed to be a lot of giggling and glances in their direction.

Another post-war story was covered, that of a US deserter. An Irishman by the name of James Devlin, having enlisted with the Union Army, deserted and was subsequently reported by his wife, who collected the reward money. However he could not be found and no wonder for he had re-enlisted under an alias. This alias was also being sought as a deserter, furthermore his wife had also given evidence against her husband and claimed the reward money. Yet again the deserter could not be found, for Devlin had enlisted a third time under yet another alias and had been turned in by HIS wife who, you guessed it, had again received the reward money. What was proving to be a lucrative ruse came to light when Mrs Devlin found her husband had deserted her and was enjoying the ill-gotten gains with another woman. This time she gave factual details as to his whereabouts and he is subsequently arrested. However she regretted her actions when she witnessed him being led out to face the firing squad within the confines of the army camp on the island. It was said her screams and sobbing could be heard across the water on the mainland.

How many of these would be considered world headlines today?

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