Obituaries are like catnip to a genealogist. A good obituary contains enough information to make your head spin, especially when you've been on the usual genealogical subsistence diet of dry, unrelated facts. And every so often you come across a truly splendid obituary—one that provides an introduction to the person it memorializes.
I'm lucky enough to have such obituaries for two of my third great-grandfathers, William Richardson (1821-1895) and Moses E. Howard (1810-1890). These two successful farmers, whose children Maria Eaton Richardson and Charles Hazen Howard would marry, were born a decade apart in small New England towns—but, as their obituaries attest, there the similarities stop:
Yesterday morning G. W. Richardson received a telegram announcing the death of his father. Only a short time ago Father and Mother Richardson left their home in this place and went to Stanton, Neb., to spend a part of the winter visiting with their daughter, Mrs. C. H. Howard. When they said good-bye to their relatives and friends here no one thought that it was to be the long, long good-bye to one of them. We are not informed as to the immediate cause of his death, but the fact that he was in feeble health for some years leaves it reasonable to infer that he had an attack of some accute [sic] disease from which he was unable to rally. He was 74 years old and was until the past few years actively engaged in farming in Illinois. Of late he has made his home here but has spent considerable time visiting with his children. He was an earnest and sincere Christian, a member of the Methodist Church, and no one who has ever heard him talk and pray could doubt for a moment that he was in the full enjoyment of the highest Christian experience. He lived his profession every day, and his daily life was a powerful sermon to all those around him. The funeral services will be held at the residence of G. W. Richardson Sunday afternoon 2:30 o'clock.
"William Richardson Dead," Clarinda Herald (Clarinda, Ia.), 25 October 1895, p. 4, col. 3.
Moses E. Howard, years ago one of the best known citizens of Berlin, died in Williamstown the first of last week, aged about 80 years. Mr. Howard at one time owned the farm on which the quarry of the West Berlin Granite Company is located, and from which the rubble granite used in building Christ Church was taken, he having sold the building committee for $10 enough stone where it lay for the walls of that edifice. Mr. Howard was a man of decidedly litigious disposition, and for years had law suits almost innumerable on his hands, with a reputation of being uniformly successful in his litigation. At last, however, the tide turned. He declined to pay his subscription for the ARGUS AND PATRIOT. Suit was brought, and the verdict was against him, that being the first time in which he had been beaten. He was a man of good intelligence and indomitable will, and was at one time reckoned as in very good circumstances financially, but eventually lost most of his property.
"Montpelier Mere Mention," Argus and Patriot (Montpelier, Vt.), 5 November 1890, p. 3, col. 3.
Clearly, the men memorialized in these announcements differed in temperament. What's more subtle, but equally important, is how their obituaries were shaped by their interactions with the authors, the editors of the newspapers in which they appeared.
It won't surprise anyone who has lived in a small town to hear that these obituaries were built on personal knowledge; small communities provide multiple opportunities for journalists' paths to cross with their readers'. And these were small communities; the Lord and Thomas' Pocket Directory of the American Press for 1892-93 listed the circulation of the Clarinda Herald at just 2,137 subscribers, and the circulation of the Argus and Patriot (which was distributed in Montpelier and several surrounding towns) at 8,000 subscribers.
The editor of the Clarinda Herald, Charles A. Lisle (1847-1920), would have had ample opportunity to hear William Richardson "talk and pray" firsthand, as both were members of the local Methodist Episcopalian church. Lisle also presumably knew Richardson socially, given his well-documented regard for Richardson's son G. W. Richardson (George William; 1856-1936). Lisle and the younger Richardson had both come to Clarinda in the mid-1880s; Lisle assumed the editorship of the Herald, and Richardson purchased a lumber business in partnership with J. R. Howell. Howell and Richardson advertised in the Herald, and from the news items Lisle published it's clear he was up-to-date on both the firm's progress and the doings of the Richardson family.
The relationship between the editor of the Argus and Patriot, Hiram Atkins (1831-1892), and Moses Howard takes a decidedly different tone. Were there any question that this relationship was less harmonious, it would be put to rest by the classified ad Howard purchased in 1867 to tell his side of the subscription dispute Atkins features in his obituary:
TO THE DEMOCRATS OF VERMONT.
Ladies and Gentlemen: —I wish to consult with you all in relation to a question of importance to me both as to my feelings and pocket. I have always been a Democrat and have always supported the party. [Emphasis original.]
After the death of the lamented Eastman, I subscribed to the fund to get Mr. Hiram Atkins to move to Montpelier and print a Democratic paper. I subscribed for the paper and paid for the same in advance from year to year, as I claim to the fall of 1866; when for certain reasons having no connection with the Democratic party but personal between Mr. Atkins and myself, I discontinued my paper. Prior to my discontinuing my paper I notified him that I wished my paper discontinued when the time for which I had paid had expired, and he from time to time told me the time had not expired. I had lost my receipt and did not know when my subscription would expire, but when he told me my time had expired I stopped taking his paper. In January, 1867, he sued me, claiming that I was owing him when I discontinued my paper, and on trial he swore he had printed the papers and preserved them for me, and claimed to recover $3.75 for the paper one year and a half; and as I had lost the receipt, he recovered against me the sum of $3.00, which gave him by law only $3.00 cost; but Atkins’ counsel claimed, and I paid $3.83 cost, they knowing that it was illegal, but I not knowing it. I have since demanded back the illegal costs, which Atkins refuses to pay; I have also demanded the papers, which he swore he had preserved for me, and for which he recovered pay and he has neglected and refused to let me have them. Now what shall I do? If I sue him for the papers, I fear a jury would not consider them of sufficient value to sustain an action, though they might be worth something for paper rags; and if I sue for the 83 cents i [sic] legal fees, it will cost me ten times as much as I shall get besides the vexation of a lawsuit with such a man as Atkins.
Now, dear brethren, tell me what to do under the circumstances.
M. E. HOWARD
Berlin, June 25, 1867
"New Advertisements," Vermont Watchman and State Journal (Montpelier, Vt.), 26 July 1867, p. 3,, col. 3.
Quite aside from its pungency, this bit of spleen suggests that Howard and Atkins had more than a passing acquaintance—that they'd been close enough to have had a falling out for "certain reasons" unconnected to politics. The two would have met no later than 1863, when the campaign local Democrats had mounted to bring Atkins to Montpelier succeeded; presumably, they were on friendly terms from then until the incident Howard references in 1866. It's hard to imagine that they parted ways entirely after the lawsuit was settled, given their shared political cause and close proximity. As editor of the Argus and Patriot, which covered cases at the Washington County Court, Atkins would also have had a front-row seat to the "law suits almost innumerable" between 1863 and 1889.
Atkins' obituary for Howard, vivid as it is, seems remarkably temperate, considering the tone of Howard's piece and how sensational the last years of his life were. It wasn't just the volume of lawsuits that made him unusual; five of the cases he was involved in were argued all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, he was sued by the attorney who had argued most of his cases, his farm was repossessed, and his wife divorced him for intolerable severity. After he died, it was even rumored that he'd sold his body to science to pay off his legal debts. Atkins apparently chose not to capitalize on these events.
There was no pretense of political or personal objectivity in the late-nineteenth-century newspaper business. The political biases of newspapers were well-known, noted in directories such as Lord and Thomas' and clearly reflected in their reporting. At small papers, where the editors wrote most or all of the stories, the influence of their predilections is evident on every page. While it's difficult to know at this distance whether the tone of Atkins' obituary was the result of an ideal of journalistic integrity, a sense of personal honor, or a relationship that was mended over the 20 years between the lawsuit and Howard's death, it certainly represents an attempt to provide a balanced picture that was nonetheless true to the man he knew. Richardson's obituary, while less complicated, seems similarly to respect the man Lisle knew.
There's no question that objectivity in factual reporting is essential; the contentious presidential elections of the current century provide some striking examples of the dangers of bias, especially when readers lack access to or interest in fact-checking and multiple points of view. But for me these obituaries, trivial as they are, highlight the potential strength of an explicitly subjective editorial voice grounded in objective truth.