Thursday, March 15, 2012

Journalism and Genealogy

Since I am not—nor ever have been—a resident of the Windy City, I don’t know much about that city’s newspapers, so today was an opportunity to educate myself on that subject. Somehow, I was not surprised to find that Chicago’s reputation bears itself out, once again, in the relative microcosm of city newspapers. Journalism in Chicago took on that city’s overall trademark bravado over the course of the last century, evidently intertwining gangster influence with everything from copy editing to copies sold.

Take the newspaper which, in its brief life, was once known as Chicago Today. From its previous image as Chicago American, the afternoon paper morphed to Chicago’s American, then to its format as Chicago Today—which it held in a brief, five-year lifespan from 1969 to 1974, when financial woes caused it to be absorbed into the auspices of the Chicago Tribune.

During that brief tenure, Chicago Today, like many Chicago newspapers, utilized some aggressive reporting and sales techniques to build readership. I imagine that may be the reasoning behind establishing the consumer-relationship-building column known as “Action Line.” The idea was to offer readers a contact—someone who was known for helping the small guy get the action taken that he needed for his problem or situation.

Sometime in 1969, Agnes Tully Stevens must have thought that Chicago Today's “Action Line” could help her with a dilemma that she had been puzzling over for quite a while: what had become of her grandfather, Stephen Malloy. This gentleman, the family already knew, had suddenly sent word home from England to his wife in Ireland that he was embarking on an adventure in sailing to the New World. He was evidently taking the term, “radical departure,” literally.

Whatever became of Stephen Malloy in that New World, however, soon proved a mystery to the family. Though his wife eventually pursued him to that New World, she was never able to discover his whereabouts or his fate.

Stephen’s wife, Anna Flanagan Malloy, ultimately settled in Chicago herself—she now the single mother of a young child barely a year old when Stephen left the family. That young child, years later, became Agnes’ mother. You can be sure she passed that story along—like a baton in a relay race—to her daughter Agnes, who now in her old age was pondering a way to solve the mystery.

Among Agnes’ private papers is an undated, unsourced newspaper clipping bearing the headline: “Greatest Migration: Immigrants and Horrors At Sea.” I don’t know when that article was printed, but it meant enough to Agnes to hold on to it and let that headline fester in her mind.

The article begins, “If you are American with an English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh name and have ancestors who came to the United States in 1800-75, you owe them a lot.”

The story continues with the explanation, “Many of the voyagers never made it to bear American and Canadian offspring. Most of the ships were unbelievably tiny, some just 50 feet long.”

In addition to “appalling conditions,” the article focuses on migration during the Irish famine, citing high death rates owing to the fact the Irish “dragged themselves aboard suffering from malnutrition and…dying as they sailed.”

Most horrible to contemplate, for Agnes, must have been the section of the article with the ominous warning that some of the ships went down with their passengers, some from fire on board, some from storms at sea or from striking objects. The gloomy statistic enclosed in the conclusion reveals that “one in six of all who made the crossing [in one particular year] died on the voyage or shortly afterward.”

Was that what happened to Agnes’ grandfather? Was he a victim of those wretched sailing conditions?

Agnes, it turns out, was determined to find out. She took pen and paper and wrote her letter, sending it to Chicago Today’s Action Line. Surely, they would be able to find the answer for her.


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