What can be learned about our ancestors from hundred-year-old newspaper reports? In some unfortunate instances, barely anything.
Take this example of how, in four chances to provide useful information, the local newspaper failed to say much of substance concerning the family of one of the city's well-known businessmen.
In the afternoon edition of The Detroit Times on Friday, June 7, 1912, the paper noted on its front page: "James Sullivan Ill With Appendicitis." Most of us having suffered through such an attack would probably have been better suited, had that news not been noised abroad by the local newspaper, thank you very much. But this was James Sullivan, founder of the Sullivan Packing Company of Detroit, thus apparently a successful businessman.
The article didn't provide much further information—not, at least, what a genealogical researcher might have been seeking. After the headline, the brief article shared more personal information, including that he:
was reported, Friday morning, to be resting easily after a good night in Harper hospital. He submitted to an operation for appendicitis late Thursday, and complications that ensued made his condition so serious that not even members of his family were permitted to see him.
That family, incidentally, would include his wife Catherine who, as a former Falvey, is the likely DNA connection that links my husband, through his own Falvey second great-grandmother, to descendants of this line. While I have yet to identify the most recent common Falvey ancestor in either of their trees, the only detail I'm gleaning from this series of articles on Catherine's husband James is the very public sharing of his most personal medical conditions.
That, however, was not all. There was an update in the same paper, the very next day. After the previous afternoon's cliff-hanger, The Detroit Times was quick to inform their reading public that
James Sullivan...was reported, Saturday morning, by the hospital authorities, to have passed a good night with normal temperature obtaining.
Don't breathe a sigh of relief just yet, for ten days from that brief news report, The Detroit Times cut to the chase with the abrupt headline: "James Sullivan to be Buried Wednesday." Other than the barest of details, the straightforward paragraph failed to supply those important details a family historian would be seeking, a century after the fact. The newspaper declared him to be fifty six years of age, and revealed that he had been born in Birmingham, Michigan. Giving the date for the funeral and its location—Saint Leo's Church—followed by burial at Mount Olivet, the article mentioned only that James was survived by "his widow, four daughters and three sons."
As a recap—in case their readers missed that detail about the passing of James Sullivan—on the afternoon following the funeral, The Detroit Times ran another minuscule insertion on the front page of its June 19, 1912, edition. Under the heading, "James Sullivan Buried," the article recapped the morning's events, taking care to list the names of all eight of the active pallbearers, but again saying not one word about who the bereaved family members might have been. Different times, different world.