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Newspaper stories take family history beyond basic records

On Oct. 3, 1898 John W. Sullivan was sentenced to six months confinement in the hoosegow in Portsmouth, R.I. Officers Shannon and Holbrooke arrested Sullivan at 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 2.

He fought all the way to the station house, and after being placed in a cell, he “made the remainder of the night hideous with his yells and profane, uncalled-for language aimed at the arresting officers.”

The officers had given him “every chance” to go home peacefully, but it seems Sullivan was “looking for trouble, and he got it.” This latest episode started six hours earlier when he was standing on the corner of Congress and Vaughan streets. He was drunk and “making lots of talk.” Officers told him to go home, and he to appeared to be headed in that direction, “staggering all over the sidewalk.” But then, for reasons probably known only to Sullivan, he turned and began insulting the officers.

This is one of many reports on Sullivan’s behavior and subsequent arrests and appearances before the Portsmouth police court. The chronicles of his behavior were duly reported in the Portsmouth Herald over a period of several years. So familiar with his behavior was the newspaper staff that they injected editorial comments in the news reports. Over his latest arrest — with another charge pending before the court — the paper commented that surely the court “will rid the city of an undesirable character for an agreeable length of time.”

Many people tracing their family history know absolutely nothing about their ancestors before they begin to search for their heritage. When we find them in official records, we may learn when they were born, when they married and when they died. Those ancestors remain one-dimensional to us because we seldom find records that describe their behaviors, attitudes or personalities.

If we’re fortunate enough to have such scoundrels as John Sullivan in the family tree, however, we might find vivid accounts of them in newspaper stories.

So, where do we find these old newspaper accounts? The resources are abundant.

If you can go to the library in the town or county in which your ancestor lived, you have two possible avenues: the newspaper office and the library. Either could have the original issues or microfilm.

But if a visit to the facilities isn’t feasible, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that there are many newspaper resources online. The bad news is that most require a subscription to access the digitized papers.

Start first with the ones that don’t charge:

♦ The Library of Congress, Chronicling America Historic Newspapers (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov) covers publications from 1836 to 1922. This site also has a directory of newspapers published from 1690 to the present, with locations that house originals or microfilm of specific issues.

♦ GoogleNews also offers free access at google.com/newspapers.

♦ Freenewspaperarchives.com offers links to repositories that are free to researchers.

Then come the paid sites:

♦ A premium subscription ($80 per year) to the Godfrey Library gives patrons access to numerous databases, including NewspaperArchive.com, 19th Century Newspapers, Early American Newspapers and the London Times Digital. Readers can view the Godfrey resources at www.godfrey.org/subscribe.html.

♦ GenealogyBank.com, like Godfrey, offers access to NewspaperArchives.com. This subscription is $69.96. This company also offers access to databases other than the newspapers.

♦ Newspapers.com offers an annual subscription for $79.95. No other databases are available with this subscription.

♦ World Vital Records offers a subscription for $89.99 a year or $16.25 a month. Go to worldvitalrecords.com/cardcatalog.aspx to view records on this site. It also offers access to other than newspaper databases.

♦ Fold3, (fold3.com), known primarily for its military records, also has newspaper databases. An annual subscription is $79.95.

♦ Ancestry.com has a large database of newspapers with a six-month U.S. subscription of $99 or a world subscription for $149.

Of course not all issues of all newspapers have survived fires, floods and poor preservation, but our genealogical research isn’t complete until we identify those issues that do survive.

Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at [email protected] She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.

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