Classic Holiday Film Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary

In 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life debuted in theaters across the country. This iconic family Christmas film was based on the short story and booklet The Greatest Gift. Initial tickets sales were disappointing, and reviews mixed. Though it received five Academy Award nominations, it did not win any Oscars. The film did not even come close to breaking even. Years later, the movie lapsed into the public domain, which allowed it to be broadcast without royalty fees. Television audiences rediscovered the film, and its popularity grew. It’s a Wonderful Life is now considered one of the greatest films of all time. It is No. 1 on the American Film Institute’s list of most inspirational movies. In 1990, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry.

The Austin American 12.8.1946

When author Philip Van Doren Stern began writing The Greatest Gift in 1939, he could have never dreamed that his story would one day become one of the most beloved holiday films of all time. Stern was a respected historian and best known for his books on the Civil War. This story was his first attempt at fiction. He finished the story, loosely based on the Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol, in 1943. Unable to find a publisher, Stern printed 200 copies and sent them to friends as Christmas cards. One copy went to a producer at RKO Pictures, who then bought the motion picture rights. He showed the story to actor Cary Grant, who became interested in playing the lead role. Before anything concrete materialized, RKO sold the rights to director Frank Capra’s production company, Liberty Films, for $10,000. Capra adapted the story for the big screen.  

The Baltimore Sun 5.12.1946

Jimmy Stewart played the lead character, George Bailey. Initially, Stewart was hesitant to accept the part. He was still recovering from his traumatic experiences during the war and considered giving up acting altogether, seeing it as frivolous and unimportant. However, when Stewart read the script, he was touched and signed on to do the film. The plot centered on Bailey, a discouraged man who was contemplating suicide and wished he had never been born. Bailey then meets his guardian angel, who grants him his wish. Bailey soon realized that his absence left a gaping hole in the lives of his family and friends. The realization brought a renewed zest for life and joy in living.

The Pantagraph 12.20.1987

The film debuted the first Christmas after WWII ended. The nation was in a celebratory mood, and though It’s a Wonderful Life ended on a joyful note, the film didn’t immediately resonate with audiences. “Our movie just got lost,” said Stewart. In 1974, the copyright for the movie lapsed, allowing television stations to broadcast it at no cost. A whole new generation discovered the film, and its popularity soared. More than 80,000 people purchased a videocassette copy of the movie in 1986. In 1987, that number nearly doubled. Watching the film became a Christmas tradition for many American families. Later in his life, Jimmy Stewart said that It’s a Wonderful Life was his favorite film.

Seventy-five years later, audiences continue to cherish It’s a Wonderful Life. Do your holiday plans include this Christmas classic? To see more newspaper clippings related to this iconic holiday movie, search™ today.

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New South Carolina Paper!

We’ve added another South Carolina paper to our archives! The Herald is published in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and includes news from York, Chester, and Lancaster counties. If you are interested in South Carolina history or have ancestors from Rock Hill, you will love searching through the pages in this archive.

The Herald – Sept. 17, 1985

Rock Hill was named when the Charlotte/Columbia/Augusta Railroad was constructed through the area in 1852. Crews encountered a small, flinty knoll and named the spot Rock Hill. The town was a transfer point for Confederate troops and supplies during the Civil War. Following the war, a local Confederate soldier named James Morrow Ivy returned to Rock Hill and started the town’s first newspaper. He called it the Lantern, and it began publication in 1872. In 1874, the paper’s name was changed to The Herald and would be known as The Evening Herald until 1986, when a Sunday edition was added.

The Friendship Nine – 50 Years Later

Ivy had a flair for businesses and is credited with championing the growth of Rock Hill. Our archives for The Herald date back to 1880, when the town’s population was 809. With the establishment of cotton mills, including the first steam-powered cotton factory in South Carolina, Rock Hill’s population increased three-fold in just ten years. When Ivy died in 1885, all the prominent businesses in town closed shop. Residents draped the buildings along Main Street in mourning fabric as a tribute to Ivy.

The Herald has chronicled important history in the region, including the civil rights movement. In February 1961, nine Black students from the now-closed Friendship College in Rock Hill were jailed following a sit-in at the segregated McCrory’s lunch counter. The men became known as the Friendship Nine, and their case garnered national attention. They were eventually released, and in 2015, a Circuit Court judge vacated their convictions saying, “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.”

If you have ancestors from Rock Hill, explore society columns like Local and Personal or In Society to read news about residents. You can also search for your ancestor’s birth announcements, wedding announcements, and obituaries.

Start searching The Herald today on™.

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8 Easy Thanksgiving Desserts That Aren’t Pie

28 Nov 1923, Wed Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee)

Want something other than pie for Thanksgiving dessert? We searched the historical papers on™ to find 8 vintage recipes for easy Thanksgiving desserts that aren’t pie!

(But if you want pie too, be sure to check out these fun pumpkin pie recipes!)

Note: We’ve included transcriptions of the recipes so they’re easier to follow. Click on any of the images to see the original newspaper recipe on our site.

1. Pumpkin Spice Cake (1936)

Recipe: Pumpkin Spice Cake (1936)Recipe: Pumpkin Spice Cake (1936) 30 Oct 1936, Fri The World (Coos Bay, Oregon)


  • 1/3 cup shortening
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg (beaten)
  • 3/4 cup canned or cooked pumpkin
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 cups cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon  
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon mace
  • 1/2 cup seedless raisins


  1. Cream shortening, add sugar slowly, and beat well. Add beaten egg.
  2. Combine pumpkin and milk and add alternately with the dry ingredients sifted together. Add raisins and mix thoroughly.
  3. Pour in greased loaf pan and place in cold electric oven. Set temperature control to 350°. Turn switch to bake. Bake approximately 1 hour.

2. Baked Cranberry and Walnut Dessert (1949)

Recipe: Baked Cranberry and Walnut Dessert (1949)Recipe: Baked Cranberry and Walnut Dessert (1949) 06 Oct 1949, Thu The Edmonton Bulletin (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada)


  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnut meats
  • 1/3 cup melted butter or fortified margarine
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange rind
  • 3 cups cranberry sauce
  • 1/2 cup cream, whipped


  1. Mix together sugar, graham cracker crumbs, cinnamon, walnut meats, and melted butter or margarine.
  2. Pat 2/3 of this mixture into well-greased large yellow dish of heat-resistant glass refrigerator-oven set.
  3. Add grated orange rind to cranberry sauce; pour on top of crumb mixture in dish. Place remaining crumb mixture on top of cranberry sauce.
  4. Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees F) for 30 minutes.
  5. Cool and decorate top with whipped cream.

3. Apple Crisp (1948)

Recipe: Apple Crisp (1948)Recipe: Apple Crisp (1948) 04 Nov 1948, Thu Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Honolulu, Hawaii)


  • 4 cups chopped or sliced apples
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sifted flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup butter


  1. Place in shallow 6×10 inch baking dish sliced or chopped apples and sprinkle with water, cinnamon, and salt.
  2. Work together the flour, sugar, and butter until crumbly. Spread crumb mixture over apples.
  3. Bake uncovered about 40 minutes in moderate oven (350 degrees).
  4. Serve warm with plain or whipped cream. Serves 6 to 8.

4. Top-of-Stove Carmel Dumpling Dessert (1937)

Recipe: Top-of-Stove Carmel Dumpling Dessert (1937)Recipe: Top-of-Stove Carmel Dumpling Dessert (1937) 13 Nov 1937, Sat The North Adams Transcript (North Adams, Massachusetts)

Dumpling ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Dumpling directions:

  1. Sift dry ingredients, cut in butter, and add milk and vanilla.
  2. Drop by rounding teaspoon into the boiling carmel sauce. Cover, cook.
  3. Cook slowly for 20 minutes without removing cover. (Serves 5).

Carmel sauce for above dumplings:

  1. Combine 2 tablespoons butter, 1 ½ cups dark brown sugar, 1 ½ cups boiling water, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Simmer 5 minutes.
  2. Drop in dumpling batter.

5. Ginger Snaps (1908)

Recipe: Ginger Snaps (1908)Recipe: Ginger Snaps (1908) 15 Nov 1908, Sun The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts)


  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup lard
  • 3 tablespoons hot water
  • 1 teaspoon soda
  • 3 teaspoons ginger
  • 3 cups flour


  1. Roll thin.

(*Estimated bake temperature & time: 350–375°F for 8–10 minutes. Shortening can be substituted for lard, if desired.)

6. Apple Tapioca Pudding (1923)

Recipe: Apple Tapioca Pudding (1923)Recipe: Apple Tapioca Pudding (1923) 24 Nov 1923, Sat Pawhuska Daily Journal (Pawhuska, Oklahoma)


  • 1 quart peeled apples
  • 1 cup tapioca
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon lemon extract


  • Quarter apples and fill bake dish. Sprinkle half sugar over apples.
  • Soak tapioca in quart hot water, 1 hour. Add salt, lemon extract, and rest of sugar. Pour over apples.
  • Bake until apples are tender. Serve with hard sauce.

7. Cheese and Fruit Tray (1936)

Recipe: Cheese and fruit tray (1936)Recipe: Cheese and fruit tray (1936) 20 Nov 1936, Fri Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois)


  • Swiss
  • Mild American
  • Sharp American
  • Pimiento cheese
  • Genuine imported Roquefort
  • Cream cheese


  • Kumquat clusters
  • Pears
  • White grapes


  1. On the cheese board in the center of the large tray, arrange the cheeses.
  2. Border this array with fruits.

8. Pumpkin Honey Milk (1942)

Recipe: Pumpkin Honey Milk (1942)Recipe: Pumpkin Honey Milk (1942) 21 Apr 1942, Tue The Dayton Herald (Dayton, Ohio)


  • 1 cup pumpkin
  • 1 ½ cups evaporated milk
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • Few grains cloves
  • Few grains salt


  1. Stir to thoroughly blend pumpkin into evaporated milk and water.
  2. Stir in remaining ingredients; chill and serve. 4 servings.


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The Cocoanut Grove Fire: November 28, 1942

On November 28, 1942, a crowd of about a thousand people crammed into the Cocoanut Grove supper club in Boston, Massachusetts. The swanky club, known as “The Grove,” was a popular attraction in the city. It contained elaborate decorations, including artificial palm trees, bamboo and rattan accents, and fabric draped ceilings. The club filled up to twice its legal capacity that night, and some of the emergency exits were blocked. About 10:15 p.m., a fire broke out in the basement. It spread quickly, fueled by the flammable decorations. Patrons became trapped inside and nearly 500 died. The fire ranks as the deadliest nightclub fire in American history. It also spurred new fire safety laws to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring again.

The Cocoanut Grove supper club was a single-story building with a basement that contained a bar known as the Melody Lounge. It was owned by Barnet Welansky, a lawyer with ties to the mafia. The club had become a popular place and often entertained celebrities.

On the evening of the fire, 16-year-old busboy Stanley F. Tomaszewski was working in the basement bar when the bartender asked him to replace a missing light bulb. The lightbulb was in the corner of the room and was purportedly unscrewed by a young man seeking more privacy while kissing his date.

Tomaszewski lit a match until he spotted the empty socket. He screwed in the missing light bulb and blew out the match. Moments later, patrons noticed a small fire near the ceiling over the palm tree. Initially, Tomaszewski attempted to extinguish the fire, burning his hands and face in the process. Other employees joined the effort to douse the flames but were unsuccessful. Tomaszewski noticed crowds pressing towards a staircase already blocked by panic-stricken patrons. He flung open a camouflaged door that led to the kitchen and guided several patrons to safety in a walk-in refrigerator. By now, the fabric-draped ceiling caught fire as well, creating a toxic gas that filled the room. 

Upstairs, patrons ran for the revolving door as flames and smoke quickly filled the room. The revolving door was the only source of egress in the room and became jammed with a pile of bodies as smoke overcame patrons. Some guests dropped to their knees and crawled through the darkness, looking for a way out.

The fire raged and ultimately claimed the lives of 491 victims. In the days following the fire, Tomaszewski was held for questioning. Friends and teachers rallied to his defense, defending his character as a bright, capable young man who excelled in school and was captain of his high school military battalion. Eventually, authorities cleared Tomaszewski of any charges, and owner Barnet Welansky was charged with manslaughter because three exits were locked and impassable. The tragedy led to improved building codes. Revolving doors would now be required to be flanked by stationary doors. The new laws also banned flammable materials for decorations and required well-marked exits in public buildings. The cause of the fire remains a mystery to this day.

If you would like to learn more about the Cocoanut Grove fire, search™ today.

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New Papers from Mississippi and South Carolina

We are pleased to announce that we have added new papers from Mississippi and South Carolina to our archives.

Sun Herald 8.30.2005

Mississippi: The Sun Herald based in Biloxi, Mississippi, celebrates its 137th birthday this month. It began as The Biloxi Herald in 1884 and was later known as The Daily Herald. In 1985, The Daily Herald merged with The Sun to form The Sun Herald. Our archives date back to 1888 and have chronicled the history of the Mississippi Gulf Coast since that time.

In the late 1800s, the rise of commercial fishing made Biloxi the Seafood Capital of the World, bringing seafood canneries and factory workers to town. Among the workers were exploited immigrant children, some as young as 3-years-old. They worked long days and had little opportunity to attend school. From 1908-1916, photographer Lewis Wickes Hine photographed these workers. His images helped spur action that changed child labor laws in the South.

Biloxi has felt the brunt of many hurricanes over the years. Two of the most notorious were Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As Katrina approached the shore, some of the Sun Herald’s staff evacuated to Columbus, Georgia, where they continued to publish daily editions of the Sun Herald for 11 days until workers restored power to Biloxi. The paper earned the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of the storm and its aftermath.

South Carolina: We have new papers from the Palmetto State, including the Cities of Columbia and Greenville. The State began publication in 1891 and later purchased its rival, The Columbia Record. This archive also contains issues of The Sunday Record dated 1918-1932.

The State 4.18.1968

Throughout its history, The State has maintained a progressive editorial policy, championing issues like suffrage and civil rights. One legal case brought the legal rights of women to center stage in South Carolina. Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Jr., was the son of a popular U.S. senator from South Carolina. When he and his wife and Lucy Tillman divorced in 1910, they engaged in a bitter custody battle over their two children. Lucy wanted custody, but Benjamin argued that his parents should raise the children. Benjamin “deeded” the children to them, igniting women around the country. They demanded that Lucy (and all women) should have equal rights. The state Supreme Court eventually sided with Lucy, saying children could not be deeded without the consent of both parents.

About 100 miles northwest of Columbia is Greenville, South Carolina, and home of The Greenville News. Our archives date back to 1881 when Greenville was on the cusp of becoming a major mill town and textile center. The Greenville News chronicled the population surge in the early 1900s and the new trolley linking the mills to downtown. Greenville’s prosperity took a hit when the boll weevil decimated crops in 1926. Banks failed, and the ensuing depression impacted the city in an economic downturn that lasted until WWII ended. If you have ancestors from Greenville, be sure to check out the society page, birth announcements, wedding announcements, and obituaries.

Explore these new Mississippi and South Carolina papers on™ today!  

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How NOT to Be Buried Alive

07 Mar 1908, Sat The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California)

“Are you sure that your relative is actually dead, when the coffin is fastened, never to be opened”? –Louisville Daily Courier, 1868

What options did a person have over a century ago if they wanted to avoid being buried alive? A look through historical newspapers from both sides of the Atlantic gives us some answers!

Safety Coffins

One option for preventing “premature burial” (also called “premature interment”) was the safety coffin. Though designs differed, safety coffins typically included a signaling device that let people above ground know the person in the casket was still alive.

Numerous illustrations and articles about safety coffins appeared in newspapers of the time. One featured in the papers was designed by Russian count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki. According to the Stockton, California, Daily Record in 1901,

[The] apparatus consists of a tube four inches in diameter, a box, and a few appliances for signaling. The tube is placed over an aperture in the coffin, and the other end of it appears above the surface of the ground, where it is surmounted by the box. Through the tube passes a rod, on the end of which, inside the coffin, is a ball. The slightest movement of the body in the coffin is communicated to the rod, which in turn releases springs. The door of the hermetically sealed box flies open, the bell rings, and the signal ball rises above the grave to a height of six feet.

Karnice-Karnicki's safety coffin designKarnice-Karnicki’s safety coffin design 26 Apr 1901, Fri Stockton Daily Evening Record (Stockton, California)

Other types of safety coffins were featured in newspapers as well, such as:

One safety coffin got quite a bit of newspaper attention in 1868 when its inventor, Franz Vester, gave a public demonstration in New Jersey about how it worked. In addition to the typical alarm system, newspapers noted that Vester’s coffin also included a “receptacle for refreshments.”

Beyond Coffins

But not everyone who feared premature burial wanted (or could afford) a safety coffin, so other methods focused on ensuring that a person was truly dead before burial.

One option frequently discussed in newspapers was to build “waiting mortuaries,” which were reportedly used in Germany. The ideal waiting mortuary was a closely monitored, comfortable institution where bodies could be kept until they showed signs of decomposition—or signs of life.

Description of waiting mortuariesDescription of waiting mortuaries 23 Oct 1896, Fri Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland)

Newspapers also documented other suggestions for verifying death, including:

Some people’s fear of being buried alive even led them to request specific procedures prior to burial, such as asking that their head be amputated, their heart pierced with a needle, or their jugular vein cut.

Turning Anxiety into Action

Just how often people were actually buried alive during the Victorian era is unknown. Even at the time, its prevalence was hotly debated in the European and American medical communities—and in the press.

20 Dec 1899, Wed Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois)
13 Dec 1897, Mon Freeland Tribune (Freeland, Pennsylvania)

Whether premature burials were common or not, the popularity of the topic reflects a real anxiety among some segments of the population at the time—an anxiety that certainly wasn’t diminished by the numerous “true” newspaper accounts of people being buried alive.

But in some cases, this concern led to action. Perhaps most noticeable were the associations that lobbied for regulation of death certificates and other aspects of the death verification process—hoping to prevent the “unspeakable cruelty” of premature burial.

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The New England Vampire Panic

In the late 1800s, a sense of panic invaded New England. An alarming number of people were dying of consumption, and residents became convinced that vampire-like creatures were the cause. They believed the vampires were gradually sucking the blood out of innocent victims. To combat the threat, locals sometimes exhumed the bodies of loved ones and ritually burned their organs. They believed this would stop the vampires and prevent the spread of the disease. One of the most famous vampire stories involved Rhode Island resident Mercy Brown.

The Boston Globe 1.27.1896

Consumption (now known as tuberculosis) is spread through bacteria and was one of the leading causes of death at the time. Those infected gradually became sicker and often spread the illness to other family members. Consumption hit the Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island, especially hard. George Brown was a respected farmer, who along with his wife Mary Eliza, raised seven children. Mary Eliza contracted consumption and died in 1883. The following year, daughter Mary Olive, a 20-year-old dressmaker, also died. In January 1892, daughter Mercy, 19, died, and son Edwin, 24, was sick.

Superstitious neighbors approached George and convinced him that he should exhume the bodies of his wife and daughters. It was, they suggested, the only way to save Edwin. The superstition held that vampires slowly drained the blood from the living and put it into the hearts of the dead. Thus, a buried body with blood in the heart evidenced that vampires were at work. The only way to stop the vampires was to find corpses with blood still in their organs, remove the organs, and ritually burn them.

Boston Evening Transcript 1.18.1896

Hesitant but desperate to save his son, George agreed to the plan. On March 17, 1892, several men from the community went to work digging up the remains of the Browns. Mary Eliza had been dead nine years, and her remains were in an advanced state of decomposition. Mary Olive’s body had also decomposed. But when they disinterred Mercy, they found blood in her heart. She had died two months earlier, and the freezing temperatures had preserved her body.

They removed Mercy’s heart and liver and ritualistically burned them on a stone. The ashes were mixed with a tonic and given to Edwin to drink. The ritual proved ineffective, and Edwin died two months later. By 1899, George lost six of his seven children. Over the next few years, the belief in vampires waned. It took another 40 years until scientists carried out the first clinical trials for the treatment of tuberculosis.

If you would like to learn more about the New England Vampire Panic, search™ today!

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150th Anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire

On the evening of October 8, 1871, Catherine O’Leary stepped outside her house in Southwest Chicago. She fed the horses and led them to the barn before retiring for the night. Catherine and her husband Patrick were already in bed when a neighbor noticed flames coming from their barn. He alerted the O’Learys’, but dry and windy conditions allowed the fire to grow out of control. Within ten minutes, two blocks were ablaze. The fire came to be known as the Great Chicago Fire, and by October 10th, it consumed some five square miles. More than 17,000 buildings burned to the ground, and 300 people died. Although folklore states that the fire began when Catherine’s cow kicked over an oil lamp, no one really knows how it started. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the fire.

Chicago Tribune October 11, 1871

Chicago was incorporated in the 1830s and grew to become the world’s largest grain port by the 1850s. The city was built predominantly of wood and was prone to fires. It had been unusually hot and dry in Chicago that fall, and the area was experiencing a drought. When the fire started at the O’Leary farm, tinderbox conditions quickly led to a firestorm that overwhelmed the city. Firefighters attempted to douse the massive flames, but the city’s waterworks burned and cut off water to the hydrants.

As the fire spread, it jumped the south branch of the Chicago River and destroyed much of central Chicago before jumping the river again and consuming the Near North Side. Windswept sparks landed on roofs and sheds, starting new fires. The fire burned for about another 24 hours, essentially unchecked.

Emma Schultze was 8 years old at the time. She recalled that her family woke at 2:00 a.m. to friends pounding on the door, telling them the city was ablaze. Although they lived on the outskirts of town, the Schultze family saw flames headed in their direction. Emma’s father dug a hole in the front yard and dumped in the family linen, silver, dishes, bedding, and even furniture. Emma’s mother quickly dressed her in layer after layer of petticoats and dresses. Finally, with their arms laden with household items, the family set out on foot towards the home of a friend. Several days later, they returned to find the smoldering foundation of their home. As they explored the ruins, hot ashes burned the soles of their shoes off. The Schultze family joined more than 100,000 people left homeless in the wake of the fire.

The Chicago Tribune, unable to publish papers on October 9th or 10th, described the scene in the October 11th edition. “This city has been swept by a conflagration which has no parallel in the annals of history.” By the night of the 9th, the fire began to burn itself out. A light rainstorm that night helped douse the final hot spots.

Chicago Tribune October 11, 1871

Reconstruction began almost immediately, and relief poured in from around the country and abroad. Railroads offered free passage to those who wanted to leave. Improved building techniques and updated fire standards helped Chicagoans rebuild and emerge as a modern city. Just two decades later, Congress named Chicago the host city for the 1893 World’s Fair.

If you would like to learn more about the Great Chicago Fire, search™ today or visit our Great Chicago Fire Topic Page to see curated clippings related to the fire.

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The Rational Dress Society and Victorian Dress Reform

In 1881, a group of high society women gathered in London to form a new organization. They named their group the Rational Dress Society, intending to reform Victorian women’s dress. The group came up with criteria for the perfect dress. It included:  

  1. Freedom of Movement
  2. Absence of pressure over any part of the body
  3. No more weight than is necessary for warmth, and both weight and warmth evenly distributed.
  4. Grace and beauty combined with comfort and convenience
  5. Not departing too conspicuously from the ordinary dress of the time

Their ideas were revolutionary and controversial. Typical Victorian dress styles incorporated heavy fabrics, tight corsets, bustles, hoop skirts, and extravagant ornamentation. The women argued that dress reform would allow them to participate in activities like cycling. Bicycles had become a symbol of freedom for many women who found the sport liberating and emancipating.  

Lady Harberton

A founding member of the society was Viscountess Florence Wallace Pomeroy, also known as Lady Harberton. Lady Harberton, the daughter of wealthy landowners, married James S. Pomeroy. He later became the 6th Viscount Harberton. In 1880, Lady Harberton took up the cause of dress reform. She loved to cycle, but heavy, long skirts prevented her from enjoying the activity. She championed the reformed dress, which consisted of baggy pantaloons worn underneath a knee-length skirt. She also invented the divided skirt, which initially evoked jeers on both sides of the pond. Some feared that trifling with a traditional women’s dress was a step down a path to loosening moral values.

In 1883, the Rational Dress Society sponsored an exhibition held in London. The exhibit included shorter dresses, divided skirts, “costumes for climbing for lady mountaineers, and a costume for walking.” One man reported to The Times that the women in his family discarded their corsets and found new freedom in dancing, walking, tricycling, lawn tennis, and other open-air exercises. They vowed never to return to corsets and heavy skirts. Attitudes for many women (and men) were undergoing a seismic shift. The “woman of the future” wanted freedom in her clothing – and freedom within other aspects of her life.  

The struggle for rational dress came to a head after an incident in 1898. Lady Harberton went cycling in Surrey. She stopped for lunch at the Hautboy Hotel but was turned away for improper dress. Lady Harberton sued the hotel but lost the case because the hotel had offered alternative seating in the bar. Nevertheless, the case brought attention to rational dress and a victory for women who advocated for it. Lady Harberton spent decades promoting clothing that would make life easier for women. Later in her life, she also became an advocate for the women’s suffrage movement. Lady Harberton died in 1911. The Guardian eulogized her as an “enthusiastic and undaunted advocate” for dress reform.

If you would like to learn more about Lady Harberton, or the Rational Dress Society, search™ today!

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“More Horrors Yet to Come”: How Newspapers Covered the Belle Gunness Murders

Belle Gunness & childrenBelle Gunness & children 03 Dec 1908, Thu The Salina Daily Union (Salina, Kansas)

It started with a tragedy. In the early morning of April 28, 1908, a farmhouse near La Porte, Indiana, burned to the ground with a woman and three children inside.

Then it got unimaginably worse. As local authorities investigated the fire, another body was discovered—this one buried in a hog pen on the property. Further digging would unearth numerous other corpses and body parts in the days that followed.

The farmhouse had belonged to Belle Gunness, at the time simply believed to be a widowed Norwegian immigrant but now infamous for being one of the most prolific female serial killers in the United States.

Though estimates vary widely, Belle Gunness is believed to have killed at least a dozen people (and possibly upwards of 40) between 1884 and 1908.

Belle Gunness in the Headlines

When her crimes were finally discovered in 1908 after the Indiana farmhouse fire, the gruesome murders understandably made newspaper headlines nationwide for weeks.

What would it have been like to read about those shocking events as they unfolded each day? We turned to the Indiana papers on™ to experience how people of the era would have learned about Gunness’s appalling crimes.

A Farmhouse Burns

The first of the news stories appeared in Indiana papers on April 28, 1908. They reported that a house fire in the pre-dawn hours was believed to have killed Belle Gunness and three children.

28 Apr 1908, Tue The South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Indiana)

By the next day, the papers identified Ray Lamphere as a suspect in the deaths. Lamphere had worked for Gunness as a farmhand, but the two had recently had a falling out. Gunness repeatedly reported Lamphere to the authorities in the weeks leading up to the disaster, and shortly before the fire she visited her attorney to draw up a will—purportedly because she feared for her life.

29 Apr 1908, Wed The South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Indiana)

More Corpses Appear

Then, a week later, on May 5, newspapers began breaking the news that multiple dismembered corpses had been unearthed on the Gunness property.

The discovery had come almost by chance. A man named Asle Helgelien had arrived in La Porte looking for his brother, who was known to have visited Belle Gunness. A search for clues about the missing brother on the burned Gunness property led to an examination of unusual depressions in the ground in a hog pen. Men started digging—and discovered one body after another.

05 May 1908, Tue Evansville Press (Evansville, Indiana)

Newspaper coverage of the gruesome discoveries exploded the following day, May 6. Practically overnight, papers shifted from portraying Belle Gunness as a victim to identifying her as a killer who had lured countless well-to-do bachelors to their deaths using newspaper marriage ads.

06 May 1908, Wed The Indianapolis News (Indianapolis, Indiana)

The body count only grew as the week progressed. “More horrors yet to come,” predicted one Indiana paper. And it was right. The corpse of Gunness’s teenage foster daughter, Jennie, was found among the buried bodies, as was Helgelien’s brother, and a number of unidentified victims.

The total number of murders ascribed to Gunness varies, though it’s suspected to be at least a dozen. After the bodies buried on the farm were found, people also began to suspect that Gunness was responsible for the deaths of her two husbands, who had both died under suspicious circumstances.

08 May 1908, Fri The South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Indiana)

The Mystery Deepens

The investigation was complicated by conflicting evidence about whether Gunness had actually been killed or if she had faked her own death and escaped. Lending credence to the theory that Gunness had survived was her supposed corpse, which was mysteriously missing the head. Additionally, some who saw the body felt it was too small to be Gunness.

06 May 1908, Wed The South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Indiana)

Other news coverage, however, reported that the body had indeed been Gunness, based on dental work and jewelry found at the scene.

12 May 1908, Tue The Fort Wayne Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana)

With so much about the Gunness case unresolved, newspaper coverage eventually slowed. The story did return to the papers later that year, however, when Ray Lamphere was convicted in November of setting fire to the house, though not of murder.

01 Dec 1908, Tue The Hamilton County Ledger (Noblesville, Indiana)

Even today, we don’t know much more than they did in 1908 about the Gunness murders. The total number of victims, the extent of Lamphere’s involvement, whether Gunness died or escaped, and much more is still a mystery. The question posed by one newspaper in 1908 still stumps us more than 110 years later: “Is she dead or a murder fiend?”

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