Searching newspapers, old school vs. new

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While I was in St. Paul, I spent a lot of time at their state historical library. (Believe me, I wish I lived closer to Springfield in order to do a lot of work here in Illinois!) They have one of the best collections of Minnesota newspapers around, covering most major cities and some smaller towns throughout the state. So before I went up there, I made sure I had a complete list of everybody I wanted to find in those papers, particularly death notices.

When preparing to work with newspapers, whether small town or big metropolis, you need to deal with two kinds of resources. Some newspapers that have been microfilmed, and some have been digitized on computer and can be searched. Your research plan is very different for these two types of newspaper resources.

If you are looking for death notices, most of the time you know the week in which the notice was placed, so you can grab the microfilm and start checking the death notice page(s) starting with the date of death and working forward. I usually give up after searching a full week after the death date. However, sometimes, the death notice is in the newspaper a couple of weeks or even a month after the death, because the family has chosen to do a memorial visitation or service. These are done either with an urn of the ashes, or with no remains at all, and thus they can schedule it around other events. (When they have an actual body to bury, they need to hurry things along!) If the death notice does not appear in the paper until a month after the death date, well, most of the time I would rather give up looking than waste the time.

Why would I give up? Because there is no guarantee that people placed a death notice in the paper at all! Sometimes the cost is prohibitive and people won’t spend the money to post the notice. In large cities like Chicago, we have the Tribune and Times (and older papers like the Daily news, but more on those later) and suburban papers like the Daily Herald and the Suburbanite Economist (or Southtown). So the death notice may be in the paper, just not the one you’re looking in. If I spend a lot of time searching for a death notice only to find after one month they did not place one, it is very frustrating. The vast majority of people whose deaths will be announced in the newspaper will do so within a few days. A very small percentage will post a notice much further out. If someone died out of state but was buried here, the death notice may be a little later to account for the travel time of the body back to Illinois.

So back to research plans. I said a few paragraphs ago that you need a different plan when working with microfilm vs. digitized. If all you look for are death notices, it doesn’t matter that much. But what if you want to find news stories about family members? That time your cousin went 4 for 5 with three home runs in the state championship game? That time your grand-aunt won the Rhubarb Pie of the Year Award for the ninth year in a row? That time Uncle Ercole got in the bar fight … ?

Unless you know the exact dates of these events, how will you know which newspaper dates to look for them? Death notices are one thing, but to know the date of the Rhubarb Pie contest in 1966 might be a bit tricky. You would spend hour after hour looking for something and you may not find it. Basically if you know when something happened, you can use microfilm. If you’re not sure when an event occurred, you should use digitized searchable newspapers on-line.

Be prepared for the type of stories you will find. If the town is large, the event has to be large for it to make the papers. Maybe back in the 1910s or 1920s there might be a story in a Chicago newspaper about a young college football star who climbed a tree and saved a kitten, proposed to his steady girlfriend, and then scored four touchdowns to win the championship.

If you are looking in older newspapers in smaller towns, you may find stories about family members doing what we would consider very mundane social events. “Mr. and Mrs. Howard Kurtz of Colorado Springs are in town to visit Mrs. Kurtz’s widowed sister, Mrs. Dominic Cianca. After tea and scones, they plan to have dinner at Century Steakhouse. Mrs. Kurtz plans to wear a red formal with a string of pearls …” Some of these stories seem to go on forever and they also seem to make a big deal about nothing. And if you noticed, they never mentioned the first names of the women. They were formally identified as Mrs. Husband’s Name Kurtz. Remember that when searching digitized newspapers from the old days. If our busy lives make the tea and dinner seem dated, it does give you some family history. How long did it take them to drive from Colorado Springs to Winona, Minnesota? Back in the 1920s it was a much slower ride than today. You also learned that the Kurtzs were living as of 1925 and might have died in Colorado Springs. Geez I’ve never been able to find their deaths in Minnesota. You may not care what color dress they wore to the restaurant but at least you have an event that made the papers, and it wasn’t negative press on your family.

All that aside, you will rarely find such a story in a large metro paper. The only time you’ll see a story about Mrs. Kurtz and her sister Mrs. Cianca is if they got into a bar brawl, and even then it might not be newsworthy. I have written before about the problem we have when we find out something criminal that affected a member of our family. Searchable newspapers make it easy to find these transgressions. You search for the right name and/or address and you might find things your older relatives choose to not discuss. As a researcher, we feel delighted that we found this story to add to the family history, but we also find out that older relatives who would rather not discuss the negative actions of their siblings can get a bit vindictive when you need more info from them. You blab to the world that Uncle Ercole broke a policeman’s jaw and spent ten years in prison, and even though Ercole is long gone, his baby sister decides that she’s not going to show you any more old photos because you took the newspaper story and reported it as fact!! The last thing you want to hear from an elderly relative with memories and photographs is, “My brother was FRAMED! He didn’t go to jail. Spent ten years in the war!!” But no war went on for ten years… All I am saying is to be discrete if possible when recording the actions of your long dead relatives, if you stand to lose new information as a result.

Next month I will go through the Chicago Newspapers that are no longer published, and there are many. I will also go over, a pay web site that covers a lot of Chicago and the rest of the USA and can be searched from home.

If you have any questions, send me an e-mail at and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line. Have fun!

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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