- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

FAIRLEE, Vermont. — One way to size up a local community is to buy its local paper. So I did, forking over $5 for a newspaper originally priced at 4 cents. The price represents quite a mark-up until you realize this particular paper is over 100 years old, and the junk store it came from is bilking the summer tourist trade as best it can before the snow flies — which, judging by the air of mistrust with which true Vermonters regard even a sustained July heat wave, could come any time now.

One of 2,000 copies printed on Friday, October 5, 1894, this barely tattered and lightly sepia-ed edition of The United Opinion could be the only copy to have survived unburnt, uncrumpled — even unrecycled — the rest of the 19th century, all of the 20th, and the first couple years of the 21st. On the day this eight-page broadsheet was new, Grover Cleveland was into his second term as president, the Pullman strike had recently made labor history, Hawaii was a republic, and a border dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain was raising tensions between the United States and Great Britain.

None of which is mentioned in The United Opinion. “KILLED HIS SISTER,” runs the headline to a story datelined Worcester, Mass., one of two that dominate the front page. The other lead story pertains to a now-forgotten war between China and Japan that China would lose, exposing both the weakness of the Manchu dynasty and revealing Japan to be the rising power in East Asia — a rise that would continue unchecked until World War II.

Not that United Opinion readers had a crystal ball in which to see this. Besides, they were probably more taken with the details of the Carr murder story, a real-life tenement melodrama among the mill workers. “William Carr Expressed no Regret at His Awful Crime. But,” the headline continues, “One Dollar Left Him In His Mother’s Will — It Filled Him With Rage Against Other Members of the Family.” Which about says it all, given that Theodore Dreiser never decided to elaborate. Of course, when it comes to dramatics, nothing in the paper compares with the advertisements: “Can it be that Insanity is Staring Me in the Face?” Try: Dr. Greene’s Nevura blood and nerve remedy.

Other front-page news consists of briefs stacked in columns — as the Wall Street Journal does to this day — covering fishing news, mill strikes, election returns, and a challenge by Bob Fitzsimmons to “Gentleman Jim” Corbett for the heavyweight championship of the world — a title Fitzsimmons would win from Corbett in 1897. One local brief stands out: “A crowd of roughs in Lebanon attacked a party of six Dartmouth students and treated them to a dose of eggs and stones ? Finally the students opened fire, and shot a man named Marson in the arm ? More trouble is likely to follow.”

Inside, a vivid section called News of the Week bombarded late-19th-century readers with the era-equivalent of non-stop news bites: “The czar is improving in health — A Whitman (Mass.) business building was burned — A train crew routed robbers near Temple, Tex. — Schooner William Home and six of her crew members were lost on Lake Michigan,” the section reports. “Lieutenant Peary says homing pigeons as messengers in the Arctic region are a failure ? Frederick Douglas says President Garfield intended appointing negroes as ministers and consuls to white nations ? Mrs. Parana Stevens created a scene with a tradesman at Newport, R.I. … Ex-Vice-President Ezeta of Salvador is continually guarded by detectives ? Conan Doyle, the English novelist, arrived in New York.”

The primary beat of the paper is, of course, local, preserving rhythms of daily life seldom sensed a century later. Reporting on some 22 towns, The United Opinion offered a close if unelaborated look at life in 1894: “Dr. and Mrs. Hanson are visiting in town. Mrs. Harriet Bailey is reported to be improving in health. Mr. C.B. Botsford of Boston has been ? actively engaged in temperance and religious work of various kinds. John Sawyer’s colt ran away Tuesday, no serious damage was done. The paring bee at G.A. Johnson’s on Tuesday evening was well attended, the apples were well pared as were the young people who at a late hour wended their way homeward.”

Did reporters cull the counties for these human interest stories? Or did interested humans tell the paper of their (and their colts’) exploits? There can be little doubt how the following news came to the attention of the United Opinion staff: “During Tuesday night some miscreant fired a stone against the large plate glass window of the OPINION office.” Said stone, it seems, left a one-inch hole. The paper offered a ten-dollar-reward for “information as to who the party was who committed the act.” Which is one story I’d like to see followed up in the next edition.

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