Old-time newspapers were notorious for printing articles that were long on fanciful stories but often short on verifiable facts.
As such, many curious stories that appeared in papers a century or more ago have to be read with a skeptical eye. Readers then, as today, would view information in printed form at face value, when in reality it was a fraud, whether purposeful or accidental.
In fairness to the folks of the past, researching the validity of printed information was a good bit harder.
Not only was there no Internet to employ for fact-checking, but books were much scarcer, especially among the lower classes, libraries were an anomaly outside big cities and competition among newspapers often meant that outlandish stories were run “as is” and sometimes even further embellished, to get a leg up on rivals.
So when I came across the following story in the July 26, 1899, edition of the Fairfield News and Herald, a Winnsboro, S.C., newspaper, it both caught my attention and raised my suspicions.
The death of Leonard B. Bleeker aged 72 years which recently occurred at Yates Centre, Kas., has revealed a case of self-sacrifice seldom heard of outside the domain of fiction. Three years ago Bleeker went to that country peddling cheap articles and, too old and weary to proceed farther, a kind hearted farmer took him in and cared for him until he died. To the family which befriended him he told the story of his life, reserving for the grave the specific names of persons and localities. He stated that in 1861 he left a wife and five children in Michigan and answered the first call for volunteers. The fortunes of war were against him and for months he lay a prisoner in Andersonville prison. For some reason he was led to believe that a certain other batch of prisoners would soon be exchanged. Among them was a dying man and the two comrades exchanged names and military designations. The soldier died and the death was reported as that of Leonard B. Bleeker, and is so recorded in the war department. The real Bleeker was released after a time, rejoined his regiment and served until the close of the war without communicating with his family. Then he went back and found his wife married to another man. He ascertained that his children were well cared for and then left the community without revealing his identity. Throughout his life he carefully guarded his secret and since going to Yates Centre, was often urged to apply for a pension, but stoutly refused. Even when near death he would not reveal the location of his former home or permit anyone to communicate with old associate(s). He was a man of more than ordinary education and the truth of his story or the possession of a noble purpose in his long sacrifice cannot be doubted.
Indeed, the entire story seems utterly fanciful to us today. But a few things to consider:
Local government is often said to be superior in many respects to state and federal government because it can respond more quickly, is said to be in better tune with the needs of its constituents and usually comes in personal contact with constituents on a far more regular basis.
However, local government is just as capable as its bigger counterparts of entangling residents in bureaucratic red tape that leaves people confused, irritated and, often, unwittingly in violation of the law.
Take the above sign, near an elementary school in White Lake, Mich., which is in the Detroit metro area.
Instead of simply installing a flashing light when the speed limit drops to 25 miles per hour, or having wording to the effect that the speed limit is 25 miles per hour from, say, 6 a.m.-9 a.m. and again from 2 p.m.-5 p.m., officials have detailed five 30-minute periods and one 26-minute period in which the limit drops to 25 mph.
And, as one can see, they’re all oddball segments, rather than, say, 7:00 a.m.-7:30 a.m., further enhancing befuddlement.
No one disputes that newspapers are in serious decline: The question that remains unanswered is how far they will fall.
A recent conversation with a local attorney offered evidence of the industry’s decline. His is a family of six: two college-educated parents and four kids who all attend private school and will almost certainly go on to college themselves.
Yet, the family no longer receives a daily newspaper.
Such would have been almost unimaginable just a decade ago. Up until as late as 2000, at least, college-educated families, and many blue-collar families, took the daily paper as the best means to keep up with what was going on both locally and statewide.
No more, as the Internet and cable television have helped fragment the media market beyond anything imaginable even into the late 1990s.
Pondering the state of newspapers – where I spent a good bit of my career – brought me back to my formative years, when the medium essentially helped shape my life.
It did so by serving as the all-important conduit between me, beginning at age 9, and the first sports team I started following religiously, the Detroit Tigers.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of America’s great entrepreneurs and the founder of General Motors, William Durant.
Durant gained famed as the founder of GM, a multi-brand holding company with different lines of cars designed to appeal to consumers of varying economic means.
Durant was the grandson of a former governor of Michigan and his chief interest was business. Instead of attending college he choose to go to work in his grandfather’s lumber business, one of the largest of the many large lumber mills in Flint, Mich, according to Arthur Pound’s book The Turning Wheel: The Story of General Motors Through Twenty-Five Years, 1908-1933.
He then branched out by opening his own insurance agency before he was 21.
“That suited him, because insurance was something you could go out and sell,” Pound writes. “No waiting around for customers to come to you, as in the store. An almost feverish activity possessed him. ‘Billy’ Durant above everything needed action. While possessed of a notable faculty for remaining calm in the midst of alarms, he seemed to require dramatic tension in business. Yet he had also the power of concentrating intently on work.”