History's Hidden Headlines

By Brendan O'Brien


09/26/07 - Journal Times

A century ago, it was not uncommon to find tales of toads falling from the sky and cows barking like dogs in the local newspaper


Since then, journalists have done away with reporting lore and gone with telling stories based on facts.  But those headlines have been brought back to life by Wisconsin author Chad Lewis.


The Eau Claire native has compiled the strangest headlines and newspaper stories in his book "Hidden Headlines of Wisconsin: Strange, Usual, and Bizarre Newspaper Stories 1860-1910."


"Part of that research was digging through some old archives and finding out the history of places and people," he said.  "I would stumble across these really weird articles and would print them out really for my own amusement."


He began to actively seeking weird and quirky headlines and stories.  It was an arduous task, Lewis said.


"There's no index that you can type in 'woman wears shoes made from human skin,'" said Lewis, who had to search microfilm for newspapers that were printed 150 years ago.  "They were almost impossible to read.  They were very difficult to read."


"Part of that research was digging through some old archives...I would stumble across these really weird articles and would print them out really for my own amusement."





Lewis spent five years digging through old newspaper archives throughout the state and retyping those that he found fascinating.


"Part of the fun of this book is for the reader to question for themselves whether or not they believe the story," said Lewis, who found 200 stories to put in the book.


Lewis remembered one story in particular that caught his attention.  The headline in the Marinette newspaper was "A Human Monster; Half Boy, Half Dog."


The newspaper described the young boy as having a dog's snout and covered with hair.  Lewis said that it was likely an exaggeration of the boy's deformities or a birth defect.


"The paper went on to write that the mother was scared by a dog in her last month of being pregnant," Lewis said.  "It was a common belief back then that if the mother was scared by an animal or came in contact with certain animals while she was pregnant, the child would come out looking like that animal."


Another story that caught the author's fancy concerned a young woman in Madison who made a pair of shoes and a matching purse out of human skin.  The woman, Lewis explained, received the skin of a man murdered in Chicago, from a friend who was studying medicine.


Lewis said he noticed that journalists went out of their way to establish some credibility in the stories by attributing facts to local officials.  They also went out of their way to sell newspapers, which were a form of entertainment back then when radio and television were nonexistent.


"The story might be a lot less exciting than the headline," Lewis said.  "I think maybe 80 percent of these stories really happened and the other 20 percent were either made up by a journalist or certainly embellished."


Chad Lewis will present a program on "Hidden Headlines of Wisconsin:  Strange Unusual and Bizarre Newspaper Stories 1860-1910" at the Graham Public Library, 1215 Main St. in Union Grove, from 2 to 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 26.

This presentation showcases over 200 unusual articles that appeared in Wisconsin Newspapers.  No registration is necessary for this program.  For information, call the library at (262) 878-2910.

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