Looking back, we really need to lighten up

October 14, 2008

Tim Rowland is on vacation. His column will return when he does. The following column was published in The Daily Mail on Oct. 28, 1998:

I was looking over the County Commissioners' budget and have become altogether convinced they are spending too much for lawyers, too much on the needy and too much for fox scalps.

And if they don't get a handle on that blacksmith department, it will be the death of us.

Perhaps I should mention in passing that the budget in question was for the year 1860 and that, printed in total, the entire document came to little more than half a newspaper page.

Thanks to HCC professor Tom Clemens and a man in Oregon named Joe Bloom, we recently got our mitts on a cache of Civil War-era newspapers that were believed lost earlier this century.


This Sunday I will explore some of the more serious, and frankly, boring, historical implications of this priceless, historical archive. But today I am more interested in happier aspects, such as fox scalps. And this item, which appeared next to the budget:

"It is reported that the crippled showman who was bitten by a rattlesnake on Saturday evening and taken to the poor house yesterday is recovering. In every instance of snake bite where the whisky cure has been resorted to in time it has proved effective.

"Whatever may be thought of drunkenness under other circumstances persons who may be unfortunate as to be bitten by a poisonous snake should get gloriously drunk and the sooner the better."

You couldn't run such a helpful notice today for risk of offending MADD, PETA, the Trial Lawyers, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Christian Coalition, the Screen Actors Guild and the United Way.

No, a clown getting drunk over a snake and recovering in a shelter is the one sure-fire way of uniting any number of mutually exclusive agencies.

Classified ads in those days pumped maple syrup, whale oil and "large lots of accordions." (The quality of yard sales seems to have peaked early in Washington County.)

All the copy seemed somewhat lighter in general. Take the headline "A Tragical Affair/Killed in Hagerstown." The smaller print revealed an ad for freshly slaughtered Virginia beef.

In the very same edition as the news of John Brown's raid was a bold-faced column "Great Excitement at Harpers Ferry/The Citizens In Arms - and not only there, but also in Hagerstown, over our new fall and winter ladies' dress styles."

Can you imagine trying that today? "Hotel Explodes - with great deals on two-day, three-night ski packages."

Death just seemed, well, a little more fun in those days. For example, as the Civil War loomed, the Herald thought it might be helpful to print the entire death tolls of the French Revolution, categorized by age, title, sex and degree of nobility. Told in what manner they died too - ax, drowning, guillotine. Just as a little reminder, I suppose. A clipping for the fridge.

The old editors in large part, I am convinced, are the direct ancestors of the grumpy men who today fill their time by phoning into Mail Call. "Democracy has degenerated from the high and exulted principles taught by the illustrious Jefferson."

That could have appeared this week in one of our letters to the editor. But it didn't. It was written by some unnamed curmudgeon in 1859 when the poor president had been in his grave a bare 33 years.

And finally, when we complain about Beltway Bandits, we come by it honestly. The editors applauded the suppression of a southern mob that attacked a Union troop train in Baltimore.

But it warned that the Baltimore police better not use the suppression as an excuse to raise taxes on the hard-working men of Western Maryland.

Some things never change.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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