Thursday, October 8, 2015

Before Trigger Warnings...

These days we hear a lot about trigger warnings—"statement[s] at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material." Increasingly teachers and others in the public eye insert these warnings before producing prose or video that might prove offensive or distressing to their students or their audience.  But this idea seems to have had no currency among the newspaper editors of early Grinnell who felt free to print not only what we might consider altogether private information (detailing who left on vacation, who had fallen ill, who was entertaining guests, who had purchased a new car or built a new house, etc.), but also included in reports of death and injury a surprising level of gruesome detail to which today's readers are not much accustomed. So let me here declare my own trigger warning: some of the material in this post includes graphic, potentially-upsetting descriptions of violent death.
Grinnell Register December 18, 1916, p. 1.
An example of this sort of reporting comes from the Grinnell Register, which in December 1916 told the story of a man who had fallen from a train entering Grinnell from the west. According to the paper, two men (who had done some drinking) had boarded the train in Des Moines on "blind baggage"—standing outside the car adjacent to the coal tender, a car that was without a door adjacent to the coupling. Intending to reach Davenport without having to pay the fare, the men were balanced precariously above the track for some fifty miles in mid-December weather. Only when the train reached Grinnell did one of the two men report to trainmen that a few miles outside Grinnell his friend had slipped and fallen, "and without doubt had been ground to pieces under the train."

Even this language probably would not make it into today's newspaper, but the Register was not yet done, describing in detail exactly what the coroner, sent back along the track, had found: "gruesome evidence scattered along the track for a full half mile. Bits of human flesh, blood, intestines, liver, a leg here, an arm there...." The victim, whose face had somehow escaped mutilation, was duly identified, and the report concluded with an expectation of an inquest. To its credit, the Grinnell Herald (December 19, 1916) published a more restrained account; its headline reported only that a "Young Man Is Killed," and the story provided none of the provocative particulars employed in the Register's account.
Grinnell Register August 24, 1916, p. 1.
Another example of newspaper explicit reportage concerns suicides. Except for tabloids devoted to scandal, today's newspaper readers rarely encounter stories about suicide; contemporary reports commonly obscure the circumstances, the better to protect survivors from shame and comment. But Grinnell's early twentieth-century newspapers knew no such discretion, and routinely reported on suicides, often filling in all the details. A story from the August 24, 1916 Grinnell Register illustrates the tendency. Writing about a man who had killed himself with a shot gun, the paper did not shrink from describing the details.  Having identified the deceased, the newspaper felt obliged to report that the man had gone "into [the] orchard, placed [the] barrel of [the] gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with a stick."  The result was graphically reported in the story's headline: "Suicide at Kellogg Blew Top of Head Off." Moreover, the newspaper speculated upon the cause, reporting that the dead man had been despondent, nevertheless concluding that the deceased "was respected by the people in his community."
Grinnell Register December 4, 1916, p. 1.
Accounts of suicide were not unusual in Grinnell's newspapers of this era. Another story from the 1916 Grinnell Register proved only slightly more restrained than the example cited above. In this case the paper reported on the death of a Montezuma man who had used his own .22 caliber rifle to kill himself. His son found the man dead in their barn, "the ball [bullet] [having] enter[ed] the victim's throat." Again the Herald (December 5, 1916) printed a more restrained story; like the Register, the Herald identified the man, and the headline left no doubt that it was suicide: "Takes His Own Life." Readers of the Herald did not learn exactly where the shot had fallen, but the paper added the explanatory detail that the deceased had left behind a letter that told of the man's despondency and ill health, an apparent explanation of the act.
Grinnell Herald September 19, 1916
The Herald was not always so circumspect, however. Another report of suicide, this one appearing in the September 19, 1916 issue of the paper, made a verb out of the noun: "Suicides by Hanging."  After having identified the retired farmer and the way his wife had discovered the "lifeless body," the story articulated precisely how the man had arranged his own death: "He had placed a two by four across the opening into the hayloft, fastened one end of a rope to it and the other end about his neck, then climbed up on a trestle and ended it by kicking the trestle out from under him."

How to explain this sort of reportage? No doubt at least some of the explanation lies in the competition between Grinnell's two newspapers of that era. I have not seen any figures on their relative sales, but we know that just at this time both papers had invested heavily in new buildings (the Herald in 1915 and the Register in 1916) and new printing equipment.  Both papers, therefore, had reason to try to amp up their sales, and salacious headlines offered the prospect of attracting readers who were more interested in entertainment than recitation of fact. Presumably similar thinking informs the editorial policies of today's tabloids.

But even if we grant a business motivation to the papers' editors, we must confront the fact that ordinary readers of early twentieth-century Grinnell newspapers apparently took no umbrage at the sometimes lurid prose they encountered. Indeed, we must assume that readers themselves often provided newspapers with the details of their lives that ended up in the columns that dominated newspaper coverage. And if that is so, then we must also suppose that men and women of that era brought to their reading attitudes toward privacy and appropriateness rather different from those that inform today's trigger warnings.  It might be—and this is only speculation, of course—that they who routinely bid farewell to the dead at home experienced death more often close at hand than do we, and that they therefore brought more hardened sensibilities to their reading of the world than do we.  On the other hand, when large cohorts of today's population have immediate access through smart phones and other devices to the latest violence anywhere on the globe, we might imagine that each of us—witnesses via television to the 9/11 tragedy, to countless examples of gun violence, and to seemingly endless warfare—has incorporated into consciousness more instances of violent death than any of our forebears could imagine.

Explanation, therefore, remains elusive, but perhaps we would do well to ponder the apparent difference and what it tells us about ourselves and our ancestors.

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