|Grinnell Register December 18, 1916, p. 1.|
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.|
|Grinnell Register December 4, 1916, p. 1.|
|Grinnell Herald September 19, 1916|
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.