Newspaper Research: The Importance of Being Thorough

“The cry of fire was raised in Catharine st. at 10 o’clock this forenoon, and in a minute the street was black with people.[4]

Photo by Wendy Preuss

Photo by Wendy Preuss

If I close my eyes, I can picture it. It was winter, 1885. My great-grandmother, Minnie Anderson, was nearing her teens. She lived on the third floor of a Manhattan tenement, a story above where the fire broke out. The back stairs were blocked by smoke and flames. She was trapped, along with all who lived above the second floor.

There were no fatalities. Minnie made it down a fire escape with the majority of the building’s occupants.

The fire’s story came to me by way of six newspaper clippings, saved on the business letterhead of M. F. McCabe, mason and builder. A notation reads “A token of remembrance of the Catharine street fire.” Michael and his sisters helped to raise Minnie after her mother died. He was kin, but to what degree is a story for another day, and a mystery that might never be solved.

Clippings found in family papers often come without a newspaper title or publication date. Digitized newspaper collections make it possible to identify the source of some clippings. Others remain a mystery. Several clippings on the fire included newspaper titles, and one had a date. While trying to identify the remaining articles, I found three more. Nine articles. One event. One city. Most would not have been found searching by full name. Some would have been found by searching name variations.

Digitized newspaper articles are often found quickly, many in places where we might never have thought to look. That tends to lend us a false sense of security; the impression of a careful search, and the notion that negative findings mean our people did not appear in the paper. Techniques, like searching for an address instead of a name, often yield additional finds. But no matter how thorough we think we are when searching a database, the sad fact is we will never know what we have missed.

Nine articles on one fire reinforced a lesson that I teach: check every newspaper in a location for articles about the same event. Information may vary in each.

Minnie’s fire story is the perfect example of why feeling content with newspaper database searches and the wonders on found pages should actually make you feel a little uncomfortable. A bit uncertain. Leave you questioning if you have truly conducted a thorough search.

Being thorough might not result in clarity. Things might become murkier the more you stir up the waters. That is what happened to my mind’s eye picture of the tenement fire that might have taken my great-grandmother’s life. The more carefully I looked, the more smoke got in my eyes, making it hard to see Minnie scrambling down that fire escape and into a street black with gawkers and survivors. Let’s look at the Catharine Street events as reported. You too can close your eyes and try to see through the haze.

Simple facts should remain the same in each article, right? Remember that the slightest variation in found information represents a potential missed article, depending on how a search string is formulated.

WHERE:
• Catharine st. [1]
• Catharine street[7]
• 17 Catharine st.[1]
• 17 Catharine street[8]
• 17 Catharine street, New York[9]
• No. 17 Catharine-street[2]
• No. 17 Catharine street[3][4][5]
• No. 17 Catharine-st.[6]

WHEN:
• yesterday morning[2]
• 9 ½ yesterday morning[8]
• ten o’clock this morning[9]
• 10 o’clock this forenoon[1]
• about 10 o’clock yesterday[4]
• about 10 o’clock yesterday morning[5]
• 10 a.m. yesterday[6]
• eleven o’clock yesterday morning[3]

BUILDING:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    • Clarence Conger, owner[5]
• tenement house[3]
• four-story tenement[8]
• four-story tenement house[6]
• four-story-and-attic tenement, belongs to Clarence Conger[4]
• five-story[1]
• five-story double tenement[5]
• five stories high, with an attic[3]
• [fire on] second floor, three floors above that[2]

• narrow winding stairways in the rear[8]
• rickety fire-escape attached to the rear of the building on the fourth floor[5]
• fire-escape running to the street in front[1]
• fire-escape on the front wall[6]
• fire escapes on the front of the building[8]

• Half of the first floor is used as a cloak factory by M. & I. Shidovsky, and the other half by B. Gutter, a jeweller, whose living rooms are back of the store.[4]

WHO:
• Mr. McCabe[3]
• Mr. F. McCabe, a carpenter, lives on the third floor[4]
• M. F. McCabe, a builder, lessee[1]
• M. F. McCabe, a builder, landlord[5]
• M. F. McCabe, a carpenter, who resides on the third floor [leased by][3]
• Michael McCabe, occupies the third story[8]
• McCabe, Murphy, Klingman and Subskey families[1]
• McCabe, his sisters, Mrs. Minnie Stack, Annie and Mary Jane, and Mrs. Stack’s daughter Minnie, third floor[4]

• sister[8]
• his [McCabe’s] sister[1]
• his [McCabe’s] sister[3]
• Annie, third floor[4]
• Annie McCabe, living on the third floor[2]
• Annie McCabe, tall, strong girl, nineteen years, clear blue eyes, a face rather determined than pretty, a thick nut-brown bang[4]
• Miss Annie McCabe, heroine[7]
• Anna McCabe[5]

• wife [of Michael McCabe][8]
• Mrs. Minnie Stack, and Mrs. Stack’s daughter Minnie, third floor[4]
• Minnie, [Mrs. Stack’s daughter], third floor[4]
• Mary Jane, [McCabe’s] sister, third floor[4]

• M. Shidlovsky, manufacturer of cloaks, ground floor store[8]
• M. Shidlovsky & Brother, who occupy the first floor for the sale of cloaks, and the third floor, for dwelling purposes[3]
• M. & I. Shidovsky, half of the first floor is used as a cloak factory[4]
• Morris Skidlowsky[6]
• Morris Skedlowsky, a cloak manufacturer[1]
• Morris Shidlovski, apartments, second floor[5]
• Morris Shidovsky, his wife and three children live on the second floor[4]
• Momie Shidlovsky, a cloakmaker[2]

• B. Gutter, jeweller, ground floor store[8]
• B. Gutter, a jeweller, other half of first floor, living rooms are back of the store[4]

• McCabe, Murphy, Klingman and Subskey families[1]
• Levi Softsky, a peddler, his wife and two children, live in second floor apartments[4]
• Brenie, [Levi Softsy’s] sister lives in second floor apartments[4]
• Rebecca, [Levi Softsy’s] granddaughter lives in second floor apartments[4]

• McCabe, Murphy, Klingman and Subskey families[1]
• Mrs. Clingman, sick, faint with fright[4]
• Mrs. Clingman and her three children, fourth floor[2]
• George Clingman, an oysterman, and his sick wife and two children, fourth floor[4]

• Silberman family, attic[2]
• George Silberman, a peddler, his wife and their three children, up under the slanting roof[4]

• McCabe, Murphy, Klingman and Subskey families[1]
• Jeremiah Murphy, who could barely hobble[2]
• Jerry Murphy, his wife and her sister, Kate McCarty, fourth floor[4]
• Mrs. Murphy, fourth floor[2]
• wife [Jerry Murphy], fourth floor[4]

• a blind and deaf woman[2]
• blind woman on the third floor, carried down, caused much trouble[1]
• blind woman on the third floor was carried down the stairs[5]
• [Mrs. Murphy’s] blind sister[2]
• Kate McCarty, quite blind and very deaf, fourth floor[4]

• one man got out on the roof[2]

• B. Clondell, reported to be an old miser, immensely wealthy. He lived in a cheerless little room in the attic. Aged man, with snow-white hair.[5]
• Albert B. Condell and two others, up under the slanting roof[4]
• Albert Bruen Cardell, left on top floor, got on roof, taken down by the firemen[2]

• one woman crawled to a window[2]

• one rheumatic old man[2]

HOW MANY PEOPLE:
• three families, numbering about fifteen persons, were occupying the upper floors[5]
• four families besides McCabe’s[1]
• eight families, in each of which there were numbers of small children[3]
• several children[2]
• seven little ones[5]
• eleven women and five children[1]
• eleven women and five children were in the house[6]
• 22 people on three floors above where flames appeared[2]

FIRE:
• rear of the second floor[1]
• unknown cause, in the rear of the second floor[8]
• broke out in the centre of the building[3]
• broke out in the rooms of Morris Skedlowsky[1]
• started among some old rags in second floor rooms occupied by Momie Shidlovsky[2]
• flames burst from the apartments of Morris Shidlovski, on the second floor[5]
• M. Shidlovsky & Brother, who occupy … the third floor, where the fire broke out[3]

• cause of the fire is unknown[5]
• a blazing heap of rags in Morris Shidovsky’s rooms.[4]
• caused by an over-heated stove in the rooms of Morris Skidlowsky[6]
• believed to have been caused by a wooden partition igniting from an overhead stove.[3]
• the fire was quickly extinguished[1]
• fire was stopped on the third floor[2]

DISCOVERY/RESCUE:                                                                                                                                                                                                              • [McCabe’s] sister rushed into the room and said she smelled fire[3]
• Annie McCabe smelled fire[4]
• Annie McCabe discovered the fire. While her brother went out to give an alarm she devoted herself to getting out the other inmates of the house.[2]
• She ran from story to story, alarming the tenants, while her brother sent out an alarm.[4]                                                                                                       
• [McCabe] flung down the paper and ran to the street to give the alarm, while his sister fled through the house to warn the other inmates.[3]

• a narrow escape[9]
• all below the third floor escaped to the street with ease[2]
• those on the first and second floors experienced no difficulty in getting away in safety[3]
• family of six persons escaped to the street[5]
• the Shidovsky, Gutter and Softsky families escaped without difficulty[4]

• those who lived above were cut off by the dense volumes of smoke and flames that poured across the stairway[3]
• unable to escape lower than the third story by the stairs[8]

• McCabe’s family went down the fire escape in front of the house, their escape being cut off by the burning stairs.[2]

• seven little ones were lowered to the yard beneath in safety[5]
• the children were rescued by McCabe who grasped one under each arm, which the third clung desperately to his neck[4]
• M. F. McCabe went to work to get the women and children out[6]
• [Michael McCabe] I had left a watch and $45 in a vest, and I groped my way back and found it[8]

• Miss Annie McCabe Rescues Fifteen[5]
• the presence of mind of Anna McCabe saved many lives[5]
• Annie went into Clingman’s rooms and assisted his sick wife into the hall. took her to a fire-escape and helped her to the street[4]
• Annie next turned her attention to the Murphy family and led old Jerry and his blind sister-in-law to the ladder, where the firemen helped them down.[4]
• she led them to a rickety fire-escape attached to the rear of the building on the fourth floor[5]

• a man who went on the roof was rescued by the firemen[6]
• some of the tenants in the attic crept out of the windows and were taken down by the firemen, while others, including old Condell, took reinge [sic] on the roof.[4]
• Albert Bruen Cardell, left on top floor, got on roof, taken down by the firemen[1]

• climbed out of the windows there and descended the fire escapes on the front of the building.[8]

• a blind woman on the third floor was carried down the stairs[6]

LOSS:
• other families lose amounts ranging from $200 to $500[3]
• $1,500[1]
• $1,500[9]
• Furniture, bedding and clothing in the various stories were damaged to the extent of $1,000. It will cost about $500 to repair the building.[6]
• Damage to the house is about $700. I. & M. Shidlovsky lose $2,500 on stock and are insured for $9,500; other occupants lose $1,900 on furniture.[2]
• damage to the building was $800. In Shidovsky’s shop the loss was $3,000.[4]
• M. Shidlovsky & Brother estimated their loss at $2,500. The firm is fully insured.[3]
• Total damage will not exceed $3,500, which is fully covered by insurance.[5]
• both stories were greatly damaged by water, second story was burned out, and the rear of the third story damaged[8]

Did you see the smoke? I could barely make out the building. The four, or four plus attic, or five-story building. Some repeated facts allowed me to come up with what I think life was like at 17 Catharine street. Which might be all wrong.

WHO LIVED WHERE:

The building was a four- or five-story tenement owned by Clarence Conger. A fire-escape was likely on the front of the building. Michael F. McCabe was the landlord to four renting families. There were narrow winding stairways in the rear.

One [in most articles] [Ground Floor?]

Half of the first floor was a cloak factory run by M. & I. Shidlovsky. The other half was a jeweler, B. Gutter, who had living rooms in back of the store.

Two
Morris Shidlovsky and his wife and three children lived on the second floor.

Levi Softsky, a peddler, his wife and two children, lived in second floor apartments. His family included his sister, Brenie, and his granddaughter, Rebecca.

Three
Michael F. McCabe, a carpenter, and his sisters, Mrs. Minnie Stack, Annie and Mary Jane, and Mrs. Stack’s daughter, Minnie, lived on the third floor.

Four
George Clingman, an oysterman, his sick wife, Mrs. Clingman, and two [or three] children lived on the fourth floor.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Murphy, “who could barely hobble,” and his wife, Mrs. Murphy, lived on the fourth floor. Mrs. Murphy’s sister, Kate McCarty, “quite blind and very deaf,” lived on the fourth floor.

Attic
George Silberman, a peddler, his wife, and their three children, lived “up under the slanting roof.”

A. B. Clondell, reportedly “an old miser, immensely wealthy,” lived in “a cheerless little room in the attic.” “Aged man, with snow-white hair.” Also seen as Albert Bruen Cardell and Albert B. Condell. Two others possibly lived there.

WHAT NEXT?

Good question. Clarence Conger’s papers are at the New York State Library, in the Conger Family Papers. A quick glance at the online finding aid doesn’t show Michael McCabe’s name, nor that of Minnie’s mother, Mary Jane, who died before the fire but once ran a boarding house in the building. Morris Shidlovsky is mentioned in the Conger papers.

The wonderful photograph of No. 17 Catharine Street, taken by a dear friend, complicates things further. It is tempting to glance, to count stories, and to wonder if Minnie gazed out of the windows just above the fancy ledge, or if she lived a floor up. But the fact is, although the building shares an address with the building in the articles, I don’t know if it is the same building. New York City tax photos place it about 1900, but some commentary suggests that tax photo dates might not be accurate for pre-1900 buildings. Morris Shidlovsky was still at the address in a 1902 Board of Social Welfare report, which makes it tempting to think that the building hadn’t been torn down and rebuilt. But evidence, as the newspapers have shown us, can be deceiving.

I will stand on Catharine Street one day, no matter what I learn about today’s No. 17. The residents might become uncomfortable as I stare up at the windows, trying to count to whichever floor they once called three. But that’s okay. If they think that’s uncomfortable, they should hear about the gangster who was gunned down in 1905 in the saloon below their apartments. I wonder if the newspapers got that story right.


 1. “A Young Heroine’s Misfortune,” The World (NY, NY), Saturday, 17 January 1885, p. 8 c. 2, clipping, image also online at fultonhistory.com
2. “The Fire Record,” New York Tribune (NY, NY), Saturday, 17 January 1885, p. 2 c. 3, image at Chronicling America and Genealogybank.com, accessed 30 December 2014
3. “A Courageous Woman,” The New York Times (NY, NY), Saturday, 17 January 1885, page 8, clipping
4. “Many Narrow Escapes,” unknown paper, Friday, 16 January 1885, clipping
5. “Fire in a Tenement,” New York Herald, Saturday, January 17, 1885, p. 6 c. 4 , clipping, image also online at fultonhistory.com
6. “Saved by a Woman’s Courage,” The Morning Journal, Saturday, January 17, 1885, clipping
7. “Miss Annie McCabe…” [unknown paper], Sun, 18 January 1885, clipping
8. “A Panic in a Tenement,” The Sun (NY. NY), Saturday, 17 January 1885, p. unk c. 3, fultonhistory.com, online image, accessed 30 December 2014
9. “The Reporters Note Book,” Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, NY) Friday, 16 January 1885, p. unk. c. 9, online image, fultonhistory.com, accessed 30 December 2014

© 2015, Debbie Mieszala. All rights reserved.

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7 Responses to Newspaper Research: The Importance of Being Thorough

  1. Dana says:

    Wow! All of the differences in the story… that’s crazy! And, you have definitely made your point!

    So, I have two stories that also demonstrate this. One comes from one of the few times I was in the newspaper as a child. The caption under the photo said “Dana Andrews.” NOT my name, but a famous actor of many years ago!

    Second, a story I found in two, 1893 newspapers about a mob trying to lynch one of my relatives. One paper said there were about 40 men and the other said there were 200! What a difference when you visualize this! http://theenthusiasticgenealogist.blogspot.com/2014/09/a-mob-was-after-him-ephriam-bennetts.html

  2. Pingback: Recommended Reads | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

  3. gah says:

    Yes, newspaper research is great, and it can be really tedious, but it is worth it. My great grandfather was a Norwegian Lutheran pastor who got mixed up in adultery, fathered a child out of wedlock, filed various slander suits against other church people, formed his own break away church, attempted to blackmail a young widow, deserted his family 3 different times, worked for the Enforcement League in ND turning people in who were violating the states prohibition law, got divorced from 1st wife, remarried to a prosperous widow, burned thru her money and property, left town with a mountain of bad debt, and later deserted his 2nd wife. All this has been thoroughly documented in about 120 newspaper clipping from MN, WI and ND.

    I’ve had so much fun with the investigation, I hate to see it come to an end. I’m considering turning it into a book.

  4. Harold Lieberman says:

    Wow! Yours is the best article I’ve ever read on the problems of newspaper research. In genealogy, as in life, things are not always what they seem. My training in research, long ago, taught me that, and your article reinforces the need to be skeptical and to keep checking, even though you have to draw conclusions at some point. Congratulations.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Thank you, Harold. I love newspaper research, the good, the bad, and the ugly of it. My first memorable lesson as a genealogist regarding different newspapers not reporting events the same way was when I discovered years ago that a city a collateral relative died in had two newspapers. I already had his obituary from one of the papers. I looked at the microfilm of the other newspaper anyway, not really expecting to learn anything new. Was I ever wrong! His obituary in the second newspaper was lengthier and included his photograph. I’ve scouted for other newspapers reporting the same event in my genealogical research ever since.

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