What to print and what to leave out can get complicated. Critics often had much to say about what was “appropriate” in fiction for children and for adults.

Here, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reacts to a criticism of its coverage of a case involving sexual assault. Anna R. McCormick, a servant in the household of Charles Backus, sued his son, Alfred Otto Backus, for $3000, claiming assault and battery and “seduction under promise of marriage.” Alfred claimed that their intimacies were consensual and that no such promise was made. The verdict went against Alfred, the jury awarding Anna $1250.

The trial began 14 July 1859, with Anna’s testimony appearing in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for 15 July (p. 2). Anna’s printed testimony is harrowing, emphasizing violence and claiming that Alfred not only promised marriage, but when she realized that she was pregnant, tried to get her to miscarry. While coverage includes “(Here witness described the commission of the offense.),” the remaining testimony is filled with details of Anna being roughly handled.

The Eagle’s critic seems to have pounced immediately. Given Anna’s care to describe Alfred’s every move and her own helplessness, the testimony is graphic and overwhelming.

The Eagle’s response is … interesting. It’s easy to to see here a defense of sleaze, as the Eagle puffs up in indignation and explodes in a paragraph threatening the presence of Shakespeare, the bible, and many 18th-century novels in the family home. The (subtly salacious) details are necessary, the Eagle maintains, so as to “elucidate the character of the case.” To “emasculate” the legal record in favor of “mock modesty” and ”artificial prudery” wouldn’t “enlighten the public.” Why else publish the trials? (That The Brooklyn Daily Times reports the basics of the case in a dry paragraph highlights the Eagle’s turn toward the dramatic. [See 16 July 1859; p. 3])

Why else, indeed? Except that the plethora of details the Eagle threw into its reporting on the courts is one of the pleasures of reading them. The write-up of the assault of a butcher on a customer includes the back-and-forth leading to it, which explains how a dollar’s-worth of meat turned into a 1400-dollar verdict. (Amounts are in 2019 dollars.) So the excruciating level of detail on a sexual assault case probably was expected by readers of the Eagle.

Thus, the Eagle’s diatribe comes across as more than a little disingenuous. “Can any sane man suppose that there are among the readers of newspapers any class whose animal instincts are so utterly depraved, and whose intellect so totally imbecile, without force of reason or strength of will, as that they cannot peruse a trial, such as the one we have reported, without injury to their morals?” the Eagle asks indignantly; and the reader who’s been on the internet more than five minutes thinks, Uh … yeah. Of course there were readers relishing every horrific detail. And surely the Eagle knew that.

Still, the Eagle’s focus on the educational aspects of its reporting is on target. The details in its court reporting provide vivid snapshots of ordinary 19th-century Americans at their worst. As Anna cooks, tidies the Backus’ house, and washes clothes, it’s easy for 21st-cetury readers to see how much work one servant was expected to do.

And the diatribe is educational as well. The response of at least one reader to what appeared in the newspaper. Just what was considered possibly salacious in 19th-century America. (Oh, that naughty Shakespeare Shakspeare!) There’s an interesting theme of emasculation and virility, as the Eagle asserts its right to thrust its view of the world into the public gaze. For the researcher in early American periodicals for children, there’s the statement that the Eagle is not published for the delectation of children and the wonderfully weird—and seemingly sarcastic—sentence claiming that young readers of children’s periodicals would think that “the human race is kept up by electricity or steam” and would be “admirably adapted to solve its problems and grapple with its realities in an enlightened and efficient manner.”* Hmm.

The Eagle continued its detailed reporting of the trial, with Alfred Backus’s testimony spread over two days (18 July 1859; p. 2 & 19 July 1859; p. 2); the verdict was reported on 21 July (p. 3). (With the details of the case of the butcher and his unhappy customer.)

No doubt, many readers were grateful for the education.

Some notes about the transcript: It’s interesting to see the Rosetta Stone used to refer to something being made clear; the earliest I’ve found the concept in an American newspaper is 1847. About the “Sickles confession”: U. S. Congressman Daniel E. Sickles shot and killed Philip Barton Key (son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner”) on 27 Feb 1859, because Key was having an affair with Sickles’ wife. After a 21-day trial, Sickles was found not guilty by reason of insanity (the first to be so acquitted), took up his Congressional duties, and resumed his relationship with his wife. Newspaper coverage included detailed accounts of the actions of all concerned.

* Children’s periodicals are how I found this piece to begin with. One of my standard search phrases is “children’s paper,” which appears herein. A good search term can net you the most interesting stuff …

“Prudery and Indelicacy” (from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn, New York] 16 July 1859; p. 2)

We have received a communication from a source entitled to respect, complaining of the testimony in the case now being tried in the City Court, which was published in the Eagle yesterday. With all due regard to the eminent and worthy author we cannot coincide with the feeling he expresses on the subject. The case referred to is brought by a female who accuses a young man of a complication of offences including something very like rape, seduction, and assault and battery. We published precisely the amount of details necessary to show as the trial progresses, whether the case is one of outrage on an unprotected female or a conspiracy to ruin the character and deplete the purse of an innocent man, possessed of wealth and occupying a respectable position in society. Offensive details were carefully omitted, except so far as they seemed necessary to elucidate the character of the case. Perhaps those who object to the testimony will tell us what their idea is of the purpose of publishing the trials which occur in the Courts at all. We imagined that it was to enlighten the public, to inform them of the character of the prosecutions introduced and the manner in which the law was administered. Such being our view of the case, our rule is never to publish details offensive to the most refined delicacy, in fact to exclude them systematically, except when they became a part of a case necessary to its merits and character being understood; but never to succumb to an artificial prudery so far as to emasculate a legal record so that the character of the proceeding is shrouded in a veil of mock modesty, and the purpose of publication entirely frustrated. Was ever a more indelicate publication made than the Sickles confession and yet without the manufacture and publication of that document would the public have understood the characters of the actors on that occasion? it was the very Rosetta stone of the case, and furnished the key to the whole tragi-comedy. Yet the publication of the confession must have been a terrible impropriety.

Indeed, in California, where mob-law overturned all order and established tribunals, and where the courts manufacture divorces in wholesale batches, one of these same legal machines fined a newspaper for publishing the document in question; showing how a tinsel prudery may gild social depravity and corruption.

Nor can we coincide with the views of human nature, entertained by those who deprecate such publications when rendered necessary. Can any sane man suppose that there are among the readers of newspapers any class whose animal instincts are so utterly depraved, and whose intellect so totally imbecile, without force of reason or strength of will, as that they cannot peruse a trial, such as the one we have reported, without injury to their morals? If there are such, they are unfit to exercise the functions appertaining to rational humanity, and their keepers should lock up the family Bible, place Shakspeare beyond their reach, expurgate Sterne, Swift, Smollett, Fielding, and all the authors of the Augustan age of English literature, and build their moral safety on the beautiful structure of unnatural ignorance. But it is said the young cannot, with safety, be permitted to know that seduction or rape are offenses possible to the human organization. In the first place we deny that ignorance is virtue; and in the second place we would say that we do not publish a paper for the nursery. The Tract Society publishes a child’s paper, full of beautiful pictures of precocious little angels, and pretty stories for little boys and girls, which is entirely safe reading. By limiting the literature accessible to the rising generation to innocuous matter, and inspiring them with the idea that the human race is kept up by electricity or steam, we should bring forth a generation into the world admirably adapted to solve its problems and grapple with its realities in an enlightened and efficient manner.

Unless our correspondent, and those whom he represents, are ready to maintain that the publication of trials in the courts is only to be done occasionally, when the issues involved are disputes over real estate, or musty records of the times of the Pharaohs, or in a mutilated manner by omitting what the case must turn upon, they can lay no claim to consistency. Beides the details of law cases are not imposed upon by any one surreptitiously. The cases are headed by the name of the offense charged and when readers commence to read a seduction case they can hardly expect it to be composed of a moral essay.

We do not wish to be misunderstood or supposed to advocate or justify an indelicate publication. We repeat that we systematically avoid everything of the sort; and we submit to the candor of the reader whether the contents of the Eagle are ever tarnished by an indelicacy of thought or expression. But while we have a most soli[cito]us regard for the moral perceptions and the delicacy of our readers we do not forget that we publish a news-paper and not a daily tract or moral essay. We “hold the mirror up to nature, show virtue her own feature, vice her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” If any body falls in love with the images of vice, the fault lies in the moral affinities of the individual, not in the reflecting medium.

The standard of the Eagle is that of right-minded virility; we do not address ourselves to the unformed mind and character of childhood or adolescence, or that combination of mental imbecility and moral depravity which can only be restrained from rushing into vice by being kept in ignorance of its existence.

What Independence Day sounded like in 1858, courtesy of William Hoyt Coleman (in Robert Merry’s Museum):

Cr-r-r-a-a-ck!—fizz!—pop!—bang!—“The day we celebrate”—bang!—“our nation’s birthday”—fiz-z-z-z!—whis-s-s-h!—“Bunker Hill, and spirit of ’76”—bang!—crack!—“the Star-Spangled Banner, and long may it wave!”—pop!—fizz!—“American eagle, and long may he wave!”—s-s-spuk!—“over the land of the free and the home of the brave!”—bang!—bang!—bang!—“Hail Columbia, happy land, with Yankee Doodle hand in hand”—boom!—“now and forever, one and inseparable”—siz-z-z-z!—boom!—“who fought, bled, and died in freedom’s cause”—E Pluribus Unum forever!—bang!—who-o-o-s-s-s-sh!—pop!—pop!—pop!—crack!—who-o-s-s-s-sh!—fiz-z-z-z-z-z!—s-s-s-spuk!—whis-s-s-sh!—bang!—crack!—whiz-z-z-z-z!—boom!—who-o-s-s-s-sh!—siz-z-z-z! fiz-z-z!—s-s-spuk!—who-o-o-o-s-s-s-sh!—BANG!!!!!!!

Proof that Brooklynites have long been a little … testy: an irritated butcher assaulting a complaining customer. Gotta love the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which seemed to feel it was the paper’s bounden duty to report everything that happened; while researching an horrific crime, I’d found this assault case in another Brooklyn paper which was reticent about details. The Eagle—like all true journals decidedly and openly and publicly not reticent about any details at all—provided the skinny. Unfortunately, some of the details provided are … incorrect.

“City Court” (from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn, New York] 21 July 1859; p. 3)

Augustus Leverich against Thomas Hill.—Action for assault and battery. The defendant is a butcher. On the 9th of May last plaintiff called at his shop to buy some steak. The butcher cut of[f] three pounds which Leverich said was too large, and asked him to take off some; it came to 40 cents which the purchaser thought too much, and the butcher finally agreed to put it down at 35 or 36 cents; plaintiff then gave him the money, and the butcher informed him that he should have neither money nor steak unless he took the whole of the steak including that which had been cut off; plaintiff advanced to the stall to ask him for the money, when defendant struck him in the face; plaintiff then took his departure.

This is the whole case as given by plaintiff in his evidence, and the jury brought in a verdict of $50,56 in his favor.

note: Yes, that comma in “$50,56” is supposed to be there; it substitutes for the period we’d put in the number. In 1859, $50.56 would be the equivalent of $1457.76 in 2019.

The amount is, alas, probably wrong. The Brooklyn Daily Times (21 July 1859; p. 3) records that the jury awarded $50.36, which is much more logical, given that Leverich (or August A. Leverick, as the Times has it) paid 36 cents for his attempt at supper.

The Times also informs us that the “defendant refused to give [plaintiff] the beef or return him the money, and on plaintiff’s attempting to take the steak defendant put him out of the shop, beating him over the head.” Quite vivid!

The story pretty much works best if you smush the two pieces together.

The Civil War’s hours of boredom (which of course were punctuated by moments of sheer terror) naturally led to soldiers North and South desperate for entertainment. They played cat ball, barn ball, and other early variations of baseball; they wrote letters; and they read: books, Beadle’s dime novels, and whatever else they had.

Union subscribers to periodicals received their newspapers and magazines whenever possible; Tommy didn’t always receive his issues of Robert Merry’s Museum, to the printed dismay of the editor, who had sent the issues twice and asked, “Will somebody please give Uncle Sam a caution not to so neglect our Merry boys?” (See note in Merry’s Museum.) Henry A. Danker found the Museum “more welcome than ever to me now; its arrival is a certain cure for the ennui of camp life.” (See his letter in Merry’s Museum) “Oliver Onley” quipped that “A welcome visitor looked in upon me this evening—the April Museum. It could get no farther south this route, for three hundred yards from me, across the Rappahannock, the camp fires of the rebel pickets are brightly burning, and there, over the ill-fated city of Fredericksburg, the moon sheds a pale, ghastly light on ‘Rebellion.’ ” (See his letter.)

While some Union soldiers subscribed to children’s periodicals, others had children’s periodicals thrust upon them. The intent was innocuous, if a little syrupy. “To our Brave and Suffering Countrymen, Our Elder Brothers, Defenders of the Union,” was the address of a remarkable speech on the behalf of the Mission School attached to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn New York:

Brave soldiers we love you; in our heart of hearts we cherish you. What joy it would give us to come into your presence bodily, and passing through the wards and by your couches, in long processions, extend our little hands in sympathy, and smile upon you, if that would ease your pains or lighten your hearts. … It must be a source of comfort to you … to know that your more favored countrymen—those who are enjoying the sweets of home—do not forget you. Witness the streams of benevolence and gratitude flowing into your bosoms through a thousand, thousand channels. … We, too would send a drop to swell that bubbling current. Small though it be, we know you will not despise it. We feel assured that you will accept our humble offerings in the spirit they are given. We are not rich in this world’s goods—we are not many in number. We have sent some articles of diet, such as the weak or the convalescent may relish, and we have sent you books and papers to while away some tedious hours. You will not even despise the “Child’s Paper,” or the “Guest,” as coming from us, we know. In these you may hear as it were the voice of childhood speaking to you, and all that voice to you is love! [See “Doings in the Sunday Schools.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn, New York] 28 Dec 1863; p. 2.]

The reaction was not exactly as anticipated, according to the Hartford Courant:

An army letter says: “There is one error that friends North have fallen into worthy of mention. This is, that they appear to look upon soldiers as little children, and furnish them reading matter accordingly. The selections of literature distributed by colporteurs is good as far as it goes, but it is frequently found to lack depth. We have become familiar with most of the nursery rhymes in the calendar. Men who have been accustomed to their daily papers every morning, and the Atlantic every month, fail some times to be edified with the “Young Gleaner,” [probably The Young Reaper] “Little Pilgrim,” “Well Springs,” &c., though the teachings of these papers are excellent. The exploits of “Rolla [sic] in Boston” and the misfortunes of the “Children in the Wood” are no doubt interesting to their immediate sympathizers, but soldiers have little or no time to shed tears over imaginary suffering, designed for the evening edification of intelligent ‘four year olds.’ ” [12 March 1863; p. 2]

(There’s a tiny amount of hectic imagination here. The periodicals mentioned—Young Reaper, the Wellspring, and the Little Pilgrim—were popular moralistic or religious papers. But, to my knowledge, Jacob Abbott’s little Rollo Holliday never made it to Boston, though Abbott’s Marco Paul did, in Marco Paul’s Adventures in Pursuit of Knowledge: City of Boston. The “Children in the Wood” describes the pathetic deaths of two orphan children whose bodies are covered with leaves by sympathetic robins. Yes, this was considered good reading for children in earlier centuries.)

Perhaps because it was published by the influential American Tract Society, The Child’s Paper was heavily distributed. A list of donations for soldiers collected in 1864 in Buffalo, New York, included 60 copies of the Paper; and Charles L’Isle describes the Christian Commission “cram[ming] an arm-full or so of the Child’s Paper, or other tracts for the graceless, into our tents”. [Charles L’Isle. “Our Military Correspondence.” The Jeffersonian Democrat [Chardon, Ohio] 25 March 1864; p. 4.]

“Crammed.” “Tracts for the graceless.” The paper was, it seems, not as appreciated as donors hoped.

Some Union officers did, however, find the Paper, and others donated by citizens useful:

A correspondent in Gen. Rosencrans’ army relates the following:

A few days since Col. Stoughton of the 11th Michigan, was informed that he had a package at the express office. He deputed capt. bennett to go over to the express office and secure the package, supposing, of course, that it contained something for the regiment. The package inclosed 30,000 copies of Lincoln’s proclamations on the negro question, a large number of New York Tribunes and Independents of old dates, besides five or ten thousand copies of the Child’s Paper and Sunday-School Banner. The notion of sending such reading matter to the soldiers could only emanate from the cracked brains of some insane abolitionist. The papers never reached the soldiers. They were used to soften the cot of three or four officers, and there they remain. [See “Reading for the Army.” Quad-City Times [Davenport, Iowa] 21 March 1863; p. 3.]

(Since the Sunday-School Banner ceased publication in 1861, the issues of the Child’s Paper may also have been someone’s detritus.)

The American Tract Society was, however, more successful with Southern prisoners of war, who were eager for reading material. Writing from New York to a North Carolina newspaper, B. T. Eastman—the Army Agent for the American Tract Society—described life in a New York prisoner of war camp:

You will doubtless be glad to learn that the prisoners of war on Hait’s Island near this city, among whom North Carolina is more largely represented than any other State, have been frequently visited by the agent of the American Tract Society and supplied with its publications. Enough has been distributed to furnish something to every man, and the American Messenger, Child’s Paper and Hymn Books donated, were specially prized and kept to be carried to Southern homes. One offered articles of his manufacture for a “Dictionary of the Holy Bible,” and another for the “Happy Voices.” Several prayer meetings have been held every evening, a bible class three times a week, and on the late National Fast Day, two public services were held at their own suggestion, one conducted by a U. S. Chaplain, the other by a Baptist preacher from Lenoir, N. C.

The men are in substantial barracks which surround a yard of four acres. They have an abundant supply of good cold water, and access to the shore of Long Island Sound, where they can fish or bathe. Soup, bread and boiled beef compose the rations which are the same as our own men have. Recently, resolutions of thanks for good treatment were presented by many of the prisoners to the veteran regiments which had been guarding them. The hospital tents are without the camp in an airy location, and extra diet is provided for the patients. Out of 3,400 men, any of whom arrived in poor health, it is not strange that quite a number of deaths have occurred. From the courteous Provost Marshal, I have obtained a list up to June 1st, of all the deceased who were from North Carolina, which I subjoin.

[A list of names and regiments in included here.]

The remains of the above have been neatly interred in Cypress Hill Cemetery, Long Island.

Yesterday all the invalids who were able to travel were allowed to take the oath of allegiance, and to-day they leave for their homes. It did me good to see their smiling faces as they came out of camp to put their names on the roll. The rest will be released at the rate of 250 per day, commencing with those from the most distant States. [See B. T. Eastman. letter. The Daily Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina) 22 June 1865; p. 3.]

(Okay; I couldn’t resist transcribing most of this interesting piece.)

So, if the donated periodicals weren’t appreciated by Union soldiers, they were by Southerners eager for reading material. Or, in the case of the Child’s Paper, perhaps hoping to take a gift to a child at home.


Writing isn’t quite as remunerative as people seem to think. Most people notice the J. K. Rowlings and the Stephenie Meyers and assume that if they can just pull off the writing of a book, they’ll be able to retire in comfort.

Not so—really not so. One of the perks of being a self-publisher writer is being privy to the struggles of much more successful self-published writers, as described on various forums. (Producing multiple books per year, writing to the pattern of the chosen genre, and advertising advertising advertising seem to be among the methods some use in order to keep selling.) And one of the pleasures of being on those forums is seeing writers relying on noisome tricks crash and burn. (Trying to trick readers into reporting incorrect numbers of pages read seems to be among the methods some of those use in order to keep raking in the cash.)

Writing quite often don’t pay or don’t pay much. And, judging by “The Pay of Magazines,” it never did. (Also, see Samuel Griswold Goodrich, whose books were hugely popular, but who was arrested for debt and had to sell the house, the cow, and the family dog to climb his way out.) Even in 1867 a writer had to produce and produce; and—as is true today—luck played a huge role in success. Also, writing to the pattern of the chosen genre: “Fanny Fern” ’s popularity stemmed from the combination of quick wit and sentimentality her readers craved. At one point in her career, she was receiving $100 per column—a staggering amount in the 1800s. (And about $2800 now. Yep, still staggering.)

The amounts recorded in “The Pay of Magazines” are far from $100 per column. They’re more $5 per page—and even that, we’re assured, is at the high end. (I’m more familiar with being paid by the word—and when I was, I was very much aware of how many words the copy editor removed, and how many I put back! I imagine 19th-century writers were just as conscious.) The inflation calculator puts that at about $93 per page today. It still took a lot of pages to cover the family bills.

Of great interest to me is how much the children’s magazines paid. Our Young Folks, Riverside Magazine, and Oliver Optic’s Magazine: Our Boys and Girls (the last two being brand new magazines in 1867) are the focus here; and the remuneration is $4-$5 per page—actually, more than one might expect. These magazines were connected with important names: “Oliver Optic” was hugely popular; and the other two magazines were connected with major book publishers. Certainly the pay scale for lesser children’s periodicals was much less. (Btw, John Townsend Trowbridge co-edited Our Young Folks, which is why he was paid a salary. And he’s an interesting writer—for children and adults—whose works you might enjoy.)

So, here’s why your favorite 19th-century writer wrote so much, especially if they were writing for periodicals. And why they may have written the less-enjoyable stuff.

And why, when you put the finishing touches on that time machine you’re building in the living room, you’ll want to find a more remunerative job than writing, if you get stuck in the 19th century.

(My, but I’m glad that “magazinist” dropped out of the English language!)

“The Pay of Magazines” (reprinted from the New York Evening Mail; from the Louisville Courier-Journal [Louisville, Kentucky] 5 October 1867; p. 3)

From time to time there have appeared bits of gossip, mainly set afloat by the city correspondents of out-of-town papers, giving more or less wild guesses at the prices paid by the various magazines for original articles. The grains of truth contained in these statements were generally in meager proportion to the chaff of untruth they blew abroad; but the newspapers, always eager for such intelligence, everywhere caught them up and printed them, after the usual manner of newspapers which depend chiefly on the scissors for their interest.

The magazine which, as a rule, pays the highest prices for matter, is the Atlantic Monthly. Its common price is ten dollars a page; but it sometimes pays no more than five dollars. Even at the lowest rate here named, it is still in advance of any of the other magazines, unless we except the Galaxy. There are from seven hundred to eight hundred words in a page of the Atlantic, while in Harper’s Monthly there are about one thousand words to the page. A common practice with the Atlantic editors, in agreeing beforehand with an author for an article, is to promise him one hundred dollars for it, stipulating that it must make ten pages, or very nearly that, and that if it exceeds ten pages no more shall be paid. Of course with such authors as Holmes, Lowell, Longfellow, etc., the rule does not hold. And of course it does not hold with any author when it is poetry that is paid for. The price of poetry always varies more than that of prose, with all the magazines. Julia Ward Howe was paid five dollars for her celebrated Battle Hymn. The late Beadle’s Monthly paid larger prices than this for poetry. Alice Cary received fifteen dollars from Beadle & Co., for a poem of no greater length than the Battle Hymn.

The Galaxy is entitled to rank next to the Atlantic in this regard, when average rates are under consideration. Its pages do not contain more than from four hundred to five hundred words, and its regular price for prose is four dollars a page. We believe it never pays less than that, and it often pays more, thugh it has few writers who are what may be called “star” contributors—that is, who get large pay by reason of their celebrity in the world of letters.

Harpers’ Monthly ranks next in order. Its regular price is five dollars a page, and its pages contain about one thousand words—equal to the pages of the Galaxy. To its favorite contributors, however, Harper is in the habit of paying more than this. Ordinary story and sketch writers, when they especially please the Harpers, are paid six, seven, or eight dollars a page. For “star” articles, on the other hand, Harper has almost no limit as to price. It will pay whatever an article is worth, and the author who is shrewd at a bargain will often receive pay far in advance of anything paid by any other magazine. When wood cuts are furnished with an article, it of course adds greatly to the price set upon it.

The new Northern Monthly has no established price, and much of its matter is furnished gratis, as was the case with the Knickerbocker, by writers who take a personal interest in the success of the new venture. It pays quite liberally, however, for some of its articles, from the pens of well-known and popular writers. Parton’s “Presidential Nominations” cost the Northern Monthly over one hundred dollars an article. The editor of this magazine, in his searches for “good things,” is in the habit of paying a round sum, cash down, for articles that suit him.

Of the children’s magazines, the Riverside probably pays the most liberal price. Its page is printed in large type, and its common price is five dollars per page. For many of its articles it pays more than this.

The Young Folks’ average is four dollars per page. Trowbridge is paid by the year, and is expected to contribute an article to each number—twelve articles for one thousand dollars.

“Oliver Optic’s” Magazine, Our Boys and Girls, pays to everybody four dollars a page—which is about the same price for the same amount of matter, that is paid by the two last mentioned publications and more than the “regular” price of Harper.

It is a rule with all magazines that contributions shall be paid for on publication. But a successful and popular magazinist is enabled to set aside this rule in almost every case, and to demand that his manuscript be paid for on delivery. With such writers, no hesitation is ade in this regard by the publishers generally, and when any is, the writer can regulate his dealings to suit himself, and decline to furnish contributions to be paid for “in course.” The writer of this article has received hundreds of dollars from Harpers, paid within half an hour of the delivery of the manuscript; and his experience with all the other publishers, with a single exception, is the same in effect.

The usual prices paid by all the magazines in this country are but beggarly, at the best. Authors of world-wide renown get fairer returns for their labor, but the great mass of magazinists find better reward for their labor on the daily press than on the monthly.

Onward—edited by Mayne Reid—should have worked. Reid was a popular British writer of adventure books (who, at the time the magazine was started, had been bankrupted by some unfortunate investments). The magazine was over 86 pages of stories, poetry, nonfiction, and illustrations—much more material than in other monthly periodicals for children. Yes, $3.50 a year was at least double the price of other monthlies, but 86 pages!!!

Hyperbole, in fact, was the theme of the magazine. An early announcement claimed that “Captain Mayne Reid is to publish a magazine in New York to be called Onward, and to be illustrated by English artists brought over for the purpose.” The prospectus—intended to let prospective subscribers know the tenor of the periodical—was equally exaggerated: “ONWARD along the track of civilization—on towards goodness and glory—a finger-post pointing to all that is worthy of attainment—a guide to conduct the Youth of America along that path leading to the highest and noblest manhood: such is the design of Mayne Reid’s Magazine.”

And, yet, Onward failed after 14 months. Editors noticing the end of the magazine were … a little gleeful. They’d poked some fun all along, with more than one editor taking delighted umbrage at the cover. But now editors flicked hot coals onto Reid’s head, quipping that “Captain Mayne Reid’s magazine has exploded; ‘Onward’ has gone upward”; “Mayne Reid’s ‘Onward’ has gone underward”; and “It don’t pay.” No, it didn’t, other editors announced. Reid personally lost $15,000 (about $100,000 in today’s U.S. dollars, and about twice what he’d already gone into bankruptcy over), which was reported as Onward “sunk $15,000,” “went back on [Reid] to the tune of $15,000,” and “not only went onward, but upward, and took [Reid] with it.”

This champion writer, come over from England to show Americans how to publish a children’s magazine, was the supreme target.

Reid apparently didn’t take well the end of his magazine; so the New York World took the opportunity to explain how an editor was supposed to act and what an editor was supposed to do. Basically an editor was to keep poor material out of the magazine and keep a closed mouth about editorial feelings—neither of which Reid had managed.

What’s transcribed here is the version reprinted in the Philadelphia Daily Evening Telegraph; the New York World is unavailable to me. It’s a splendid piece, especially if you enjoy a quippy diatribe. (I rather do.) The constant repetition of “Captain Mayne Reid” reflects the sense of pomposity in Reid’s words. And it’s an interesting discussion of magazine editing in the 19th century, which was a perilous way to make a living.

So, here’s some advice on editing a 19th-century magazine, which appears to boil down to Don’t. Don’t, unless you actually know what you’re doing. Don’t, unless you can afford the pecuniary loss. And—really—don’t, unless you have a hide thick as the Great Wall of China, because somebody out there will go right after you; plus, it’s extremely likely that your magazine won’t last long enough to matter to anyone but you.

“Spirit of the Press: A Magazine Mystery” (reprinted from the New York World; reprinted in The Daily Evening Telegraph [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] 12 February 1870; p. 2)

Captain Mayne Reid, who is very well and very creditably known as the author of numerous melodramatic relations of moving accidents by flood and field, has lately appeared in the new character of the projector and conductor of a magazine, of the existence of which we imagine many of our readers are now for the first time apprised. The name of it was Onward, and it has been conducted so rapidly onward that in the February number it gives up the ghost, having flickered fitfully for fourteen months.

To Captain Mayne Reid this untoward consummation is not only lamentable, but inexplicable. It strikes him with wonder that a publication which had the advantage not only of his contribution, but of his management, should thus early die, and make no sign upon the politics or the society of the country and the age in which it appeared. Why is this thus? “Why,” says Captain Mayne Reid, in the hour of his agony—“why has Onward not received public support?” And to this question he asks—nay, he “demands”—from the universe in general an “explanation.” He has tried, he knows he has, to do his readers good. He has tried to give them “teachings,” and to “inculcate” in them a “faith.” And yet they have refrained from buying his magazine with an unanimity and a persistency which, it seems to him, can only have been born in spite, and which he can only view with profound and simple disgust.

What renders it still more strange, in the view of Captain Mayne Reid, is that the press has uttered a “pæan of unpaid praise” in his behalf. And he cites some sixteen pages of notices from the provincial press, which all concur to praise him, from the Aroostook Pioneer in Maine and the Canajoharie State Radii in New York, to the St. John the Baptist Pioneer in Louisiana, the Shakopee Argus in Minnesota, and the Silver Mountain Chronicle in California.

Some natural tears must be dropped, of course, over the intimely [sic] death of even an infant magazine by the author of its being, and some astonishment may also be permitted to mingle with one’s sorrow. But the projectors of most magazines indulge their wonder and their grief in silence. That Captain Mayne Reid refuses to “eat his heart alone,” but, contrariwise, wears it upon his sleeve for editorial daws to peck at, argues an unusual degree of ingenuousness in him; and our notion of that characteristic is enhanced when we see him gravely quoting the puffs of the provincial press as evidences of merit. It does not, we assure him, afford the least basis of hope for a magazine that the Schevenus Monitor should pronounce it to be “just the work for the gentleman, the lady, and the scholar;” that the Wapakoneta Union should assert it to be “one of the finest illustrated magazines of the land;” that the Oquawka Spectator should commend it for being “a beautiful magazine and the contents excellent;” that the Dowagiac Republican should “consider it superior to any magazine we receive;” or even that the Waupaca Criterion should test it and find “the literary matter of the first order—its tone high.”

Captain Mayne Reid’s mistake seems to have been in supposing that because he could write popular stories he could conduct a popular magazine. The two require entirely different and, to some extent, incompatible qualifications. One of the three things which, in the view of Sydney Smith, every Englishman believed himself competent to do was to “edit a newspaper.” Though the complication and extension of journalism since his time have dispelled this dream, every educated Englishman, and every educated American as well, still clings to the fond faith that he could edit a magazine, which is a simpler business to look at, and that he could evolve from his inner consciousness an ideal magazine far better than the best actual one. Every little while such a being endeavors to carry his notions into practice. But the amateur magazine editor and his money are soon parted. The magazine fails—not necessarily from its intrinsic demerits, but from its failure to hit the taste of the time—and its conductor is smitten with wonder like the wonder of Captain Mayne Reid. The history of magazines is strewn with such wrecks.

We are inclined to think that there are not more than three profitable magazines in this country. Harper’s is the most successful; and it is so not because it is written for by the ablest men, but merely because it is the best edited. It understands its audience better than any other. Like the aquaria of the lamented Barnum, “it amuse and instruct.” And its amusement and instruction are both conveyed in so lively and lucid a way as to be quite intelligible to the average American mind. The Atlantic aims higher, and contains more articles by men of name. The names sell the magazine; but it is notable that not one of them has been won through the magazine, though it has been established for more than ten years, and that, except what is contributed by these few habitual writers to it, its contents are selected with wretched haste. The Galaxy has the advantage over either of the others of not being really or ostensibly so mere a tender to a publishing-house. It has published many striking articles; and its most conspiculous defect, its inequality in merit, may be expected to disappear as its age increases. Putnam’s, under the new and capable management of Parke Godwin, may reasonably be looked for to show some gleams of its ancient fire, and to attract to it the contributions of those brilliant writers who made its first series the most entertaining magazine ever published in the country.

Real and rigid editing is what mainly makes the difference in this department between success and failure. The editor of a magazine ought not to content himself with merely looking over what contributions it may please providence to send him, correcting copy, and picking the rubbish out of the flotsam and jetsam thrown upon his shores. He ought to exercise such a control as shall insure every prominent topic of full treatment, and make his magazine a symmetrical whole, and not “a fortuitous concourse of atoms.” This demands a special aptitude and a special training. And it was in the absence in themselves of that aptitude and that training that Captain Mayne Reid and many others in his predicament may find the explanation of their fate.

Just because the Civil War was over doesn’t mean it was … over. Southern periodicals after 1865 are filled with snipping and sniping against Northerners and Northern publications.

Thus, this little piece of editorial nastiness, apparently sparked by the reception of a suggested notice from the editor of The Bright Side, with a copy of the March 1870 issue.

The Southern Home, a weekly paper published by D. H. Hill, was not entirely unbiased: “Devoted to the vindication of the truth of Southern History, to the preservation of Southern Characteristics, to the development of Southern Resources, under the changed relations of the Labor System, and to the advancement of Southern Interests in Agriculture, Mining, Manufacturing and the Mechanic Arts.” (An essay could be written about that sentence.) And D. H. Hill certainly here mounts a campaign against Northern influence, referring to Harriet Beecher Stowe as “that obscene old infidel,” calling the Northern children’s magazine Onward “that unrivalled humbug,” and taking potshots at the relative ease of ending a marriage in Illinois. (Hill wasn’t the only one: the editor of the Wilmington Morning Star [Wilmington, North Carolina] quipped that “ ‘Chicago has a new children’s paper called the “Bright Side” ’! We didn’t know Chicago people stayed married long enough ta [sic] have any children.”)

And Hill appears to have taken issue with Northern presentation of the recent War, sarcastically quoting from “Our Old War Horse,” a piece by “Neal” in The Bright Side (March 1870; p. 3). The biography of a horse named Jack, the piece details amusing and exciting incidents in Jack’s life, including the horse’s time with his master in the Union army.

The notice with which Hill takes issue isn’t reprinted here (Hill wasn’t about to give this divorce-promoting, Confederacy-destroying, Stowe-promoting publication the words it wanted), but probably it was something on the order of the one suggested by The Little Corporal, which played off the fact that “little corporal” was a nickname for Napoleon:

The wonderful growth of this young Napoleon of the juveniles has been as surprising as it is interesting. Its circulation has shot far ahead of that of any of its competitors. Its matter is entirely original and of a very high order. The freshness and vivacity of its pages cause the eyes of all our young people to sparkle. In its new, improved form it is one of the handsomest, as it is the cheapest, magazine we have ever seen. [July 1870; enclosure for editors]

Yep, that’s quite a notice.

It’s probable that Hill was pleased that The Southern Home lasted much longer than did The Bright Side, being published until at least 1881 (though edited by someone else).

And it’s just as probable that he never quit griping about Northerners and their Northern ways and their Northern, Northern, Northern publications.

An editorial (from The Southern Home [Charlotte, North Carolina] 31 March 1870; p. 2)

This the 24th day of March, 1870, is a bright balmy day, and we are enjoying gratefully the first breath of Spring after the late cold, wet blustering weather. A beautifully printed paper, white as the liver of our bellicose U. S. Senator, comes to our sanctum on this lovely morning and bears the cheering title “Bright Side.” A pleased glance falls from the editorial eye as it catches the charming name, and then a little lower down is seen “Chicago, March, 1870.” “Eh bien! we will learn all about divorces and the law of divorce,” mutters the uncompromising Union editor. But what’s this?—“A paper for children.” The “Bright Side” is a child’s paper, and published in Chicago! But dear, delightful Bright Side, you don’t explain whether it is for the child or children of the first marriage, the child or children of the second marriage, the child or children of the third marriage, &c., &c.

A good, plain countrywoman of the county of Edgecombe once had a conversation with an inquisitive gentleman, which ran in this way:

Gentleman. You have a large family, madame.

Countrywoman. A right smart chunk of a family.

Gentleman. What are your children?

Countrywoman. Well, they are right pertly mixed, but mostly boys and gals!

Under the very accommodating system of divorce in Chicago, when a wife can change her husband every week in the year, we would think that the Bright Side children would get “right pertly mixed.” At any rate, we thought that it would not be safe to let in a paper from that interesting locality be seen by the children on the “model farm,” until an examination had satisfied us, that it was not a teacher of the loyal and eccentric opinions held by “the city on the lake.” We proceeded then to a patient and impartial investigation. On opening the elegantly gotten up pamphlet, was found a long puff of the Bright Side, written by the editor of the Bright Side himself, but in such a way that it would appear to be written by the editor who published it. “Well,” said Southern Home, “this is looking at the bright side of your paper sure enough.” And now comes the modest bribe to the accommodating editor who will publish the gentle puff:

Publishers of Exchanges inserting the above or equivalent notice, and sending us marked copy of their paper, will receive The Bright Side regularly in exchange, without necessity of sending their own in return.

Publishers who would like to use our paper as a premium, for clubbing, for Sunday Schools, or for any other purpose, and who will keep the accompanying advertisement, or such other as we may send occupying equal space, standing in their papers, may send us orders at the net price of 25 cents per copy.

John B. Alden & Co.

Did you ever? No! I never did. Kind reader, do you think that any Southern editor would publish the big compliment for the sake of the little equivalent? Look out and you will see it in many Southern papers. Take up almost any Southern paper and you will find it full of Northern advertisements of Godey, Demorest, Vick’s Floral Guide, Die Modenweldt, &c., &c. The editor will publish twelve times a year long notices, and throw in his own paper for a year, and get back as his pay twelve copies of that trash. We have known one religious paper give a lengthy tribute of commendation to that unrivalled humbug, the “Onward” of Mayne Reid; another religious paper, within our knowledge, was quite complimentary to Hearth and Home, when that obscene old infidel, Mrs. Stowe, was one of the editors. Many Southern papers have no kind word for their own exchanges and are full of extravagant laudations of every thing from the North. It is not strange, then, that the experiment with Southern monthlies and quarterlies has always proved a failure.

The puff of “Bright Side,” written by the editor, which we will not publish, will be published all over the South, and we will therefore give our readers a few dainty morsels from it, which they may chew and digest at their leisure. We give some touching episodes in the life of an “old war-horse”:

“You may read in your history of the defeat of our brave soldiers under Gen. Sturgis, in Mississippi, where they retreated over ground in three days, which it had taken them two weeks to travel over in going out. There, Jack’s regiment covered the retreat, that is, stopped and fought till the infantry had time to get ahead a little, then would break and run for dear life till they would catch up, then stop and fight again. There, a stumble or lagging of poor Jack’s nimble feet would have, very probably, doomed his rider to a death of starvation at Andersonville.

“Another time, the chase, though fleeter, was not so dangerous or gloomy. ’Twas when our cavalry, under Gen. Mower, was driving the rebel Price from Missouri. They ran, at one time, a hundred miles, over the big prairies, in twenty-four miles, over the big prairies, in twenty-four hours, without stopping to eat or drink. That was pretty hard, don’t you think, on both men and horses? Indeed it was, and only the toughest could stand it. Out of sixty horses of Jack’s company, only eight lived to get back to Rolla.”

Postscript.—Having concluded not to send Bright Side to the “model farm,” we have just thrown it into the fire and it makes a nice, “bright” blaze.

One of the charms of Robert Merry’s Museum (1841-1872) is the letters column, which introduced subscribers to each other and to readers in every century after that.  So as the Civil War progressed, editors occasionally informed subscribers of the activities of fellow subscribers serving in the military.

Adelbert Older was a popular subscriber and a budding poet.  He enlisted in the Union army early in the War, but was discharged due to illness.  When he enlisted again, his younger brother enlisted with him.  Both died in 1864, after action at Turner’s Farm, Virginia.  Adelbert lived long enough to be taken prisoner; he died in Richmond, probably of his wounds.  He was not quite 24.

Adelbert was the only subscriber to Merry’s Museum to receive a memorial page in the magazine:  one of his poems, a poem about him, and a stanza from the then-popular “Mustered Out,” by the Rev. William E. Miller.

On this late incarnation of a day originally set aside to remember fallen Union soldiers, let’s think of Private Adelbert Older of the 36th Wisconsin Volunteers.

The zephyrs, idle vagrants,
Come filled with sweetest fragrance;
They shake the blossoms down in showers,
And steal the fragrant breaths of flowers.
The bee, the bright-winged rover,
Is wandering all over
The fields of blooming clover;
He dives deep down in the lilies' bells,
And sips the sweets from their hidden cells.

The brook steals down the meadow,
Through sunshine and through shower,
By buttercups and daisies,
In deep and shady places;
Then, with a sound of mimic wrath,
It leaps along its pebbly path.
Beyond, the green-clothed hilltops lie,
And smile to see the smiling sky.

Deep in the leafy woods,
The shady solitudes,
The timid little rabbit peeps,
The squirrel on the branches leaps.
Each tree stands dim and solemn,
Like some old temple's column,
And through those arches vast and dim,
The wind is chanting a grand old hymn.
We half forget the primal curse,
And peace reigns through the universe.

–Adelbert Older, May 21, 1863

              I'm mustered out!
God of our fathers, our freedom prolong,
And tread down rebellion, oppression, and wrong!
Oh! land of earth's hopes, on thy blood-reddened sod
I die for the Nation, the Union, and God!
              I'm mustered out!

When it comes to astronomy, I’m one of those who looks at the pretty pictures and forgets rather immediately the explanations astronomers so carefully craft so’s the rest of us can understand what they’re talking about.

So this little paragraph … What really happened in March 1860? Would a nova vanish in two hours? Did we miss getting hit by something? Were observers in Moscow, Wisconsin, maybe drunk? Playing a prank? It puzzles me.

“A Star Burned Up!” (from the Racine Journal [Racine, Wisconsin] 16 May 1860; p. 2)

One of the stars to the south west of Ursa Major, was seen at Moscow, on the night of the 2d March, to wax larger and larger, until in half an hour, it got to the size of a half moon, and then it began to decrease, and in two hours it completely disappeared.

Nineteenth-century corsets and corseting seem to fascinate 21st-century folks, who may be tsking or may be corseting, themselves. So, when I saw an editorial diatribe against tight lacing in a paper from 1868, I leapt on it with happy little cries and nabbed a copy to transcribe.

And fell right down a rabbit hole.

See, the diatribe includes the name of a victim of corseting: “Miss Tours.” And, since I just love a good 19th-century urban legend, I searched for Miss Tours and found her in New York, apparently in the pages of the New York Sun. Unfortunately, that issue of the Sun is unavailable to me; but surely the story was reported in other papers—right? Because 19th-century newspaper editors loved a good urban legend just as much as I do. So surely they copied it …

And, yes, they did. As a news story. About a young woman named Emma A. Toms, whose death was investigated by the coroner. And the way it appears in the New York Times makes clear that it wasn’t an urban legend at all.

Now, you can read these transcriptions from the beginning to the end, where they tell the story of an historical incident becoming what sounds like an urban legend; or you can read the transcriptions from the end to the beginning, where they become the story of an urban legend stemming from an historical incident. Either way, they have a little something to say about human culture and the way we tell stories.

Even though I started my research at the end of the story, I’m going to take things from the beginning, because it’s interesting what gets reprinted and how Emma’s death provides an example for those who were against tight lacing. There were, of course, a number of people concerned with the clothing of girls and young women—mostly, with the constrictions of their clothing. “Crooked Spines in Girls—reprinted from a book by Helen C. Lewis—blames tight lacing for what may be scoliosis. (And, of course, “constriction” was an element in just about everything having to do with women in the 19th century: what they were allowed to learn, what they were allowed to do, how they were allowed to act, what employment they were allowed to have as adults … The list just seems to be endless.)

The piece that solidifies this as an actual incident appeared in the New York Times, recording the sudden death of an unknown woman of unknown causes on a very specific street:

“General City News: Sudden Death” (from the New York Times 13 January 1868; p. 5)

Yesterday afternoon an unknown woman fell on the corner of Third-avenue and Tenth-street. She was immediately removed to a drug store and medical aid extended to her, but she died in a few minutes. The body was taken to the Seventeenth Precinct Station-house, where an inquest will be held.

If you’re making up the details for an urban legend focused on those young girls and their foolish tight lacing, you don’t begin with the bland report that a young woman died suddenly in public; you make up your horror story and toss it right out there. The inquest was reported by both the New York Times and the New York Daily Herald. It also appears to have been reported by the New York Sun. This is unfortunate, because (1) I can’t find issues from January 1868 and (2) apparently it’s details from the Sun that get repeated and repeated and repeated. The Times and the Herald give us the young woman’s name and apparent cause of death: “apoplexy of the lungs.”

The Herald ends with a sentence of praise of Miss Toms:

“New York: Fatal Result of Tight Lacing” (from the New York Daily Herald 14 January 1868; p. 6)

Coroner Schirmer was yesterday called to hold an inquest at No. 12 Jones street on the remains of Miss Emma A. Toms, a young lady nearly twenty-three years of age, who died suddenly. Deceased, who was a well known Sunday school teacher, went with a number of friends on Sunday afternoon to the dedication of a Methodist Episcopal church in Eleventh street. The services being over deceased was returning home, when suddenly, without any complaint on her part, she fell to the pavement in a state of insensibility. She was immediately conveyed to a drug store on Third avenue, where Police Surgeon Kimbark was summoned; he could render no permanent relief, and death ensued soon afterwards. From the testimony adduced it appeared that deceased, who was inclined to corpulency, had been in the habit of lacing unusually tight, which had a tendency to produce congestion of the brain and other organs, resulting in apoplexy. Deputy Coroner S. N. Leo, M. D., made a post mortem examination on the body, which showed beyond a doubt that death resulted from apoplexy of the lungs. The jury accordingly rendered a verdict to that effect. Deceased was a very estimable young lady and enjoyed the respect and confidence of a large circle of friends and acquaintances.

The Times got a little more graphic:

“General City News: Killed by Tight Lacing” (from the New York Times 14 January 1868; p. 5)

The sudden and mysterious death of an unknown woman in Third-avenue Sunday was noticed in yesterday’s Times. Coroner Schirmer held an inquest yesterday over her body, at No. 12 Jones-street. Her name proved to be Emma A. Toms, aged twenty-three. It appeared in evidence that Miss Toms is a well-known Sunday-school teacher, and highly respected. On Sunday morning she accompanied several members of the Bank-street Methodist Church to participate in the dedication of a new chapel in Eleventh-street. While returning home the deceased dropped suddenly in the street without a sigh or a groan, and died in ten minutes after. Dr. Kimball was called in and pronounced it a case of apoplexy of the lungs, superinduced by unusual tight corset lacing. Dr. Leo found, in making a poste-mortem examination, that Miss Jones was quite plethoric in habit, and her body being so tightly bound by steel corsets the blood had no chance for proper circulation, and rendered her subject to congestion of the brain, which in time led to apoplexy of the lungs. The jury rendered a verdict in accordance with these facts.

In proper 19th-century style, reports of the incident were reprinted in other papers, and changes in details crept in. The event which Emma had attended moves from 11th to 10th street. And her name changes:

“Death from Tight Lacing” (from The Norfolk Virginian [Norfolk, Virginia] 17 January 1868; p. 3)

Coroner Schirmer held an inquest on Monday, on the body of Miss Emma A. Tours, aged 23, who died suddenly in the street on Sunday. The New York Sun says:

It appears that the deceased is a Sunday-school teacher in the Bank-street Methodist Church, and went to the dedication of a new chapel in Tenth street, death overtaking her while returning home. The post-mortem examination by Dr. Leo showed that death ensued from apoplexy of the lungs, superinduced by tight lacing. Miss Tours being of full habit, and desirous of reducing her figure, had killed herself. A verdict in accordance was rendered.

Did the Sun get the details wrong? Or did the typeface make it appear that her last name was “Tours”? (Given that reporters are human, I’m betting on the former.) An Ohio paper includes a detail that may be specific to the account in the New York Sun, and sprinkles in a hint of admonition:

A highly respectable young lady (from The Summit County Beacon [Akron, Ohio] 23 January 1868; p. 2)

A highly respectable young lady, Miss Tours, of New York city, having that weakness, a horror of being stout, attempted to overcome the difficulty by tight lacing. On Sunday last she called to her aid two young ladies, who assisted in drawing her corset strings, and Miss T. went to church. On her way home she dropped in the street, and in ten minutes died.

Here, Emma is not only vain, but has two other young women help her tighten her laces, which makes her seem even vainer.

Finally, the Ohio Statesman makes the death a sad example of a foolish obsession of vain women:

“Fashionable Suicides” (from the Daily Ohio Statesman [Columbus, Ohio] 24 January 1868; p. 3)

The veritable wasp-like waists of our great-grand-mothers are no longer considered chiefest among feminine attractions, but neither has the classic form of the Medici Venus become the accepted standard. Steel and whalebone still clasp, all to [sic] tightly we must fain believe, the trim figures which promenade our streets and whirl through our ballrooms. The waist no longer needs to admit the span of the lover’s hands, but fashion still claims that it must be slighter than nature demands. Embonpoint here asserts it [sic] claims, and resists the encroachment. The young woman who dropped dead in the streets of New York a few days since, had called in the aid of two friends to gird her superabundant form. Their united strength had sufficed to satisfy fashion, but nature satisfied itself by death. Like the other unfortunate, who burst a blood-vessel while drawing her stays by a lacing attached to a hook in the wall, she erred not so much in yielding to a universal custom as in yielding too far. One line will not measure all feminine waists, any more than one boot will fit every fairy foot. The precise limit to the encroachment of fashion upon nature, consistent with life, varies in each individual case. Miss Tours made a wrong calculation, and paid the penalty of her error. Better to give the preference to classic dowdiness than to fashionable suicide.

And we have what appears to be an urban legend providing the basis for a lecture on the foolishness of fashion. (Hmm … What’s the story about that young woman and the hook? Hmmm … )

Because “Fashionable Suicides” is the piece I started with. And I hoped to find some longer original piece that would prove to be a better transcription. Searching on the victim’s name, I found the later stories, then tried to see if I could find the incident in papers other than the Sun (since that was unavailable). Unable to find anything about “Emma Tours,” I searched on the coroner’s name and found the inquest on Emma A. Toms and the original report in the Times; and I realized that I didn’t have a 19th-century urban legend, but what seemed an urban legend shaped from an actual incident.

Interesting stuff here: the words used to describe Emma’s body shape (“embonpoint,” “full habit,” “plethoric,” “corpulency”) and the cause of death (what condition could be described as “apoplexy of the lungs”?).

But, for this researcher, what’s interesting is how Emma Tom’s death becomes what sounds like an urban legend. The young woman falling down dead in the street just sounds too made up. And the wrong name showing up in the stories makes it difficult to trace the incident back to Emma Toms. (I’m so very glad the coroner has a fairly unique name.) It’s a reminder to explore all the elements of a story as thoroughly as possible, in order to get into the vicinity of the truth.

And, poor Emma Toms, who died far too young. And whose story no doubt provided material for lectures to other young women. Probably not the way she wanted to be remembered.