I work in a public media newsroom that doesn't have unlimited resources. We need to be somewhat selective in what we cover, and we often discuss whether this or that story rises to the level of assigning a reporter to cover it or giving it some air time.
That guy arrested in an arson case that was worrying a couple San Francisco neighborhoods? Yeah, we'll do that one, as well as the six-alarm wildland fire in Pacifica -- emblematic of the continuing drought, maybe -- and Klay Thompson's historic 37-point quarter the other night for the Golden State Warriors.
The latest report of homicides in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose? No, we're probably not going to report on that unless we have something to add to the mere report of the crime.
One has only to peruse news organs of the past, though, to enter a world in which editors were not so choosy. Their ad departments gave them X number of pages to fill with tidings of world and community affairs, and they'd be damned if they didn't fill them some way. Naturally, every species of mayhem and scandal were treated in detail -- not so different from the TMZs of today -- along with exhaustive reports of weightier world happenings.
But news columns were also filled with all sorts of baffling oddments. Among the news the august New York Times saw fit to print on Sept. 2, 1878, was this item from the heartland:
HER GOLDEN TRESSES STOLEN.
The Indianapolis Sentinel of Saturday, says:
"Rudolph Miller, a grocery keeper at 172 South Illinois street, has a most beautiful daughter, about 7 years of age. She has, or rather had, a lovely head of hair, of a light golden color, measuring some 30 inches in length. On last Tuesday afternoon,the child, in company with several of her playmates, went to the corner of Illinois and Washington streets to witness the parade of the Knights of Pythias. While there, she felt some one handling her hair, which had been neatly arranged by her mother, but as it was an every-day occurrence for strangers to examine it, she paid no attention to the forwardness of the stranger until she felt the click of a pair of scissors, and turning around, she saw a man disappear in the crowd with her hair, which he had cut off close to the head. The little creature ran home crying, and informed her parents of what had happened."
Here's a more local example uncovered while browsing the Dec. 31, 1890, issue of the San Francisco Morning Call:
AT THE FERRY LANDING.
Two Young Men Have a Bitter Dispute About a Girl.
Shortly before the 8 o'clock boat left for Oakland last evening a tall young man accompanied by a young lady, procured tickets at the window at the landing. A short stout man then came up and he and the tall young man had some words regarding the young lady, and finally began to scuffle.
Sergeant Helms separated the contestants and the tall man asked for protection saying that the other fellow wanted to take away his girl.
"Aint you big enough to protect yourself," asked the Sergeant.
"Yes, I am," was the answer, "and you just go away for a few minutes and I'll do him up."
The Sergeant did not go away, so no further trouble was had on this side, but all three boarded the boat, and it is not unlikely from their actions they would furnish a case for the police across the bay.
I'm just wondering how the affray at the ferry landing came to the attention of the Morning Call's editors. Was it an anecdote overheard at a bar? Did an ambitious copy boy bring this item in after witnessing the near-altercation? Was it a tale told at the police precinct house and passed on as a tidbit to a reporter? Or is it entirely fabricated?
I don't believe we'll ever know, but it reminds me of the sort of episodes that millions of us send out in 140-character messages every day.
For the record, the ferry landing item is followed by this nugget, three sentences dripping with irony and pathos.
Blind and Friendless
John Miller, a negro, 30 years of age, was recently brought from Victoria, B.C., on the city of Puebla. He had no friends in Victoria, and the charitable people of that city having grown tired of supporting him paid his passage to this city. He is being taken care of by a generous policeman, but neither the Collector of the Port nor the Commissioner of Immigration know what to do with him.