By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Newspaper gives glimpse into ancestor's actions but it's only a piece of the puzzle
Old newspaper accounts can be a great source of family history information, as Amy Choate-Nielsen discovered. - photo by Amy Choate-Nielsen
I loved two things as a child: writing stories and looking in the mirror.

I have vivid memories of sitting on a padded bench at my little wooden desk with the big mirror, the evening sun shining through the window onto my back, as I looked into my own eyes and delivered the news. My long brown hair was usually wet, just after a bath, and I wore my favorite purple nightgown with the poufy short sleeves as I shuffled blank papers around at the end of my fake report, just like a real newscaster.

I loved to tell stories, too. These days, I forget to take the meat out of the freezer to thaw for dinner, but I can still remember my writing assignments from elementary school. I always took a pen and a notebook with me wherever I went so I would have something to do if I was ever bored. I took paper with me to my favorite spot in the woods near my childhood home, and I spent hours just trying to describe the sound of the freshly fallen rain spilling over a cliff in a temporary waterfall.

Im only just realizing that wasnt necessarily typical behavior for a 9-year-old, but its part of who I am, and I think its part of the reason why I chose a career to write the news. Its a combination of my two childhood loves.

I may be biased, but I think newspapers are an amazing gift. Through them, we can glimpse our past, gain insight into our present and preserve our experiences for the future. And for someone who is such a novice to family history research, newspapers are a fascinating way to travel back in time to meet my ancestors.

But, even then, a newspaper article taken out of context can be misleading.

One day, I was searching the Internet for newspaper stories on my great-grandfather Charles Mehew, my mothers mothers father. I dont know much about Charles, but I have heard stories about his antics as a youth, and that he built himself up to become a respected businessman in his community. He had status, like a minor celebrity. Theres even an award named after him at the local high school.

So I thought I might find a few articles on Charles Mehew in the newspaper, and I was right. I found a story in the social section about his daughter Charlottes birthday party, and a brief reference to his name a few years later. But then there was very little mention of Charles Mehew after that until I came across a juicy story in an issue of The Daily Oklahoma State Capital newspaper from Dec. 3, 1897.

Lothlen is free, the main headline of the story read. Just below that, the sub-head read, Murderer of Freeman Morrow, on December 6, 1896, Not Guilty. Interesting how the man was found not guilty but the newspaper is still calling him a murderer. And interesting that, throughout the story, Lothlen is referred to with words that are clearly racist and biased but I digress.

The story tells about the man Lothlen, an African-American, who was charged with murdering a man named Morrow as Morrow travelled from his claim (the plot of land he won in one of the infamous Oklahoma land runs) to a place called Guthrie. Morrow was attacked and killed by someone wielding an ax while he camped near the road on his 100-mile journey, and robbed of $8 or $10. His daughter, who travelled with him, was also attacked, but not killed.

The community was enraged about the murder, but there were no leads. The only clue they had to work upon was the statement of D.L. Porter and Charles Mehew, who said, They passed the Morrow wagon about 10 oclock on their way home from Guthrie, the story reads, and then shortly after, encountered an African-American walking along the side of the road. Mehew and Porter gave the man a ride, but they said he had an ax over his shoulder, and he was acting suspiciously, according to the newspaper.

After Mehews accusations, it appeared that a necktie party would be organized instanter, the story read. But in the end, Mehew and Porter couldnt confirm that the man they encountered was the same man who was responsible for the killing. They even got confused over some of the finer details, such as whether the man had a mustache or not. Sadly, it sounds like the only commonality between Lothlen and the reported murderer was the color of the mans skin, and even that detail came from Mehew and Porter themselves. Besides, other members of the community verified Lothlens alibi he was slaughtering pigs when the crime happened.

I was disappointed to read that my grandmothers father had a part in an ordeal that appears to be so overtly prejudiced. But when I asked my mother about the story, I learned something new about my ancestor.

Next time, Ill tell you how sometimes, even in newspapers, people are not always as they appear.