Cook: Crumbling pages hold telling stories
Ralph Earnhardtís life spanned over eight decades, 1921-2003, and one of his many activities was collecting things.
So daughter Erna Brown was not completely surprised when she went through his house in Gold Hill and found he had saved newspapers printed before he was born.
Old newspapers have fascinating stories to tell. Pages that have browned with age threaten to crumble when you touch them, and the writing has the archaic tone of years gone by. But the tides of time cannot change the passions that govern peopleís lives.
Vengeance. Greed. Ambition. Prejudice. Ignorance.
Mr. Earnhardt had saved the Salisbury Weekly Post from July 25, 1906, which carried a lengthy report on an infamous murder case. More on that in a minute.
Earnhardt had also saved a copy of the Salisbury Post from Oct. 29, 1907. No longer a weekly, the paper boasted that it published on Tuesday and Thursday, making it ěTwo Papers for the Price of Oneî at $1 a year.
A subsciption to the Salisbury Post in 2011 costs $141 ó seven papers for the price of one, to use the old terminology. Thatís still a bargain, considering you get a fresh edition delivered to your home each day ó 365 days a year ó for less than the price of a first-class stamp.
Mr. Earnhardtís old papers are from some of the Postís earliest years. The paper started in 1905. Advertising was still sparse in 1906 and 1907, judging by these two papers. But they had a wealth of news. And they reflected the tensions of the times.
The murder testimony from the 1906 paper fills the front page, with one photo of five black suspects ó two of them tenant farmers on the land of Isaac Lyerly, who was white.
Someone had hacked Lyerly, his wife and two of their children to death with an axe and set the manís bed on fire while two other daughters slept upstairs.
The crime happened Friday, July 13, 1906, and what we now call racial tension tore thorugh the county. The Post reported testimony before a grand jury just 12 days later.
A parade of witnesses ó the sheriff, the surviving children, neighbors and relatives of the accused ó described the grisley scene and events that led up to the slaughter.
They testified to hearing one of the tenant farmers, Nease Gillespie, say old man Lyerly might cut his wheat, but he would never eat it ó meaning his days were numbered.
A defendantís 11-year-old grandson said the man talked openly in his home after killing the Lyerlys. ěPa used his axe and Jack used Mr. Ikeís axe,î the boy said, according to the Post. ěJack was mad about a horse kicking him on the knee and Pa killed him about the wheat.î
Testimony about grudges, conflicts and threats pointed to the suspects. Still, none of it justified the vigilante justice meted out less that two weeks later.
On Aug. 6, the day after the defendantsí actual trial began in Rowan Superior Court ó and well before any verdict could come down ó an angry, drunken mob gathered at the jail. Defying the judge, the mayor, the sheriff, the militia and anyone else who tried to stop them, they broke into the jail, escorted the defendants out and lynched three of them ó Nease Gillespie, John Gillespie and Jack Dillingham. The blot on Rowan County was reported widely, including in the New York Times ó a sign of the Southís backwardness.
The 1907 newspaper that Earnhardt saved does not share anything as lurid as a lynching.
A fire in the county jail appears to be the biggest local event. ěState Laws Not Observed,î says the headline. The fire started in a defective flue, the Post reports. ěThe heating arrangements at the jail have always been unsafe and it was partially for this reason that grand juries repeatedly recommended the construction of a new jail.î
Of the 25 remaining stories on the front page, most carry news from far-off places. An editor in Berlin faces a libel suit. Five people die when London underground trains collide. An earthquake in Rome kills thousands. Cholera rages in Vienna.
Local news is tamer.
ěAgainst the Cigarette: The Southern Will no Longer Employ Cigarette Fiends.î This followed the wreck of a passenger train in Greensboro that killed six.
ěMust Go to Work: Spencer Railroader Has a Talk With the President.î Theodore Roosevelt declined a Spencer engineerís suggestion that he go on a bear hunt in Asheville, saying he had to get to work as president.
ěPrincess Nadine: Christian Reidís Latest Story a Big Success.î This excerpt from a New York Sun story about Salisbury author Fances Tiernan said her new book had been released. The headline writer decided it was a big success.
The only vestige of the previous yearís racial turmoil surfaces in a corner on the back page, under ěThe Race Problem.î Itís an excerpt from a piece by John Sharp Williams, a Mississippi congressman. Though whites and blacks are not the same animal and can never be in any sense equal, Williams says, they are creatures of the same God. That being the case, or ěproblem,î as he puts it, ěIt would be well that all wise men think more, that good men pray more, and that all men talk less and curse less.î
Amazing that someone who was so wrong about race could be so right about human behavior.
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.