Saturday, November 29, 2008

Old News, New News


A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in a discussion with several friends on the EE Ticket.com forum regarding the tragic shooting death of Amanda Collette. Miss Collette, 15, was shot and killed at Dillard High School in Ft. Lauderdale Florida earlier this month. The shooter was apparently a friend, Teah Wimberly, with whom she had argued. This incident is another senseless tragedy in an all too long list of senseless tragedies that play out these days. We offer our hearts to all involved, express our collective outrage at the incident, and wonder once again “what is wrong with people today?” or “what have we become as a society?”. We wonder where mankind went wrong, and where the sanctity and respect for life disappeared to.

On November 28th, this year’s version of the “Black Friday” kickoff to the holiday shopping season, the senseless violence and disregard for human life manifested itself again. A Wal-mart employee was trampled to death by over zealous bargain hunters in New York, and a gunfight erupted in a Toys-r-Us store in Riverside California leaving both gunmen dead. When shoppers were informed of the employee’s death and asked to clear out of the New York Wal-mart, several customers protested that they had waited hours outside to get in and continued their shopping. In Riverside, the gunmen having been the only killed or wounded in a toy store full of adults and children is somewhat miraculous.

Why can’t we as a society just go back to the “good old days”? My belief is quite simple. There were no “good old days”.


I believe that these types of senseless violence are nothing new at all. I think that incidents like the ones described above have always happened in some form. I think that the major difference is that we have access to so much news that some think that it this kind of tragedy is a modern day phenomenon.


My premise is this. All of these awful things that we hear about now, chances are we would have been unaware of not so many years ago. A murder, child abduction or senseless tragedy that takes place today is on CNN and hundreds of other news outlets in minutes. Everyone around the globe sees the event unfold, sometimes with live video feeds. A child abduction or shots fired by a disgruntled employee in small town America that is front page news in 2008, may or may not have made the half hour national news broadcast in 1978, and may not have appeared a newspaper two hundred miles away in 1918. But it still went on.


I am presently reading a terrific book by Harold Schechter called “The Devil’s Gentleman” that brought my thoughts back to the topic of this post. Without giving anything away, the book is about a famous murder that took place in New York City in 1898 that captivated the city at the time. Mr. Schechter points out very accurately that the media circus that ensued was something novel, and was a result of the rise in popularity of “yellow journalism” taking place at about the same time. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were using sensationalism and lurid accounts of crimes to get a circulation advantage for their respective newspapers, the “Journal” and the “World“. He points out that before Pulitzer, the typical New York papers offered some pretty dull reading, including Jay Gould’s World that he had taken over. Shock factor sells newspapers.
Schechter goes on to list some headlines used by these papers at this time.

FIENDISH PARENTS; ALIVE IN COFFIN; A CHILD FLAYED ALIVE; STRANGLED BY ROBBERS and QUINTUPLE TRAGEDY-AN ENTIRE FAMILY INIHILATED BY ITS HEAD!

These headlines, although sensational, did not make up these crimes. They just made them more vivid. They were meant to sell newspapers to a breathless, lurid news craving public. But the facts remain. The crimes reported on by these newspapers did happen. And they happened often.


Over then dozen or so years that I have been researching my family history I have looked through literally hundreds of rolls of newspaper microfilm from the early 1800s to the present day. One thing that has always struck me is that the stories of murder, tragedy and crime that were published in these early newspapers could easily, with some changes in language, be transplanted into your local paper tomorrow very seamlessly. People were senselessly killed, children were abducted, women assaulted and innocent people hurt and victimized just like they are today. The only difference back then was that the vast majority of these events ware reported solely on a local level unless the circumstances were extraordinary.


I offer you an example of something that happened not four miles from where I am sitting right now that happened long ago. It is all but forgotten except by some people who have a good grip on local history, and when it happened the news of it did not get very far from where it happened. This is a story that could easily be posted on CNN today, and we would all wonder what happened to society, and yearn for the good old days.

Back in 1930 a major portion of the land around where I live was deep mined for coal. Small communities, complete with a “company store” sprung up around the mineshafts where most of the local men made their living. Eventually even naming these short lived boom towns became too much of an effort and the mines in my area of the county were simply named after the mineshaft number designated by the mining company. There is a community not far from me that is still known as “Number 5”. Many locals still know the area on the county border near Brent as “Number 2”. It is here at Number 2 that a mass murder took place.

Marco Demifonte awoke on the morning of July 23,1931 and quietly waited until it was time to go to the mine for his shift. His sister in law was in the kitchen having coffee with Marco’s wife. A beginning just like any other day at Number 2, but for Marco this day was anything but ordinary.

Marco stood up and walked upstairs and returned to the kitchen very shortly with a shotgun that he used to hunt blackbirds. He promptly raised the weapon and shot and killed both women as they chatted. He then decided that it was a good time to take a walk through town. His route first led him past the house next door where his neighbor’s wife was out hanging laundry. He raised the shotgun once more and shot her in the head, killing her instantly. As he continued through town he came across nine year old Nick Sicilian playing in front of his house. The boy sensed something was wrong, and began to run. Marco shot the boy twice in the back, knocking him down both times, but the boy got up and ran into the house.

Nick’s mother immediately locked the door. She grabbed a pistol that she had in the house to defend the boy as Marco broke his way in. She tried to shoot him but the safety was engaged on the pistol. Marco shot her in the side and killed her with the butt of the shotgun. When he turned and saw Nick running away he shot him a third time, this time in the legs. He left Nick for dead.

Further into town Marco was confronted by a good friend, a local shoe maker, who Marco turned on and killed immediately. Word had gotten out to call the police, and the shoemaker was trying to slow him down or talk him into stopping. No sooner had Marco’s friend hit the ground when Union Supply company store manager George Masters, armed with a shotgun, came over the hill to help. Marco turned on Masters and pulled the trigger. The gun was empty. Masters immediately shot Marco in the legs while several men captured him and took him to the county jail.

Marco Demifonte spent the rest of his days at the Pennsylvania Institute for the Criminally Insane. George Masters was awarded a silver Carnegie Medal for his heroism that day. The police thought that young Nick Sicilian was dead, and told the funeral director to take him with the bodies of the other victims. A very observant Dr. David Vogan saw that Nick was not dead, and after 43 days in the hospital was released.

Nick’s father went to see Marco in jail to ask him why he had killed his wife and injured his son. Marco said he only meant to kill his wife and her sister because they were plotting against him.

If this same incident happened today it would dominate the national news for three days.

You see, people now are no more crazy or depraved than they were many years ago. A certain percentage of the population will always be. It is just that the whole world is considered “local” news these days.

1 comment:

NP said...

New travels fast these days, anything older than 4 hours is probably considered stale and not work mentioning. Plus the media loves to cover this kind of stuff today rather than the real news-meat.

I suppose it's just another sign of the times.