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Yesterday's News

A glimpse of old Knoxville, by way of Massachusetts

by Jack Neely

At the brewpub I've never been too proud to read a leftover paper. Sometimes I even ask around: "Is that yours? Are you finished with it?"

I'll even settle for one that's a couple of days old and finish a crossword puzzle somebody else started. But most of the newspapers I find at the bar aren't quite as old as the one Val Loiselle passed me that day.

Originally from Granby, Mass., Val is an industrial consultant, chairman of the Association of Radioactive Metal Recyclers. He'd never spent any time in Knoxville until recent years, when he's done some work with UT's Energy, Environment and Resources Center.

The newspaper Val had with him was one his family had found when they were moving out of their longtime home in Massachusetts. For decades, his grandmother had made a habit of collecting old newspapers. This one newspaper Val showed me was the oldest they found in this 18th-century house.

It wasn't the Boston Globe. It was Brownlow's Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator. The date on the top was March 29, 1865.

You might know that Brownlow's Whig was the controversial 19th-century weekly run by pro-Union "Parson" William Brownlow. When the Civil War came along, Brownlow added the suffix and Rebel Ventilator to his newspaper's banner, apparently to imply that if the Confederacy were exposed to the fresh air of his scrutiny, it would die like mildew. That's the nicer interpretation of what "Rebel Ventilator" might imply; the other may be too gory to explain in a family newspaper.

Val doesn't know how this issue wound up in an old house in Massachusetts, but figures it must have been brought home by someone who'd lived in the Loiselle house before his family did. Written on the first page are the words "Return to E.B. Warner." Val learned that Eli Warner, who lived in the house in the 19th century, had been a Union soldier, and Val speculated that Warner had been stationed in Knoxville near the end of the war.

Val has carried Brownlow's Whig with him everywhere he has lived in the last 20 years. He has spent much of his career working in the South—he now spends most of his time in Columbia, S.C.—and says Southerners give him a hard time about the newspaper, thinking he's holding out on them. "Did you find the silverware?" they ask. Protesting his innocence, Val insists that his own forebears lived in Canada during the Unpleasantness.

This newspaper may well have headed north wrapped around some long-lost loot—but it's also possible that someone in Granby subscribed. Parson Brownlow had a national following, maybe like Rush Limbaugh's or Howard Stern's. Uninhibited and verbally reckless, Brownlow was a humorist of sorts, and Northerners got a kick out of his columns, especially his anti-Southern stuff. Brownlow's fans didn't necessarily agree with everything the Parson said, but they had a good time hearing him say it.

I spread the Whig across the bar and caught up with the news. This particular issue had little of Brownlow's trademark barbed wit. When you're on the brink of victory—and when most of the folks you hate are, for the moment, humiliated—maybe it's tough to make fun.

High on page one is a five-stanza unsigned poem called "Sherman's March to the Sea," which sounds like the lyrics to a battle hymn: "And the stars in our banner shone brighter / When Sherman marched down to the sea."

The most prominent editorial in the paper, however, is uncharacteristically critical of Federal soldiers, who'd been reported to be looting houses of Confederates and Unionists alike.

"The shameful conduct of a portion of the Federal troops in East Tennessee is disgraceful to the army," it goes, "and even to poor human nature, depraved as it is known to be." Some Unionists, this Unionist paper allowed, were "meaner than the vilest rebel that ever robbed a hen-roost."

The bitter editorial goes on to explain this assertion that must have astonished Brownlow's loyal readers: because of the Confederates' "contempt for decency and love of crime and all that is degrading...the demoralized rebel is expected to live this sort of life, but a Federal soldier and officer is expected to act the gentleman and prove himself a patriot...."

To us, the ads in this paper can be just as interesting as Brownlow's essays. On page one we learn that "Julius Ochs & Co. have returned and opened their beautiful and well-assorted stock at the old Telegraph Office." Ochs's son Adolph, then not quite seven years old, will become the most influential publisher of the New York Times.

William Boond, "Grocer, Provision Dealer and Commission Merchant," is the Englishman whose shop is at Gay and Union. He'll soon be joined by his widowed sister's family, who've fallen on hard times back in England. Among them is Boond's niece, 15-year-old Fannie Hodgson, who already aspires to write stories. Twenty years later, she'll be novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Some stories won't turn out as well. Despite his Confederate sympathies, even Joseph Mabry advertises his real-estate office in Brownlow's Whig. Some 17 years later, Mabry will die with his son in a gunfight on Gay Street.

Here's Leonidas Houk, a 28-year-old lawyer, just back from serving as an elector for the Lincoln re-election ticket. He's advertising in the Whig for a law partner, preferring a Unionist, as one might prefer a non-smoker. Years later, Congressman Houk will die after accidentally poisoning himself with arsenic in a downtown drugstore.

Reading the regular daily is eerie enough. But reading any newspaper with the knowledge of how these hopeful stories turn out can give them an impact beyond anything the Parson intended.