Historians or students curious about life in Cairo 150 years ago - or families trying to trace an ancestor - can thank Darrel Dexter for shedding new light (and a bit of heat) on those days by making available thousands of stories from newspapers of the day.
Dexter, a rural Jonesboro resident who is a history teacher, genealogist and author, has read every surviving issue of Cairo newspapers published between 1841 and 1873, and transcribed nearly 5,000 obituaries and hundreds of other articles.
Some of the articles talk about mundane matters, but others paint a vivid picture of what Dexter calls "a wild river town." There were gunfights in the streets, legendary houses of prostitution, labor disputes, Civil War news and tales of sheer orneriness.
All the articles now are posted on the Internet to be used by researchers at no charge, on the website of the Genealogy Society of Southern Illinois.
Ed O'Day of Carbondale, the GSSI webmaster, calls Dexter "a tireless worker who keeps plugging away at those obituaries." Dexter is a former student of O'Day at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He holds a master's degree from Southeast Missouri State University and has published 28 books on history and genealogy.
"The cost of doing books is pretty much prohibitive," O'Day said. "Using websites makes things available" free of charge to those who are searching for lost kinfolks or pieces of the past.
Between 1841 and 1873, 34 newspapers were published in Cairo, but not even a single issue is known to have survived for most of them. The earliest paper Dexter found was a copy of the Cairo Delta, started in June 1848 when Cairo had a population of 142. An article describes the discovery of gold at Sutter's Fort in California. The paper published periodic accounts of a "Company for California" led by Col. Henry L. Webb, which left Cairo in 1849 to pan for gold.
Refining the effort
Dexter approaches his volunteer job with the zeal of those California-bound folks. He tirelessly sifts through dry facts to find the colorful nuggets of detail that make the past come alive for his readers.
He found the old newspapers in the Cairo Public Library, Morris Library at SIUC, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.
While completing a previous project of transcribing all obituaries and many other articles from the long-defunct Jonesboro Gazette, Dexter evolved a system for gathering the information from microfilm copies.
"At first I made transcriptions by hand and then entered my written notes into my computer," he said. "Then I started making photocopies of the pages and taking them home and transcribing those directly into my computer. That began to get expensive, so I progressed to scanning the images and e-mailing those to myself and later transcribing them. I've also used a laptop or a computer at the library to enter transcriptions directly from the screen image of the microfilm."
O'Day said Dexter is the fastest typist he's ever seen. Even so, Dexter estimates he's probably spent "about 500 to 600 hours on the Cairo newspaper project and probably twice as many on the Jonesboro Gazette transcriptions. Of course, that's stretched out over many years." Sometimes, he said, months went by without his doing any work at all on the project.
Not all pretty
Cairo's newspapers ran both stories and ads about runaway slaves. One "news" story about the capture of a runaway slave after his owner circulated handbills, contained a blatant pitch for business: "We have only to add, P.S. Runaway negro handbills printed at the Cairo Gazette office cheaply, neatly and expeditiously and in a style otherwise that nearly always secures the fugitive."
The gunfights included one in March 1857 between the town's two physicians. More than 300 murders were reported in the newspapers Dexter examined. The Civil War was a volatile time, when thousands of Union soldiers were stationed at Fort Defiance and thousands of former slaves were in the contraband camps there. One man left work to celebrate at a local saloon after the birth of his son. When he stepped onto the sidewalk, a provost marshal seized him and ordered him to the guardhouse. When the new father resisted, he was shot in the head.
To meet its quota of Union soldiers, Alexander County had to resort to a draft. Cairo papers described the process: Every man on the draft list was assigned a number and the numbers were placed on a large roulette wheel. It was spun and if the wheel stopped on their number, they were drafted. Draftees who didn't want to serve could hire a Cairo "substitute broker," who for $300 would find substitutes to serve for them.
Some prominent Southern Illinois citizens were arrested on charges of disloyalty during the war. Some of the arrests were politically motivated, Dexter notes. The "suspects," nearly all well-known Democrats, were taken to Cairo and placed in a "dungeon." President Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus, so many were kept in prison for months without trial and then released. Others were merely asked to make an oath of allegiance to the U.S. to gain their freedom.
Cairo editors, in the journalistic style of the day, felt free to insert their own opinions about the happenings, Dexter said.
Houses of prostitution were found in the city, not surprising since Cairo was both a river town and a Civil War camp, he noted. The Cairo editors ranted against them all, calling them by such colorful terms as "houses of ill fame," "bawdy houses," and "disreputable houses."
The Cairo Democrat in 1865 stated, "We greatly doubt if there is another city in the country where the crime of prostitution is carried to such fearful and disgusting lengths as in Cairo. At every public assemblage the eyes of virtue are outraged by the presence of glaring, painted, bedecked harlotry in full force, which never fails to make itself the observed of all observers."
Grace Winsor kept one of the most notorious houses, Winsor Castle, on Commercial Avenue. City marshals would raid the houses and charge the "inmates" $10 each and the "keepers" usually $25, Dexter said.
A different day
Some of the obituaries are equally colorful. Many people died by drowning. In 1870, two men fell off a sidewalk (in some places the sidewalks were 12 feet high) and died of their injuries. Many children and adults died of diseases. One colorful account describes a man who committed suicide by placing his head on the railroad tracks.
Some of the obituaries later were retracted. One young lad, presumed to have fallen off a ferryboat and drowned, later showed up quite alive. "The little truant took a two days' leave and explored Mound City," the newspaper explained.
Old newspapers also are a valuable source of information about the city's schools, churches and diverse populations, Dexter said. At one point, he said, Cairo had four competing private fire companies because there were so many fires in town.
For genealogists, the listings of obituaries are a source of valuable information. O'Day said Dexter "has gotten thank-yous from people all across the country" who have used the free website to trace down their ancestors or get in touch with relatives.
Dexter sends the items he transcribes in a Microsoft Word format to O'Day, who then posts them on the GSSI website. The site has an indexing program, so people can search for surnames or geographic locations to find a specific obituary or story.
"Darrel's a very giving person," O'Day said. "He just sent me the files for 1874." Those long-ago Cairo items items soon will be posted on the website with the others.
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