Researching a historic event requires careful reading of both primary sources, original documents such as city directories, deeds, trial transcripts, and assessor’s reports, and first-person accounts such as diaries, personal journals, and memoirs, and secondary sources including articles and books written about or based on primary sources. Newspaper articles theoretically should be considered primary sources, as they should report what happened in an objective manner at the time something happened. Often, however, newspaper articles report more of the reporter’s attitude than information.
This aspect of historic research becomes apparent when considering two events that happened in 1877 in La Monte and Cole Camp. The first event was the attempted murder of Randall Yocum by William Baker and of Baker’s subsequent shooting by an unknown assailant. The second event was the attempted murder of Al Tucker by James Leffler of Cole Camp. One of the articles reveals far more than it says about attitudes toward crime and crime reporting.
The event at La Monte was reported in a fairly matter-of-fact way though it revealed little sympathy for Baker, a known bully. The incident was, however, treated as a precursor to the “mania” of crime that resulted when James Leffler shot Al Tucker in Cole Camp.
The press seemed to profess a reluctance to report on this crime while the “excitement” at La Monte was still in the news; noting that it was “forced” to cover the crime as “a true chronicler of the events of the day.” The supposed reluctance was belied by the flippant tone in the headlines: “James Leffler Perforate the Body of Al Tucker.”
The disrespectful tone was paired with over-wrought prose to describe how “the revolver does it deadly work, and a young man, strong and robust a few days ago, now lies prostrate, awaiting the call of the Death Angel.”
Both men were considered by the press to be good men; Leffler was “noble, brave and generous,” while Tucker was a “genial, jovial fellow.” Both men were known to have quick tempers, especially when they had been drinking. The reason for the shooting was, to the press, clear: “Of course there was a woman at the bottom of it.”
That a woman’s actions or a man’s response to her actions might cause violence was dismissed as so obvious it was almost irrelevant, the headline suggested. However, the Democrat devoted the length of an entire column plus one-third of another column to reporting in great detail exactly what had happened.
Leffler claimed Tucker advanced on him with a knife. The Democrat opined that Leffler had three options. He could stand and “be butchered,” he could run,” or he could “stand and defend himself.” Leffler chose to shoot Tucker, continuing to fire at Tucker’s back as he turned to run after being hit once.
The Democrat closed the article by anticipating more crime, furthering the idea of a “crime mania,” noting that Leffler had been released from custody and that Tucker had a father and three brothers who might seek revenge or who might become further victims for Leffler.
Whether the press realized that coverage of the crime might encourage other remains an unanswered question.