Stephen Mihm: The Biographer’s New Best Friend

Roundup: Talking About History

Stephen Mihm is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and the co-author of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”

LEGEND has it that the newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer stumbled into success, buying The New York World on a lark in 1883. But this didn’t seem right to James McGrath Morris, who began working on a biography of Pulitzer a decade ago. Pulitzer was a deliberate, calculating man; impulse purchases weren’t part of his modus operandi.

Mr. Morris suspected that one place to look for countervailing evidence was the arrival notices that 19th-century newspapers would print whenever someone significant checked into a local hotel — a forerunner to the tweet, enabling friends to know someone was in town and where to find them. If Pulitzer visited New York City to check out takeover targets prior to 1883, he might surface in these mundane social announcements. The problem was, The New York Times and other papers didn’t index such quotidian matters. So scanning tens of thousands of announcements for a single name wasn’t feasible.

As luck would have it, Mr. Morris was wrestling with this question just as several ambitious efforts got under way to digitize thousands of historical newspapers. These new databases enable researchers to perform keyword searches in some of the thousands of newspapers printed in the United States since the colonial era; what would have taken lifetimes of relentless reading could suddenly be completed in seconds.

Mr. Morris searched for Pulitzer and immediately turned up evidence that he had been staying in New York City hotels a year before his famous acquisition, scouting out possible deals; the persistent myth of Pulitzer’s precipitate purchase had been demolished.

“That’s when I realized that these databases would change the work we do,” Mr. Morris said....

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