Greatest newspaper correction EVER - but where's it from?
April 22, 2023 7:28 AM   Subscribe

Greatest newspaper correction EVER - but where's it from?
So there's this newspaper correction I first came across about 40 years ago and have had memorised ever since. It reads like this: "Instead of being arrested yesterday as we stated for kicking his wife down a flight of stairs and hurling a lighted kerosene lamp after her, Revd. James P. Wellman died unmarried four years ago." I've seen it quoted dozens of times since - most recently in July last year - but never with any attribution telling us which paper it appeared in or when. Earlier this month, I decided to find out. (Twitter thread.) (Threadreader)

The trail starts with a 1933 Liverpool Post book review then proceeds via the British artist Edward Burne-Jones and an 1885 issue of The Selma Times to a long-forgotten newspaper humourist called Robert Jones Burdette and Colfax county, Nebraska. It's quite the journey.
Role: Researcher & writer
posted by Paul Slade (11 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

This is delightful, thank you!
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:11 AM on April 22, 2023

Wait so do you conclude that there really was a Vindicator which printed this correction? Or could Burdette have made it up as a joke?
posted by grobstein at 4:53 PM on April 22, 2023

Burdette's Brooklyn Daily Eagle paragraph - the one that's been so widely copied ever since - is clearly written as his factual report of a real apology that actually appeared in precisely the paper he says it did. His whole column - 16 items in all - has the same tone about it. My impression is very much that he's putting a comic spin on stuff he'd found in other papers or ripped from the BDE's wire service rather than making things up from whole cloth.

Post-modern games like passing off your own imagined clippings as hard fact weren't something 19th Century journalists felt free to indulge in. There's an outside chance a little wishful thinking might be involved, though. Sometimes, journalists will hear a gossipy anecdote in the pub which is just too good to resist and persuade themselves there's no harm in retelling it in print. In the trade's own phrase, stories like this are "too good to check", the danger being they'll simply fall apart if you do.

In cases like this, you'd typically cover your back by being deliberately vague about the story's details - you'd be unlikely to name a specific newspaper, for example, or to pick such an unusual name as 'Schuyler" for the community it served. Burdette's item doesn't read like something from the wishful thinking file to me, so I'm content to assume it's factual till proven otherwise. I have a query in with Nebraska's state library, so I haven't entirely given up on finding the original Schuyler Vindicator correction itself so I can lay this issue to rest once and for all.

The whole culture of newspaper corrections in the print era was that it was hugely embarrassing for a publication to have to admit a factual error, partly because it undermined their readers' trust and partly because it could always open the risk of a libel action. Bear in mind also that newspapers then had a whole infrastructure of copy editors whose job was to ensure that factual errors were corrected or erased before they ever saw print.

It's the rarity and humiliating effect of being forced to print a correction in those days which explains both their often evasive wording (which just adds to the unintentional comedy of the things) and the fact that other journalists pass them around so keenly. There's nothing we enjoy more than a little innocent pleasure at a colleague's discomfort!
posted by Paul Slade at 12:07 AM on April 23, 2023

Great sleuthing! But it does seem odd that online at least, including in the LOC newspaper database, there is no record of a Vindicator newspaper in Schuyler. There was a Vindicator in Brady, across the state, but not until around 1908. And there was a Decatur Vindicator but only from 1877-1878.
posted by beagle at 1:13 PM on April 23, 2023 [1 favorite]

By the way, this investigation reminds me of this query I posted on AskMe once, looking for the source of a supposed letter to the editor (possibly "the greatest letter to the editor ever") that read, "This morning while shaving I broke 100. What's par?" I got no answer then and still haven't found it.
posted by beagle at 1:23 PM on April 23, 2023

I'd certainly be far happier if I could find an 1880s copy of the Schuyler Vindicator to prove beyond doubt that a paper of that name existed at the right time.

I noticed the other Nebraska Vindicator titles you mention, beagle, and wondered if they might have all been owned by the same individual or company. If so, the owners may have decided to call all their papers the [Name of Town] Vindicator, changing the place name to match each different market they served: Decatur Vindicator here, Brady Vindicator there and so on. I've no evidence that was the case, but it does seem reasonably plausable.

I know from other areas of my research that some smaller newspapers from a century or more ago had print runs that were too small for even a single copy to survive into our own age - let alone to end up on a digital database like It is strange that not even a mention of the Schuyler paper's name seems to appear online outside Burdette's paragraph and its many reproductions, but worth remembering that there are still vast swathes of paper records in physical libraries and archives throughout the US which never have - and perhaps never will - be digitised.

What we really need here is a Nebraska historian with an interest in the state's historical newspapers who can weigh in with some expert knowledge. Anyone?
posted by Paul Slade at 2:06 PM on April 23, 2023

I've added a few more thoughts to the Twitter thread - though nothing that gets us much further, I'm afraid. Hopefully, they'll show up in the Threadreader version too.
posted by Paul Slade at 4:55 AM on April 24, 2023

Good additional research in the Twitter thread there. I had also looked at how many Vindicators there are around the country, none of them seem to match up with any of the Schuylers.

Here's another bit of a clue to focus on: nearly all of the published versions of the correction include "arrested yesterday as we stated." Normal practice would be for "yesterday" to be prior to the day of publication, which means that the Vindicator must be a daily newspaper. This would be the case even if it should be "arrested as we stated yesterday" (the Reagan version).

Whether there is a true actual source or it is totally apocryphal, the repetition of this item is a good example of the way that media to this day quite often repeat statements as gospel, contrary to the famous editorial exhortation "if your mother says she loves you, check it out."
posted by beagle at 7:08 AM on April 24, 2023 [1 favorite]

Beagle: Strap in. Here's the weirdest twist yet.
posted by Paul Slade at 8:35 AM on April 24, 2023 [1 favorite]

Ha! I'm coming around to the conclusion that with no evidence of the existence of the original newspaper, or the original Reverend, this correction is an example of Burdette's inventive humor. It's not easy coming up with a column full of funny bits every week, or whatever frequency it ran.
posted by beagle at 2:12 PM on May 1, 2023

That is odd about the Rev. Fish. Googling him, he did die four years before the date of this 1895 version, but not unmarried. "His name will pass into history as a scholar and humanitarian".
posted by paduasoy at 12:18 PM on May 22, 2023

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