Obituaries

What is the deal??

I read obituaries because I am fascinated with people’s stories, and with history. I don’t think it’s weird or morbid to read them, unless of course, you’re obsessed with “cause of death.” That might get a little creepy.

When I read obituaries I tend to start by reading the tag line under the person’s name. For some reason, humans need to assign a label to a person in order to tell his or her story. Sometimes the labels crack me up. My favorite, from the Washington Post many years ago went something like this: “Joe Smith, Murderer.”

Jeez. Why bother?

Next, I read the person’s story and decide whether or not the tag line was fitting. Have you ever read an obituary about a 93 year-old great grandmother, who last worked as a secretary when she was 23 years old, yet her tagline is “Secretary?” How about, “Amazing Woman” instead? That would be fun.

Another thing about obituaries … their style and substance change as the culture changes. Obituaries can be windows to how a community thinks.

For Freestyle, I penned Patty Cannon’s obituary that appears in the front of the book. The real obituary is a product of the times and is long! I created a shorter version in order to set the tone for the story.

Here is the real deal:

Delaware Gazette and Watchman
Tuesday, May 19, 1829

We sometime since gave a statement respecting certain discoveries which were recently made in Sussex, and of the arrest and imprisonment of Patty Cannon, on the charge of being concerned in the murder of a number of individuals in and near the borders of that County. We inadvertently stated that her trial might be expected to take place about the time of the publication. It was the Court of Common Pleas which was then in session, and by the Constitution of our State the trial for the capital offences is confined to the Supreme Court, whose regular session does not take place in that County until August next. Several bills of indictment were found against the old woman, but she has saved the Court the trouble of trying, and perhaps the Sheriff that of performing even a more unpleasant duty, as she died in Jail on the 11th instant.

During our late visit into Sussex County, we heard an anecdote related of the old woman and others connected in the traffic of stealing and selling blacks, which is, perhaps, worth relating. Several Black men were employed by the concern, in the business of inveigling negroes into the meshes of their net, and among the rest was one who was exceedingly expert in the business. This individual, upon one occasion, prevailed upon a man who was a slave to a person residing in Worcester County, Md. And who had a free wife and seven male children, between the ages of 6 and 18 years, to accompany him to Camden, in this State, with the assurance that he would be able to procure a pass from the members of the Friends Society in that place, with which he would be enabled to pass into the state of New Jersey, and escape from the service of his master. He accordingly conducted him to the house of Patty Cannon, where he was furnished with a document with a large seal to it, and amused with the idea of being furnished with a conveyance to the place of his supposed destination. His conductor then left him, and going immediately back to his wife and children, and telling them a fine tale of the favourable situation their husband and father had procured, induced them to follow him, who were also conveyed into the same trap, and the next morning after their arrival they were all shipped off, never more to be heard of by their relations or friends. This account was furnished by our informer by another black who had been employed in the same business by the despicable concern.

What Do You Think?

What windows to the culture of 1829 did you peep through while reading Patty’s real obituary? Three come to my mind:

First – these people were long-winded!
Second –Patty Cannon, who is referred to as “old woman” throughout, might have been about 50 years old. Not “old” by today’s standards!
Third – Patty’s “gang,” led by her son-in-law, was made up of white and black men. Did you notice that the newspaper of 1829 only focuses on the black men in her employ? There is no mention of the “bad” white guys, only the black ones. I would hope that today’s standards would call out both.

Finally, I have to give much credit to obituary writers. Imagine writing the final words, day after day, about people you don’t even know. I’ll stick to writing novels, thank you!