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Jim McKee: Moving at the speed of news when the telegraph came to Nebraska
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MEMORIES & MOMENTS

Jim McKee: Moving at the speed of news when the telegraph came to Nebraska

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The photo above shows the small envelope which literally fell from a nondescript book with details of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865. The handwritten explanation is at right and the “permanent” copy of the just-typeset announcement, carefully unfolded is at right.

With the advent of the iPhone and satellite communications an event in London can be transmitted to Lincoln virtually within seconds of its occurrence.

One of the first steps in rapid transmission of information came with the telegraph, which cut the time for news from the East Coast of the U.S. to the West Coast from weeks to literally minutes. When I discovered a small envelope stashed in a book I acquired in about 1975, this time lag in formation was evidenced as two bits of ephemera, then 110 years old but which had survived against all odds.

When Abraham Lincoln was first elected president of the United States on November 7, 1860, the news traveled west by “telegraph, horseback and steamer” with the election’s results finally reaching California eight to 16 days later.

The news was first sent from Washington, D.C., to St. Louis by telegraph, then retransmitted to Fort Kearny, Nebraska, where the news switched to the Pony Express as far as Nevada, where telegraphy lines again connected the information to Sacramento, California. Final delivery to other West Coast cities was then completed by horseback or steamboat. One Washington state newspaper said, “the annihilation of time and distance seems incomprehensible.” The “lightning line of wire” was finally completed as one connection in 1861.

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Joseph Erwin Lamaster was born in 1830 in Ohio and moved to Nebraska City in 1859, where he and Alfred Mathias purchased the year old Nebraska Press, one of the earliest newspapers in Nebraska Territory, which they renamed the People’s Press.

Lamaster was appointed as the local U.S. Internal Revenue collector in 1867, was named director of the State Normal School at Peru, Nebraska, was made “contingent Congressman” in 1870, but was never seated and lived briefly in Lincoln at 1428 K Street beginning in 1886.

Exactly what his occupation was in the spring of 1865 is unclear, but he was in Nebraska City when the then editor of the People’s Press was out of town. The story of the event is told by Lamaster in the handwritten note and small printed sheet shown above.

Like any village located on a railroad, the first outside news it received was via the telegraph in the depot. Exactly where the editor of the Nebraska City People’s Press was on Sunday morning of April 16, 1865, is unclear, but he was unavailable. An employee of the newspaper, Herschell Heiley, found the paper’s earlier owner Joseph Lamaster and told him the telegraph had just sent word that President Lincoln had been killed. Heiley said the street in front of the newspaper’s second floor office was full of people quietly awaiting details.

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Lamaster quickly began setting type as additional dispatches from the train station’s telegraph arrived. When about a third of the total was set, a number of sheets were printed off and thrown from the window to the crowd below. Again, when the second third was set, a number were printed and similarly dispensed. After the final, third section, was printed, Lamaster printed one sheet on heavy paper then wrote the covering note in longhand noting it was the fastest typesetting he had ever done, then carefully folded both and sealed them in the small envelope shown above, tucked the packet into a book for safe-keeping and arrived home just before noon.

There the envelope sat for over a century awaiting my nearly accidental discovery.

Thus, the nearly lost story waited, virtually the very definition of ephemera, until the two scraps of paper came to light over a century after its creation.

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Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com

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