Expert speaks at Washington County genealogy meeting on mining old newspaper gold

John Rudnick is behind the times. He’s so far behind, in fact, that he’s reading newspapers from the wrong century. But, as he says, old news is good news to a genealogist — even if it’s news that your grandfather went to prison.

“There’s a lot of good stuff in old newspapers,” Rudnick said. “Not many researchers are mining the vein of gold that’s there.”

Rudnick, an expert on newspaper and Internet research techniques, will speak to the Washington County Genealogical Society on today (Thursday).

He has been studying his own genealogy since 1972, and although he warns that newspaper research is laborious, he firmly believes the rewards are worth the effort.

“They include minute, microscopic details of everyday life,” Rudnick said. “The newspapers were 12 to 14 pages of all local news. There’s never anything international or even national. If someone went duck hunting, they’ll include how many ducks they got. If a farmer had a surplus of watermelons and hauled them to the local school for the kids, that’d be included.”

Rudnick even discovered his grandfather, a well-respected farmer in Olathe County, Kan., spent time in the state penitentiary after a neighbor accused him of stealing a wagonload of grain. His accuser apparently owed him the value of the grain and neighbors testified on his behalf, but the jury voted against him, sentencing him to five years hard labor in the Kansas State Penitentiary.

“I found a book on it, and it was an awful, awful place,” Rudnick said. “Convicts worked in a coal mine where they couldn’t stand up straight. It was famous for causing what they called ‘the white plague,’ or tuberculosis, and they would often die there. The book contained a letter from the warden’s daughter, and she described the atrocious conditions. It was oppressive to read.”

Though he was sentenced to five years, Rudnick’s grandfather was released after just six months.

Rudnick’s relatives in Kansas had never told him that story and, when he asked, only one of them had heard it. But on the front page of the Olathe Mirror was proof his own grandfather had spent time in one of the hardest prisons in the Midwest.

Stories like that are the reason Rudnick believes newspaper research is worth the effort. His dedication has motivated him to examine 70 rolls of microfilm since first delving into the medium. At first, he painstakingly transcribed each article on a roll of microfilm, but has managed to speed up the process by focusing on the columns that tend to contain information on the area his family lived.

“I looked at my Microsoft Word copy of my extractions from the Olathe Mirror newspaper for any mention of my ancestors,” Rudnick said. “The result was 77 pages from 1897 through 1959. You have to be a glutton for reading, but reading parts of it is like living with them.”

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