Wilkommen am Wunderkammer! As an aficionado of dying media, I thought I would bring you, in this edition of the Cabinet, the tale of that first American penny dreadful, Publick Occurrences both Forreign and Domestick. Struck up in that late, great lazy newspaper town of Boston by an English expatriate named Benjamin Harris in 1690, Occurrences was the first printed news chronicle to circulate this side of the pond. Harris' day job was as the proprietor of the London Coffee-House in Boston, a place where Anglophiles could gather and gossip in affected British accents.
Plate 1.1: Harris poses with "printer'ſ beſt Friend" in an advertisement for Occurrences
Harris began his gazette with some semi-accurate and prophetic words:"The Countrey shall be furnished once a moneth...with an Account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our Notice." As you can see, spelling has not always been a priority in the news industry. Leaving his business open to expansion, Harris included the caveat that he would have no qualms about flooding his readership with news, as he could not keep a "Glut of Occurrences" from his loyal subscribers.
Harris' goal, he said, was to make sure that "Memorable Occurrents of Divine Providence may not be neglected or forgotten, as they too often are," referring to the infamously illiterate and forgetful lotus-eating Puritans of New England. Another of Harris' objectives was to use his printed organ as a kind of mind control, directing his readers to "better understand the Circumstances of Publique Affairs" in order to "direct their Thoughts at all times." To what ends Harris intended to use his power, be it for zombie revolution or personal vanity, is unknown.
The third goal of Occurrences was "that some thing may be done towards the Curing, or at least the Charming, of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us." Harris perhaps intended to cure, or at least address, the supposedly supernatural devilry most saliently expressed in the 1689 Braintree Liar Trials. (The lie? The town was actually called Quincy! The real truth? Braintree was controlled by a malevolent, sentient Liberty Tree.) Harris furthermore made his intentions known that he would "expose the Name of such person, as A malicious Raiser of a false Report," and would serve justice by personally pressing them to death in his workshop.
Plate 1.2: Illustration of the fate of "Malicious Raisers of False Reports" appearing in Occurrences
As no newspaper had ever been published in the British colonies of North America, Harris had the daunting task of condensing eighty-three years of news into three double-columned pages. Luckily, he hit upon an ingenious idea to remedy this problem -- make the back page of the second sheet blank. Then the reader could fill in, using their own printing press, what they deemed Harris had neglected. Who's the clever one now, Sulzberger and your "grey" lady?
True to his word, Harris included a diverse array of stories from north, east, west, and south. He reported that "Epidemical Fevers and Agues grow very common, in some parts of the Country," and "tho' many dye not" they were "sorely unfitted for their impolyments." New England society seems to have recovered quickly, though, from its temporary dearth of colored clothing.
Although it was probably apparent to most of his subscribers, Harris also reported that Boston had, “a few weeks ago…met with a Disaster by Fire, which consumed about twenty Houses.” More importantly, however, one of the “Calamities of this Fire” was that the “best furnished PRINTING-PRESS, of those few that we know of in America, was lost; a loss not presently to be repaired.” Any good investigative journalist today would regard this story with suspicion, and might ask: “Did Harris forcibly enter into the Shop of a rival printer, ABSCOND with his PRINTING-PRESS and then ſet the ſhop ablaze to cover up his crime?” Luckily for Harris, investigative reporters had not been invented yet. Unfortunately, Cotton Mathers