The most famous newspaper headline ever written in the U.S. of A. was DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. But that's rather cheap, isn't it, since the joke was on the man who wrote it. The better headlines have imparted intended humor or double meanings, but the art of writing a newspaper headline seems to have gone the way of quillwork and macrame. Current journalism school advice sucks all the sass out of modern headlines. These days, any overly creative headlines are likely to earn their authors a bonk on the head. And thus we might never again see such gems as:
CAPERS CRAPS OUT. (announcing the murder of one Tom Capers during a dice game)
HEADLESS BODY FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR
JUVENILE COURT TO TRY SHOOTING DEFENDANT
MAN STRUCK BY LIGHTNING FACES BATTERY CHARGE
STEALS CLOCK, FACES TIME
WORLD'S IN AN AWFUL MESS (the all-encompassing work product of a journalist who was having a particularly bad news day)
Okay, OKAY, it's not so easy to walk that fine line and come up with a decent headline for a crime story. I once had the privilege of working a brief stint as a copy editor for the Lapeer County Press in my home state of Michigan, and headlines are not easy to write, let me tell you. Only one of my headlines garnered any notice; as soon as I wrote it and sent it back to the composing room, I heard laughter. The next day, readers called in to thank us for the chuckle. I never did figure out what was so ticklish about MAN IN PINK NIGHTIE FLASHES ATTICA WOMAN.
Anyway, my regular readers -- the four of you -- if I count all of my sisters -- are probably wondering where I'm going with this. So the other day I was casually perusing an 1894 edition of the Olean Democrat from New York state when I happened upon:
REMARKABLE FEMININE FREAK.
Well, that'll stop your eyes, won't it? The subhead read,
Alleged Murderess Who
Smokes, Shaves and
Wears Men's Attire.
The city of Toronto furnished this tale of a black woman named Clara Ford, dubbed a "remarkable specimen of femininity" -- because she disguised herself as a man, carried a revolver, played the coronet and kettle-drum, read works relating to love and murder, drove a hack for two years, was a choir boy in an Episcopal church, and joined a Socialist group solely for the purpose of haranguing men who held socialist views. Her sex was discovered accidentally when she was tied to the murder of one Frank Westwood, a young, white, well-to-do man from a prominent family who was shot dead at his front door. Per the press coverage, she confessed to shooting him out of jealousy.
The Ford-Westwood case has been the subject of two longer treatments, a 1945 book by Edwin C. Guillet, The Shooting of Frank Westwood: A Study of the Evidence in The Queen versus Clara Ford, 1894-1895. The tale has been updated only recently by Ontario attorney Patrick Brode, who wrote Death in the Queen City: Clara Ford on Trial, 1895 which is available exclusively from the publisher, Natural Heritage Books. That outfit promises to deliver "a bizarre story of romance and racism" and a "wildly unconventional" defendant. It sounds like a remarkable book, so I won't spoil it for you by revealing the outcome of Ford's trial.
Unless you have to know right now. **Spoiler alert** The accused proved an alibi during the trial -- or at least that's what the jury hung its hat on when it announced his/her acquittal. I'll leave it to you to come up with an appropriate headline for that outcome. All I can come up with is HE / SHE SET FREE.
CNN has given us another for the books. From its website:
FOUND IN NUDE