This section may have grown from a seed planted many years ago when I read "Wisconsin Death Trip," a book of photographs and news stories from small Wisconsin towns in the late 19th century. It was grim, to say the least, and left me thinking life was particularly hard in that section of the country, which you could extend into Minnesota, the Dakotas, and the farm belt to the south.

Cut to 2009, first year of the Barack Obama administration. The idiots at Fox (you know who they are) are babbling about losing sight of traditional American values. Life was so much better in the good ol' days. When these good ol' days took place or just what made them soooooo good is not explained. Obviously, they occurred when a Republican was in the White House. I've since decided the idiots were referring to the Eisenhower years (1953-1960), but by then I'd already started an online death trip of sorts into another era.

It began with fultonhistory.com, a remarkable website that allows access to old New York State newspapers. It helped me see that life has never been easy. I couldn't look at newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries without finding stories about hideous accidents and murders. A few involved people on my family tree.

One distant relative who narrowly escaped death was James "Chick" O'Shea of Marcellus, NY, who went on to marry Ellen "Nellie" Major of Skaneateles Falls, NY. As a teenager O'Shea rode with about 40 classmates in the back of a truck taking them, hayride-style, to a basketball game played by the Marcellus High School girls team.

At a crossing in the village of Kirkville the truck was clipped by a speeding passenger train. There would be a dispute over whether a signal had been given that a train was bearing down on that crossing. Miraculously, only one student was killed. O'Shea and a few others were hospitalized, but soon recovered.

That accident happened in 1921, and while looking for follow-up stories I was distracted by other news events. That's when I was pulled away from my original purpose, which was to find stories about members of my family.

Two stories especially led me astray. These didn't necessarily involve tragedies, but they were sad in many ways – and very, very strange. One was about the widow of a millionaire named William Leeds. She married a Greek prince and was rumored to have been offered the throne of another country. Her son then married a princess, but then it became obvious his mother was fatally ill and perhaps he had been maneuvered into marriage by a royal family that wanted control over the Leeds fortune ... and so the tale continued in truth-is-stranger-than-soap opera fashion.

The Leeds family was nothing compared to William Earl Dodge Stokes, a millionaire, who, in 1921, tried to divorce his young wife, claiming she had committed adultery with more than a dozen men, including her stepson. W. E. D. Stokes was a pompous, decidedly unpleasant fellow who had a knack for making enemies and stirring up trouble. His attack on his wife's reputation was incredibly foolish and mean-spirited.

It's the Stokes section that makes Detour: 1921 an exercise is self-indulgence, but that's what is great about websites. Each is a seemingly limitless universe that can be filled with almost anything, but readers explore only those areas of interest, ignoring the rest.

To me, the 1921 stories indicate the era was, in some ways, much like the one we live in. Many people were challenging the old ways, almost as many people were resisting, even trying to reverse change.

The big stories of 1921 were the uneasy peace that followed the World War, and the almost daily threats that fighting was about to resume ... somewhere. England and Ireland were battling each other, Germany was a poor loser, and Japan was grumbling.

Labor strikes were a big issue, the world economy was in a slump; the only thing roaring about the Twenties were labor leaders and company bosses. And then there was Prohibition, which clearly was presenting more problems than law enforcement agencies could – or were willing to – handle.

However, the stories I've chosen only tangentially involve major issues. They're here to provide a taste of the times.

PS: About old newspapers. The front pages are gray and poorly designed, but most are more interesting and compelling than today's newspapers, which put style over substance. The triumph of the morning newspaper over the afternoon newspaper also guarantees that today's page one is filled with stories already grown stale.

Many years ago, when afternoon newspapers flourished, they filled front pages with fresh news, things that happened shortly before the paper went to press. In the absence of photos, newspapers packed more stories into their space. And no story seemed too insignificant for attention. There was much more police and court news in the old days.

Like a bad accident, an old newspaper caught and held your attention. It wasn't pretty, it was often disturbing, but it was almost always irresistible. Alas, they also were frequently inaccurate. Which gets me thinking again of Fox News ...


It could have been much worse
It's a miracle only one Marcellus student was killed at the Kirkville train crossing.
The Dollar Princess
She was born Nancy Stewart in Zanesville, Ohio, but she died a Greek princess whose son married Russian royalty.
Toxic Divorce
When it comes to marital wars, the longest and dirtiest may have been W. E. D. Stokes vs. Helen Elwood Stokes.
New York's Goulden Boy
Jay Gould's grandson had a knack for making enemies.
Sadie's save-a-soul diet
Her plan was simple: she wouldn't eat until her husband agreed to go to church.
Suddenly Extinct
South Carolina's Bigham family was virtually wiped out by five murders.
Instant Incompatibility
An egotistical American shouldn't have bullied his young French bride.
Headed for hell
Movies, plays and dances had civilization teetering on the brink.
Zion City Overseer
Wilbur Glenn Voliva was the man in charge of America's purest town.
Love on the Run
A New Jersey teenager discovers smitten ministers don't always tell the truth – especially about their marital status.
This pair ran through a loophole
A married man robs his church, elopes with a New Jersey teen and prompts Connecticut to change its marriage laws.
Petticoat Ponzi
Behind her cute and clever nickname lurked a despicable con woman.
Good airedale, bad airedale
Laddie Boy boy lived in the White House, while Dormie went on trial for catslaughter.
Fashion Police
First law: Teachers must not wear "youthful" dresses
The cause could be gauze
It's not what doctors remove that makes for a risky operation, it's what they put in.
99-44/100% isn't pure enough
New York University's Purity League had high standards – and a small membership.
He didn't practice what he preached
Pussyfoot Johnson drank liquor, but still advocated prohibition around the world.
The Beach as a Social Battlefield
Self-appointed Guardians of Morals were upset about women who exposed their legs – all the way up to their knees!
Fact of Life
Atlanta woman brings home 11 children in her 14-year marriage, convincing her husband he fathered them all.
Her meals were to die for
Lyda Southard made her living off her secret ingredient.
Law & Order: SCU
Here are some cases from the files of the Stupid Crimes Unit.
'Gypsy Bob' wasn't all bad
A lifetime criminal managed to do a bit of good near the end of his life.
Dime and dime again
Some unusual money-making schemes are legal, but troublesome nonetheless.