Famous Headlines of the Nineteenth Century

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Way before the internet, most people had to rely on newspapers for information on world events. The format is usually simple: an attention-grabbing headline, an introduction and then a detailed explanation of the story. The 19th century was the golden age of the newspaper, affordable at a time when literacy was higher than it ever was before, they hadn’t yet delved into sensationalist tactics and those headlines were missing. This is how some of the century’s biggest events may have appeared with modern headlines.

1. Woman Brutally Stabbed by Sadistic Killer

At the time, nobody knew the gravity of the situation that a terrible killer was on the loose in London’s Whitehall. The killer, who was never caught, would go on to claim a total of five female victims ‘ each murder more ghastly than the last and he or they went down in history as ‘Jack the Ripper’. Because of this, rumours and conspiracy theories point in every direction ‘ at the Freemasons and even at the Royal Family ‘ some believe that the women knew something about an illegitimate royal child.

2. Savior of America Killed in Cold Blood Watching a Play!

This is the headline that may have greeted readers learning of the death of President Abraham Lincoln assassinated by John Wilkes Booth while watching a production of Our American Cousins in Washington DC. The leader that oversaw the worst period in the short history of the USA was dead at the hands of a southern sympathiser. Arguably, it brought the country together and the shockwave went around the world. Today, he is a much-respected President and there is a memorial on Capitol Hill.

3. ‘Scrooge’ Creator Dead at 58

Author Charles Dickens died June 9th 1870. Famed as a fiction writer, author celebrated works such as Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and most famously the timeless classic A Christmas Carol. He wowed the world with his public readings and his tour of the US made headlines all over the country. He was 58 years old at his death and it marked the passing of one of history’s greatest and most popular writers.

4. Tragedy Comes to the East Indies ‘ Felt Everywhere

The most destructive volcanic eruption in the century and now regarded as the most destructive in recorded history resulted in the death of 40,000 people ‘ though the toll could have been much higher. The volcanic explosions could be heard as far away as India and Australia and it caused a massive tidal wave which caused the most death and destruction. The shock may also have been felt in South Africa and airwaves travelled around the globe.

5. First Step to Abolition ‘ But There’s a Long Way to Go

Where Britain had led the way in the slave trade, the country became the first to sow the seeds of its destruction when, in 1807, the slave trade became illegal and the Royal Navy made one of its core missions to suppress the slave trade in the Atlantic. The West Africa Squadron, a military mission for the sole purpose of cracking down on slave ships was established to patrol the Atlantic. Privateers resisted and attempted to get around the new laws. The Abolition Act followed in 1833 making slavery illegal.

6. Victory for Greek Sovereignty

After a revolt in the Peloponnese and War of Independence that began in 1821, in 1830 the fledgling country of Greece was finally recognised by the international community. This process began in 1829 when it was established as a principality under Ottoman rule. In 1830 the right to sovereignty was extended by mutual agreement of the three great European powers (Britain, France and Russia) when Greece was finally established as an independent kingdom. This would be extended further in 1832 when the borders of Greece were finally decided and its crown (then a kingdom) given to Prince Otto of Bavaria.

7. Now We Can Rebuild – Lincoln

Most nations go through a period of internal revolt or civil war and the USA was no exception. Driven by the President’s abolition of slavery and a number of other policies, the four-year war came to a close in 1865 when the last of the Confederacy powers surrendered. President Lincoln and his cabinet then had a task on their hands to rebuild the country and to go about guaranteeing the emancipation of those still enslaved in the south and guaranteeing their rights as freed men and women.

8. Shock Death of Nelson Following Victory

The greatest naval victory of British history soon became one of its greatest tragedies when the celebrated Admiral who’d orchestrated the victory through unorthodox methods and tactical genius, was tragically killed by a sniper on board his ship HMS Victory in the middle of battle. Outnumbered by a combined French and Spanish fleet, Nelson used a revolutionary tactic to divide the enemy lines by separating his own and driving the enemy apart, forcing them to fight on all sides. Nelson later died of his wounds surrounded by his men.

9. Napoleon Incarcerated

Barely weeks after Wellington defeated his forces at Waterloo, the French people turned on their esteemed Emperor and demanded he stand down in favour of his son. Fearing a public backlash after coalition forces demanded the reinstatement of Louis XVIII, Napoleon fled to the British and requested asylum but was arrested and sent to live in exile on the island of Saint Helena. His son was never formally recognised as leader of the French Empire.

10. Reforming Tsar Assassinated

Tragedy struck the Russian Empire in 1881 when Tsar Alexander II, widely regarded as the greatest king and emperor since Peter the Great, died after an attack by a group of men carrying bombs. Shaken by the first which exploded under the carriage, he stepped out onto the street but ignored advice to leave when another man threw a parcel at his feet. Alexander was most famous for emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 and he had been in the process of making plans for an elected Parliament.


Newspapers from the 19th century are not as we come to identify them today. They lack the shocking photographs and attention grabbing headlines. What we also miss is the need to be ‘first on the scene’ to ‘get the exclusive’. What we see then could still be sensationalist, but largely more reflective and delivering facts for digestion. We see no sound bites but a careful and considered summary of events with a descriptive (and passionless) headline. Perhaps it is something we have missed in this ‘sexy’ era of instant gratification?

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