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A rare copy of “The Tragic Almanac, for 1849,” published by Thomas W. Strong of New York, belongs to the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Tales of Woe Haunt Rare ‘Tragic Almanac’

If you want to be “healthy, wealthy and wise,” pick up a copy of Poor Richard’s Almanac. But if you’d rather die a horrific death — well then, The Tragic Almanac is the book for you.

Published in the 1840s as an alternative to the popular comic almanacs of the time, The Tragic Almanac tells tales of murders, freak accidents, executions and other ghastly events, often illustrated with a lurid engraving. In one account, a hunter is mauled by a lion. In another, a man is stabbed near his home in Rhode Island and leaves a zig-zagging trail of blood in the winter snow.

Every section of the almanac offers a sensational story.

Each month in the booklet features a grim story or two, as if Halloween took over the entire year.

But despite its morbid appeal, the almanac itself met an untimely demise. Slow sales prompted its New York publisher to discontinue the series after 1850, according to an account from Princeton University.

Surviving copies of The Tragic Almanac are rare, but you can find one example, from 1849, in the State Historical Society of Iowa Research Center in Des Moines. It’s one of dozens of unbound almanacs, some dating to the 1700s, that volunteer Judy Zobel has been carefully patching up, annotating and indexing over the last 18 months.

Volunteer Judy Zobel is organizing the collection of unbound almanacs at the State Historical Society of Iowa Research Center in Des Moines.

During a recent visit, she opened up one yellowing booklet at her work station to reveal beautiful colored illustrations. She described another almanac that chronicled day-to-day events of the Civil War and yet another that explained “how to cut apart a pig, how to keep your chickens from getting sick and how to trim an apple tree.”

“Now come on, is that not the greatest resource ever?” she said. “If you’re interested in a certain period of history, you can read it like a magazine. It’ll give you such a flavor of the era.”

The Diamond Dye Almanac of 1887 touts its sponsor’s colorful products.

Before the age of Google’s instant answers and YouTube’s how-to videos, early Americans consulted almanacs for recipes, home remedies, weather forecasts and all sorts of pithy advice.

By the middle of the 18th century, an estimated 50,000 almanacs were printed in the American colonies every year for a population of about 900,000 — or one book for every 18 people, according to historian Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. (Jane Franklin was the youngest sister of Benjamin Franklin, who published Poor Richard’s Almanac under the pseudonym Richard Saunders.)

Publishers cranked out new varieties every year, for readers of every religious and political stripe and in foreign languages for new immigrants. Most editions were small, cheap and easy to stash in a pocket or drawer.

“These handy little booklets were kept close at hand — in log cabins in New England, later in wagons headed to Indiana, and still later in farmhouses in Iowa,” according to an article Kristina Huff wrote for the summer 2014 issue of Iowa Heritage Illustrated. “An almanac, a Bible, and perhaps one or two devotional books constituted many families’ entire libraries.”

But most almanacs had a short shelf-life. “When paper was scarce,” Huff writes, “the worn pages of outdated almanacs were probably used for notes, messages, food wrappings, toilet paper, and kindling.”

Fortunately, some almanacs ended up at the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Research Centers in Des Moines and Iowa City. Many are already bound in tidy volumes. Others are still loose or bundled together with string.

Thanks to Zobel’s work, researchers will be able to sort through more of them to find particular topics. She held up an index card covered in her tidy handwriting: seeds, shampoo, sheep, shoe blacking, silver values, snow, South Carolina, sunstroke cure, sweet potatoes.

And in the case of The Tragic Almanac: shipwrecks, shootings and snake bites.

Many of those entries borrow from sensational newspaper accounts. Stories with titles such as “Brutal Outrage,” “Shocking Death” and “Most Melancholy Catastrophe” typically end with subjects who “died immediately” or were “almost instantly killed.”

Lurid engravings illustrate The Tragic Almanac’s tales of grief.

The murder of a rival suitor in Kentucky is “one of the most horrid tragedies that ever occurred in the world.” And the account of an accidental explosion aboard the steamship Princeton — which nearly killed President John Tyler during a pleasure ride on the Potomac River in 1844 — is “one of the most appalling calamities that has befallen us for many years.”

For readers who endure through the almanac’s not-so-happy ending, the back cover features a dry-goods ad for “The Yankee Still Alive.”

An explosion aboard a steam ship in 1844 killed the U.S. Secretary of State, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, several other leaders and — almost — the president.

— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov