In 2014, the Journal of American History published eighteen articles based on original, primary-source research. Their first sentences, taken together, show what scholarly historians and their editors like to see in a lede.
Half of the eighteen articles start with the word “in” or “on” followed by a specific date, and every single one of these sentences refers to a day, year, or decade. No, history isn’t just a list of dates, but historians do care about when things happened.
All but one of the eighteen articles identifies a person or group of people in its first sentence. (The exception being “Mexico had a border problem during the 1820s.”) And if we allow “Bacon’s Rebellion” as a reference, a full two-thirds of the sentences include someone’s name. Historians like stories with people in them.
Finally, most of these openers offer some tension, either by signalling a problem (“disenchanted,” “problem,” “crisis”), conflict (“revenge,” “racial discrimination,” “a bitter civil war”) or mystery (Who was the “familiar supplicant”? What was Fraser’s “bold announcement”? And what was written on the “large placard” Hopkins nailed to the tree?). Historians like suspense.
Not all ledes are created equal. I confess that the line about Tom Lehrer seems a pretty flat introduction to a story even mentioning so great a wordsmith. By contrast, Barbara Young Welke’s line about Milton Henry strikes me as worthy of a fine short story, and indeed it begins a gracefully written account of a horrifying series of events.
As you tell your own stories, think about how you can use these three elements to make your reader want more.
Here are the 18 ledes in the order in which they appeared.
- “In that place of skulls,” as one disenchanted correspondent described Florida during the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), surgeons and officers in the U.S. Army collected Indian crania in the names of science and revenge, interpreted them through phrenology and craniology, and sent them off to nationally renowned metropolitan collectors.
- Mexico had a border problem during the 1820s.
- On June 20, 1917, two months after the United States entered World War I, Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis of the militant suffrage organization, the National Woman’s party (NWP), stood in front of the White House holding a banner welcoming representatives of Russia’s new, provisional government to the United States.
- In 1919, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, women labor reformers from nineteen nations and three continents gathered in Washington, D.C., to hammer out a set of international labor standards and worker rights.
- In 1943, as in 2003, Americans struggled with the O-word.
- In 1976 “a shocking, real-life story” in the Ladies Home Journal drew attention to a hidden crisis threatening the nation’s wives and mothers.
- In 1946, at the behest of President Harry S. Truman, the United Nations (UN) announced that it would hold a conference “to consider the conservation and effective utilization of natural resources.”
- In early January 1960, Harlem congressmen Adam Clayton Powell Jr. opened the new year by tying the conduct of everyday illegal gambling in New York to larger forces of racial discrimination.
- About a month before Christmas 1944, Milton Henry asked the doorman in his apartment building how many children he had and how old they were.
- On a rainy spring evening in 1898 the Texas newspaper editor Rienzi Johnston found himself in Chicago’s Grand Pacific Hotel for the annual banquet of the Associated Press (AP).
- In the spring of 1759 a familiar supplicant stood before the legislature in Boston’s State House.
- When the Ottawa Free Trader singled out its most diligent reader in 1914, the central Illinois daily identified a young woman named Mae Carr.
- The singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer released That Was the Year That Was in 1965.
- During an address to the American Occupational Health Conference in Detroit, Michigan, on April 22, 1980, United Automobile Workers (UAW) president Douglas A. Fraser made a bold announcement.
- Bacon’s Rebellion, a bitter civil war that convulsed the key English colony of Virginia in 1676, has long been considered one of the most significant events in American history.
- On the second day of September 1907, Reverend Frederick E. Hopkins nailed a large placard to a tree standing just beyond the doors of his church, the affluent Pilgrim Congregational Church on Chicago’s South Side.
- John E. Lewis’s life crossed the boundaries of two centuries, three countries, and—according to his 1920 obituary—from earth to a place where “visions of New Jerusalem” guided him to rest.
- In 1992 Texas Monthly magazine commissioned Grover Lewis to write a long article about Oak Cliff, the Dallas neighborhood where he grew up in the 1940s and 1950s.