Prior to the Civil War most newspaper editors were trained as printers. A newspaper was, for them, often simply a way to keep the press busy between printing jobs. With no journalistic training, these editors published whatever was at hand, including items taken from other newspapers and partisan political material. Some looked back at this training sentimentally. John W. Fitzgerald would reminisce in the early years of the twentieth century regarding how:
It was customary in those early days for the country weekly to reprint the speeches of senators and congressmen, if such officials had made themselves known to the country and their speeches had become of general interest. Here again was work of an educational character for the young typesetter; he became so absorbed in the work of putting the speeches into type that he had some of them committed to heart. He learned style, grace and eloquence of expression, and above and over all he was acquiring a knowledge of the great questions and issues that were attracting public attention.
Using a phrase common at the time, Fitzgerald referred to serving as a printer’s apprentice as “The Poor Boy’s College.”
Working in “the college” was a long, hard job. S. B. McCracken, writing in 1891, recalled his apprenticeship, which began in 1837 when he was thirteen years old:
The printer’s apprentice usually boarded with his master and slept in a bunk in the office. He was required to do the office chores, to cut and carry up the wood for the use of the office, and to carry the papers in town, and in many cases he was required to cut the wood and do other chores at the house also. If in addition to this he did what was expected of him in the way of legitimate office work, he underwent a discipline not without its results in the formation of character. The mental discipline necessarily connected with his calling, and the opportunities for reading, if improved, were supposed to fit him for the editor’s chair.
McCracken went on to describe what the job was to sit in that chair:
The editor was therefore, the embodiment of every requirement from the editor down and the devil up. He was type setter, job printer, foreman, business manager and pressman, as well as editor, and did not shrink for the duties of roller boy upon occasion.
Editors, in addition to doing everything needed to print the paper, were often a quarrelsome lot who found themselves in conflict with each other and with the individuals mentioned in their newspaper. As Fitzgerald notes:
It is true that is some sections and in some towns and even cities those days, party lines were so closely drawn that the press was given to narrowness. Editors were in the habit of calling one another hard names; were a paragraph or two of some of the epithets hurled at one another given here as used to appear in a political discussion between Newspapers of opposite beliefs in those days, the public would conclude that all the virtue we so often these days claim does not exist, was out of date half a century ago.
A long time Ann Arbor editor put the matter more succinctly, referring to the habit of editors to engage in public quarrels as “the leprosy of the press.”
Of those who hurled such invective, among the most well documented is the previously mentioned Wilbur Storey. On February 2, 1853 Storey, who at age 12 had been educated through the Poor Boy’s College by serving as an apprentice at the Middlebury, Vermont Free Press, became editor of the Detroit Free Press. Storey had no trouble articulating his or his paper’s politics: “The Free Press will be radically and thoroughly democratic.” He went on to add “and not in name merely, but in the advocacy of those principles of popular liberty which have always been the cardinal doctrines of the republican (state’s rights) party in this country, and which are supporting pillars of the Union.”
What led some to read his paper, in addition to his inclusion of local news and frequent ventures into sensationalism, was that Storey was alleged to be able to say meaner things in fewer words than any other editor. Although in his first published editorial he claimed that it was his desire to “cultivate relations of the utmost courtesy,” within weeks of his arrival he was embroiled in what was to become a never-ending series of lawsuits. This one was caused when he alleged a rival editor had been imprisoned in the New York State penitentiary. When Storey received news of the lawsuit he responded in his paper by writing, “we have yet to learn that it is possible to libel a wretch who is the living personification of falsehood . . . a living, moving gangrene in the eyes of the community – a stench to the nostrils of decency.”
ey’s pension for a sharp tongue, a sharper pen, and rabidly partisan opinion, eventually led him to write and publish what has become for some historians the benchmark of newspaper opposition to the Lincoln administration in the day leading up to the Civil War. “Fire in the Rear” criticized Republicans who sought to take the nation to war. Speaking of the likelihood of war between North and South, Storey wrote:
…if the troops shall be raised in the North to march against the South, a fire in the rear will be opened upon such troops which will either stop their march altogether or wonderfully accelerate it . . . We warn it [the Lincoln administration] that the conflict which is precipitating will not be with the South, but with the tens of thousands of people in the North. When civil war shall come, it will be a war here in Michigan and here in Detroit, and in every Northern state.
When war finally came, Storey wrote, under the heading “They Will Not Forget,” that
Democrats and all conservative men will do their duty in the present dreadful emergency, but they will not for a moment forget though the war be of 10 years’ duration, that it was the result of course which they had steadfastly, persistently and untiringly protested. … Let nobody suppose that while as journalists and citizens we support the government … we shall cease to hold up to the scorn and detestation of mankind those party leaders who have purposely and maliciously conspired for the shedding of blood. Nor an those party leader turn the public eye from their crimes by boisterous exhibitions of spurious now or
In June 1861Storey left Detroit to become editor of a Chicago newspaper.
torey was so extreme that even his fellow Democrats often had trouble with his attitudes. Of his “fire in the rear” editorial, the more moderate but equally Democratic Kalamazoo Gazette editorially lamented Storey’s “immoderate language.” Printed in Ann Arbor, the Democratic Michigan Argus also repudiated the
editorial. Democrats became particularly incensed because Storey’s extreme opinions were often used by opposition newspapers as representing the views of the Democratic party. In frustration, the Hillsdale Democratic Gazette wrote, “[the Detroit Free Press] is well-known to speak only the views of W. F. Storey and Co., (a very small company at that).” The Hillsdale Democratic Gazette later warned in an editorial, “don’t you know that Storey can’t be controlled or even advised by anyone – that he is one of the most self-willed and stubborn men in Michigan? [In addition he] is almost always wrong.”
If the comments of Democratic papers in Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and Hillsdale were critical of Storey, the comments of the Republican papers were even more unkind. Rufus Hosmer, editor of the Republican Detroit Advertiser, and possessing a pen almost as acid as Storey’s, wrote that “Storey is a living illustration of one of the cardinal doctrines of his own church, total depravity.” Hosmer would go on to claim that friends said of Storey:
that he is insufferably egotistical, arrogant, self-sufficient, conceited, overbearing, and dictatorial. That he is without refinement, cultivation, tact, delicacy, good sense or sound judgment. That he is oblivious of his work, wrong-headed to a degree, obtuse and tyrannical. But with these slight qualifications, he is quite considerable of a fellow.
The kind of mudslinging Hosmer and Storey engaged in led other papers to criticize both of them. The Ann Arbor Argus, for example, suggested that both men should be indicted for printing obscene publications. Criticisms of other papers of Storey and Hosmer, however, rarely restrained the same papers from engaging in exactly the same kind of behavior. Exchanges like those between Hosmer and Storey had begun with Michigan’s earliest papers. The state’s first regularly published newspaper, the Detroit Gazette, was described by a historian in the early years of the twentieth century as “caustic.”
When fire destroyed the Democratic Gazette’s press in 1830, it was reported that Whig Judge McDonnel, whose house was also consumed in the same fire, compared the loss of his home to the Gazette’s destruction and said, “there is no evil without a corresponding good.” Another Whig Judge noted about the fire that , “The Gazette people saved their type, I think, for which I am not glad nor anyone else.” Clearly the demise of the “caustic” Gazette was considered by some a benefit to the community.
The caustic tradition of the Gazette lived on in the papers that followed it. T.P. Sheldon, founder of the Detroit Free Press, found himself in the Wayne County Jail for refusal to pay a $100 fine levied by the Michigan Supreme Court which held him in contempt for his comments regarding a court decision. Sheldon’s case became a local political cause and 300 Democrats raised the money to pay the fine through a dinner held in the jail itself. One Whig commentator suggested that never had so many Democrats been found in jail and, for the good of the community, the sheriff should detain them all for ninety days.
Rufus Hosmer demonstrates, Republicans were as apt to use harsh words as Democrats or Whigs. Hosmer, however, was merely writing in the same vein as many other Republican editors. Joseph Warren, of the Republican Detroit Tribune, was said to be kind and generous, except in politics. Warren was known to wonder how god, in his all wise providence, suffered a single Democrat to live. Unsurprisingly, Warren and Storey soon engaged in vicious editorial attacks on one another that the Grand Rapids Enquirer took both editors to task for editorials “disgusting to the readers and disgraceful to the parties.” The writers of Grand Rapids, however, did not pursue the virtuous path they prescribed for their Detroit colleagues. Arthur White reminisced about the reporters of Grand Rapids, “Writers wrote what they pleased and when news was lacking the editors of one paper roundly abused those of other papers."
Reporters in Grand Rapids could be equally abusive of citizens in their stories. George W. Gage, of the Grand Rapids Times, was remembered for having put to good use boxing classes he took. As a result of his training he “knocked out several prominent citizens who had called for the purpose of beating him to a pulp.” Even when an editor had good intentions, his reception could be rough. A story was told of Chase Osborn, who eventually would be elected a reform governor, that when he was the editor of a newspaper in Sault Ste. Marie a disgruntled reader with a consdierable reputation for violence threatened to kill Osborn. In response, Osborn, who himself was very strong, took to wearing an axe on the belt of his trousers, for all to see and with which an attacker would need to reckon.
Newspaper editors who declined to take part in editorial mudslinging were also considered something of a failure in their profession. Discussing early newspapers in the Escanaba area, the Escanaba Daily Press recalled,
In those days of a multiplicity of both daily and weekly newspapers, each paper boasted of its intensely partisan supports and the writer possessed of the most vicious pen, with which he lambasted both issues and characters, was counted as most successful in his field. Passages at arms between rival newspaper editors were an accepted part of h newspaper publishing business in that day and the editor who refused to be drawn into a wordy bale was counted as ‘soft” and soon moved on to a less warlike community.
Although harsh words were common, there is reason to believe on at least some occasions they were largely theater, designed to sell papers. In one particularly memorable instance an ongoing battle between the Detroit Post and Detroit Free Press was resolved by a telephone call. James F. Joy, editor of the Post, called Mr. Quinby, editor of the Free Press. Quinby recalled years later that when Joy suggested the wrangling had become disgraceful, he quickly agreed. “Will you stop it in the Free Press if I will in the Post?” asked Joy. When Quinby said yes the two editors ended their conversation, and their public feud. Despite this example, nineteenth century Michigan newspapers were not for those who disliked reading a harsh word