Harry Was Once a Respectable Newspaperman
1870s columnists set a good bad example
January 5, 1979
Springfield used to be a great newspaper town, owing mainly to the fact that so many of its citizen were convinced they had political truths worth sharing. The papers themselves also used to be good reading that offered a local model—mock-serious, wise-cracking, often at Springfield's expense—for my own work. In this piece I recall in particular the work of brothers E. L. and J. D. Merritt, who in addition to publishers were authors of a column titled “The City.”
And yes, “obreptitious” is a proper word, meaning done or obtained by trickery or by concealing the truth. A good word to know in a state capital.
On the day before Christmas the Associated Press slowed its furious scribbling about cult massacres and airplane disasters (do cults travel by air, 1 wonder?) long enough to inform us that one Dennis D. Tyrer of Raleigh, North Carolina, has made it his hobby to read old newspapers of North Carolina for insights into 18th- and 19th-century life in that state.
Reading old newspapers is a harmless enough eccentricity, as eccentricities go these days—less obreptitious than evangelism, for instance, (though lacking its tax advantages) and less homicidal than gourmet cooking. 1 know because 1, like Mr. Tyrer, am an old newspaper buff, or rather a buff of old newspapers. Like him 1 developed the addiction in the course of historical research, and like him I have since returned to them often for self-amusement.
I find modern newspapers necessary, of course, and in one or two cases even admirable. But they are seldom enjoyable in the ways that their 19th century counterparts are. Readers looking for humor and nicely-turned phrases now routinely pass up the newsstand on the way to the library.
A few weeks ago a generous reader of this sheet loaned us a bound set (acquired at an auction) of the “Illinois State Register" from January through June of 1872. The “Register” was one of the parents of the infant “State Journal-Register”. The paper was exuberantly Democratic in its politics and waspish—and WASP-ish—in tone.
It was owned and run by the Merritt brothers, E. L. and J. D., who aired their miscellaneous opinions in a daily column called simply, “The City.” I present a few random entries from that space, so you may know what all the shouting’s about.
On education: “A school class in a country school in Macon County is in a condition of uncertainty regarding the composition of component parts of chalk. At an examination one of them thought it was made of snow, another was of the opinion that the ingredients were milk and water, while a third insisted that it was nothing else than petrified Dutch cheese. Number Three was sent to the head. The class takes up astronomy next term.” The item clearly demonstrates that in education at least, not much has changed in 107 years.
On the public health: “No small pox has yet appeared in Springfield. If you still feel uneasy after reading this assurance, go and get vaccinated. If that don’t settle your nerves, get vaccinated again and keep on getting vaccinated until you know you are all right.”
On manners: “The middle-aged bald headed old gentleman who sat down so suddenly upon the sidewalk in front of the Leland Hotel at an early hour this morning, is requested to retain his perpendicular hereafter, until he has broken himself of his terrible habit of profanity, or else do his slipping down and hard swearing in some other locality.”
On public improvements: “A bill is before the general assembly for the improvement of the Sangamon river. A certain well-known dentist of this city has been ‘spoken to’ to go down and remove the old snags from its mouth.”
On life in Springfield: “It is getting so dull that an enterprising citizen, yesterday, had a tooth pulled, to break the monotony.”
On home remedies: “The gentleman who burned sulphur in his cellar as a disinfectant has just had his picture frames regilded. The funeral of his wife’s pet canaries was very touching.”
On the effects of alcohol: “There is a man in the Third ward whose nose is so brilliant that he has to smoke his looking glass before he can see to shave himself.
I regret that space does not allow me to treat you to the “Register's” account of the visit to Springfield of Russia's Grand Duke Alexis, (“In this city we very seldom obtain sight of real live duke”) which was covered by the “Register’s” special correspondent who “went over to the Western Hotel and, looking through the bottom of a glass, endeavored to discover the approaching train.” (He did not get an interview—the train didn’t even stop—but so impressed was he that “the pair of spectacles with which he saw the Grand Duke cannot be purchased at any price.”)
Nor can I delve at length into the "Register’s" pungent opinions about “these country fellows" who occupied editorial rooms in Peoria, Jacksonville and Decatur, or its observations about the local Republicans (“Harry [Watson] was once a respectable newspaperman, and now look at him, trying to get a republican nomination”). Still, one gets the idea. I close with this diatribe against newspaper thieves. (The subject was not, as you may have first assumed, publishers, but people who steal papers off subscribers’ porches.) “Not a spark of manhood or principle pervades his little soul,” the “Register” thundered. “There are few things in this sublunary sphere that so excite the nervous system of a reader as to be cheated out of his daily paper. It completely upsets him, destroys his appetite, disqualifies him for business, making him cross and irritable.”
I can see why. □