Monday, March 29, 2004

Dueling, Newspaper Publishers And Editors

Brock over at Signifying Nothing has a post on dueling which points to this book excerpt from the Smithsonian magazine.

The book is Gentlemen's Blood by Barbara Holland is just that -- a book about the history and purpose of dueling, with a whole lot of amazing stories. The chapter excerpted at the Smithsonian talks about the link between newspaper publishers and editors and dueling. Turns out that being an editor or publisher could get you killed pretty easily!
Back in the previous world, print had sources. You knew where the newspaper office was and stalked into it with a challenge, or perhaps a cane or a horsewhip; those who considered newspaper editors too inferior socially for a proper duel simply beat them. William Coleman, editor of the New-York Evening Post, was paralyzed from the waist down from a caning. Joseph Charless of the Missouri Gazette was assaulted, spat at, and shot at, and had his office burned down; then the editor of the rival Inquirer waylaid him on the street and beat him severely with a cudgel....

The two brothers who edited the Richmond
Examiner in the early nineteenth century both died in duels. Edgar Allan Poe challenged one of the paper's later editors, John Daniel, but showed up too drunk to shoot. Later Daniel disagreed with the editor of the Whig over the aesthetic merits of a particular public statue; they fired and missed.

'Rancorous' was the word for Daniel. A contemporary wrote, 'His pen combines the qualities of the scimitar of Saladin and the battle-axe of Coeur de Leon.' He believed that any sheet of paper not covered with abuse of high officials was a piece of paper wasted, and he enjoyed the repercussions. Wounded in the right arm, he had to fire with his left in subsequent duels.

He abused Northerners and Southerners impartially and called the Confederate treasurer a reckless gambler unfit for his office. The treasurer called him out and Daniel took a ball in his thigh. While he was recovering, the paper was in other hands and everyone missed his fiery touch.

Editors wielded their powers with a fine, free hand, restrained only by the possibility of getting shot at, if that was indeed a restraint; some seemed quite anxious to be targets at dawn. Perhaps duels boosted circulation. James Callender of the Richmond
Recorder, rejected for a postmaster's job by President Jefferson, printed a story claiming that Jefferson had had an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. He offered absolutely no evidence of any kind and seems to have invented it himself, but all the other Federalist papers whooped and leaped on the story. (Later Callender got so drunk he fell into the James River and drowned in three feet of water.) When asked, Jefferson, not the dueling type, said it was too silly to answer. Probably he hadn't read it. He only read Richmond's Enquirer.
Of course, Memphis is the town that ran Ida B. Wells out on a rail, under threat of death, for what she wrote in her newspaper. Still, it does make one nostaglic for the days of "battling newspapers," when they came with points of view and strong stands, instead of the faux neutrality and impartiality of today's bland breed.

I should be glad dueling is gone or I suspect Half-Bakered would have been called out by now. One or two folks have not been happy with my characterisations.

Anyway, the book looks fascinating and I'm going to buy it ASAP.

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