King News by Moses Koenigsberg
Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
At The Editorial Valhalla (part 4)
In Waco, [William Cowper] Brann found an enthusiastic circle of supporters. They urged him again to establish a periodical devoted exclusively to his writings. He bought back from Porter the title of the Iconoclast. The publication was avowedly a personal organ. But its meteoric course traced journalistic history. Its circulation passed 100,000. Its readers were spread across the continent. It was at the peak of. its progress when Brann’s life paid the forfeit of his flame-tipped pen. The controversy that led to his death raged over a period of months. It embroiled whole communities in bitter strife. Mobs were repeatedly organized to lynch Brann. The storm centered around Baylor University at Waco, the first coeducational institution in Texas.
A pathetic story of a little girl’s seduction launched the conflict. The victim was Antonia Tiexiera. She had been brought from Brazil as a ward of Baylor. Considerable publicity attended her arrival. An undersized child of eleven years, she was described as ‘a brand snatched from fires of infidelism.” She was to be trained as a missionary. On the completion of her education, she would return to her homeland to save souls among her countrymen. Three years later she became a mother. She was expelled from the university. Investigation disclosed that her term at Baylor had been spent in menial service. A kinsman of a faculty member was accused of her debauchment.
Brann took up the cudgels for the wronged girl. Each issue of the Iconoclast contained a blistering attack on the faculty of Baylor University more violent than the preceding diatribe. At last an enraged throng of a thousand Baylor students, augmented by scores of alumni, set out on a mission of vengeance. They had been lashed into fury by an article which referred to the university as “this manufactory of ministers and Magdalenes.”
|William Cowpe Brann|
“It is devoutly hoped,” Brann wrote, “that the recent expose of Baylor’s criminal carelessness will have a beneficial effect—that henceforth orphaned girls will not be ravished on the premises of its president and that fewer young lady students will be sent home enceinte. The Iconoclast would like to see Baylor University, so-called, become an honor to Texas instead of an educational eyesore, would like to hear it spoken of with reverence instead of sneeringly referred to by men about town as worse than a harem. Probably Baylor has never been so bad as many imagined. Probably the joint-keepers in the Reservation have been mistaken in regarding it as a rival. Probably the number of female students sent away to conceal their shame has been exaggerated. Still, I imagine that both its moral and its educational advantages are susceptible of considerable improvement. . .”
The mob first visited Brann’s home. He was absent. Then the office of the Iconoclast was raided. Brann was stripped of most of his clothing. Thrust into an open carriage, he was driven to the campus of Baylor University. There he was hustled under the gaunt branches of a live-oak tree. A hempen noose was fixed around his neck. A spokesman presented a sheet of writing. It phrased a complete repudiation of everything Brann had ever written adverse to Baylor. He was ordered to affix his signature. He refused.
Brann afterward told me that he never learned just what was in the paper. Booted, cuffed, caned and clubbed, he could neither read it nor hear its contents recited. The loose end of the rope around his neck was thrown over a tree limb. The halter was tightened. The belaboring continued. Some of the rioters spat at Brann. He remained obdurate. A dozen hands jerked the hemp.
Brann’s weight was resting on his toes. At that instant two policemen appeared. They were the armed force that had responded to a riot call. All day Waco had hummed with rumors of a threatened lynching, yet when the crucial moment arrived, a thousand rioters were confronted by a couple of patrolmen. The officers were Alf Knott and Bellewood Smith. Knott drew his revolver. He pointed it at the group holding the rope.
Brann called out. “Don’t shoot them, Alf,” came chokingly from his swollen tongue. “They’re not going to hang me. They want me to sign something; and if they will loosen this rope a bit, I will.” Adherents of Brann afterward surrounded these words with a nimbus of magnanimity. Their hero-worship conjured a sacred simile. Through their minds ran a parallel of the hallowed utterance: “Forgive them; they know not what they do.” It is true that Brann withheld the vials of his wrath from his student tormentors. He ascribed their attack to the fomentations of their elders.
With the two policemen looking on, Brann scribbled his signature. Bruised, battered, and on the verge of collapse, he was escorted home by Knott. Five nights later, there was another lynching bee. This time the assailants were only a handful. But they were armed with revolvers and knives. They were beaten off by a group of Brann’s admirers who had been warned of the impending onset.
It was at this juncture that Brann defined his crusade against Baylor as a contest for freedom of the press. Writing to me in answer to an inquiry in which several mutual friends had joined, he said: “The forthcoming issue of the Iconoclast covers completely the questions you ask. Make such use of its contents as you choose to support my fight for the independence of journalism.”
Unfortunately, the recent assaults upon me are not altogether my private concern,” he wrote in that edition. “They were armed protests against a fundamental principle of this Republic—freedom of the press. . . . They were futile but brutal attempts in the last decade of the nineteenth century to suppress the truth by terror, to conceal the iniquities of a sectarian college by beating to death the only journalist that dared to raise his voice in protest. . . .”
The charge that he had slandered the girl students of Baylor—the chief burden of complaint of his enemies—aroused Brann’s bitterest resentment. In one of his retorts to this accusation, he said: “From my youth up, noble womanhood has been the very god of my idolatry; and now that I have reached the noon of life, if the reputation which I have earned as a faithful defender of the vestal fires can be blown adown the wind by the rank breath of lying rascals, I would not put forth a hand to check its flight. If old scars, received while defending woman’s name and fame in padis of peril which my traducers dare not tread, fail to speak for me, then to hell with the world and let its harlot tongue wag howsoever it will.”
The irrepressible pugnacity of the man bristled in other sections of the same article. “After the first outbreak,” ran one passage, “the Baylor bullies of the lost-manhood stripe and their milk-sick apologists held a windy powwow. [This referred to a mass meeting at which resolutions were adopted approving the rough treatment that had been administered to Brann on the university campus.] . . . and there bipedal brutes with beards, creatures . . . whom an inscrutable providence has kept out of the penitentiary to ornament the amen corner—some of whom owe me for the very meat upon the bones of their scorbutic brats—branded me as a falsifier while solemnly protesting that they had not read a line of my paper. . . . These intellectual eunuchs, who couldn’t father an idea if cast bodily into the womb of the goddess of wisdom, declared positively that I would be permitted to print nothing more about their beloved Baylor. … It was a mob that writhed and wriggled in its own putridity like so many maggots, while the local press cowered before its impotent wrath like young Skye terriers before a skunk. If I couldn’t beget better men with the help of a Digger Indian harem, I’d take to the woods and never again look upon the face of woman.”
There were some who found a glimpse of vatic vision in this paragraph: “. . . I am credibly informed that at least half a dozen of my meek and lowly . . . brethren are but awaiting an opportunity to assassinate me and that if successful they will plead in extenuation that I ‘have slandered Southern women.’ I walk the streets of Waco day by day and I walk them alone. Let these cur-ristians shoot me in the back if they dare and then plead that damnable lie as excuse for their craven cowardice. If the decent people of this community fail to chase them to their holes and feed their viscera to the dogs, then I’d rather be dead and in hades forever than alive in Waco a single day.”
Six months later Brann was killed. He expired in the same hour with his street-duel adversary, Tom E. Davis. They had emptied their revolvers into each other. Davis’ daughter had been a student at Baylor. There was tragic irony in the testimony of four eye-witnesses. It recalled Brann’s open challenge to his foes to shoot him in the back. The four bystanders swore that Davis fired the first shot while Brann was facing in the opposite direction. The double tragedy only spurred the growth of Baylor University into a better and greater institution. It extinguished the thundering voice of one who stirred a multitude of souls. It removed from arbitrament the plea that Brann had lodged for freedom of the press.
Brann’s departure from San Antonio had left “Majah” Harris the editorial cock of the walk. There was none to dispute his pyrotechnic premiership. But he suffered from the absence of a foeman worthy his steel. His talents showed best in the heat of gladiatorial combat. His blade rusted in disuse. Its polemic brilliance faded under the tarnish of banal bluster. From that smudge came a lasting streak across my own conscience. “The Majah” persuaded me to join him in a sally of inexcusable insolence. The incident is related here as an act of contrition. The facts are contained in this card which appeared at the top of the second column of the first page of the San Antonio News:
TO MAJOR WILLIAM HOLT
(In Cooley’s Register yesterday afternoon, William Holt, a paymaster at Fort Sam Houston, with the title of major, openly aspersed the courage of officers of the Confederate Army. Gentlemen of unimpeachable veracity report that he referred to the gallant leaders of our lost cause as cowards.)
Major William Holt, you are a liar.
Major William Holt, you are a dastard.
Major William Holt, you are a poltroon.
Major William Holt, you disgrace the uniform you wear.
The editors of this newspaper, who here subscribe themselves, cheerfully assume personal responsibility for its contents.
Mose C. Harris
This impudent challenge excited little comment. It fitted into the outer tapestry of the times. “Waving the bloody shirt” of the Civil War was still a popular pastime in 1893. But an acid remorse followed the appearance of my name appended to the rowdy screed. From that repentance grew two commandments. One withholds my signature from any instrument lacking constructive purpose. The other has become a dominant article of my code of journalism. It reads:
The decency that is the prime essential of a newspaper must be measured by standards more exacting than mere custom or propriety. It must be the true equivalent of fairness. It must satisfy every scruple of the editor, who shall not qualify for his post unless he be as much a gentleman as a journalist.
A publication so edited can make no errors of commission. Its only blunders will be those of omission.
It was “the Majah” who accounted to Holt. Several weeks after the rude defiance was published, they met on Alamo Street. Holt slammed Harris against a cab standing at the curb. “The Majah” underwent a terrific beating. Finally he wriggled one hand around a spoke of the carriage wheel and drew a knife from a sheath on his hip. Police separated the combatants. Holt had received several slight cuts. Harris’ drubbing confined him to bed for a fortnight.
The San Antonio News suddenly faced a financial crisis. Our bank balance faded to zero overnight. Harris had reserved the right to draw funds for his personal use by way of advances to be reimbursed. He overworked the right. My discovery of this exigency was made on Saturday, the weekly pay day. “The Majah” grinned sheepishly when confronted with the facts. He turned his pockets inside out. It was a gesture intended to strain my resourcefulness. Reproach would be wasted. It was more important to get $280 for the payroll than to bicker with my incorrigible partner. But the problem baffled me. To borrow from friends would be rank folly. There was slim likelihood of repayment so long as Harris was in position to drain our resources.
When a feeling of absolute hopelessness had overcome me, “the Majah” perked up. “How much cash can you turn over?” he asked briskly. The $25 on hand seemed to satisfy him. “Give it to me and keep the boys in good humor until I get back,” he directed, snatching the money and his hat with the same motion.
A hectic afternoon dragged on. It was impossible to conceal from my companions the depth of my discouragement. They were too depressed for conversation. Each of them was in pressing need of his week’s wages. The prospect of going home unpaid was in itself disheartening. The future seemed even more melancholy. If the current payroll couldn’t be met, what would happen next week? It appeared certain that the paper must shut down. Employment was never more difficult to find. We were in the midst of the panic of 1893.
The gloom of these reflections was suddenly lifted. Harris came bustling into the office. Perspiration was streaming down his face, but in one hand he clutched a roll of yellow-back bills. A joyful shout arose from the waiting group. Tears trickled down the cheeks of one of the printers. He still had a job.
The wad of gold certificates that cheered the staff brought me no elation. Instead, it blackened the blue of my outlook. One did not convert $25 into several hundreds in a couple of hours in a legitimate transaction. Harris had used the contents of our cash till for a stake in a faro game at the Crystal Palace. He had won $550. The situation was far more vitiating than invigorating. A newspaper could not continue to meet its deficit with winnings at a card table. Yet for nine weeks that is how the San Antonio News operated. To what depths had the journalistic estate sunk?
Adam Maurer’s political slush-fund to support the Evening Star had been bad enough. But was it more sinister than reliance on the turn of a card in a gambling den ?
The day came when faro changed its smile to a frown for “the Majah.” Apparently, he had foreseen this contingency. “I’ve landed a big advertising contract with Dugan & Kroeger,” he told me. “They have agreed to pay $750 in advance. The best way to confirm the deal is for you to collect the money. Dugan will see you at Louis Michael’s saloon. It would be expedient to speed the transaction because ‘the Majah’ misses the comforting carols of yellow boys in his jeans.”
Dugan handed me a thick envelope. He evaded discussion of any kind. An offer of a receipt brought a deprecatory smile.
Dugan’s haste to meet an appointment elsewhere diverted the questioning thoughts that had arisen in my mind. Harris accepted the packet of bills in unctuous satisfaction. “A business coup of these proportions merits a celebration,” he commented. “As a preliminary, I propose that we forego the customary formalities and here and now declare a dividend.” He started to count out the bills. “Do that at the office,” I insisted.
Dugan’s reticence had been puzzling. Now Harris’ gesture of extravagance became an astonishing sequel. Somewhere in this chain of unusual circumstances was something to offend the olfactories. Dugan & Kroeger were not advertising in any other newspaper. Why did they select the San Antonio News as the only daily in which to promote their business? And where was their copy for the advertising? Otto Kroeger had shown a pleasant friendliness. He might explain the situation. Cautious overtures were met with brusque impatience.
“If you don’t understand what’s going on,” Kroeger said, “it’s your own fault. Why don’t you ask your partner?”
Harris’ celebration was still in progress. With him a spree was neither a frothy adventure nor a careless caper. It was an undertaking of impressive proportions. It must have magnitude in all its dimensions. Time, scope and content must measure up to the breadth of the celebrant’s imagination. Otherwise it became a vulgar aberration. “The Majah” never neglected any of the details.
It was on the third day of his bacchic ritual that he paused to talk with me. It would have been difficult to select a less auspicious moment for my purpose. A waiter had guided me to a private dining-room in Lousteneau’s Elite. The resort was justly famed. It was the last word of the Southwest in cuisine and vintages. It was specially fitted for the gourmet who sought seclusion with a carefully chosen companion.
“What now, my virtue-ridden squire?” Harris jeered in greeting. “Do you come to carp at a great soul in communion with his godly fellows on high Olympus? Or have you come on some sordid errand of trade?”
Harris continued to scoff. His replies to my queries were in the tenor of one’s responses to a spoiled youngster. “Don’t bother me,” he finally ordered, “with a farrago of fledgling fancies.” He looked up to note the effect of the phrase. Ordinarily “the Majah” didn’t waste such diction on an unappreciative audience. The absence of applause seemed to vex him. He turned abruptly impatient.
“A truce to this imbecility! I have no more time to squander on your half-baked notions. Let us terminate this silly interlude with the categorical statement that neither I, nor Dugan & Kroeger, had any idea of running an advertisement for them in our paper.”
A real dread tightened my nerves for the answer to my next question: “Then what are they to get for the $750 they paid?”
There was a long pause. At last, Harris spoke as a tolerant tutor might talk to a backward pupil.
“Apparently, you have not yet learned how highly my pen is prized,” he said. “Men of substance regard it as a gift of providence. They esteem it so much that they wish to preserve its usefulness. They realize that the genius which directs it must be nurtured if not pampered. They realize that its potency may diminish through the travail of overexertion. They cheerfully provide means for a surcease from its inspired labors. In words that may percolate into your limited intelligence, they are willing to pay more for what I don’t write than for what I do. Our friends have assured themselves of a seasonable vacation for my powers of observation and expression.”
The gorge that had been rising while Harris spoke turned to ice. An indignation swept over me that chilled while it burned. This man had sought to trick me into an odious misdeed. He had tried to dupe me into sharing in a scheme of extortion.
That is common blackmail,” I cried. “I’ll expose you!”
Harris’ sensibilities were too variable to diagnose. Yet his reaction to this crisis should have been easily foretold. There was no course for “the Majah” except to resent by force of arms so violent an affront. Failure in that era would have stamped him a derelict. He acted instinctively. His revolver came from the holster quickly enough. But, apparently, he had no stomach for a killing. His hand did not move with the swiftness of one intent on gunfire. Perhaps he was willing to be disarmed. He was relieved of his pistol with scarcely a struggle.
He did fire one shot. But he didn’t press the trigger until my fingers had clasped the barrel. A bit of awkwardness permitted the bullet to puncture the base of my right thumb. It was little more than a scratch. Nevertheless, sight of the blood sobered “the Majah.” He fell limp on the sofa beside him. That was my last view of Mose C. Harris, journalistic soldier of fortune, sybarite and charlatan.
Rupture of the partnership with Harris enjoined a survey of my affairs. They were in a sorry state. Two and a half years of intensive work had led to a climax of disgust and disappointment, without a substantial profit or a definite prospect. To what must this outcome be attributed? Was it traceable to ineptitudes of which I had been unaware? Or was it assignable to unfortunate associations ? Did the fault lay with the arena instead of the performer? Had there been actual failure? Was not the multicolored experience an equipment for the future? The background for an accurate appraisal was lacking. All phases of newspaperdom must be mastered before competent judgment could be formed. A further course in the university of empiric knowledge was necessary. I would seek guidance under the ablest masters.
One leaf out of the “tramp printers’ book would direct me. No job would be held long enough for stagnation. A decision of my problem would be forced, not where the preliminaries were staged but where the finals were contested. The metropolitan centers of the North and East must yield my answer.