The reporters would pant up five flights of stairs to reach their dingy, dim newsrooms, where light eked through the dirt-cloaked windows and the green shades over the oil lamps were burned through with holes. They wended through hobbled tables piled high with papers, walked past cubbies so chaotically stuffed with scrolled proofs no outsider could guess the system. The reporters reeked of five-alarm smoke, or had coat pockets bulky with notes and a pistol from the front, or were tipsy from a gala ball, or dusty from a horse race. If they held important news in those notebooks, a copy boy would crowd by their elbow as they wrote, snatch the ink-wet sheets from their hands, and rush them off to the copyholder to “put them into metal.”
The center of news in the nineteenth century lined the streets around City Hall Park, only a short sprint to Wall Street, close to the harbor. News sailed in on the wind. Newspaper schooners cut through the waves and fog to land their men onboard the arriving European steamers before the less affluent New York newspapers could get out there with their rowboats.
Amid recent renovations on Park Row, construction workers discovered artifacts of news reporters inside the walls—papers and typewriters. Who knows what ghosts might lurk there still?
“Journalism is the real Minotaur,” nineteenth-century reporter Stephen Fiske remarked, looking back on his career. “It demands every year a fresh supply of young men and women: devours them, destroys them, and is ready for another batch of tender victims from colleges or country towns.” He had begun as a columnist at age twelve. Other reporters jumped in audaciously in their twenties, such as Henry Villard, a German immigrant who rapidly taught himself English so as to cover the Lincoln–Douglas debates.
They were almost entirely anonymous. Inherited British etiquette dictated that to claim a byline would be immodest. It would risk encouraging flamboyance, even spark recklessness. Instead, they represented their team: the New York Times, the New-York Tribune, the New York Herald, and on. Like a priest of the same era forbidden to use I, reporters denied themselves the honor of possessing their writing. They seeded their identity into the words themselves.
They wrote well to impress the reporter seated next to them, or rivals at the other papers. They strove to create in words the moving image of an event or the quirks of an important person. Photographic evidence was scant at that time. Reporters needed to be the eyes for those too far away to see. They wrote well to lasso in the readers who constantly strayed. Three-quarters of a newspaper’s customers faded away each year, and newspapers needed to lure fresh ones.
The reporters wrote fast. They fed the street-level, steam-driven presses that each inked some fifty miles of paper each day. They wrote to feed the conveyor belt of hooks that ran along the ceiling, from the editor to the foreman to the typographer. Stories hung like cow carcasses headed to butchery. “The fevered pencil flies, every nerve is strained, every brain-cell is clear,” wrote one reporter of that time. “Comment, description, reminiscence, dialogue, and explanation flow upon the impatient sheets in short paragraphs, like slivers of crystal,” wrote Julian Ralph, a British reporter who worked in New York City, in 1893.
They focused even amid the clicking of the telegraph, the shouting of the editors, the joking of the office boy, and the copy cutters pressing their deadlines. The only relief came when the Associated Press marked the final delivery of the day’s breaking news. “Over the wires and at the end of the last sheet of flimsy has come the welcome message, ‘Good-night,’ ” one editor, Melville Philips, recalled.
The reporters mixed among the rich for sources or dared to knock at the most squalid crime dens. They heard out their critics; one tall, thin writer bent like a hook to politely listen to the manager of the theater whose production he had unflatteringly dissected, begged repetition (indicating bad hearing), and then, having failed to make out the tirade a second time, asked again and again, until wrath had withered.
They competed to file. News lay out in distant towns and the reporter would pluck it like a giant’s eye and race back with the prize to send over the closest telegraph. Julian Ralph remembered competing with a Tribune man when out on assignment. “We had to run three miles over a plain that was one great glare of ice. He was the faster runner and appeared to have everything his own way, but suddenly he slipped and rolled down the side of a gully to fetch up at the bottom badly hurt. The tearing of his clothes and peeling of his face did not bother him, but his ankle was sprained and he could not walk without help. ‘I give up,’ said he. ‘Will you help me to the village?’ ‘I don’t know,” I replied. “Is the wire mine?’ ”
Though readers rarely knew who wrote what, the reporters knew each other well. Journalists scuffled in the streets, smacked each other with canes. They celebrated in private gathering spots. A few might be sufficiently bohemian enough to share a beer at Pfaff’s on Broadway near Bleecker with Walt Whitman, the former editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, or have angled into respectability at the Lotos Club. But they more likely visited the Bread and Cheese Club on Broadway and Reade Streets or the Sketch Club.
They understood how to dowse for a story, to identify the vibrating image that could stir emotion. A reporter remembered a day with nothing but fourth-rate news unfolding, when he scanned every line of the afternoon paper with the managing editor, hunting for the next day’s feature. The managing editor yelled out, “I have it!” A tiny baby girl had been found buried in Harlem. “The only uncommon item was that the infant was richly dressed.”
The managing editor gave the orders: “See the place where the baby was found, the policeman who found it; follow it to Matron Webb’s room in the police headquarters, where all foundlings are first taken, and get a long full account from the matron of … the most remarkable, the strangest, most pathetic, moving or stirring experiences she has had… Then … go to the asylum where these babies are brought up, and to the Potter’s Field where they are buried.”
William Cullen Bryant, editor at the Evening Post and a poet, hung on the newsroom wall his “Index Expurgatorious” for writers, his commandments for striking out words that failed to chime the way others could: “Jeapordize should not be used.” “Gratuitous means ‘without payment.’ ” “Jewelry for jewels.” Don’t use “bulls and bears” for Wall Street.
They sacrificed human comforts, like Gerald Hallock who stayed in the city to run the Journal of Commerce while his family lived in New Haven. He collapsed onto a cot in the office each night, took lonely dinners in restaurants, and “slept on his arms,” the image of a man devoted to his desk. When reporting a fire, he fell into a newly dug cellar in the dark streets. “I sat down on the curbstone to rub myself, and, seeing the light of the fire brighten up, I started for it,” he told a friend.
Julian Ralph remembers the wealthiest man in the country, baffled, observing to him after an interview: “You mastered the intricacies of financial matters in hours and yet you persist in this profession with no pecuniary gain unless one’s aim is to run a paper?” Ralph had no satisfactory answer. His desire to use his intellect to fill newspaper columns was inexplicable except as a relationship with fellow journalists and the dead ones.
Because of their anonymous voices, we know about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and Lincoln’s sorrows, and the draft riots, when violent white mobs beat passersby, lynched and mutilated Black people, and torched homes. The anonymous journalists reported those incidents including peculiar details, such as expensive pianos smashed with pickaxes, mirrors shattered by stones. “One fellow appeared at a window with a picture of the President, spat on it, split it over his knee and hurled it into the street, where it was quickly trampled into atoms. Then, in a half a dozen places at once, the flames burst forth. So rapidly did they spread that some of the plunderers in the house had to escape from the windows by means of ladders.”
They covered the heat wave of 1896 during which fifteen hundred New Yorkers perished. “The spot that was perhaps hottest of all was the glaring asphalted pass in front of the City Hall. A man threw up his hands and fell there shortly before noon. A thermometer on the steps at the time held mercury that was at the 112-degree mark.”
Or those that survived: “The close structure of the lower part of the Third Avenue Elevated Railroad was a boon to the east side all day. Under it was real shade and were it not for the humidity the shelter would have been perfect. Hundreds of boys sat along the curbs, too listless for play or mischief. Men came out of the broiling sun above Canal Street or below the City Hall and stopped to rest and breathe beneath the rumbling trains.”
They climbed the inner scaffolding of the Statue of Liberty before it was clad with copper, describing the experience in the third person. “He looked downward, and the earth seemed further than the sky. The rounds of the ladders had disappeared and there seemed to be nothing by which to descend but the iron beams of the framework. The swaying of the treetops beneath unnerved him as much as the sweeping movement of the long arm above… Just as he got to the forearm a triumphant shout reached his ears. The [cartoon] artist had both his hands clasped on Liberty’s wrist and was ‘feeling her pulse.’ He was the first that ever burst into that dizzy spot except the workmen. No such glorious view of New York bay was ever obtained before. The air was clear and there was no limit upon the human sight except human frailty. Great ships looked like sloops, schooners like sailboats, men like moving sticks. Even the Brooklyn Bridge seemed a thing of the earth’s surface, which could be touched with the hand by any one sailing under it.”
All writers contribute to humanity’s intellectual compost, nourishing future ideas, but few do so more plainly than those anonymous writers. As Edward G. P. Wilkins wrote about one of his gifted colleagues, “his writings are buried in the files of ‘The Herald,’ ‘The Saturday Press,’ and ‘the Leader,’ and they are buried forever.” Those reporters did not cherish the silly illusion that their names would echo through the ages. They skipped the stage of “I’ve never heard of him” to immediately become what might be valued forever: their words.
In the Cypress Hill Cemetery in Queens, on a hilltop at the “brow of a small hill, commanding a beautiful view of the country for many miles around, with Jamaica Bay and ocean in the distance,” is a graveyard, acquired in 1871 by the New York Press Club, originally for 360 graves for “friendless journalists.” The space was intended for newspaper people who “die in the city without means or inclination to be buried elsewhere.” At an 1887 ceremony, thousands gathered to dedicate a thirty-eight-foot obelisk inscribed NEW YORK PRESS BURIAL PLOT. Under sunny skies, Chauncey Depew, the railroad president and sought-after orator, honored the fallen: “The reporter, with no incentive but his duty, outdoes the soldier, and telegraphs to his paper an account that electrifies the world, but bears no signature.”
An 1866 obituary for a newspaperman expressed the writer’s fervent hope of what such people might earn in the afterlife: “There he shall be able to see the immense masses of mind he has moved, all unknowing and unknown as he has been, during his weary pilgrimage on earth. There he will find all articles credited—not a clap of his thunder stolen; and there shall be no horrid typographical errors to set him in a fever.”
Elizabeth Mitchell is the author of Lincoln’s Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street, and the White House (October 2020/Counterpoint Press).