Twenty-Five Stories

1 Adventures in journalism

George E. Condon

The world was bemused, if not startled, in 1965, when a newspaper copy editor from Cleveland sailed the Atlantic Ocean, from Falmouth, Massachusetts, to Falmouth, England, in a 13-½-foot sailboat. The intrepid amphibious newsman was Robert Manry of the Plain Dealer, and his tiny craft was named Tinkerbelle.

It was a daring, puzzling feat – a voyage of 78 days’ duration over 3,200 miles of ocean in a craft that could be classified somewhere halfway between waterwings and a rowboat. The significance of this admirable derring-do was obvious, certifying as it did that man had not lost entirely his zest for adventure, or the courage to challenge the eternal elements. What puzzled many people was that a newspaperman from inland Cleveland – a copy editor, at that! – should have been such a marine adventurer.

There would not have been such puzzlement had the world known Cleveland newspapermen better, for theirs is a long, outstanding record of adventurous thrusts into the unknown, usually in the face of staggering odds. Sometimes, just to keep the record straight, the newsmen did a little staggering themselves, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Manry sea voyage recalls to the mind the earlier, valiant attempt by a group of Cleveland journalists to cross the Cuyahoga River – which offhand does not sound like the kind of feat that should be mentioned in the same book with Manry’s heroism until one considers all the facts and the hazards attached thereto.

One has to know, for instance, about Cleveland’s High Level Bridge.

The Detroit-Superior High Level Bridge, a major east-west connection over the Cuyahoga Valley, is a two-deck structure which was the largest double-deck, reinforced concrete bridge in the world when it was opened in 1917. It is still an imposing – if overburdened – span with its old-fashioned bulk covering a distance of 3,112 feet in length, with 12 concrete arches and one 591-foot steel arch. The top deck is used for regular traffic vehicles, while the lower deck – now sealed off – was reserved for use by streetcars.

To traverse the bridge, the streetcars had to drive down into a subway on either side of the river. There were two subways on the West Side; one having an entrance on West 25th Street, near Franklin Avenue, and the other on Detroit Avenue at West 28th Street. The entrance on the East Side was on Superior Avenue at West 6th Street.

The subways and the bridge together made streetcar riding in Cleveland highly worthwhile. They formed the grand climax to a trip downtown, and they gave the trip west a smashing, exciting beginning. Upon approaching the bridge, the streetcars suddenly left the bright street and dipped down into a dark, steeply graded tunnel at what seemed to be excessive speed, swaying and rocking as they hurtled downward, while the white-knuckled passengers fearfully eyed the concrete walls of the tunnel a finger’s length away. There was always the unspoken fear, too, that the streetcar’s brakes had failed and that this was a runaway vehicle.

At the bottom of the East Side incline, leading down into the subway, the streetcars had to make a sharp turn, causing the steel wheels to press against the rails with a piercing, screeching sound that added just the right note to the growing apprehension.

Just as the passengers were adjusting to the dim, yellow lights of the streetcar in the dark tunnel, the car would emerge abruptly in the day light of the open deck, and this was the most thrilling part of the entire ride. Nothing more than a short iron railing guarded the side of the deck, hardly sufficient to keep a streetcar from toppling over. The tracks were laid on a bed of wooden ties, but you could see between the ties to the yellow river below – 196 feet below. This perilous ride, or so it seemed, did not last long; just long enough to scare the bejabbers out of the passengers, and then suddenly the streetcar was back in the dark tunnel on the other side, the walls were rushing past again, and you could tell that it was twisting and fighting its way back up to street level once again.

Now the question that had bothered virtually nobody except the curious newsmen was whether an automobile could drive down the ramps, maneuver through the tunnel, cross the open main section of the deck, and still emerge safely at the other side. At first it was merely a kind of intellectual speculation worthy of being discussed in the friendly setting of a downtown pub, as it was one night until one of the newspapermen, a natural leader named Jimmy Lanyon, who was sports editor of The Plain Dealer at the time, rose to his feet and announced that he was prepared to meet the challenge head-on by driving his car across the bridge’s streetcar deck that very moment.

“Let us be done with the talk,” cried Lanyon. “Let us have some action!” Some of his stouthearted colleagues jumped to join him, and in a twinkling the adventurous newsmen were on their way. Their car roared down Superior Avenue, lunged down the ramp like an escaped fury, twisted through the dark tunnel, passing an eastbound streetcar whose motorman jumped up and down on his bell in panic as he stared out with disbelieving eyes, and finally shot out on the open deck where, its tires slashed by the tracks, its innards shaken loose by the jolting drive, it finally wheezed and pitched to a stop.

All streetcar traffic between downtown and the West Side was halted for several hours while transit workers and police effected a rescue of the valiant newsmen and pulled their car out of the way. The incident was reported in terse style by the newspapers the next day. Nowhere in print was there any editorial commendation of the attempted crossing.

Newspapers traditionally have served as havens for men and women who were not completely understood by the outside world; they have provided sanctuary to those who were harassed and pursued by the keepers of the conventions, carefully keeping alive in the editorial rooms the last spark of individuality in a society that grows more regimented by the hour. Sometimes, as in the gallant attempt to drive the streetcar deck, the behavior of newsmen may seem anti-social, or irrational to the outside world. It is not. It is simply a manifestation of the creative spirit at work in material surroundings.

For the first 22 years of its existence, Cleveland was without its own newspaper. What little journalistic attention the town received was from a publication called the Ohio Patriot, published in New Lisbon, Ohio, southwest of Youngstown, beginning in 1808.

At last, on July 31, 1818, the first Cleveland newspaper, the Gazette and Commercial Register, appeared. It was better than nothing, but it followed a fitful schedule of publication, with intervals of up to three weeks between issues. The following year, 1819, the Herald was established. From that time on, there was wild confusion on the newspaper front, with new publications springing up left and right even as old ones were going out of business.

In today’s (1967’s*) Cleveland, with a metropolitan population approaching the 2 million mark, there are two large dailies, the afternoon Press and the morning Plain Dealer. There is but one Sunday paper, that published by the Plain Dealer.

In January 1842, when the Plain Dealer came into being, Cleveland had been a city only a few years and its population, combined with that of Ohio City, was about 7,500.  Serving this handful of people was the new paper, the Plain Dealer, the Herald, the Morning Mercury, the Eagle-Eyed News Catcher, the Commercial Intelligencer, and the Cleveland Gatherer (a weekly); six newspapers in all.

The pity of it all, of course, is that the Eagle-Eyed News Catcher was not able to survive. It had a name that deserved to live.

The Plain Dealer grew out of the Independent News-Letter, started in 1827. It was rechristened the Cleveland Advertiser in 1832. When two brothers, Admiral Nelson Gray and Joseph William Gray took over the Advertiser at the end of 1841, they gave the paper the unusual name which makes out-of-towners cock their head in puzzlement when they first hear it. Archer H. Shaw, onetime chief editorial writer for the Plain Dealer and author of the definitive biography of the newspaper, “The Plain Dealer – One Hundred Years in Cleveland,” recalled that there had been a short-lived New York Plain Dealer started in 1836 by William Leggett, who had been one of the editors and a part owner of the New York Evening Post. J. W. Gray, who had lived in New York, and who was an avowed admirer of Leggett, presumably was influenced in his choice of the name by the New York publication.

The name traces in origin to an old English expression. A “plain-dealer” was an honest, straightforward type of person, and “plaindealing” was to be desired. Shakespeare frequently used the words within that frame of reference and another playwright, William Wycherley, was the author of a play called “The Plain Dealer” late in the 17th century.

“So handy and expressive a title could not long be neglected in other fields,” wrote Shaw. “In 1712 a publication named the Plain Dealer was started in London, but only a few issues appeared. Boswell, in his great biography of Samuel Johnson, mentions another Plain Dealer, an English monthly devoted to ‘select essays on several curious subjects.’ The last number appeared in 1725. It had a successor of the same name and similar character, which appeared in 1763, but soon went the way of the rest.”

Winston Churchill, when visiting Cleveland as a young man, spotted the name. “Oh,” he said, “there’s the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I think that by all odds, the Plain Dealer has the best newspaper name of any in the world.”

In his editorial salutatory, Gray acknowledged the curiosity about the change in name from the Advertiser to the Plain Dealer:

“We offer no apology for changing the name of this paper,” he wrote, “but the Scripture command – ‘Put not new wine into old bottles, lest they break.’

“This paper is now in the hands of a new editor, with new publishers and proprietors. It is soon to be printed on new type and furnished with new exchanges and correspondents and we hope with new patrons also. This is the ‘new wine’ that would burst the old Advertiser and not leave a trace of its well-earned fame.

“We think the good taste of our readers will sanction the modest selection we have made. Had we called it the Torpedo timid ladies never would have touched it. Had we called it the Truth Teller no one would believe a word in it! Had we called it the Thunder Dealer or Lightning Spitter it would have blown Uncle Sam’s mail bags skyhigh. But our democracy and modesty suggest the only name that befits the occasion, the Plain Dealer.”

Shaw recalled that President Woodrow Wilson used to say he could tell a Clevelander by the way he pronounced Plain Dealer. Clevelanders pronounced the name as one word, with the accent on the first syllable. Non-Clevelanders pronounced the two words separately, with the accent on the first syllable of the second word.

In those days when open partisanship was such an important part of journalism, Gray left no doubt where he and the Plain Dealer stood. He was a Democrat and the Plain Dealer was a Democratic newspaper and it continued to be such without wavering until 1940 when, after a century in the Democratic lineup, the Plain Dealer switched positions and endorsed Wendell Willkie.

There was, in fact, such an intermingling of partisan politics and journalism in the mid-19th century that the two were inseparable. Gray, for example, was chairman of the Ohio delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in 1852. It is worth mentioning because one of the strangest contradictions in political history pivoted on Gray’s action at that convention. Had it not been for this editor of a Cleveland newspaper, one of Gray’s fellow Clevelanders undoubtedly would have been elected President of the United States instead of Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire.

Among the strong dark horse possibilities at the convention was Governor Reuben Wood of Ohio, a resident of Cleveland, and, like Gray, a native of Vermont. When the favorites for the nomination were unable to win the necessary 49 ballots, the convention turned its attention to Governor Wood.

All that Governor Wood needed for the nomination was the support of his own state delegation which, by all the rules and traditions of politics, he should have had in his hip pocket. But Editor Gray balked at voting for his own townsfellow because, he explained later, the governor was a “Hunker.”

A Hunker, in the political lexicon of that day, was an ultra-conservative Democrat, and Gray didn’t like that wing of the party. Some of the political experts of the day interpreted the editor’s refusal to vote for Wood as Gray’s revenge on the Hunkers for their part in engineering the defeat of New York’s Governor Silas Wright in his 1846 bid for re-election. Wright and Gray were lifelong friends, and Editor Gray suspected Governor Wood of having been too friendly with the Hunkers.

When the Ohio delegation led by Gray stunned the party by its incredible refusal to support Governor Wood, the convention immediately passed by the Ohio governor and chose Pierce as its candidate. He was elected President.

Governor Wood accepted an appointment as consul in Valparaiso the following year, 1853, but he held the post only briefly. He retired from politics a year later and withdrew to his estate on Ridge Road in Rockport Township, now Cleveland’s far West Side, presumably to ponder what-might-have-been; perchance to dream of the political perfidy of his own townsman.

Editor Gray did not go unrewarded for his part in frustrating the rise of a fellow Clevelander to the nation’s highest office. He was named postmaster of Cleveland by a grateful President Pierce in 1853 and he held that political plum until 1858.

~

 

One of the most interesting of Cleveland’s 19th century editors, and undoubtedly the most powerful, was Edwin Cowles, who came to Cleveland in 1825 from the little Ohio town of Austinburg, in Ashtabula County to the east of Cleveland.

Cowles is remembered for a variety of achievements. Perhaps he should be regarded mainly as the perfect issue of the crossbreeding of politics and journalism. As the editor of the Leader, a morning newspaper he is to be credited with having made that journal the most influential in the city in his time. As a politician, he surely should be remembered as one of the founders of the Republican Party.

The Leader grew out of the merger of two newspapers, the True Democrat, which was begun in the nearby town of North Olmsted (now a Cleveland suburb) around 1852, and the Forest City, which began publication in Cleveland the same year. The owners of the Forest City were two brothers from Coshocton, Ohio – Joseph and James Medill. They consolidated their newspaper with the True Democrat in 1853 and the result of the merger was the Forest City Democrat. George Bradburn and John C. Vaughn had owned the True Democrat, and in the merger, Vaughn joined with Joseph Medill and Edwin Cowles in a partnership that lived only a short time – just one year. Cowles became the sole owner of the newspaper in 1854, and one of his first acts was to change its name to the Leader. His former partner, Joseph Medill, went to Chicago and started there a newspaper called the Chicago Tribune, which is publishing to this very day, according to reports reaching the East.

Cowles, a fiery, outspoken man, was an outstanding catalyst in the civic life of Cleveland during one of the most important formative periods in the city’s history. He swung his newspaper as a political club, as did the other editors of the day, but he swung his club faster and fiercer. His running feuds with his competition, especially Gray of the Plain Dealer, brought personal-political journalism to its all-time peak in Cleveland. As a matter of fact, Cowles succeeded Gray as postmaster of Cleveland, receiving his appointment from the newly elected President Lincoln.

The Plain Dealer did not let that appointment go by without comment. Its editorial said:

“To select so obnoxious an individual personally on the score of being a ruffian Republican is more than even Clevelanders can bear. The appointment of Cowles, personally unfit, simply because connected with a sheet owned and used by the irrepressibles to slaughter the conservatives and put down the liberal sentiments of the party look so much like ‘rule or ruin’ that the masses are indignant.”

The Plain Dealer did not always approach the subject of Editor-Postmaster Cowles so subtly. It once said of him, simply:

“The editor of the Leader is the original ass that Balaam mounted.”

At another time, the Plain Dealer described Cowles as “a catiff wretch . . . one of the most base and infamous of creatures, who, wearing the garb of a human, has nearly all the elements of a demon …. A fellow whose fruitful brain can produce a whole catacomb of lies in one single night resembles so much the prince of the regions of Pluto that if he be not his Satanic Majesty in person, he is worst still, being one of his dastardly and treacherous imps . . . “

Other Cleveland editors, caught in this crossfire, still managed to get in occasional potshots at both Gray and Cowles. The Cleveland Times, for example, dismissed Editor Gray as a lying bank pimp – a liar both by instinct and choice.”

Even the out-of-town papers, attracted by the noise of all the fun in Cleveland, and perhaps even a trifle envious, tried to get in on the act. James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald declared that “Western editors are all whiskey bottles, their reporters are bottles of whiskey and their papers have all the fumes of that beverage without any of its strength.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer made an admirable attempt to top everybody when, speaking of W. W. Armstrong, who succeeded Gray as the editor-owner of the Plain Dealer, it said:

“When the snarling, ill-conditioned editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer gets drunk and falls out of the third story window of his boarding house, people in the street who catch a glimpse of his florid face and sanguinary hair cry out: ‘Behold, that blazing meteor!’ They afterward gather up the quivering, glutinous, odorous mass on the pavement, sweep it up and carry it into the house and put it to bed.”

Cowles established himself, editorially, as an enemy of the Democratic Party, an enemy of slavery, and an enemy of the Catholic Church. He was outspoken and vitriolic on each one of those subjects.

“The war between Cowles of the Leader and the Catholic interests in Cleveland, presided over by that fine old ecclesiastic and citizen, Bishop Richard R. Gilmour, was very lurid and uncompromising,” Charles E. Kennedy, later manager-editor of the Plain Dealer, recalled in his memoirs, “Fifty Years in Cleveland.”

Kennedy, a Unitarian, wrote:

“Cowles hammered away at the Pope and all his works on the editorial page, but not against individual Catholics, some of whom were on his payroll . . . [he] was front man and head of the Order of the American Union, chief mission of which was the prevention of public office holding by members of the Catholic Church . . . It died some years before the A.P.A., working along similar lines, came into existence.

”While it thrived, the O.A.U. played quite a big part in politics, especially here in Cleveland, where, in the spring of 1877, the entire Republican local ticket, most of them members of the order, and led by William G. Rose, the candidate for mayor, was elected.

“This ticket was framed up in Cowles’ private office in the rear of the Leader’s business office….”

Ironically, Cowles’ daughter became a Catholic while on a trip to Paris, France, as a direct result, it was said, of her father’s opposition to her marriage with a titled French suitor.

The really impressive feature of Cowles’ success as an editor was that he managed to fight his way to the top in Cleveland journalism despite an inability to hiss. As even little school children are aware, an editor who cannot hiss is like a praying mantis that cannot pray, or a humming bird that cannot hum. Editors depend on their ability to hiss as an aerial acrobat depends upon his trapeze. In some newspapers, the editor’s voice never has been heard – only the sound of his hissing as he stalks the halls like a restless steam radiator. It’s all part of the game, as they say, and it is likely that if some reporters were not hissed at, they would never produce.

Cowles’ deficiency would have been more of a handicap except that he did not know he could not hiss during his early career. He didn’t find out about it until he was 23 years old, when, presumably, it finally dawned on some of his friends – not to mention his reporters –  that they never had known a hiss to escape the editor’s lips.

A distinguished elocutionist of the day, a Professor Kennedy, was called into the case to determine what was holding Cowles back at a time when competing editors were hissing in such strength that the sound could be heard five miles out in Lake Erie by passing mariners.

Henry Howe, a distinguished historian, reported that a thorough examination by Professor Kennedy revealed that Cowles had “so peculiar an impediment of speech that no parallel case was to be found on record.”

“It was found,” wrote Howe, “that he [Cowles] had never heard the hissing sound of the human voice, and consequently had never made that sound. Many of the consonants sounded alike to him. He never heard the notes of the seventh octave of the piano or organ, never heard the upper notes of a violin, the fife in martial music, never heard a bird sing, and has always supposed that the music of the birds was a poetical fiction.”

Once it was known just why the editor never hissed, of course, it was possible to take some remedial action. Which is exactly what Prof. Kennedy did. He spent hours coaching the editor and Howe the Historian is the authority for the word that it produced gratifying results.

“After much time spent in practicing under Prof. Kennedy’s tuition,” said Howe, “he [Cowles] was enabled to learn arbitrarily how to make the hissing sound, but he never heard the sound himself, although he could hear ordinary low-toned conversation.”

All that is left to the imagination is the picture of what pandemonium must have ensued in the Leader city room on the day that Cowles walked in and, without warning, hissed at his staff for the very first time. What a truly historic hiss that must have been!

~

 

The nationwide Scripps-Howard chain of newspapers had its beginning in Cleveland in 1878, when Edward W. Scripps founded the Penny Press, the forerunner of today’s (1967’s*) Cleveland Press.

Scripps, a picturesque six-footer with a bright red beard and a cast in his right eye that gave him such a baleful look as to frighten friend and foe alike, came to Cleveland from Detroit, where he had been city editor of the Detroit Evening News, owned by his half-brother James E. Scripps. With him, to assist in launching the new paper, was his cousin, John Scripps Sweeney, who served as business manager.

The capitalization of the Penny Press was ten thousand dollars. Investors in the venture, besides the active proprietors, Scripps and Sweeney, were James and George Scripps, the latter being another half-brother.

The new journal was greeted with ridicule and derision from the established publications because of its smaller, unorthodox size and a generally unkempt appearance. Some called it “the Frankfort Street Handbill,” after the street where it had its office. But Scripps, nevertheless, had hit on a successful formula that would lead to a newspaper empire. Not only was his publication only half the price of the other papers, he pinpointed the editorial policy in the direction of the so-called working class, as distinguished from his competitors’ preoccupation with the moneyed elite. Within a year, the penny dreadful was on a self-supporting basis and within three years it had more circulation than all its rivals combined.

The determination to begin the Cleveland newspaper came to Scripps while he was in Paris, France, traveling with his brother George.

“I determined to be my own boss and run a newspaper of my own, subject to orders from no one,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Damned Old Crank,” adding: “I had never been in the city of Cleveland, but that city was only a short distance from Detroit, where I first entered the news business. I knew the size of it and some of its character. I determined I would make my first newspaper venture there.”

It was, in a limited sense, a return to ancestral ground because his grandfather on his mother’s side, Timothy Osborn, was a wanderer who had settled near Cleveland, on the Chagrin River, where he operated a grist mill and held the office of justice of the peace.

An odd coincidence is that Scripps, the 13th child in the family, was born on a farm near Rushville, Illinois, in Cuyahoga County. There he gloried in the title of laziest boy in Cuyahoga County: When he undertook to publish the Penny Press in Cleveland, he must have been the busiest boy in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County. And it very well may have been that he also was the busiest drinker in the county, too, because it is his own assertion that until he reached middle age, he consumed daily “enough whiskey to keep three or four men drunk all the time.” He estimated his input at a gallon of whiskey a day.

It is understandable that the staid citizens of the community chose to regard this fearsome-looking newcomer with a wary eye. They were apprised very quickly of his casual, if not utterly disrespectful attitude toward the ruling class, and of his disinclination to play the journalistic game of the day according to the established rules.

The best intimation of this came when one of the city’s leading citizens, Leonard Case, who also was one of the wealthiest men in town, committed suicide by chloroforming himself in his bed. While the other papers were politely skirting the cause of Case’s death and were devoting their columns to the generous terms of the dead man’s will, which made a bequest of his considerable fortune for the founding of Case School of Applied Sciences (today’s Case Institute of Technology – now Case Western Reserve University*), the Penny Press was reciting the unhappy details about the suicide and the causative factors.

This was followed by a sensational episode involving a Press reporter named Maurice Perkins, Scripps, and one of Cleveland’s most prominent industrialists, Henry Chisholm.

When he came to tot up his life in his autobiography, Scripps chose to tell this story under the dramatic chapter heading: “I Kill Henry Chisholm.”

Perkins, while checking the police rounds one night when Scripps was in Detroit, had come across a story involving the arrest of a young man who had been in a street brawl with a woman of questionable repute. The police identified the youth as Stuart H. Chisholm, and Perkins used the name in his story.

The principal owners of the Cleveland Rolling Mills in Newburgh were two brothers, Henry and Stuart Chisholm. Each had a son named Stuart. Henry’s son was named Stuart H. Chisholm. Stuart’s son was named Stuart Chisholm; no middle initial.

The youth actually involved in the scrape was Stuart (no middle initial) Chisholm, and Henry Stuart was infuriated when the Penny Press wrongly involved his son, Stuart H. He sent a messenger to request Perkins to come to his office at the roiling mills to talk over the matter next day. The reporter, a thin, cadaverous type, obligingly presented himself to the industrialist.

Instead of the man-to-man chat he had expected, Perkins was set upon by some of Chisholm’s employees who tore off his clothes and painted him from head to feet with black paint, climaxing their brush work by dumping what was left in the paint can on top of his head. Thereupon, their artistic passion spent, they gave him the heave-ho out of the building. He was picked up by a good Samaritan and taken to his home.

Scripps by this time had returned to Cleveland and had just gotten the news of his newspaper’s erroneous identification when he received word of the dreadful experience of Reporter Perkins. He hastily summoned a doctor, fearing that the paint would harden on Perkins and bring about a fatal suffocation. When that danger had been averted and Perkins was quietly hiccupping his way back to recovery, Scripps returned to his office and further excitement.

A mob of men, whom he alleged were drawn from the ranks of the roiling mill employees, had gathered in front of the Press office and were threatening trouble. Scripps stood up in his carriage, whipped out a pistol and, florid-faced, turned on them his most baleful look; a wild-eyed expression which startled even him one day when he happened to look at himself in the mirror.

The mob parted, allowing Scripps access to his small plant, and then departed without causing any damage. But shortly a worse threat presented itself – a deputy sheriff with warrants for the arrest of Scripps and Sweeney on the charge of criminal libel.

The two men posted bond and returned again to the Press, where they found that all work had been suspended and where another deputy sheriff was waiting to serve a warrant “by attachment” for fifty thousand dollars in damages claimed by Chisholm in a civil suit.

Scripps was told he could not touch the Press property until it had been inventoried by court-appointed appraisers and until he had given the court his bond for one hundred thousand dollars – double the amount of the damages sought. The appraisers who showed up turned out to be Edwin Cowles, owner and editor of the Leader, and William Gleason, a former Plain Dealer employee. Neither felt kindly toward their maverick colleague and insisted on a thorough, time-consuming inventory – which served, incidentally, to delay the Press in its attempt to publish.

Scripps’ major problem, though, was finding somebody who would stand behind his bond for a hundred thousand dollars. He called a number of wealthy Clevelanders who had made protestation of their friendship previously, but all turned him down.

“These men liked my paper and frequently came to me to praise me for my honesty and fearlessness,” he wrote later. “Naturally I turned to them for help. Naturally enough, they deserted me in my hour of need. All of them, every last one of them.”

It suddenly occurred to Scripps that if he could find an enemy of the Chisholms, he likely would find a friend of E. W. Scripps. He asked his attorney, Judge R. R. Paine, for help. Paine was the father of a youngster on the Press staff, Robert F. Paine, who would become editor of the Press and serve in that capacity for thirty years.

Judge Paine took the editor to a shabby house in a not-too-reputable neighborhood and introduced him to an old, wizened man named Samuel C. Baldwin, who must have been quite a remarkable character in his own right. He made a living as a professional bondsman for thieves and prostitutes and owned approximately a half-million dollars’ worth of property in the red-light district. Baldwin, some years before, had testified in a lawsuit in which Henry Chisholm was one of the principals. Whatever it was that Baldwin said on the witness stand, Chisholm did not approve of it, and he allegedly had slapped Baldwin on the face as he stepped down from the witness chair. Baldwin was the bona fide Chisholm enemy that Scripps had hoped to find, and he was more than happy to go bond for the editor, thereby restoring to Scripps his newspaper and his freedom.

It was the moment Scripps had been waiting for. It was late Saturday afternoon, and the Press missed its usual edition time, but it didn’t matter to Scripps; now he was at last on the offensive. By 6 o’clock Saturday evening, his newspaper was on the street with the story of  ”The Shame of Chisholm,” and the team of Scripps and Sweeney saw to it that enough extra copies were run off the presses to blanket the city with the story.

That wasn’t enough for Scripps. His odd eye was hot with the glare of a righteous man who had been wronged, and he published the story, in condensed form, at the top of the editorial column day after day through the week that followed.

Word came to him that the fury of his attack had had such devastating effect on the great industrialist that his health had been affected, and that Chisholm, indeed, had taken to his bed. Scripps was visited by Chisholm’s doctor and one of his friends, the president of a Cleveland bank, who begged the editor to relent in his attack.

“I replied bitterly,” Scripps said later, “that Chisholm had shown no mercy to the poor weakling Perkins and was entitled to no mercy from Perkins’ employer and friend.”

The terms of surrender laid down by Scripps was that Chisholm withdraw his civil suit for damages and pay five thousand dollars, which would be given to Perkins, who was still on his sickbed, hiccupping away through all the turmoil.

Chisholm agreed to the terms, through his attorney, and the celebrated case was settled, but not without a tragic anticlimax. Chisholm died only a few weeks later, and his death generally was attributed to the controversy with the Press.

“I was shocked by the event,” wrote Scripps later. “I believed then, and believe now, that had Chisholm’s attack on Perkins killed Perkins, and had Chisholm been successful in suppressing my publicity and hence avoided public contumely, he would have lived many years longer, a leading and respected citizen of the city of Cleveland.

“I may be mistaken, but I never believed that simple remorse killed Mr. Chisholm. But neither have I ever had any doubt that Chisholm’s death was caused by me. Had I taken a pistol and shot him to death, I would have felt no more and no less responsibility for that death than I have ever since felt.

“It is true that I did not know I was killing Chisholm when I was killing him. Nonetheless I believe that had I known that I was killing him at the time, I would have pursued the same course. I believe I would have felt no more remorse, no more guilt, under those circumstances than I have since felt, and I have felt none.

“I believed then that I was not only doing what was right, but that I was actually performing a public duty.”

As for Perkins, he quit hiccupping the minute that Scripps handed him his five thousand dollars, rose from his sickbed, and went off on a “frolic” that lasted several weeks and cost him half of the money.

Aside from Scripps himself, and Robert F. Paine, no single man personified the Cleveland Press more than Louis B. Seltzer, the slight, dapper editor who ruled the paper for 37 years, until his retirement in 1966. He joined the Press in 1917 and became editor in 1928. His tenure in that office was the longest in the newspaper’s history. He was succeeded by Thomas L. Boardman.

When Seltzer was in his cub years at the Press, he wrote under the byline of “Looey, the Office Boy.” Long after he moved past the office boy level he continued to be known as Looey by his friends and even his casual acquaintances. He also was known as “Little Bromo” (Seltzer), usually among his critics, of whom there were more than a few, and “Mr. Cleveland,” among those who admired him excessively.

There was a Cleveland legend that Louis Seltzer really ran the city, and there were times when that was no overstatement. He moved the Press from its dilapidated old building at East 9th Street and Rockwell Avenue to a glistening new glass-and-white-brick structure two blocks north, at East 9th Street and Lakeside Avenue in 1959. In this new site, the Press is just across the street from City Hall, and some political insiders guessed that the Press move was to make it easier for Seltzer to run the city by centralizing operations, so to speak.

Until recently, the Press had nominal, if not minimal, competition in the afternoon field, but the Forest City Publishing Company, which owned both the afternoon Cleveland News and the Plain Dealer, inexplicably sold the News to the rival Press in 1960. By this move, the Press was given the afternoon monopoly and picked up some 80,000 former News subscribers. The circulation battle between the Plain Dealer and the Press had been relatively even until that time, but the death of the News shot the Press far ahead of the P.D., 390,000 to 310,000. The Plain Dealer, put under the direction of a young editor-publisher, Tom Vail, in 1962, has wiped out that imposing lead. Since 1965 the two rivals have been on the fifty-yard line, circulation just about even, glaring at each other again.

As the competition waxes keener between the two newspapers, the city inevitably is reminded of some of the titanic circulation battles that were fought in Cleveland in the past. What makes the comparison even more apt is that both editors, Vail and Boardman, are as fascinated by politics as were the editors of the earlier years when even a homicide was secondary to a political speech – except, of course, when the victim in the homicide happened to be a politician.

Politics and journalism are intertwined in the genealogy of many Cleveland leaders. For example, Louis Seltzer’s father, Charles Alden Seltzer, besides being a novelist, was the longtime mayor of North Olmsted. Tom Vail’s father, Herman L. Vail, now president of the Forest City Publishing Company, served as a state representative in his younger years. The editor-publisher’s grandfather, Harry L. Vail, was himself a newspaperman turned politician. He had been editor of the Sunday Morning Voice before he chose to enter politics as a popular county commissioner.

A lot of the fun and glamor went out of newspapers as they matured financially and adopted the cautious, conservative attitude which is almost always the concomitant condition where the money stakes are high. Then editors tend more and more to straddle the editorial fence in the name of objectivity. Not only does such impartiality leave the readers fumbling in the dark as they try to tell the good guys from the bad guys in any specific election campaign, but the modern, unemotional, balanced reporting that is featured in today’s newspaper is about as exciting to read as the annual report of an agricultural test station.

A member of the Cleveland journalism scene, briefly, was Time magazine, which published out of the Penton Building at West 3rd Street and Lakeside Avenue from 1925 to 1927. It was a very young magazine at that time, an experiment in journalism that was still scratching for a foothold. Henry R. Luce and Briton Hadden had launched the enterprise in 1923, but the results after two years of publication were something short of sensational. The circulation at the beginning of 1925 was 34,100.

Cleveland seemed to offer several important advantages over New York, where the magazine was published at the outset: lower costs for printing and office expenses and better distribution. Mailed from New York, as second-class matter, it had experienced embarrassing delays in delivery to subscribers in the populous Midwest, and often did not reach readers in the Far West until a week or more after publication. Time, being a newsmagazine, naturally held the timeliness of its product in high regard, and Cleveland, because of its central location, offered the probability of a more effective radius of distribution. More than 60 percent of the nation’s population lived within five hundred miles of Cleveland at that time.

Time made its move to Cleveland in August 1925, and the prime mover was Henry Luce. Hadden was in Europe on vacation at the time, but the magazine did not wait for his return. One day in August a notice appeared on a bulletin board in the Time office, notifying all employees that they were dismissed as of Aug. 16. They were informed, further, that all who applied for a job at the magazine’s new address, the Penton Building in Cleveland, on Aug. 19 would be rehired.

In his biography, “Briton Hadden,” Noel F. Busch wrote of Time’s Cleveland adventure:

“While the advantages of centralized distribution amply justified it, the Cleveland move was by no means in all respects an unmitigated triumph. Grave difficulties developed, of which the most dramatic were Hadden’s private reactions to his new and strange environment. For Luce, who had spent nearly half of his previous life in China, the differences between one American city and another were relatively small. The salient quality of all of them was that they differed so markedly from the cities he had known in Europe or the Orient, and thus, like most other things about the U.S., tended to excite his approval. Luce was also, by this time, a married man whose comfortable home and diverse social interests enabled him to get along compatibly with the young married set of Cleveland, with whom he had no marked temperamental disaffinity. With Hadden the case was otherwise.

“For the born New Yorker, other metropoli may be interesting, exciting or admirable but there can be only one place in the world that really defines the word city. For an extremist New Yorker, brought up in Brooklyn, this was doubly true. If Cleveland had combined the grandeur of Rome, the charm of Paris and the solidity of London with the exotic glamor of the casbah in Alexandrian Bagdad, Hadden would doubtless have found it a poor substitute for Brooklyn Heights. In point of fact, it seemed to him to lack these charms and to substitute for them what were, in his estimation, defects almost as grave as that of not being Brooklyn in the first place. x x x In Cleveland, he made what was to him a horrifying discovery. This was that Babbitts were not in fact amusing freaks at all but rather, just as Sinclair Lewis had suggested, the backbone of U.S. population . . .”

But if Cleveland did not offer sophisticated pleasures to the urbane Hadden, it did give him a superior opportunity to pursue his big hobby, baseball. He organized a sandlot team, equipped it, and appointed himself manager, captain, and shortstop. The pleasure he found in this sport was not enough, however, to make up for Cleveland’s other deficiencies as the headquarter city for Time. Most of all, the magazine missed the New York Times, the source of so much grist for the Time mill. The publishers also missed the wealth of young, intellectual talent then available in New York. And so it came about in spring of 1927, when Luce this time was in Europe on vacation, that Hadden moved Time magazine from Cleveland and returned it to its ancestral home in New York. The two-year sojourn in Cleveland had not been without beneficial effect, entirely. Time’s circulation had risen to 140,000 by 1927, there was money in the bank, and distribution problems had lessened. Cleveland, baseball, and Babbitry to one side, could take some of the credit for the improvement in the health of the young magazine.

~

 

The threat of physical violence hovers over the head of almost every newspaperman at one time or another during his career. The world is full of crackpots and angry people who, for want of a better target perhaps, choose to direct their wretched tempers at the honest men of the press. The history of journalism in Cleveland is replete with incidents of violence attempted on the persons of editors, reporters, and cameramen. There were numerous invitations to the duel at dawn and so many attempts to waylay editors and writers that it is not surprising many of the old-time newsmen, through necessity, were schooled in the use of cane swords and pistols. Edwin Cowles, for example, retired to a backroom in his editorial offices for target practice whenever he had any spare time. The thunderous roar of his blunderbuss was as familiar a sound to the staff of the Leader as the clanking of the old job press.

It remained for modern times, however, to bring forth the most tragic realization of violence in the cold-blooded murder of the president and general manager of the Forest City Publishing Company, John S. McCarrens, who directed the fortunes of two daily newspapers, the Plain Dealer and the Cleveland News.

McCarrens had joined the Plain Dealer executive staff in 1914 as advertising manager, becoming general manager in 1933, the same year that Paul Bellamy, one of the nation’s most respected journalists, was named editor. It was a formidable team. Bellamy went on to become the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, while McCarrens in 1939 was named president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association; two of the highest honors in the American newspaper business.

Then, on the sunny morning of Thursday, July 22, 1943, McCarrens received a telephone call from a man named Herbert L. Kobrak, asking for an appointment that day. McCarrens agreed to see his caller in his office at two-thirty in the afternoon.

Kobrak was well-known to McCarrens, as he was to most publishing executives in Cleveland. He was a Hungarian native who had come to the United States in 1908, moving from Chicago to Cleveland in 1917 to become general manager of a Hungarian-language daily, the Szabadsag. He frequently identified himself as a Hungarian baron and he was obsessed, according to one of his acquaintances, “with the dream of becoming the William Randolph Hearst of the foreign language press.”

Kobrak (he also went under the names of Louis Rosenfeld and Louis Racz) in time became general manager of the Consolidated Press & Printing Company, publisher of the Szabadsag and the German-language paper, Waechter und Anzeiger. In 1939, however, Consolidated went into bankruptcy and Kobrak was unemployed. From that time on, he talked almost incessantly to friends and possible financial backers of starting another newspaper in Cleveland. Among those whom he importuned for assistance in beginning a daily picture newspaper slanted toward the foreign element in Cleveland was John S. McCarrens.

Kobrak arrived at the Plain Dealer Building shortly before two-thirty. A tense, dark man, he attracted attention on the elevator with his erratic behavior. He clutched a briefcase to his chest and his chin trembled. He was admitted to the publisher’s inner office a few minutes after his arrival. The secretary, Miss Jane Hammond, heard voices raised and then Kobrak closed the door to McCarrens’ office. At 3:10 p.m. four shots were heard in the outer office, the door swung open, and the publisher staggered out.

“Get an ambulance,” he said hoarsely. “I’ve been shot by a madman!”

C.C. McConkie, comptroller of the newspaper, and two secretaries, Miss Hammond and Miss Florence Anthony, helped the wounded executive to the nearby office of Joseph V. Madigan, Plain Dealer circulation director and son-in-law of McCarrens.

When they returned to McCarrens’ office, they found Kobrak slumped in a chair, near death. He had shot himself in the temple with a .32-caliber revolver, which had fallen to the floor near his outstretched fingers. He died a half-hour after being taken to the hospital.

McCarrens had been shot three times, once in each arm and once in the abdomen. A police ambulance took him to St. Vincent Charity Hospital. On his arrival there, in a moment of consciousness, he told the Plain Dealer‘s advertising manager, Sterling E. Graham: ”I’m sorry for that fellow. He’s crazy.”

The publisher clung to life from that Thursday afternoon until the following Saturday morning. One of the notes left by his assassin indicated that Kobrak had planned to kill McCarrens for several months. Another letter left by the murderer was addressed to “Gentlemen of the Press,” and adjured them to consult the records for his history and promised them further big news. It told of his association with well-known newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, and rambled incoherently into speculation over the location of newspapers in heaven and hell, with specific allusions to commentary by Swedenborg and George Bernard Shaw. He concluded by describing himself as a good hunter and fisherman and by revealing that he trained his own bird dogs.

It was the kind of communication that is familiar to newspapermen everywhere. Sick letters from sick people seem to be a fixed part of a newspaperman’s life. In the case of Herbert Kobrak and John McCarrens, the sickness led to death.

*Editor’s note

 

~This piece was originally published in “Cleveland: the best kept secret” by George E. Condon, Doubleday, 1967. We thank the Condon family for allowing us to use it. (See https://tinyurl.com/CLEBestKeptSecret).

 

 

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Adventures in journalism by George E. Condon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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