Not everyone could handle the printed truth—or the printed lies.
Being in the newspaper business on the frontier could be rough, and not just because of the long hours and ink stains. Editors sometimes put their lives at risk, and bloodstains were known to crop up now and then when these editors became “the story.” It’s no wonder that when Wells Drury appeared for work as a reporter for the Gold Hill News in Nevada Territory, the first question editor Alf Doten asked him was “Can you shoot?” Doten explained: “You write what you please. Nobody censors it. But you must defend yourself if anybody has a kick.” Almost as soon as Drury started on the newspaper, a horsewhip-wielding politico who had issues with the paper’s editorials stormed into the office and threatened the young journalist. Drury reportedly pulled the office Colt Dragoon six-shooter and chased the critic out of the office. He was a very lucky newspaperman. Others weren’t so fortunate.
The Territorial Enterprise, in neighboring Virginia City, was one of the toughest newspapers in the West from its founding in 1858. In 1864 editor Joe Goodman, then only 24, fought a duel with Tom Fitch, proprietor of the rival Virginia Daily Union, after Fitch had obliquely insulted his writing style. This was a regular formal duel, not a gutter gunfight. Goodman and Fitch stood back to back—no apologies—paced off the distance and turned to face each other. A second counted to three, and the duelists fired. Goodman—acting on the advice of his second, who had lost an eye fighting in Central America with filibuster William Walker—deliberately hit Fitch in the shin, crippling him for life.
Goodman’s friend and fellow newsman Mark Twain observed the duel. “In those early days dueling suddenly became a fashion in the new territory of Nevada,” he wrote. “By 1864 everybody was anxious to have a chance in the new sport, mainly for the reason that he was not able to thoroughly respect himself so long as he had not killed or crippled somebody in a duel or been killed or crippled in one himself.”
Not every newspaper editor had the chance to shoot back. In May 1856 James Casey, a crooked San Francisco politician, fatally shot reform-minded Evening Bulletin editor James King of William in cold blood on the street just outside his office. When word got around that King was dying, the city’s revitalized Vigilance Committee took Casey out of jail along with Charles Cora, another murderer. Eight days after the shooting, even as the death bell tolled for James King of William’s funeral cortege and 20,000 citizens marched behind his hearse to show their respects, the vigilantes showed their respects by springing the trap on Casey and, for good measure, on Cora.
Three years later editor-publisher William Byers brought the press for the Rocky Mountain News to Denver by ox-drawn freight wagon and set up in the attic of Uncle Dick Wooten’s saloon in Auraria, on the south side of Cherry Creek. Rival newspaper editor John Merrick was launching his Cherry Creek Pioneer about the same time, and the respective editors raced to see which one would be first to hit the street. The Rocky Mountain News won—by a matter of 20 minutes—and Merrick bowed out of the news business. Byers soon launched a campaign to rid the region of crime. Thugs threatened the crusading editor, briefly kidnapped him and then mounted an attack on the newspaper office, but Byers and his fellow newsmen armed themselves and shot it out. Hearing the commotion, blacksmith Tom Pollock, a friend of the newspaper, shot marauding thug George Steele off his horse, and vigilantes quickly restored order.
When they weren’t defending their honor or their presses, frontier newsmen generally turned a good profit: The owners of the Territorial Enterprise were said to lug home fire buckets full of gold double eagles when the paper closed for the week on Saturday night. The printing techniques were rudimentary: A hand-operated flatbed press cost a fortune to haul by ox team but was easy to maintain. This might be called an “acorn press,” as the iron frame that supported the screw was shaped like an inverted acorn. A typesetter laid out the pages on a heavy table called a “stone,” with cast movable type set in frames—sometimes by the letter, sometimes by the word, sometimes in whole phrases—and secured in place with wing nuts until locked down for inking and printing. (The term “cliché” stems from the 19th-century printing process and refers to type blocks of favorite expressions that printers kept intact for insertion into story after story.) At the end of a print run, the press operator unclenched the frame and tossed the movable type into a “hell box,” from which the “printer’s devil,” usually a half-grown kid, would sort it alphabetically and file it in pigeonholed boxes for future use. Newsmen also kept handy Sharps rifles and Colt revolvers for future use, alongside the heavy mallets used to pound type in place.
As labor costs were low—the printer and editor was usually the same person —the street price of the newspapers covered a much larger portion of the operating expenses than did advertising. Even in the 1850s most native-born Americans knew how to read, and frontier townsmen were hungry for reading matter. Filling the pages took imagination, perhaps mostly imagination. Mark Twain once remarked that he “let fancy get the upper hand of fact too often when there was a dearth of news.” He once put an emigrant train “through an Indian fight that…has no parallel in history” (in other words, he invented it).
Writing the truth about Indians was more dangerous. When Bret Harte, who got his start as a printer’s devil, was acting editor of The Northern Californian in Union (present-day Arcata), he wrote a story too true for his health. He described an 1860 massacre of dozens of harmless Wiyot Indians, mostly women and children, by vigilantes: “A more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women, wrinkled and decrepit, lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long gray hair. Infants scarce a span long with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds.” Harte’s humane honesty led to a very plausible death threat from the murderers. Harte was no pistol-packing editor: He fled town and landed a job at The Golden Era in San Francisco. In 1868 when a literary journal published his short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” Harte hit the book and lecture circuit and no longer needed a gun to write the whole truth about the frontier.
Legh Freeman sounded tougher than the sentimental Bret Harte, but Freeman was mostly talk. Freeman’s newspaper, The Frontier Index, had followed the Union Pacific Railroad across the Great Plains, using salvaged printing apparatus left behind by the Mormons when they fled to the safety of the Great Salt Lake region after violent persecution in the States. Freeman picked up news from telegraphs strung along the railroad right-of-way. His editorial policy was not exactly enlightened. In Bear River City, Wyoming Territory, on November 13, 1868, he wrote: “As the emblem of American liberty, The Frontier Index is now perched upon the summit of the Rocky Mountains; flaps its wings over the Great West and screams forth in thunder and lightning tones the principles of the unterrified antinigger, anti-Chinese, anti-Indian party —Masonic Democracy!”
The Masons may not have endorsed that other stuff, and a large constituency of readers apparently didn’t. Freeman also charged the Union Pacific with corruption, and this wasn’t popular either. During a subsequent riot in town, railroad workers descended on the newspaper office and destroyed the press. Freeman claimed some 40 dead rioters and one honest citizen named Steve Stokes killed in the turmoil, but like Mark Twain’s imaginary Indian attack on the emigrant train, the deaths seem to have been exaggerated. Freeman published several other migratory newspapers before dying in obscurity in Yakima, Wash., in 1915.
One Western newspaper duel had national implications. On August 2, 1852, California State Senator James William Denver—Mexican War veteran and later namesake of the Colorado capital—killed Edward Gilbert, editor of the San Francisco Alta California, in a duel with rifles near Sacramento. Editor Gilbert had criticized Denver for his handling of the rushing of supplies to stranded emigrants, an aspect of his career for which most people praised Denver, as they did for his honest administration in Colorado Territory and his subsequent service during the 1862 Siege of Corinth in the Civil War. Many years later, in 1884, the Democrats were about to nominate Denver for the presidency when someone remembered the senator had killed an editor in a duel. The Democrats convened a fresh caucus and instead nominated Grover Cleveland.
John Koster, author of Custer Survivor, has survived 40 years in journalism.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.