Hearst’s Little Time Bomb


After the Democrats failed to nominate him in 1904, Hearst had become the guiding force behind a third party, the Independence League, which drew its membership mostly from Democrats dissatisfied with the old-line party leadership. Hearst himself was not about to embrace the role of sacrificial lamb in a hopeless campaign, but at the party’s convention in the summer of 1908, he engineered the nomination of a Massachusetts businessman, Thomas L. Hisgen, whose family business happened to be an axle-grease company that had fought a fierce battle to avoid being taken over by Standard Oil.

The presidential campaign of 1908 pitted Hisgen against William Howard Taft for the Republican party and William Jennings Bryan for the Democrats. The Independent party platform mirrored the views of the publisher who was the party’s most prominent supporter. It called for more effective control of monopolies, the eight-hour workday, federal operation of railroads, the establishment of a department of labor, the popular election of U.S. senators, and the creation of a strong navy.

Hearst and Hisgen embarked on a speaking tour in which the candidate himself played second fiddle to his famous supporter. On September 17, in a speech in Columbus, Ohio, Hearst began setting off his dynamite: “I am now going to read copies of letters written by Mr. John Archbold … an intimate personal representative of Mr. Rockefeller. … These letters have been given me by a gentleman … whose name I may not divulge lest he be subjected to the persecution of this monopoly.”

A predictable ruckus ensued. Senator Foraker declared that Standard Oil had paid him for legal services but that “the employment had no reference whatever to anything pending in Congress.” A spokesman for Archbold said that his correspondence with Foraker had been “entirely proper” and added, “If Mr. Hearst had come to Mr. Archbold direct it probably would have cost him less to secure copies of Mr. Archbold’s correspondence than for Mr. Hearst to have employed or dealt with thieves.”

Hearst stuck to the lie that he had not obtained the letters until 1908. He could justify the public reading of private correspondence on the grounds that “I do not consider that letters written to public men on matters affecting the public interest and threatening the public welfare are private letters.” But the act of holding the letters for three years made a joke of his high-minded concern with the public interest.

In 1912 the story of William Randolph Hearst and the Archbold letters descended to farce. Thinking that his chances as a dark-horse candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination might get a boost if the public were reminded of his record as a foe of monopoly, Hearst dug out the letters and published more than a hundred of them, some never before made public, in a series that ran in Hearst’s Magazine for seven months. To enliven a rather stale exposé, photographs of some of the letters were reproduced.

Hearst’s old enemy Norman Hapgood, the editor of Collier’s, commissioned a writer named Arthur Gleason to take a close look at the photographs. Gleason made some startling discoveries:

-Five of the letters, with dates from 1898 to 1904, had been typed on a Smith machine with elite type—a machine that the company had not manufactured until 1906.

-A letter allegedly written by Rep. Charles H. Grosvenor of Ohio had been typed on the same machine as a letter allegedly written by Archbold in New York.

Circulation mattered immensely to Hearst, but power mattered even more. So for the moment he did nothing with the letters.

-Signatures actually made by hand always differ, but eight of Archbold’s signatures matched exactly.

Why had Hearst used forgeries when he possessed genuine documents? The publisher explained that the letters had to be retyped in order to be clearly reproduced. That seems plausible, but why not say so?

From start to finish it’s a delicious story for anyone interested in wealth and power in America. On one side, a top executive eager to purchase legislative influence, and legislators eager to sell it. On the other side, an attack on corruption that exempts itself from any moral scrutiny.

To whom shall we turn for a closing word? Perhaps to Theodore Roosevelt. He described Hearst as an “unspeakable blackguard” who combined “all the worst faults of the conscienceless … monied man, and of the conscienceless … demagogue. …”

Or perhaps to John D. Rockefeller. In an autobiography published in 1908-9, he wrote: “Speaking of Mr. Archbold leads me to say again that I have received much more credit than I deserve in connection with the Standard Oil Company. It was my good fortune to help to bring together the efficient men who are the controlling forces of the organization … but it is they who have done the hard tasks.”