- Historic Sites
The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper
Horace Greeley founded the “Trib”— and the union that eventually helped kill it. But in 125 years it knew many a shining hour.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
The campaign was, as Greeley must have known it would be, bitter and terrible. He resigned from the Tribune in May, and Reid took up the battle against the calumny that poured in from the regular-Republican papers. Greeley was linked, in editorial and cartoon, with free love, Boss Tweed, and the Ku Klux Klan. Possibly the unkindest cut came from the Times, which reported a Greeley meeting in Missouri at which a Confederate flag was hoisted “to create the necessary enthusiasm.” The Tribune fought back, uncovering fresh scandals with which to assail Grant—but the effort was foredoomed. Not all the Tribunes even got to those subscribers who remained loyal: there were charges that Republican postmasters were substituting the Times.
The agony of the campaign was cruelly intensified for Greeley by the terminal illness of his wife of thirty-five years. For the month before the election, he was held close to the deathbed of Molly Greeley, who died October 30, just five days before her husband was swept to ignominious defeat at the polls. Greeley carried only six states, and his total popular vote was disappointing, 2,834,079. Grant polled a plurality of more than three quarters of a million, a margin that stood as a record until 1900.
On November 7, 1872, Horace Greeley, weakened in health and spirit and impoverished in purse (he now owned only six shares of Tribune stock), attempted to pick up the threads. But it was no good. The editor was not himself, and before long, Reid was forced to step in and suppress an editorial in which Greeley attacked a previous—and lighthearted—editorial squib directed not at him but rather at the office seekers who had crowded around him. To have allowed Greeley to print his vicious and uncalled-for response, Reid said, “would have sent every editor out of the staff.” The younger man prevailed, the card was suppressed, and, within a few days, Greeley returned to his home at Chappaqua, in suburban Westchester County. He died at the house of a nearby physician two weeks later, on November 29, 1872.
They may all have fought against him at various points of his life, but his contemporaries put on quite a funeral for Horace Greeley. The dignitaries, politicians, journalists, and officeholders whom the old editor had, by turns, supported and denounced, attended almost in a body. President Grant was there, of course, along with his Vice President-elect, Henry Wilson, and the outgoing Vice President, Greeley’s old friend Schuyler Colfax. In the funeral procession, members of the Union League marched with members of Typographical Union Number Six, which says a lot about Horace Greeley.
The founder was gone, but the Tribune, to the surprise of many subscribers, still stood. Its shares were no longer worth the $10,000 they had commanded a few years before, but they did have value—particularly since a contest was looming for control. Whitelaw Reid was the heir apparent, of course, but Reid was, by his own estimation, “about the best hated man in New York.” Greeley’s campaign for the Presidency had cost the Tribune heavily among its Republican supporters, and Reid fell heir to that loss, as well as to the calumny that resulted when Dana at the Sun caught wind of the suppressed Greeley editorial. Reid, it was said, had broken the old man’s heart, and this materially affected the new editor’s standing among the members of the Tribune Association. But finally, with the help of Rhode Island’s Senator William Sprague and Jay Gould, the financier, Reid managed to raise $500,000. and on December 23, 1872, he announced his purchase of a clear majority of the stock: “The associates and disciples of Horace Greeley, sensible of their inability to fill his place, strengthened by his teachings, and encouraged by his example, take up the burden of his life. …”
Among the rejoicers was Tribune correspondent Mark Twain. “The Lord knows I grieved to see the old Tribune wavering and ready to tumble into the common slough of journalism,” he wrote Reid, “and God knows I am truly glad you saved it. I hope you will stand at its helm a hundred years.”
Reid had his paper now—as well as an annual deficit that ran as high as $96,000. The Weekly Tribune was down from 200,000 subscribers to 150,000; the daily was running about 45,000—about equal to the Herald, and well behind the Sun at 100,000 and the Times at 50,000. At least part of the problem, Reid felt, was prestige. The Tribune had long since outgrown the five-story building at Spruce and Nassau streets, and the editor determined to replace it on the same site with the finest newspaper plant in New York. On April 10, 1875, the Tribune ’s thirty-fourth anniversary, the paper was issued from its new one-million-dollar home. The nine-story building, with its 260-foot tower, was topped on the city’s skyline only by the spire of Trinity Church. From the rotary perfecting press in the basement, which could turn out 16,000 papers every hour, all the way to the top floor, where there were stands for one hundred compositors, the new plant bespoke its editor’s confidence.