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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
Inside the paper, the columns were becoming more exciting, too. William Winter, considered America’s greatest authority on acting, was beginning to upset theatregoers and performers with his drama reviews. On one occasion Winter wrote that a pair playing Romeo and Juliet “resembled nothing so much as a pair of amorous grasshoppers pursuing their stridulous loves in the hollow of a cabbage leaf.” And not all the romances in the Tribune were the subjects of theatre reviews. “We are happy to announce,” the paper trumpeted in 1871, “we have commenced the publication of a local romance calculated to shake society to its center. It contains, indeed, more truth than fiction, for the mind of man has not yet conceived such horrors and atrocities as surround the hapless working girls of our great city. This great story is entitled Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl; or, Death at the Wheel. …”
In city news the Tribune had much to choose from, although here it—and the rest of the town as well—had to follow in the tracks of the New York Times. Raymond had died in 1869, but his successor, George Jones, who had known Horace Greeley when the latter was a printer’s devil on the East Poultney, Vermont, Northern Spectator, had taken out in full cry after the Democratic political boss, William Marcy Tweed. The Times got him, too, after a disgruntled Tammany adjutant, former Sheriff James O’Brien, turned over to it the records that eventually sent Tweed to the Tombs. The Tribune, quibbling jealously that the Times appeared to have obtained the evidence “in some surreptitious way,” could only applaud the disclosures against its traditional enemy, the Democratic machine. The Great Moral Organ did, however, undertake an exposé of its own, centering its fire on another target of corruption, the customshouse; in November of 1871 it won a victory of sorts when Thomas Murphy, the port collector, resigned. Murphy’s successor was, however, no more acceptable to Greeley and the Tribune. His name, incidentally, was Chester A. Arthur.
Greeley had other troubles with his city staff. Despite all his teaching—and his example—not all his subordinates were hewing to the path of morality. In 1869, he had been forced to ask for the resignation of Amos J. Cummings, an excellent city editor (and the man credited with coining the man-bites-dog definition of news). Cummings, it was said, had persisted, despite several warnings, in swearing on the job. There was another, far more serious incident in the city room in 1869, when Albert Richardson, the Civil War correspondent who had made such a spectacular escape from Confederate prison, failed altogether to escape from an irate husband who traced him to Park Row and shot and mortally wounded him within the confines of the Tribune offices. Greeley defended the conduct of his man as best he could, whereupon Dana, now editor of the Sun, chuckled and sent a reporter over to the Tribune to ask his former boss if it was true that the Tribune was infested with supporters of free love. The Sun quoted Greeley’s answer: “By God, (bringing his venerable fist upon the desk) there is no such crowd, at least not around the Tribune office. The whole thing has been got up by the enemies of the Tribune.” Greeley wrote a letter to the Sun to express his dissatisfaction with the published interview. He had not, he insisted, used the name of the Supreme Being.
The editor was nearing sixty by this time. Dispirited by the deaths of seven of his nine children, his strength sapped from overwork—he had continued to traverse the lecture circuit, and had, in addition, published six volumes of history, letters, and essays between 1863 and 1871—Greeley had grown sallow and paunchy. He still retained the white fringe of beard as well as some of the white hair which had become his trademark, but recurring bouts of the malaria he had contracted on a visit to Nassau in 1870 left him visibly weakened. Yet Horace Greeley had one more hand to play. In 1872, the pioneer Republican ran for the Presidency—with the backing of the Democratic party.
This, of course, was the ultimate inconsistency, and Greeley was not without misgivings when he undertook his final battle against the political machine that had been running in well-oiled grooves during the first term of Ulysses S. Grant. In particular, he was worried about the effect his campaign would have on the Tribune, “of which so little is my own property that I dread to wreck it. …” Still, he went ahead. In May of 1872 the maverick Liberal Republican party nominated him for the Presidency; two months later the Democrats added their endorsement.