The National Police Gazette

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No one, it has been said, ever really learns to accept the fact that it was a coupling by his parents that produced him. The novelist Louis Auchincloss extends this and says we can never believe in the sexuality of our grandparents.

When we go back even beyond our grandparents and their contemporaries, questions of procreation become unimportant when compared to the struggle that must be made to believe that these people actually existed. I myself fought this battle for the ten years that I gave to the writing of three books. Sitting in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress, fingering letters forgotten these fifty years, I would think, “How marvelous and touching”; and standing on hillocks in Flanders surrounded by the graves of the New Army of igiG’s Great Britain, I found it hard not to weep—but I always had the very strong feeling that I was not dealing with anything real. The past, yes. Characters in history. Dust. But not real people.

I would argue with myself, saying, “Look, these people from history—all these people from history, Saladin, the Boys in Blue at Gettysburg, the brokers on Black Thursday in 1929 —they must have felt cold in the February of their years, must have felt the need of rest rooms upon occasion. They couldn’t have run around being historic all the time.”

But in my deepest self I would think, “No, not they. They would have been too entranced with the fascinating times in which they lived to bother about trifles. I can’t think of Runnymede or the Kaiser’s headquarters in 1918 or the Pope and Charlemagne on Christmas Day of 800 and think at the same time of business worries or hunger or desire for a warm bed.”

Now, we all have pictures of various periods of history, pictures in our minds that are thrown on our mental projection-screens by words. Consider, for example, a brief period in a specific place: the 1880’s and go’s in America. We think of the hotels of Metropolis filled with new-made rail millionaires wolfing it down at the oyster bar; we think of hansoms, sulkies, Conestogas, and summertime awnings and shaved ice with syrup, and lads wearing overalls with suspenders, and the schoolmarm in leg-of-mutton sleeves passing along the wooden sidewalk, past the drummers making a spittoon ping. Those times in that place mean sweatshops and horse wagons bringing the milk to the early train, outdoor privies, child labor, bandstands and trolleys and the jamborees of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Are you really able to believe all this and place yourself there, sitting on the porch with a schooner of beer after your long trudge home from the mill? I doubt you can. It was something people write about, but it wasn’t real. It was Edith Wharton and Booth Tarkington and a whole host of movies with “Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde” being sung in the background; it was dreams and novels and Sister Carrie and The Good Old Days. But not reality. Can you really smell coal dust and feel the pull of muddy streets on your boots, can you believe in one suit for go-to-church, and work clothes all the rest of the time? Can you feel all that and believe in it? I doubt you can.

 

I never could—and still cannot. But I’m closer now to what it all must have been like. I’ve read the Police Gazette .

The Police Gazette began publication in 1845 with the idea of writing about highwaymen and suchlike malefactors, the thought being that the public would get on to the evil-doers and fix their wagons. The magazine was a kind of early-day True Detective Stones . Only a couple of years after publication began, the country went to war with Mexico. The United States War Department, plagued by desertions, then subsidized the paper so that it would reveal on its back page each week the information that So-and-so, five feet four, scar on right hand, civilian occupation cooper, had gone AWOL from the 8th Dragoons. When the war was over, the paper went back to endless descriptions of the doings of civilian criminals. The chaps in the dreary stories bereft of the slightest tinge of literary panache still seemed to have a command of English that the most meticulous old-maid schoolteacher would envy: “Stand and deliver, lest I upon the moment discharge the contents of this blunderbuss forthwith.”

For thirty years the Police Gazette drifted downward. Sometimes it roused itself for an exposé of some particular outrage, and there might be a lively reaction, with bands of criminals stoning the paper’s building in lower New York. But for the most part it was heavy and dull. On the side it sold immunity to real crooks, taking hush money whenever offered. It was the oldest weekly in the country, but it was a bore.