- Historic Sites
The National Police Gazette
A Little Visit to the Lower Depths via
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
Enter Richard Kyle Fox. He was from Belfast, the grandson of a minister. He came to America in 1874, and, according to the story he later told, he got into a brawl on the very pier that had felt his first footsteps in the New World only moments before. One of his fellow punchers turned out to be an employee of the Commercial Bulletin , which was the Wall Street Journal of its day. The man, a Mr. O’Brien, took Fox around to his office and got him a job as an advertising salesman. Fox was a whiz at that. On the side he sold ads for the doddering Police Gazette , which was then owned by two engravers, a father and son who had taken it over in payment for debts owed them by the previous management. Within two years their own obligations to Fox led them to unload their half-moribund rag on him as a settlement.
Fox’s character was such that the words “good taste” can be applied to him with as much reason as “nice fellow” to Genghis Khan. Vulgarity was his middle name. “Wooly-Headed African Half-Ape Stretched From Tree By Righteous Mississippi Gentlemen” ran the headline on a story typical of those with which he filled his new acquisition. “Sheeny Abortionist Trapped By Brave Beauty.” Fox was a good hater. He disliked clergymen, all foreigners, the upper classes of society, politicians. He was not fond of college boys or doctors. In addition he was abominably devoted to self-glorification. No member of his writing staff ever got a real by-line—some got noms de plume like “Paul Prowler” or “The Old Rounder”—but Fox’s own name often appeared, and usually in capital letters. Frequent tribute was paid to his grit, mental acuteness, dauntless courage, generosity, and indomitable will.
Fox, then, was bigoted, narrow, shameless, and more than slightly ridiculous. He was also a genius.
For he invented the sports page and the gossip column, and he was the first to use copious illustrations to dramatize the stories in his paper. Before Fox, these things really did not exist. Because of him prize fighters were suddenly fascinating public figures, and so were actresses and chorus girls. And wonderful, dramatic woodcuts made something of little people in towns no one had ever heard of, showed them doing things, told something about them.
Anything Fox ever said about himself in print has to be discounted by at least half, so it is difficult at this late date to discuss just how his paper was written each week. He would have it that a vast corps of Police Gazette reporters snooped around the entire continent, keeping their eyes open for news. In reality the paper seems to have relied a great deal upon regular daily newspapers whose stories could be rewritten to Police Gazette standards. (For very important, continuing stories, Fox did send his own men out.)
When the various stories, however obtained, were selected by Fox himself for airing in his pages, he would have his writers locked into a large room. Most of his writers were not full-time employees but reporters for New York’s more than a dozen daily newspapers, who, attired in capes and living in furnished rooms two blocks from their offices, subsisted on drink and the dream of a big scoop. In their big room at the Police Gazette they would be given all they wanted to drink and also good food. Plug-uglies—boxers and wrestlers who hung around Fox—lounged outside the door. This was all done on weekends, when the reporters were free from their regular jobs. On Monday morning, if the assigned work had been satisfactorily completed, the writers would be let out into the air and pointed in the direction of their regular offices. Each man bore away a ten-dollar bill.
It is certain that some of these anonymous scribes were major-leaguers, and in fact legend has it that all kinds of great talents labored for the booze, eats, and tenner. The brevity and sharpness that characterize some of the stories of prostitutes taking their own lives, of men going up to the scaffold, of life and death a long time ago, indicate abilities of a higher order than a hack possesses. Upon occasion the human sympathies of a writer come through despite the smart-aleck quality of much of the paper’s content. It is also worth saying that almost alone of America’s press the Police Gazette saw in the actions of Henry Clay Frick at Homestead the attitude of a damnable murderer. And while Fox’s demonic hatred of Orientals is held directly responsible for the Chinese Exclusion Acts and an American attitude toward Asians that is still bringing tragic results, he did a good deal toward pointing out the horrors of transatlantic steerage conditions. To his credit it also can be said that he gave Victorian cant its comeuppance—in spades. I would say that this short list, to which we will add his race prejudices, exhausts those items upon which we can pass moral judgment, favorable or otherwise. For the Police Gazette did not exist for the discussion of great issues. It stood for entertainment, raciness, and readability.