October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
A Little Visit to the Lower Depths via
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.
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.
As for pictures, the Police Gazette was supreme. Its woodcuts have never been surpassed. Their technical detail in the period before the photograph came in with a rush was a wonder of journalism. The artists, full-time employees, worked usually from imagination, occasionally from direct observation. The details of the clothing portrayed, the wagons, buildings, kitchens, implements, and the old-fashioned faces, give us as good a picture of those days as is likely to be found.
The heart and soul of the Police Gazette consisted of sports and theatre coverage, plus crime and Sin. Fox, by creating wild definitions, managed to include almost every phase of human activity imaginable under the category of sports. He sponsored bizarre contests for which he offered Championship Belts adorned with his name and that of his publication. Without his inspiration it is doubtful that America would have had a Champion Hog Butcher, Water Drinker, and Teeth Weight Lifter.
More significant were his contributions to boxing. Had Fox never lived, Dempsey and Louis and Ali might have lived out their years fighting on barges moored in rivers where the sheriff ventured not. Almost alone, the Police Gazette made boxing big business and so popular that the result of a Sullivan-Ryan bout was of immensely more interest to the citizens than the result of a Garfield-Hancock Presidential election.
Fox was interested in all classes of fighters and faithfully gave his Championship Belts to men of all weight divisions. But his passion was for the heavyweights. In 1881, at the Gentlemen’s Sporting Theatre in New York’s Bowery, he saw a brutally tough Boston lad who was pointed out as a comer in the prize ring—in which disputes were settled by 100 or 115-round bare-fisted contests. Fox told a waiter to have the fighter come to his table. In reply to the waiter’s request, the tough said, “It’s no farther from him to me than it is from me to him. If he wants to see John L. Sullivan, he can do the walking.”
This to the proprietor of the Police Gazette! Fox set out to destroy the thug. He imported English brawlers and New Zealand sluggers; he brought forth Hibernian bravoes and American heroes and charged them one by one to humble John L. They all failed, but the prefight build-ups—Ryan and Wilson and Mitchell and Greenfield and Slade sawing wood, doing roadwork, eating raw steak, pitching hay—set sporting America aflame.
Eventually Fox came up with Jake Kilrain, whom he presented in his paper as a knightlike figure who talked in gravely polite tones and never ventured into the street without his high silk hat. For various reasons, Sullivan did not immediately arrange to battle Kilrain. Booming that Sullivan feared his man, Fox anointed Kilrain as America’s champion and sent him to England to take on Jem Smith, the British titleholder. The two slugged at each other for hours, until darkness made it impossible for them to go on. Fox decided that although officially the bout was a draw, Kilrain was the winner and hence, by his logic, the champion of the entire world.
The decision was more or less accepted by sporting gentlemen everywhere, even as they accepted the Police Gazettte’s highly popular column of answers to sports questions as the final determiner of all bets. But there remained Sullivan. When John L. agreed to meet Kilrain, the whole country held its breath waiting for the outcome. To the chagrin of the Police Gazette , Sullivan won. After that there was nothing to do but make it up with the Boston Strong Boy. He was given the Championship Belt and is remembered as the first of the official heavyweight champions.
Fox campaigned to make boxing not only popular but legal. (Both the Kilrain-Jem Smith and Kilrain-Sullivan bouts violated the laws of the places where they were held.) He ended by making the sport respectable. In the ten years that elapsed between the moment of Sullivan’s insulting remark in the Gentlemen’s Sporting Theatre in New York and Sullivan’s defeat by Jim Corbett in New Orleans, boxing came of age. Before and after this happy ending, Fox continued wildly to push all sports: rat killing, lady wrestling, one-legged clog dancing, water walking, everything. He himself knew very little about the technical details, but it did not matter. Our great-grandparents lived lives that generally precluded visiting a big city more than once or twice in a lifetime. They had no television, no movies, no radio. Where the European peasantry to a certain extent partook of the great world through their interest in His Royal Highness or Her Imperial Majesty, Americans lived in part through their interest in sports heroes whom they would never see in the flesh. Fox understood that. There was not a saloon or barbershop, not a club or volunteers’ firehouse that in time did not hang in a prominent place a portrait of John L., or Corbett, or, later, Bob Fitzsimmons. Those pictures were purchased from the Police Gazette printing plant in the giant building at Franklin Square, New York City—the country’s largest newspaper building, Fox often pointed out—and it was Richard Fox who created the interest that made men hang those pictures up on the wall.
In the America where the Police Gazette flourished, every town, even the smallest, had a Bijou Theatre or a Gayety. (In my own small town in upstate New York, the space above what is now our local drugstore was, from 1880 to 1900, referred to as the Grand Opera House.)
The lighting was terrible in these places, and the stage boards creaked. But down the street was a depot—in my town there were, in fact, three depots, and now, of course, there are none—and from time to time there arrived a troupe of touring players. Out in the dreary prairie hamlets the players got off the cars covered with dust; in the South they would be sweaty all over. Their costumes were frayed. Nevertheless, they represented glamour equally mixed with Sin. The very words used for the feminine players were charged with excitement for the mill hands and cowmen: soubrette, ballet girl .
The dramatic plays were old reliables in which the villain got his in the last act. The musicals were loud. The comedians were far from the polished performers of the vaudeville days of thirty years later. But these troupers brought the great world to the little lonely towns on the great continent that in the late nineteenth century was essentially unpeopled and undeveloped. The players brought a bit of color with them, and left behind inflamed farm boys and, sometimes, farm girls who, though forbidden to go to the performance, might have caught enough of a glimpse of the players in the street to engender the hope that they, too, might someday drink champagne —“wine,” it was called—and have a handsome leading man and go about in a flare of glamour—and be something. Be an actress.
The clergymen thundered against all this. (A story has come down over the years that a group of reverends called upon Fox in his office, bearing, with horror, a picture he had published of a vilely exposed soubrette. “Let us pray!” cried the leader of the dominies, and Fox at once dropped to his knees before his desk and chanted away for a while. After that there seemed nothing for the men of God to do but take their leave.) Constables threatened action if performances should prove obscene, and good ladies flounced away when the sinners appeared on the streets near their hotel. But the theatre flourished in those years.
It might not have done so handsomely had the Police Gazette never been. Before Fox, the stage people had gone almost wholly unchronicled. Fox saw them as aids to circulation, and to this end not an issue of his paper appeared without some theatre gossip, some discussion of players’ love affairs and plans, and—most important of all—at least one Favorite of the Footlights to set the pulse beating. To our eyes these girls seem unbelievable—incredibly thick of limb, heavy of jowl, arch of countenance, cow-eyed—but to our great-grandfathers they were spicy, daring, exciting, stimulating, all that Theatre was supposed to be.
Our great-grandparents for the most part lived their lives on the scanty proceeds of damned hard work and damned long hours in foundries and blacksmith shops, in sawmills and factories and sweatshops and farm fields, in tobacco-stripping plants and lumberyards, in kitchens sweltering in summer and freezing in winter—but a very tiny percentage of them lived in the Gilded Age. For these few, the actress was as much a part of education as Princeton or Harvard. The dudes and swells had to have their fling. And the girls at Vassar naughtily experimented with cigarettes and the wearing of trousers. These scandals were always grist for Fox’s mill. Sin —that sold papers. And how Fox ranted against it!
But, of course, the Police Gazette itself was sinful. When you get right down to it, that is what it was. The illustrations showed women’s ankles . All the time! In every issue! Writing in 1930, the renowned columnist Franklin P. Adams, looking back to his youth, said that the pugilistic stuff never had interested him—what got to him was the ankles. “Yes, I used to stare at those pictures, and so did all the boys that I knew.”
Fox never came out and said that ankles and even knees were the subjects of half the illustrations. It was just that women tended to fight with one another in Kenosha, or get tossed by a steer in Laredo, or get caught in barbed wire in Rochester —and when this happened, their skirts jumped up. And sports reading of these events and studying the woodcuts in an atmosphere of cigars and bay rum—for the true home of the Police Gazette was the barbershop and saloon—well, they read and studied. Who can blame them? They lived in towns in which the street paving ended where the trolley made its turnaround. Their wrists were thick and their nails dirty. They drank, being largely of the lower orders (as was 95 per cent of the population) and therefore pretty much immune to the genteel Women’s Christian Temperance Union ideas of the middle classes. Their surroundings were grimy and dreary: coal dust in the winter and mud in the spring and the smell of horse manure all year round. There was precious little spice in their lives. So they looked at ankles.
But, you know, they were our own. History, as History, was not for them or for their Police Gazette . There was never the slightest mention of History in the pink pages upon which the paper was printed. (Why pink pages? Nobody knows for sure. It was a Fox inspiration, and it worked, it caught the eye and imagination.) History was our immigration policy, or foreign affairs, or the tariff issue. It was the little printed phrases in the left-hand corners of school textbooks—The Currency Issue, The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, Federal Grants to Western States. None of that will you find here in what used to be called “The Pinky.” The readers might have guffawed at “Prominent Banker Pushes Peanut With Nose For a Mile to Pay Off Election Bet,” but if they wanted to know about Grover Cleveland’s policies, they would have to seek elsewhere. That must have been the way they wanted it. Otherwise the paper wouldn’t have sold.
Great-grandmother and great-grandfather have now gone to dust under cemetery stones. We have pictures of them in old albums, and in those pictures he is sitting sternly, wearing, always, a coat and tie. She is straight-backed and staring at the camera with her hand placed on his shoulder. She buried half her brood because the sickness carried them off, and he slaved like a dog in the fields or along the railroad line, but you would never know it from the prim picture taken by a studio photographer, telling them not to move for the long period it would take for an exposure to be made. But beyond those unsmiling faces and his whiskers and her hairdo and long skirt you can sense, if you take the Police Gazette for what it was, that these stern, heroic figures were, after all, real. Like us. Their country lanes are superhighways now, and so much of it all is gone—kerosene lamps, the stoves, sleds, saws for cutting the ice, stickpins, and needle workshops … everything. But something of it all is in the pages of the Police Gazette to say that once upon a time these our own breathed, yelled, fought, made love, had great and terrible passions, laughed—that they lived.
Richard Kyle Fox died in 1922, a multimillionaire. By then his paper had been in decline for twenty years. Hearst and Pulitzer and McCormick long afterward admitted their debt to him, saying that the New York Daily News and Chicago Tribune were his heirs. Their time began when his ended. He had less than twenty-five years for his run. Then, around the turn of the century, the dailies, copying him, outsensationalized and out-yellow-journalized him. On top of which, they had photographs, too.
Fox, no longer young, tried to hang on through the days just before and after the First World War. But the life and the spirit weren’t there any more. The dailies had sports sections and theatrical columns, too. By the time he died, his paper was as dull and lifeless as it had been when he began.
Ten years after his death the Police Gazette , trapped by the Great Depression, was sold for a bankrupt. A few years later, Harold Roswell took it over. He breathed some life into it, bringing it out as a monthly. Then a Canadian outfit bought it. You see it on your newsstand, sometimes. I do not believe it will come back big again.