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Charles Chapin

July 2024
4min read

At one point in the sad, oddly bland autobiography he wrote in his prison cell, Charles Chapin recalls fondly the reporters who served under him when he was city editor of the New York World: Barton Currie, Will Inglis, Cupid Jordan, Jimmy Loughboro, Joe Brady—”and a lot of other bright chaps, for whom I have always felt a deeper affection than they perhaps credited me with.”

That circumspect remark is the only indication he gives that all those men hated his guts. They worked for him because he paid them top salaries, and because he ran the city desk of the best newspaper in America. But they hated him all the same. “I never saw or spoke to a member of the staff outside the office. …” he wrote. “I gave no confidences, I invited none. I was myself a machine, and the men I worked with were cogs.”

During his time on the World , Chapin fired 108 men. He fired one for using the word “questionnaire”—newfangled and effeminate to his way of thinking—and another for showing up late for work after having taken his wife to the hospital. Chapin told him a man with a sick wife couldn’t be counted on to do a good job. When Irvin S. Cobb, one of his reporters, heard that Chapin was sick, he looked up from his desk and said, “I hope it’s nothing trivial.” Yet Cobb and his colleagues stuck with Chapin as long as they could. “Quite possibly,” said the city editor of the rival Herald Tribune , ”… he was the ablest city editor who ever lived.”

“Journalism!” Chapin wrote, “How I… detest that much abused word. Every brainless mutt I ever met in a newspaper office described himself as a ‘journalist.’ The real men, the men who knew news, knew how to get it and knew how to write it, preferred to be known as newspaper men.”

Chapin always proudly counted himself a newspaperman. Born in upstate New York in 1858, he left home early and settled in a small Midwestern town. As a sickly fourteen-year-old, he would show up in the local press room at three-thirty in the morning, grab the papers still sticky from the press, and distribute them over a five-mile route before he sat down to his breakfast. He hung around the office, learned Morse code, and eventually began taking down the stories that came in over the Associated Press wire. One night while the key was quiet he composed a whimsey called “An Autobiography of a Hotel Office Chair.” He left it on his desk, where the editor found it. The next day it appeared in the local paper. “Nothing I ever did afterwards. …” said Chapin, “brought me so much happiness.”

He worked for a while as an actor, but what he called “newspapering” had gotten under his skin, and when his troupe went broke, he signed on as the lowest-paid reporter for the Chicago Tribune . He was good. He gambled newspaper money to hire a tug to chase the schooner he was sure held a convicted political boss who was fleeing across Lake Huron; another time he pulled the emergency brake on a limited in order to get off near the remote spot where a ship had gone aground. When a philandering husband died in Chapin’s arms after his wife had shot him, the reporter wrested the pistol from the hysterical woman, calmed her, then “ransacked the family album for photographs of all concerned in the tragedy.” He was the Tribune ’s highest-salaried reporter when he left four years later to become city editor of the Chicago Times . He was twenty-five years old.

Despite bouts of illness, anxiety, and collapse, he worked furiously and well, and in 1898 he was drawn to the great lodestone of all turn-of-the-century newspaper men, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World . It was not an easy berth. In what Chapin called “the epoch of delirious journalism,” the World had a circulation of a million a day, and put its first edition on the street “before six in the morning and almost every hour afterward until nearly midnight.” The strain drove men mad, and occasionally killed them. “During the twenty years that I was city editor.…” said Chapin, “more than fifty of our staff went to their graves and nearly all of them were under forty.”

Chapin doubtless put some of them there. Perched on a dais in the newsroom, endlessly chewing candy bars, he would swing his gray schoolmaster’s face this way and that, and if he didn’t like what he saw, somebody’s career was ruined. Once, when a reporter called in late with a story, Chapin snapped into the phone: “Your name is Smith, is it? You say you work for the Evening World , do you? You’re a liar. Smith stopped working for the Evening World an hour ago.”

His men would do anything to avoid displeasing him. When a young newsman named David Davidson arrived at the World years after Chapin had left, they were still telling the story of a reporter whom Chapin had ordered to interview J. P. Morgan. After being refused outright, the man persisted so desperately that the financier’s bodyguard finally gave him a savage beating. When the wretched man stumbled back to the office with his face in rags, Chapin said, “You go back and tell Morgan he can’t intimidate me!

Chapin rarely smiled, and still more rarely showed any real pleasure. But once, after his coverage had led to the arrest of a murderer, an associate found him cheerily rubbing his hands together, and asked why he was so happy. “Why shouldn’t I be happy?” Chapin wanted to know. “I’ve started a man on his way to the electric chair.” When a reporter brought in the famous photograph taken the instant a would-be assassin’s bullet struck Mayor Gaynor, Chapin was truly ecstatic. “Blood all over him!” be beamed. “And exclusive, too!”

For all his brutality, Chapin was good enough to get away with firing Pulitzer’s own son. Under his chilly rule, the World gained in circulation and retained its pre-eminence among the Manhattan dailies. But Chapin was in trouble. Somewhere on his way up, he had developed a love of luxury. “I had visions of a mansion on the Avenue, a home in the country, a yacht… and a pair of suspenders for each pair of trousers.”

He made bad investments; when they failed in 1918, he shot his wife. He had wished, he said, to spare her the ordeal of fending for herself after he could no longer support her.

Chapin made no effort to escape, nor to defend himself. He was sick of it all, he said, and wanted to go to the electric chair as quickly as possible. Eventually, however, he reconciled himself to spending the rest of his days in Sing Sing, where he edited the prison newspaper. He died in 1930.

The reporters who had survived his reign on the World marked his passing, and told each other they had never been surprised that their boss had figured in a murder. They were only surprised he wasn’t the victim.

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