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Hearst’s Little Time Bomb

July 2024
6min read

In novels, movies, and television melodramas, money and power often are treated as if they were two sides of a single coin. In life, they are different currencies, and the effort to convert one into the other has produced some amazing tangles. I know of no better example than an all-but-forgotten scandal that involved a man who could buy everything he ever wanted —except the power that he wanted more than anything.


In the winter of 1904-5, the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst acquired some unusual letters. The letters had been written by John D. Archbold, vice-president of the Standard Oil Company, to various state and federal officials.

Hearst had been attacking America’s trusts for years. Archbold’s letters to Sen. Joseph Benson Foraker, an Ohio Republican, especially interested him.

February 16, 1900

My Dear Senator: Here is still another very objectionable bill. It is so outrageous as to be ridiculous, but it needs to be looked after, and I hope there will be no difficulty in killing it.

March 26, 1900

Dear Senator: In accordance with our understanding, I now beg to enclose you certificate of deposit to your favor for $15,000.

April 17, 1900

My Dear Senator: I enclose you certificate of deposit to your favor for $15,000. … I need scarcely again express our great gratification over the favorable outcome of affairs.

Though he retained the title of president, John D. Rockefeller had withdrawn from active management of the Standard Oil Company in 1897. Archbold now directed the day-to-day operation of the company. His letters to Senator Foraker give a fair idea of his methods.

The way that he acquired Archbold’s letters gives a fair idea of Hearst’s methods. Archbold employed as an office boy a young man named Willie Winfield (or possibly Winkfield), who got the idea that he might move up in the world by selling letters written by his employer. An editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World declined the offer. An editor of Hearst’s New York American gave Winfield and an associate a list of two hundred men whose correspondence with Archbold might interest the newspaper.

From December 1904 through February 1905, Winfield searched his employer’s files. Letters that looked promising were brought to the office of the American and shown to a pair of Hearst’s editors, then returned to Archbold’s files after being photographed. In all, according to later reports, Hearst paid between twelve and thirty-four thousand dollars for these services.

Readers who are familiar with Hearst’s career may suppose that they can predict what will happen next. Hearst will publish the letters in the most sensational possible manner, oceans of news ink will spill, circulation will soar, and the public will be treated to an orgy of editorial indignation.

In fact, none of this happened—not at once. Circulation mattered immensely to Hearst, but power mattered even more. Archbold’s letters put the publisher in the position of a terrorist who has obtained a supply of dynamite and who must decide exactly when and where he wants to use it.

Like many men who inherit great wealth, Hearst never cared much about money. His publishing empire was built upon the solid foundation of his father's substantial holdings in the richest gold, silver, and copper mines in the United States.

George Hearst had acquired a newspaper, the San Francisco Daily Examiner, in 1880 and had reluctantly given it to his son in 1887, after the young man rejected his suggestion that he run one of the family ranches or mines. “There’s only one thing that’s sure about my boy Bill.” George Hearst said later. “When he wants cake, he wants cake, and he wants it now. And I notice that after a while he gets the cake.”

When he bought the Archbold letters, what William Randolph Hearst wanted was political power. He had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1903 and had received considerable support for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1904. If he did not publish Archbold’s letters as soon as he purchased them in 1905, it was because he wanted to hold them in reserve for the one purpose that he cherished more than selling newspapers: his own pursuit of the Presidency.

With his eye on 1908, Hearst chose not to use the Archbold letters in 1905, when, running on an anti-Tammany Hall ticket, he came within three thousand votes of being elected mayor of New York City, or in 1906, when, having turned to Tammany for support, he lost to Charles Evans Hughes in the race for governor of New York.

With the loss of that gubernatorial election, the position that Hearst had sought as a stepping-stone to the Presidency slipped from beneath his feet. It seemed that in 1908 he would have to watch quietly while other men vied for the only prize that could satisfy his colossal ego.

Hearst was a man of many talents, but watching quietly was not one of them. In the words of his biographer W. A. Swanberg, “He had an incurable weakness for the ‘big splash.’ ” Possession of the Archbold letters gave him the opportunity to indulge that weakness.

After the Democrats failed to nominate him in 1904, Hearst had become the guiding force behind a third party, the Independence League, which drew its membership mostly from Democrats dissatisfied with the old-line party leadership. Hearst himself was not about to embrace the role of sacrificial lamb in a hopeless campaign, but at the party’s convention in the summer of 1908, he engineered the nomination of a Massachusetts businessman, Thomas L. Hisgen, whose family business happened to be an axle-grease company that had fought a fierce battle to avoid being taken over by Standard Oil.

The presidential campaign of 1908 pitted Hisgen against William Howard Taft for the Republican party and William Jennings Bryan for the Democrats. The Independent party platform mirrored the views of the publisher who was the party’s most prominent supporter. It called for more effective control of monopolies, the eight-hour workday, federal operation of railroads, the establishment of a department of labor, the popular election of U.S. senators, and the creation of a strong navy.

Hearst and Hisgen embarked on a speaking tour in which the candidate himself played second fiddle to his famous supporter. On September 17, in a speech in Columbus, Ohio, Hearst began setting off his dynamite: “I am now going to read copies of letters written by Mr. John Archbold … an intimate personal representative of Mr. Rockefeller. … These letters have been given me by a gentleman … whose name I may not divulge lest he be subjected to the persecution of this monopoly.”

A predictable ruckus ensued. Senator Foraker declared that Standard Oil had paid him for legal services but that “the employment had no reference whatever to anything pending in Congress.” A spokesman for Archbold said that his correspondence with Foraker had been “entirely proper” and added, “If Mr. Hearst had come to Mr. Archbold direct it probably would have cost him less to secure copies of Mr. Archbold’s correspondence than for Mr. Hearst to have employed or dealt with thieves.”

Hearst stuck to the lie that he had not obtained the letters until 1908. He could justify the public reading of private correspondence on the grounds that “I do not consider that letters written to public men on matters affecting the public interest and threatening the public welfare are private letters.” But the act of holding the letters for three years made a joke of his high-minded concern with the public interest.

In 1912 the story of William Randolph Hearst and the Archbold letters descended to farce. Thinking that his chances as a dark-horse candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination might get a boost if the public were reminded of his record as a foe of monopoly, Hearst dug out the letters and published more than a hundred of them, some never before made public, in a series that ran in Hearst’s Magazine for seven months. To enliven a rather stale exposé, photographs of some of the letters were reproduced.

Hearst’s old enemy Norman Hapgood, the editor of Collier’s, commissioned a writer named Arthur Gleason to take a close look at the photographs. Gleason made some startling discoveries:

-Five of the letters, with dates from 1898 to 1904, had been typed on a Smith machine with elite type—a machine that the company had not manufactured until 1906.

-A letter allegedly written by Rep. Charles H. Grosvenor of Ohio had been typed on the same machine as a letter allegedly written by Archbold in New York.

Circulation mattered immensely to Hearst, but power mattered even more. So for the moment he did nothing with the letters.

-Signatures actually made by hand always differ, but eight of Archbold’s signatures matched exactly.

Why had Hearst used forgeries when he possessed genuine documents? The publisher explained that the letters had to be retyped in order to be clearly reproduced. That seems plausible, but why not say so?

From start to finish it’s a delicious story for anyone interested in wealth and power in America. On one side, a top executive eager to purchase legislative influence, and legislators eager to sell it. On the other side, an attack on corruption that exempts itself from any moral scrutiny.

To whom shall we turn for a closing word? Perhaps to Theodore Roosevelt. He described Hearst as an “unspeakable blackguard” who combined “all the worst faults of the conscienceless … monied man, and of the conscienceless … demagogue. …”

Or perhaps to John D. Rockefeller. In an autobiography published in 1908-9, he wrote: “Speaking of Mr. Archbold leads me to say again that I have received much more credit than I deserve in connection with the Standard Oil Company. It was my good fortune to help to bring together the efficient men who are the controlling forces of the organization … but it is they who have done the hard tasks.”


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