So last weekend, Athenae over at the First Draft blog (which you need to bookmark, by the way) posted her usual weekend question thread. This time it was “What is your favorite short story?”
I pondered that for a while, mostly thinking about all the great science fiction short stories I’ve read over the years in various collections and monthly in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine.
But when I really thought about it, it came to me that my favorite short story has nothing to do with SF. Rather, it’s one by Samuel Clemens writing as Mark Twain, and titled “Journalism in Tennessee.” Twain was doing gonzo journalism a century before Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and doing it just as well. And in “Journalism in Tennessee,” he captures the absurdities of the weekly newspaper biz in the 1870s, which were only a little more absurd than the business had become by the time I got involved.
While we didn’t have to deal with other publishers taking potshots at us through the window, we did have to deal with people stealing our stuff, including a nearby daily paper, as well as local radio stations who seemed to figure that reading our stories without attribution during their newscasts was just part of the game.
Weekly newspapers spread west in the wake of settlement, with the first papers in most counties opening in the county seat to take advantage of revenue from printing legal advertisements. Here in Kendall County, the first weekly paper was the Kendall County Courier, begun by Hector Seymour Humphrey.
Interestingly enough, there was no Kendall County newspaper from 1841 when the county was established until Humphrey decided head west down the Chicago to Ottawa road from Naperville in 1852 and start one in what was then the Kendall County seat.
Humphrey was born in Tompkins County, N.Y. in Jan. 29, 1828. Early in his life he got into the newspaper business at the Ithaca Chronicle and News where he learned the trade. He headed west to Chicago in 1848, where he worked as a journeyman printer on the old Chicago Journal. Looking for more opportunities, Humphrey headed west to Naperville. It’s possible he may have brought out the press and type sold by the Chicago Journal to Charles J. Sellon, who was eager to start a newspaper in Naperville. Sellon teamed with a consortium of Naperville residents to finance the paper and the first issue of the DuPage County Recorder came off the press on Dec. 1, 1849.
Sellon, however, was no businessman, and apparently he wasn’t much of a newspaperman either. The Recorder had been designed to be non-political. That didn’t suit Sellon a bit, so he left and started the Democratic Palindealer, plus a smaller weekly called the Daughter of Temprance. Neither proved successful, and Sellon abruptly ceased publication and left town.
According to A History of the County of DuPage, Illinois by C.W. Richmond and H.F. Vallette published in 1857, by the time he got out of the business, Sellon owned a lot of money, including a considerable sum to H.S. Humphrey, who Richmond and Vallette described as “a journeyman printer in his office.” In return for the debt, Sellon signed over a half interest in his papers to Humphrey, who was able to retrieve at least part of his cash after they were bought by Charles W. Keith and C.C. Barnes. Keith and Barnes paid off the papers’ creditors—including Humphrey—and started a new paper called the DuPage County Observer, which issued its first number in early January 1851. Keith, Barnes, and Humphrey were all on the masthead of the new paper.
Also adding to his life story, Humphrey found someone to marry in Naperville. Helen I. Fox was born near Detroit, Mich. on Feb. 14, 1833 and had come west to the Illinois frontier with her family. She and H.S. were married in Naperville on May 22, 1851.
Unfortunately, Humphrey’s new paper was not a financial success, either. On April 6, 1852, Humphrey sold his interest in the Observer to Gershom Martin, and once again headed farther west on the Chicago to Ottawa road, this time with a new wife, and ending up in Oswego, then the Kendall County seat. In that era, papers heavily relied on legal advertising so if a town in a county was going to have a paper, it was usually the county seat.
Humphrey decided to name Kendall County’s first newspaper the Kendall County Chronicle. It advertised itself as neutral in politics, and was apparently just barely successful. Humphrey ran the paper himself as both editor and publisher until the fall of 1854 when he sold it to Abraham Sellers. Humphrey agreed to stay on as the editor. That arrangement lasted until the summer of 1855 when Humphrey bought the office back from Sellers. Then during the winter of 1855-56, Humphrey sold the paper to William P. Boyd.
Boyd wrote under the pen name of Niblo and made the mistake of changing the Chronicle from a neutral paper to a Democratic sheet. That didn’t go down very well in Oswego or the rest of Kendall County, which had been fairly strong Whig country before the Republican Party was established. After the Republicans organized, Kendall County, driven by its heavy population of New Englanders and New Yorkers, leaned heavily towards the new party.
As Humphrey recalled the era in a 1903 letter to Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall:
In the spring of 1856, the Republicans desiring an organ, called a meeting of the leading men of the county, decided to establish a paper, and requested me to take charge of it. Subscriptions were made for the paper, for advertising and job work, for which money was advanced for about two-thirds of the cost of material, which was purchased at once and “the Kendall County Free Press” was out soon after for the campaign of 1856.
Boyd’s Chronicle was soon out of business, his printing outfit sold to an Iowa newspaper.
Humphrey continued to publish the Kendall County Free Press as the Civil War broke out as Oswego’s hometown newspaper. Like their counterparts in past and future wars, soldiers serving during the war wrote home asking that their parents forward copies so they could keep abreast of what was happening on the home front. Typical was Alfred X. Murdock’s letter home to his parents on April 3, 1863:
I received your letter of the 22 today and three papers: one Free Press and two ledgers, and can assure you that I never was so glad to get hold of them – more so than I ever was before. It gives me a good deal of pleasure to read them down here – and all of the boys want to borrow them. These make 3 of them that I have got and I hope that you will keep sending them to me.
The “Ledger” Murdock referred to was probably Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger, a weekly story paper popular for its exciting fiction and dashing illustrations.
Humphrey seemed to be making a go of the Free Press, which he published while also serving as Kendall County Treasurer. During that era, it was not unusual for a newspaper publisher to also serve as an elected or appointed government official, from county school superintendent to working as the local postmaster. Humphrey served as postmaster from 1857 to 1863. Although he was pressed by the local Republican establishment to run again, Humphrey had already made the decision to move his wife and young son (born in 1858) from Oswego to Vandalia, Illinois.
He would have had to move from Oswego in any case. In 1859 county voters had passed a binding referendum to move the county seat from Oswego to Yorkville, and that meant if he wanted to continue to serve as county treasurer, he’d have to move his wife and son six miles south to the new county seat.
Further, it was about that time that John Redmond Marshall, a newly released Civil War soldier and former journeyman at the Chicago Journal—Humphrey’s old paper—had announced plans to establish a new county seat paper he proposed to call the Kendall County Record.
Ready to leave Kendall County, Humphrey offered to sell Marshall his printing outfit including type and press for $2,500, a price Marshall figured was highway robbery. Instead, Marshall bought a press and set of type from Chicago Journal publisher S.P. Rounds for his new four-page sheet, which began publication on May 7, 1864. A month later, the official county records were moved from Oswego to the newly finished courthouse in Yorkville, and Oswego was county seat no more.
By that time, Humphrey had been gone for a month or so. He moved his press and type down to Vandalia, where he established the successful Vandalia Union, the first issue coming off the press on April 16, 1864. Humphrey published the Union for more than 20 years. In 1869, President U.S. Grant appointed Humphrey postmaster at Vandalia, a job he carried on along with the Union. He also opened, in partnership with his son, Fred, a successful drug store, on which he concentrated after the sale of the Union in 1887.
H.S. Humphrey, Oswego’s pioneer newspaper man, died at Vandalia on April 18, 1914 and was buried in the South Hill and Fairlawn Cemetery in Vandalia.