WAR OF WORDS: A True Tale of Newsprint and Murder
By Simon Read
(Union Square Press, $24.95)
You think the newspaper business is tough now? Competing newspapers in mid-19th century San Francisco sometimes fought each other—literally—for circulation and advertising supremacy in a rough-and-tumble city fueled by Gold Rush money, whiskey and gambling and ruled by corruption, vigilantes, violence and scandal. Publishers were beaten or murdered. Editors sometimes faced off with dueling pistols. Mobs angry at articles or editorials surged into newspaper offices and destroyed everything in sight. And, notes author Simon Read in War of Words, “Reporters roamed the streets like rival gang members, many with the reassuring weight of a sidearm against the hip.”
At times, a half dozen or more newspapers battled each other for readers, and there was plenty to write about—or gossip about—in mid-19th-century San Francisco.
“Murder was the news industry’s bread and butter in those early days,” the author writes. “A tale of killing always received priority coverage and was seldom cut or held to make room for copy of a less dramatic nature….In the 1800s, much like today, sex and violence sold newspapers.”
Right in the middle of this newsprint melee, the famed (and recently financially imperiled) San Francisco Chronicle was born “as a throwaway vehicle for theater advertisements and drama critiques” known as the Daily Dramatic Chronicle. It was founded by two brothers, Charles and Michael de Young, members of “a family with an obscure history draped in sordid rumor.”
The de Youngs, however, proved to be adept and lucky businessmen, Simon Read points out in this engaging, entertaining and enlightening historical portrait of San Francisco journalism and the controversial personalities behind it. The de Young brothers paid back their publication’s startup loan just one week after their debut issue on Jan. 16, 1865. They also kept costs low by doing all of the newsgathering, typesetting and publishing themselves. They even gathered up and recycled old issues in clever ways that brought in a little extra money and helped build up their publication’s reputation.
The Daily Dramatic Chronicle soon became a magnet for writers such as Mark Twain, Bret Harte and other Bohemians who later would become famous. It also got an unexpected circulation boost from a tragic event in Washington, D.C., when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The brothers’ newspaper normally went to press after the city’s morning papers had published and long before the afternoon papers appeared. The Daily Dramatic Chronicle was able to hit the streets with fresh headlines and quickly follow up with extra editions as stunned people scrambled to get the latest news about Lincoln’s death. Meanwhile, mobs attacked and destroyed some of San Francisco’s newspapers that had taken pro-Southern or anti-Lincoln stances.
After these dramatic events, and now with fewer competitors, the newspaper kept growing and later was renamed the San Francisco Chronicle on Aug. 16, 1869.
But new troubles and controversies were just beginning for what would become San Francisco’s premiere daily newspaper. Simon Read’s new book takes the reader deep inside the turmoil of the San Francisco Chronicle’s early history as a war of words spirals out of control between Charles de Young and Isaac Kalloch, a mayoral candidate and well-known “hellfire preacher” with a scandalous reputation. One man soon would shoot and almost kill the other, and a son of the survivor later would retaliate by shooting and killing his father’s assailant.
The author, a former Bay Area reporter who has written three other books, has done an excellent job of mining colorful quotes and details from newspaper articles, periodicals, magazine articles, and court transcripts from “the time in question.”
WAR OF WORDS: A True Tale of Newsprint and Murder definitely lives up to its title and subtitle.
– Si Dunn