Saturday, September 1, 2018

Cross-Eyed Editor Gave Birth to Sensation Mongering—and Modern Newspapers

James Gordon Bennett, the cross-eyed publisher in 1851.

James Gordon Bennett, Sr., born this day in 1795 in Newmill, Banffshire, Scotland, was so cross-eyed that one acquaintance said, “when he looked at me with one eye, he looked out at the City Hall with the other.”  Yet he saw far enough to revolutionize American journalism in several ways.

Bennet was born into a prosperous Catholic family which was devout enough to give him a good education in hopes that he would enter the priesthood.   He entered a seminary in Aberdeen at age 15 and remained there for four years.  But the restless lad was not cut out for the restraints of the cloth.  He undertook a series of rambles about Scotland while reading voraciously just about anything he could lay his hands on living on a modest income from his undoubtedly disappointed family.

In 1819 at age 23 he and a friend sailed for North America pretty much on a lark.  After arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia he found work as a school master, the occupation of a gentleman at loose ends.  He frugally saved enough of his meager earnings to pay for passage to Portland, Maine and the alluring promise of a new start in the raw but promising United States.   After another few months as teacher in a rustic village, Bennett made another jump to Boston, in 1820 the proud Hub of the Universe.

Bennett became something of an itinerant chasing opportunities where he could find them in New England he became a book seller’s clerk and a proofreader for some of the publishers who sold their wares in his shop.  Then it was on to South Carolina where the Charleston Courier hired him to translate Spanish news articles from journals arriving in the busy port from Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America—his first newspaper work.  By 1823 he was in New York City where he first sold new stories and commentary to various papers—today we would call him a freelancer—before landing a spot as assistant editor of the New York Courier and Enquirer, one of the oldest newspapers in the city.

His bitterness over his own experiences at seminary and years spent in New England and the South where anti-Catholicism was rife helped turn him away from his family’s faith.

New York was the right city at the right time for an ambitious young man.  Thanks to a commodious harbor and the opening of the Erie Canal the city was eclipsing Boston as the commercial, if not the cultural capital of the country and was poised to surpass Philadelphia as the financial hub, especially after the Second Bank of the United States was stripped of its Charter by Andrew Jackson in 1836.

That was just a year after Bennett finally raised enough money to open his own newspaper in 1835.  The New York Herald first hit the streets in May of that year.  Intent from the beginning on the widest possible circulation, Bennet aimed his paper squarely at the city’s shopkeepers, clerks, and skilled workingmen instead of at the business and political elites.  Like his contemporary Phineas T.  Barnumexcitement and diversion as well as a confirmation of their biases. 

On one hand that meant lurid coverage of crime, scandal, fires, and disasters and on the other hand expressing restrained support for the burgeoning anti-Catholic Know Nothings.  Bennett would later explain that “is not to instruct but to startle and amuse.”


Largely due to the lurid coverage in the New York Herald the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett facinated the public for decades.  This illustration from a post-Civil War book on the case depicts the alleged killer, Richard P. Robinson slinking away from the scene after bludgeoning the woman in the head with a hatched and setting her bed on fire with an oil lamp.
The fledgling paper got just what it was looking for with the sensational story of the grisly murder of a young prostitute called Helen Jewett who was found hacked in the head by an ax in her bed in an upscale brothel.  Bennett first initiated the practice of assigning reporters to regularly check in at police stations, courts, and firehousesbeat reporting, that broke the case on the front page of the Herald and continued breathless coverage through the investigation and the trial of 19-year-old Richard P. Robinson, a young man from a respectable and prosperous family who had been one of Jewett’s regular customers.
The lurid coverage broke old taboos in the press on sexual scandal which was either omitted from the news or only hinted at in language so oblique that it took a sophisticated reader to decode it.  Bennet was blunt about Jewett’s profession, place of employment, and Robinson’s patronage, although he came to depict Robinson as an innocent young man drawn to debauchery by a tainted woman.  In addition Bennett’s article featuring the account of Rosina Townsend, Jewett’s madam who discovered body, is widely credited with being the first interview published in an American newspaper.  He claimed to have personally conducted the questioning.  Some historians believe it was creatively edited and some believe it was a hoax altogether.

While Bennett’s coverage defended Robinson, his competition at the New York Sun, a paper aimed at a more working class readership than the Herald played up the class resentment of the defendant as a wealthy kid who could buy his way out of killing a poor girl driven to degradation by cruel circumstances.  The two papers battled it out in what would become the first great urban circulation war.

In the end, Bennett won twice.  First, sales of the upstart Herald soared and the paper was soon the most widely read in the city.  Second, Robinson did beat the rap.  The judge disallowed critical testimony of most witnesses—other prostitutes—as inherently unreliable due to their loose morals.  It then took less than half an hour for the jury—all male and respectfully middle class—to acquit the young man.

Having found a formula for success, Bennett never looked back.  From water front murders, to scandals among the elite, to riots, fires, and shipwrecks his faithful readers could count on something exciting every day.  In 1839 he upped the ante by becoming the first newspaper to publish illustrations on its front page—hastily produced wood cuts.

He also built circulation by recruiting armies of street venders—news boys—to hawk the paper on street corners across the rapidly growing city.  Other papers quickly followed suite creating a fixture of city life that endured for a century.

On the business end, Bennett was equally innovative and aggressive.  Other publishers seemed to spend half their time chasing down and dunning in arrears advertisers and subscribers.  Bennet firmly demanded cash in advance from both.

By 1840 Bennett was a wealthy and successful man. He finally had time, at age 59 to take a wife, Henrietta Agnes Crean.  Together they would have three children including the apple of his eye and heir, James Gordon Bennett, Jr.


Ephemeral copies of the Herald from its early years are nearly impossible to find.  This tattered 1842 edition is one of the few that have survived.  Any copies that the paper may have kept in its own morgue were lost in a disastrous fire during which James Gordon Bennett, Jr. drunkenly tried to assume command of responding fire companies and had to be hosed away by the firemen to keep him out of the way
Unlike most other New York papers the Herald was not affiliated with either the Whigs or Democrats or any faction of either.  As noted Bennett was sympathetic to the Know Nothings and supported some of their local candidates but did not embrace the most extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric, perhaps because he was an immigrant himself.  He extended his coverage to national politics and personally conducted the first interview of a sitting president—Democrat Martin Van Buren.  The former New York State boss of the Albany Regency, one of the first political machines, Van Buren was shrewd enough to exploit the platform provided by New York City’s most influential paper.
Despite the journalistic coup the instinctively conservative Bennett made Whig William Henry Harrison his first national endorsement in 1840.  Thereafter he would swing between parties supporting James K. Polk in 1844, Zachary Taylor in1848, and Franklin Pierce in 1852, all winners.  He was particularly enthusiastic about Pierce, a Northern Democrat with Southern principles.  But Pierce descended into an alcoholic depressive stupor after he watched his beloved son being killed in a railroad accident on the way to Washington and then apparently reneged on an implied promise to appoint Bennett as American minister plenipotentiary to France.  He turned relentlessly against the hapless Pierce attacking him almost daily on the Herald front page and in scathing editorials.

In 1856 Bennett actually flirted with supporting John C. Frémont, the first Republican candidate probably because the dashing famed explorer, Mexican War hero, and self-proclaimed liberator of California made good copy.  But in the end he passed over New York State’s former President Millard Fillmore running on the American Party (Know Nothing) ticket and backed James Buchannan, Pierce’s Secretary of State and another Northern Democrat with Southern sympathies.

Thereafter Bennett became reliably Democrat and an increasingly powerful influence on the party.  In 1860 with the sand of the union shifting under his feet he first endorsed Southern Democrat and incumbent Vice President John C. Breckinridge, then shifted to Senator John Bell  of Tennessee, a Democrat running as a Constitutional Unionist.  He thus bypassed Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas and Republican Abraham Lincoln.

In 1861 the Herald reported a circulation 84,000 copies and called itself “the most largely circulated journal in the world.”  That also made it perhaps the most influential U.S. newspaper despite competition from Horace Greely’s Republican leaning New York Tribune. 


In this mocking cartoon from a rival publication, Bennett is shown as a Scotsman so stereotypically thrifty that he dresses in rags as he rebuff attempts to clothe him in the leather kepi and cloak of the pro-Lincoln Wide Awakes in 1860,
When war broke out, Bennett positioned himself as a loyal war Democrat and a harsh critic of Lincoln’s conduct of the war and later the Emancipation Proclamation, 14th Amendment, and his refusal to entertain Confederate peace feelers.   Despite regular and often scurrilous attacks in its pages, Lincoln was one of the paper’s most avid readers.  He had fresh copies rushed to the White House as soon as they arrived by train from New York.  He admired the paper’s coverage of the war.  Bennett had dispatched a dozens of correspondents to accompany Union troops in all theaters of the war resulting in detailed accounts of major battles.  Lincoln often found them more reliable than the reports of his generals who tended to minimize their mistakes and exaggerate their accomplishments.
As the war time election of 1864 drew closer Bennett was a major force in promoting former Union General in Chief George C. McClellan for the Democratic nomination.  McClellan, who Lincoln had dismissed for his timid reluctance to fully commit his Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, ran on a platform of offering generous terms to the Rebel states.  But as the election neared Lincoln, who was widely expected to face defeat, gained strength as the tide of war finally seemed to shift against the South.  Perhaps because his son was in the Navy commanding his own yacht in action off of Florida, Bennett ultimately decided to make no endorsement in the Herald in that election, although a discerning reader could not fail to notice a bias for McClellan.

After Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865 and the war drew to a close, Bennett and the Herald pivoted shamelessly and became leaders in turning President into a martyr.  It was not just chasing popular opinion, although that was part of it.  Bennett turned to ardent support of Lincoln’s second Vice President, Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat, former unseceded U.S. Senator, Union General, and loyal wartime Governor of Tennessee.  He supported Johnson’s policy of a generous and gentle reconstruction of the Southern states as a realization of Lincoln’s own post war plans and as an alternative to the punitive policies of the Radical Republicans in Congress.  The paper stood by Johnson through his impeachment ordeal.


James Gordon Bennet, Jr. who took over his father's newspaper when he was 25 years old was to say the least a colorful character.
In 1866 Bennett retired at age 75 and turned the reins of the Herald over to his 25-year-old son, James Gordon Bennett, Jr.  The younger man had been raised mostly in France in the lap of luxury.  He was noted as a yachtsman, a dashing spendthrift, womanizer, debauched alcoholic.  But he continued to build circulation with a steady diet of sensationalism, not flinching at publishing accounts of his own scandals like drunkenly driving his carriage at high speed through the streets of Manhattan naked on several occasions, brawls over women, and being horse whipped by the brothers of his lovely fiancé socialite Caroline May when he drunkenly intruded into a May family dinner and proceeded to urinate on the furniture and into the fire place.
The younger Bennett had a knack for circulation building gimmicks, most famously dispatching reporter Henry Morton Stanley to Africa to find the un-lost missionary Dr. David Livingstone in 1869.  If the news was unsatisfactorily dull, he was not averse to making it up like a famous 1871 hoax about wild animals escaping from the Brooklyn Zoo and terrorizing that city.  Latter, in 1881 he backed George W. De Long’s voyage to the North Pole on the USS Jeannette via the Bering Strait. The ill-fated expedition led to the deaths from starvation of DeLong and 19 of his crew, a tragedy that only increased the paper’s circulation.

The senior Bennett died in Manhattan on June 1, 1872 at age 76 just five months before his rival Horace Greeley also succumbed to illness in November.  He left his son a huge fortune.

After the scandal over his boorish behavior at his fiancé’s house, Bennett Jr., who preferred to be called simply Gordon, relocated to Paris where he lived most of the rest of his life when he was not aboard one of his increasingly fantastic yachts or other mansions in London, Newport Rhode Island, and elsewhere.  He attempted to micromanage the Herald by telegraph but found himself increasingly out of touch with New York. 

Meanwhile new competitors were arising to compete in sensationalism including Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and then William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.  After peaking in circulation in the mid 1880’s the paper began a long, slow decline. 

Meanwhile in Paris Bennett launched English language Paris Herald and then a London edition.  Both paper fielded numerous codependents throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world and fed international news to the parent paper in New York.  In time the Paris Herald became a respected paper and even a rival of the Times of London as an international voice.

Bennet Jr. died on May 14, 1918, in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Alpes-Maritimes, France. 

In 1924 the New York Herald was acquired by its smaller rival the New York Tribune, to form the New York Herald Tribune.  The Paris edition became the International Herald Tribune.  In its new guise the New York paper shed its sensationalist image and positioned itself to compete with the New York Time as a sober and respectable mainstream newspaper. 

Despite its reputation and innovative journalism, the New York paper lagged behind the Times and was mortally wounded by a disastrous 114-day newspaper strike and ushered in four years of strife with labor unions, particularly the International Typographical Union. Faced with mounting losses then owner John Hay Whitney shut the paper down on August 15, 1966.

The New York Times and Washington Post jointly acquired the Paris edition which is now published as the New York Times International Edition.


The Bell Ringers, an elaborate animated bronze clock that once adorned the 1894 Herald Building now sits in Herald Square as a monument to  James Gordon Bennett Sr. and Jr.  It also plays a snatch of George M. Cohan's Give My Regards to Broadway, the line that goes, "remember me to Herald Square."
James Gordon Bennett father and son are both commemorated in a monument on Herald Square in New York—an animated bronze clock featuring the Roman goddess of wisdom Minerva and two muscular hammer wielding bell ringers called by sculptor Jean Antonin Carles.  It first adorned the Herald Building that once stood directly to the north of the square on West 35th Street in 1894.


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