Monday, October 12, 2015

The Herald Seduces the Public


Some aspects of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict are
so bizarre as to be almost untellable. One involves the publication, under the direction of James Gordon Bennett Jr., of three articles in the New York Herald. Two came within eleven days of each other.

The exploits of Gilded Age publisher Bennett, evidently a law unto himself, included late-night nude horse-drawn carriage rides. A drunken episode at the family home of Bennett’s fiancé ended with him, by varying accounts, urinating either into the fireplace or into the grand piano. The stunt caused a duel and ended Bennett’s engagement.

Bennett’s readers were more readily seduced. On November 9, 1874, the Herald, widely read and circulated, published an article headlined “AWFUL CALAMITY. The Wild Animals Broken Loose From Central Park.” It told of ‘TERRIBLE SCENES OF MUTILIATION,” “A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death,” “SAVAGE BRUTES AT LARGE,” and a “PROCLAMATION BY THE MAYOR.”

Like all good journalism, the zoo hoax offered specifics: forty-nine people killed, with only twenty-seven identified and twelve carnivorous beasts still on the loose. The hoax described the attacks and gave the names of some victims, including an “unfortunate sewing girl,” along with the address of the precinct house that accepted her body. Three regiments had supposedly been called out to fight the wild beasts. Escaped animals included “Lincoln, the Numidian lion,” a rhinoceros, a puma, a “black wolf,” and a Bengal tiger. Few read to the article’s end, where it declared itself fiction.

The details of the zoo hoax hypnotized some New Yorkers into paralysis. Many, convinced the mayor had declared a state of emergency, stayed locked in at home. Others rushed into the street waving pistols, hoping to shoot the first wild beast they met.

The New York Times called Bennett’s article a “gross outrage.” Prominent citizens visited the district attorney’s office to demand action. Attorneys speculated that those responsible for the article’s publication and distribution could be indicted for conspiracy to defraud.

Eleven days after the zoo hoax, the Herald published an article headlined “CRIME IN THE COAL FIELDS. Horrible Deeds of the Molly Maguires. Women Outraged in the Streets.” It described shootings, stabbings, “Ku Klux notices,” mutilations, and the “despoiling” of women by lawbreakers. It mimicked the Herald’s fictional coverage published the previous August headlined: “THE COAL REGIONS. General Prevalence of Riot, Robbery and Murder. BODIES HORRIBLY MUTILATED. Ku Klux Notices Served on Obnoxious Citizens. Vigilance Committees Organized.”

Like all good journalism, the Herald’s “Molly Maguire” hoaxes from August and November 1874 offered specifics. But unlike the zoo hoax, the second “Molly” hoax included a germ of truth. Embedded in the fictional scenes of riot and outrage were two actual coal region murders that later would be ascribed to so-called “Molly Maguire” defendants: that of Captain John Reilly at Wilkes-Barre and of George Major, burgess of Mahanoy City.

The timing of Bennett’s “Molly Maguire” coverage makes it especially bizarre. The Herald's August 1874 hoax appeared before nine murders took place. The outlandish coverage both primed the public for murders to come and helped eliminate all hope for fair trials.

All nine of the alleged “Molly Maguire” murders that dated from late 1874 to 1875 took place after Pinkerton operative James McParlan entered the region. McParlan’s subsequent trial testimony helped convict as “Mollies” numerous family men who had worked their way from the mines into various political offices, including constable, township supervisor, tax assessor, and school director. Many were Labor Reformers.

Like Bennett’s fiction, McParlan’s testimony bristled with specifics. It convinced a wide public, already well primed with sensational newspaper coverage, that the danger posed by Irishmen charged as “Mollies” must be caged.

In the 1890s, Bennett moved the New York Herald from lower Manhattan Midtown. Architect Stanford White designed the new building that became the heart of Herald Square. Someone asked Bennett why he secured only a thirty-year lease for the new premises. The newsman replied: “‘Thirty years from now the Herald will be in Harlem, and I’ll be in hell!’”

To further explore this history, visit www.kehoefoundation.org.