On This Day – 17 February 1857 Birth of Samuel McClure

 

 

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Campaigning investigative journalism, or ‘muckraking’ in American parlance, came into its own in the USA during what is known as the Gilded Age, towards the end of the 19th century. As with all halcyon eras, it was ‘gilded’ only for the privileged few. Such fabulously wealthy individuals often had few compunctions about how the acquired their gold.

Newspapers and magazines uncovered and exposed the excesses of corrupt politicians, and the illegal and unethical activities of the so-called ‘robber barons’ of the period, staggeringly rich men, as well as major corporations, who wished to become even wealthier. The ‘muckrakers’—the term was originated by President Theodore Roosevelt, he meant it as a compliment—held corporate and political America up to close scrutiny, and generally found it wanting.

At the centre of this tsunami of investigative journalism, was a magazine called McClures, which employed some of the greatest campaigning writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was owned and edited by an Irishman, Samuel McClure. McClure was from Ballymoney, County Antrim. He was the son of a carpenter, whose mother was forced to take him, and his siblings to the USA, after her husband died in an industrial accident when young Sam was nine years old. McClure had a tough childhood, but his mother was determined that he would get a good education. This eventually brought him to one of the best liberal arts academies in the USA, Knox College in Illinois, and after that into a career in New York journalism.

He was already well-established when he started the monthly magazine McClure’s, in 1893. It sold for ten cents a copy, or a dollar a year. Among his achievements was the nurturing of new literary voices, like Jack London and Willa Cather. He also introduced the teaching methods of Maria Montessori to the American public. But McClure’s enduring significance lies in the fact that he championed an entirely new form of writing, the well-researched exposé. McClure was almost unique among editors in not demanding instant and regular copy from his employees. Instead, he was prepared to finance painstaking, thoroughly researched reporting, that would reveal the corruption and injustice of late 19th century American society. He did this with the help of the so-called ‘Big Four’, the talented, tenacious and courageous quartet, Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker.

Steffens, once said of his editor that:

 

He was a flower that did not sit and wait for the bees to come and take his honey and leave their seeds. He flew forth to find and rob the bees.

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The bees McClure robbed were amongst the wealthiest, most ruthless, and powerful individuals in early twentieth century America. Men like John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil company was a particular target for Ida Tarbell in a series of articles between 1902-04. Rockefeller dismissed her as ‘Ida Tarbarrel’, a sure sign that she was getting under his skin. Or Andrew Carnegie, the activities of whose U.S. Steel Corporation were laid bare by Ray Stannard Baker in 1901.  Steffens, who became editor of McClures in 1902, tended to focus his attention on crooked politicians and corrupt civic administrations, many of whom were in the pockets of the ‘robber barons’.

The muckrakers challenged the overt and the hidden power of an apparently invulnerable class of super-rich industrialists, and their allies in urban machine politics. The turn of the 19th century in the USA was a period, on the one hand, of unregulated capitalism, but on the other of a burgeoning progressive reform movement. McClures magazine was in the vanguard reform, providing progressive politicians with the ammunition they needed to curtail the power of a monopolistic oligarchy.

None of which made the mercurial Sam McClure easy to work with. He was often idiosyncratic and inconsistent, though highly supportive of his invaluable contributors. Finally, in 1906, Tarbell, Baker, White and Steffens, having had enough of his eccentricities, departed from what they called McClure’s ‘house of bondage’, and founded the equally radical American Magazine. To the astonishment of all, McClure, who parted with his stars on generous terms, simply dusted himself off, and started over again, as a dangerous pest to the elites he had already been stinging for years.

At its height McClure’s was selling four hundred thousand copies a month. Gradually, however, its influence started to decline, as did McClure’s personal interest in his pet project.  By 1914 he had moved on to other things. These included three philosophical musings on the workings of democracy, two of which were published in the 1930s. McClure lived on to the age of ninety-two, and died in 1949.

Samuel Sidney McClure, scourge of the American entitled, was born in Co. Antrim, one hundred and sixty years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 10 February 1889 Richard Piggott is exposed as a forger

 

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Born plain Charles Russell, in Newry, Co.Down, the man who would become Baron Killowen, and who would torment the infamous forger Richard Pigott in the witness box, in his defence of Charles Stewart Parnell, was one of five children. He was also the only sibling in the Russell family who did not enter the religious life. His three sisters all became nuns, his brother a Jesuit priest.

He was a highly successful Queen’s Counsel in London, a moderate nationalist MP, and rose to become Lord Chief Justice of England, the first Catholic to hold the office in centuries. However, it is for his forensic grilling of the dubious journalist, turncoat, and pornographer, Richard Pigott at the Times Commission hearings in 1889 that he is justly celebrated.

Pigott had fallen on hard times by the 1880s—he had, at one point, been a relatively prosperous newspaper proprietor who, in 1868, went to jail on a point of principle after a defence of the Manchester Martyrs in one of his newspapers. He had been affiliated to the Fenians, but accusations of his embezzlement of IRB funds put paid to that association. In 1881 he sold his newspapers to Parnell, but went through the four thousand pounds he received from the Land League, in short order.

Pigott had sold the Times a pup … at least twice over.  He had passed on, for payment, a letter that suggested Parnell supported those who carried out the brutal Phoenix Park murders of the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the Under Secretary, Thomas H.Burke, in May 1882. Parnell vehemently denied the veracity of the letter. A Commission was established which, in essence, pitched the Times newspaper against Parnell, and most of the senior members of his party.

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The letter in question, published in facsimile by the Times in April 1887, was one of a number that had been forged, quite cleverly, by Pigott himself.  He had, however, left a couple of hostages to fortune in the material he had supplied to the Times. Pigott was not quite as literate as one might have expected a former newspaper editor to be. He was a dreadful speller.  Observers who closely examined the cache of correspondence he had provided to the Times noted a couple of howlers.  In one case, for example, he had spelt the word ‘hesitancy’ as h-e-s-i-t-e-n-c-y.

When he began his cross-examination of this crucial Times witness Russell puzzled the onlookers by handing Pigott a sheet of paper and asking him to write a number of words on it. One of those was ‘hesitancy’. He then casually took back the paper, glanced at it, and ignored it for most of the next two days.

Russell then proceeded to reduce Pigott to a gibbering wreck, catching him out in his elaborate system of deception. Before the future Lord Chief Justice was finished, most of the observers, and even the three learned presiding judges, had been reduced to tears of laughter, at Pigott’s many contradictions, and obvious lies.

Then, as a coup de grace, Russell returned to the mysterious page. After a few more barbed questions he pointed out that in one of the letters retained by the Times, and handed over to the defence under ‘discovery’, the word hesitancy had been mis-spelt. The erroneous spelling, he demonstrated, was precisely that chosen by Pigott the previous day, when asked to write the word on the enigmatic piece of paper. Pigott went a couple of stages beyond gibbering wreck, and no one in the court had the slightest doubt, but that he had forged all the letters upon which the Times depended to make its case.

Pigott fled shortly after the commission of inquiry adjourned, admitted his guilt in a letter to the tribunal, and shot himself dead in Madrid a few days later, in order to avoid arrest. Parnell subsequently sued the Times for defamation in a London libel court, and won £5000. In subsequent years, at public meetings, when a heckler wished to suggest that a platform speaker had ‘sold out’ or betrayed his cause, the aggrieved party would yell ‘spell hesitancy’ at the top of his voice.

Charles Russell, inquisitor extraordinaire, destroyed the credibility of the hapless forger, Richard Pigott one hundred and twenty-eight years ago, on this day.

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OTD – 3 February 1911 – The death of Robert Tressell

 

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He was something of a contradiction – he had a number of different names for a start, was an avowed socialist who sent his only child to private schools while he could afford it, and, despite writing one of the definitive working class novels of the early 20th century, once had a black manservant.

We know him as Robert Tressel, author of one of the most influential left-wing novels of the last 100 years, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. But his original name was Robert Croker. He was the product of an extra-martial relationship between his mother, Mary Noonan and a Royal Irish Constabulary Inspector, Samuel Croker, who died five years after his birth.

He was born in Wexford Street in Dublin in 1870 and, largely thanks to his mother, whose name he later adopted, he was well-educated up to the time he left Ireland, at the age of sixteen. By 1890 he was in South Africa, working as a signwriter, and writing articles for Cape Town newspapers.  He had one child, Kathleen, from an unhappy and short-lived marriage there. He moved them both to Johannesburg in 1897, where he became involved with the centenary commemoration of the 1798 rebellion. He also became acquainted with Irish nationalists John MacBride and Arthur Griffth in the Transvaal, and later helped to establish the Irish Brigade, which fought against the British Army in the Boer War. Whether or not he actually participated in the conflict himself, is one of the many imponderables of his short life.

He returned to England in the early 1900s, settling down on the south coast, and working as a signwriter and house painter. Here he joined the Social Democratic Federation, a forerunner of the Independent Labour Party. It was during this period that he began work on what was to be a hugely significant novel.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which may originally have been intended to be called The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists, was finished in 1910, and amounted to a virtually unpublishable 400,000 words. It was rejected by the first three publishing houses Noonan approached. Thoroughly depressed, and also suffering from tuberculosis, he is said to have attempted to burn the manuscript. His daughter Kathleen, who played a huge part in the novel’s eventual status, apparently rescued it from destruction.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is set in the southern coastal town of Mugsborough—Hastings in disguise. The names of many of the characters are as subtle as the naming of the location. They include Botchit, Grinder, Leavitt, Starvem, Crass and Slyme. The philanthropists in question are house painters—the nom de plume chosen by Noonan is a pun on one of their essential pieces of equipment, the trestle table. Their philanthropy, according to the main character, the socialist Frank Owen, lies in the offering of their services to their employers for such low wages—‘benefactors in ragged trousers who willingly hand over the results of their labour … to the rich’—as Frank Owen puts it himself.

Having failed to secure a publisher for his work, Noonan decided to emigrate to Canada in 1911, but only made it as far as Liverpool. He died en route, of pulmonary tuberculosis. He was only forty years of age.

And that might have been the end of the road for The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, were it not for Noonan’s devoted daughter. Kathleen managed to persuade the writer and journalist Jessie Pope, infamous for some awful patriotic WW1 poetry, to look at the manuscript in 1913. She recommended it to her publisher, and undertook to edit the volume herself. In the process, she redacted much of the socialist content, and produced a highly bowdlerized version of the material. A second edition, published in 1918, was also abridged, but was closer to the original source.

A 1940 Penguin edition of the work, was widely read by British soldiers of the Second World War, and is said to have influenced the outcome of the 1945 General Election, which returned Labour to power. Though that’s quite a claim for a mere book. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists didn’t appear in its original form until 1955. Since then it has been adapted many times for radio and TV.

Noonan, or Tressel if you’d prefer, was buried in an unmarked grave in Liverpool, and his final resting place was not identified until 1968. It now bears a memorial, as does the house of his birth in Dublin.

The author of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists died one hundred and six years ago, on this day.

 

Drivetime podcast 3/2/2017

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/drivetime/podcasts/

 

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