Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Obscurity of the Day: Policy Pete

Hearst's New York Mirror, a tabloid newspaper created in response to the incredible success of the New York Daily News, never really caught on to the extent of the original. But Hearst certainly did know how to play the tabloid game, at least in theory. Lots of pictures, sensational headlines, and constant appeal to the baser instincts.

One of those baser instincts that Hearst stroked was gambling. Following on the example of A. Mutt way back in 1907, journeyman cartoonist Art Helfant created a strip for the Mirror called Policy Pete in which readers could follow the ups and downs of a race track addict. Readers could accept his bets as 'hot tips' at their peril. The strip also offered 'lucky numbers' in the panel backgrounds, for use in illegal but highly popular numbers games, also known as the policy racket -- hence Pete's nickname. 

I only have a few isolated examples of the strip because Mirrors, as most tabloids, are quite scarce on the collectors' market. Luckily Jeffrey Lindenblatt was able to offer me some vital statistics on the strip based on Mirror microfilm held at the New York Public Library. The strip actually began under the title of George Takes a Chance on May 14 1925, less than a year after the Mirror debuted on New York newsstands. I presume the original protagonist was someone else, but Policy Pete proved to be the reader favorite, and the strip was renamed in his honor on August 16 of that year.

Sometime in 1928 Art Helfant left the strip. Although Pete's adventuring days were now over, his betting habit would live on. The Mirror changed the strip into a panel (see sample two), and invited readers to submit the jokes -- paid for with the princely sum of a buck if yours was chosen. As you can see, the race track and numbers game aspects were intact. What was gone was a credit. The art was definitely no longer by the delightful Helfant, but the new ink-slinger was anonymous. Looks like one of the guys from the Hearst bullpen, but I'm not going to stick my neck out with a specific guess.

My next (and last) sample, number three above, is from 1932. Poor Pete has now been relegated to a purely honorary role in a boxed vignette. As you can see, there is now once again a credit, to a fellow named Weatherly. The art looks eerily like that of Harry J. Tuthill (of Bungle Family fame) but it turns out that a Mirror sportswriter named Fred Weatherly was indeed at the helm.

Although I have no samples later than 1932, I did a little digging, and then Alex Jay dug far deeper, and it turns out that the panel was definitely still running in 1949 (having been renamed just Pete sometime in the intervening years), and almost certainly ran until right around Weatherly's death in January 1958.

Quite a nice run for an obscure little panel -- over thirty years! Tune in tomorrow as Alex Jay has Ink-Slinger Profiles of both Art Helfant, the originator, and Fred Weatherly, in the pipeline.


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