Thursday, April 06, 2017


King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 1 Part 1

Moses Koenigsberg is a pivotal figure in the history of newspaper comics syndication. King News is his autobiography, and so is essential reading for the comic strip history buff.  Of course the book discusses many subjects besides newspaper syndication, but it is all worthwhile to give a picture of the man. Mr. Koenigsberg is not above improving a tale for entertainment purposes (he originated the infamous tale of the yellow ink test that supposedly gave birth to the Yellow Kid), and his substantial ego sometimes colors his opinions. However, when taken with a few well-advised grains of salt, this memoir is tremendously revealing about newspapering in the early years of the 20th century.

PS -- does anyone have a better photo of our author they could share?

King News by Moses Koenigsberg

Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941

Chapter 1

Murder with a Carom Shot

link to next installment

Jacobo Coy was an emphatic contradiction of his name. But nobody ever mentioned the fact. It was not the vogue to twit a man who could make a perfect trey out of a deuce with a 45- calibre revolver at thirty yards.

Anyhow, Jacobo’s personality, like his first name, was so robustfully Mexican that in his presence the English word “coy” was too remote to remember. Also, he was Number One Detective of San Antonio, the third oldest city in the United States, and as a native Texan and proud American, he held at a maximum rating the importance and dignity of his official position. To him the insolence of a malefactor or the gibe of a punster would be a stinging insult at the Lone Star State.

Yet here was Coy, the merciless man-hunter, behaving more like a poet than a prowler. Above him rose the north wall of the historic San Fernando Cathedral. He leaned against a stunted huisache tree, plucked an aromatic bloom from one of its breast-high branches and cupped the blossom in his copper-colored hands, inhaling its fragrance.

He might have been composing a sonnet to the perfumes of a golden sunset. Or he might have been considering an ode to the belfry tower overhead, from the embrasures of which General Cos, less than fifty years before, cannonaded the heroes of The Alamo. Even the closest observer would have scoffed at a sugges­tion that Coy was on the alert.

From the Ranch saloon around the corner at Dolorosa and South Flores Streets came the call of a roulette-wheel operator, accompanied by the rattle of dice tossed against the metal sides of an adjacent craps table.

A bevy of Mexican girls, their lace mantillas covering dance-hall finery, tripped with light laughter through the alley that led a few paces away to Military Plaza. Behind them trailed a motley troop of Mexican men and boys, bent over with grotesque burdens.

In a few moments, the loads released from their backs would be transformed into an open-air restaurant filling a large part of the plaza. Long planks laid across saw-bucks would support huge kerosene lamps of polished brass and an assortment of cutlery and crockery whisked as if by magic from queer bundles. On camp stools alongside the improvised tables would gather towns­men and tourists, some for their evening meal and others to linger until the approach of dawn. The girls, their mantillas now tucked away in ornate baskets sheltered from the steaming caldrons behind them, would stand forth, the celebrated “chile queens” of San Antonio, so-called partly for their beauty but more for their bearing.

When the yellow moon came to lengthen the shadows between the shining lamps, they would move with the stateliness of gra­cious chatelaines in this collapsible fonda al fresco. They turned menial service into a social favor, spacing a dish of chile con carne, a plate of tamales or a cup of black coffee with a merry quip, a whiff of corn-shuck cigarette smoke, a fugitive smile of elusive coquetry, a gay sally or a hand-clap for the volunteer musician at the end of the table coaxing the tender strains of Sobre las Olas from a venerable guitar. Tonight it would be as it had been for thousands of nights, a moving picture reminiscent of a scene from an Old World opera.

Jacobo Coy gave no apparent attention to the straggling pro­cession of chile queens and their retinue, though he moved a bit farther out of view under the foliage of the huisache tree.

Less than a hundred yards away, on the east side of Main Plaza, in the gambling emporium on the second floor of the Revolving Light saloon, scores of coatless men were plainly visible through the open windows bent in long rows over their cards in the keno game. Above them, on a high stool, the caller of numbers was methodically twirling the lacquered goose from which he ex­tracted the ivory balls. Each call was a chant. “Number e-o-leven,” beginning in a nasal drone, rose to a triumphant shout.

On the north side of the Plaza, diagonally opposite the Revolv­ing Light and a scant hundred feet away, a small knot of men was gathered in front of Jack Harris’ vaudeville theatre. Harris, the Tony Pastor of that section and age, was quite willing for the establishment to be heralded with his name. But his partners, Billy Simms and Joe Foster, preferred the more colorful designa­tion of “The Crystal Palace,” a rather pretentious title for the combination dance-hall, theatre and saloon.

Just a step around the corner on Soledad Street, a four-year-old boy was clambering among the carved rocks and cement molds that cluttered the site of the new courthouse. Here was to rise “the palace of justice” for the County of Bexar, sometimes called “The Republic of Bexar.”

It was July 11, 1882.

A hesitant breeze stirred the languor of the midsummer eve­ning. As if in benediction, the bells of the cathedral chimed the angelus. Jacobo Coy made the sign of the cross. The reverent gesture was like a baton timing the last note of the chimes.

But Coy’s right forefinger remained poised in mid-air. It sig­naled a startling change in the attitude of every living creature in sight.

A silence fell on Main Plaza. Its suddenness jarred the ear. Men stood in positions of arrested motion as if instantly obedient to a command. The numbers goose of the Revolving Light keno game, caught midway in a spin, was clasped in both hands of the operator.

The tableau ended as abruptly as it had begun. The knot of men in front of the Crystal Palace broke into scattering figures speeding for the shelter of doorways, windows and posts. The keno game in the Revolving Light melted into white-shirted streaks that disappeared under tables or clung to the walls farth­est from the windows.

A stalwart figure stood alone where a moment before a dozen men had been idling in front of the Crystal Palace. His legs were wide apart as if bracing his body for a shock. The left arm hung loosely. The right hand rested on a leather belt.

A double door of fiber, extending from the knee to the top of a six-footer’s head, served ordinarily to screen the patrons of the bar from passersby. The man on the sidewalk stood a step to the east of the entrance. He was talking to someone somewhere behind the fiber doors, though neither speaker could see the other.
The signal that smote everyone else on Main Plaza with a momentary paralysis had exerted a wholly different effect on Jacobo Coy. It galvanized him into a prodigy of speed. Coy made fifty yards at a pace professional sprinters might well envy. He was within speaking-distance of the man in front of the Crystal Palace when the two revolver shots crashed out.

“Carramba! Too late!” Coy groaned.

He had reached the curbing when the man with the smoking pistol turned to face him.

“Howdy, Jake! Here’s my gun,” came in casual greeting as BenThompson, City Marshal of Austin, offered his weapon, handle first.

Ben Thompson
If Coy replied, his words were lost in the sound of rushing feet and the cursing of angry men. The groups of idlers, gamblers and workers, who had scrambled from the plaza like fluttering chickens fleeing a hawk, were back now, augmented tenfold by excited townsmen converging from every quarter.

Dapper Billy Simms came out of the Crystal Palace. He was trying to talk. His face had the chalky pallor of one who has just slipped through the fingers of death. It set off, as if in caricature, the waxed mustache that at other moments stirred a secret mirth —always, however, a carefully dissembled merriment, since this slight fellow in his early thirties bore a record of multiple homi­cide, including two Mexicans liquidated in a monte game.

Afterward, Simms’s friends explained his agitation as a mix­ture of rage and chagrin. Striving to shout, he could not lift his voice above a whisper.

“That dirty dog,” he croaked, pointing at Thompson, “killed Jack Harris, my partner. It was plain murder!”

The most notorious killer of the Southwest, charged with the wanton slaying of a popular resident, confronted a furious crowd. In each face burned a grim indignation inflamed as much by the stories of this man’s homicidal exploits as by the shooting from which he had just stepped red-handed.

Thompson was known from the Rockies to Red River for his surpassing dexterity with the revolver, with a record thus far of twenty-one white men, “not counting Negroes, Chinese and Indians.” His pistol had accounted for more tragedies than were charged against any other living man.

If ever there was a Public Enemy No.1, here he stood unarmed and unafraid, though clenched hands were thrust before him, numerous enough to tear him to shreds. Providence seemed to have set the stage for mob violence. Scores of shoving, hustling men shouldered each other roughly to get closer to the killer. “Let’s hang him!” urged a number of voices.

“I surrendered to you, Coy.” Thompson spoke in a meaningful undertone.

It was an unnecessary reminder of the detective’s responsibility. Already, he had maneuvered Thompson to the wall of the Crystal Palace. Now, his back to his prisoner, he faced the snarling crowd, his own revolver in his right hand and Thompson’s gun in his left.

“Hold on here!” Coy commanded. “I saw the shooting. This man’s entitled to a trial in court and he’s going to get it.”

There was a roar of anger. It subsided in a violent buffeting, jostling and jerking from which emerged several policemen in uniform headed by City Marshal Phil Shardein and accompanied by another group of stern-visaged men—deputy sheriffs and con­stables, with silver badges pinned on their shirt bosoms. Detective Coy saluted his chief, Marshal Shardein. The threat of an im­pending riot began to fade. In the presence of these two men, the air became vibrant with a sense of power and authority. The incipient mob turned into a herd of grumbling bystanders.

There was a further transition when Billy Simms and an assist­ant bore through the fiber doors a canvas cot on which lay a motionless figure covered with a white sheet. It was the body of Jack Harris. Heads were bared as at a funeral. The makeshift cortege passed directly in front of Ben Thompson, standing in the center of the police group. Simms paused an instant, lifted his end of the bier a bit higher and glared into the eyes of the man who had just killed his friend. Thompson jammed his hat down tighter.

“I had hoped to prevent this,” Coy told Shardein. “But Ben fooled his friends and slipped back here from Soledad Street while I was watching Dolorosa. And there’s something queer about the shooting. There were two gun blasts. I saw them both. Neither man was in position to get the other. They’d have had to shoot around a corner and Harris wasn’t even in sight. I don t see how he could have got a bullet from Ben’s gun.”

“You stay here and check on the high spots,” Shardein in­structed, “while I take Thompson over to Anton Adam. Meet me there; but—” He broke off. “What in the hell is this?”

Shardein and Coy usually posed as stoics. Both now betrayed an astonishment wholly out of key with the habitual deportment of either. They were staring open-mouthed at a little boy who had sidled between them and stood gazing up at Ben Thompson. It was the same child one might have seen a short while before at play on the courthouse site around the corner. His disheveled blond hair reached the level of Shardein’s hip-pocket. His pink waist was torn to tatters. Evidently, he had been in the midst of the struggling crowd during the critical interval that preceded Shardein’s arrival.

Shardein and Coy grabbed the boy at the same instant, each seizing a shoulder and rattling off the same questions—“What’s your'name? Where do you live? How old are you? How did you get here ?”

Both police officers were fathers. They could take in their stride the hazards of exploding firearms and of bodies mangled and bones crushed in melees, but they stood aghast at the picture of such a child sharing the quarter of an hour from which they had just emerged. The boy had been oblivious of any danger so long as he remained unnoticed. His curiosity about what was happen­ing to others had included no awareness of what might happen to himself. Now, suddenly the center of attention, he was scared speechless by a dynamic consciousness of self.

A policeman on the fringe of the group caught sight of the child. “That’s the son of Koenigsberg, the tailor on Soledad Street,” he exclaimed.

“For God’s sake,” grunted Shardein, “get him home and tell his father to keep him there.”

And that explains my attendance “on the spot” of the first news story that “broke” within the range of my attention—the initial chapter in one of the most lurid tales of Southwestern desperado-ism. From the dramatic sequels of that evening’s tragedy was woven part of the pattern of events, circumstances and influences through which I subsequently entered the profession of journal­ism. The tragedy also afforded a recurrent source of personal earnings. Again and again rehearsed with me by Jacobo Coy a decade later, the details were fitted into a stock story of several thousand words. Over a span of years, I sold the yarn, revamped on each occasion, to thirty different newspapers.

Only a short block lay between Main Plaza and the little one-story adobe structure on Veramendi Alley, directly behind the Crystal Palace, to which the police cordon escorted Ben Thomp­son. But the procession was impeded at every step by a saturnine throng of muttering men. Their abortive adventure in lynching had not slaked the blood-lust that still seethed under outer re­straints. Vengeance was not abandoned, but it no longer teetered uselessly on the tongue. It worked in the mind. Plans were afoot.

The city of San Antonio gulped a deep draft of civic resent­ment every time a rifle cracked or a revolver barked in punctua­tion of some private grievance. These incidents were irritating to the citizenship generally. They tended to justify the regular daily feature in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat under the caption “Texas Killings.”

A citizen might thrust his tongue in his cheek at fervid orations proclaiming “the repression of outlawry,” but he cherished and tended the communal fetish of “security from personal violence.” No matter how often that fetish was bowled over by a bullet in a brawl or slashed by a knife in a fracas, the loyal resident hastened to restore it.

But this evening’s tragedy was different from the ordinary kill­ing, argued the crowd milling behind and around Ben Thomp­son. It was replete with a malevolence too significant to be tied to one man, no matter how abhorrent that creature might be. It was, in short, a public affront, an unspeakable outrage to a city’s pride and dignity, not to be charged in full to an individual, but to be handled on the broad scale it deserved.

When the principal police executive of the capital city of Texas invaded the metropolis of the State and shot a gaping hole through its aegis of personal safety, he set one community against another.

It was all very well for the taxpayers of Austin to follow a widespread practice of the period in delegating a “bad” man to keep other “bad” men in hand. They had chosen their most con­spicuous “bad” man for their city marshal and so long as he operated within the limits of Austin, San Antonio had no right to complain. It was a different situation, agreed the spokesmen, when he exploited his aptitude for murder among the law-abiding citizens of another city.

To let him fare forth on such an errand was as culpable as to assign him for the specific purpose. Was Austin parading its prowess? Here was a challenge that must be met. Some drastic measure should be taken to convince the little town of Austin that the good city of San Antonio was not to be so flouted, abused, humiliated and outraged. And thus was launched the feud of two cities.

Chapter 1, Part 2 next week         link to next installment


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