Thursday, May 25, 2017


King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 3 Part 2


King News by Moses Koenigsberg

Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941

Chapter 3

The Deadline that Led to a Crusade (conclusion)

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The publicity scrimmage in San Antonio made no impression on the Times staff. The indignation of the cub reporter was ignored. At best, the professional dicta of a tyro were presumptu­ous. And this verdict was affirmed in a few days in clamorous accents. The boy journalist’s presumption had led him through an exciting adventure in civic reform to the brink of personal disaster.

The inception of the crusade might have been traced to Sadie Ray’s exotic complexion. Few subjects yielded a farther-flung harvest of gossip. East of San Pedro Creek, Sadie wasn’t men­tioned by name. “That creature” was ample identification in the whispered councils of a sorority, the muted chatter of an after­noon tea or the intimacy of cozy-corner talks. It was the fashion to consider her halfway between a myth and a taboo. But that was impossible when Sadie went shopping. Ordinarily, her bountiful patronage was dispensed at “The Mansion,” in the heart of a precinct in which prudery reached the nadir of uselessness. There she reigned in rococo splendor. At scheduled hours, tradesmen, artisans and personal servitors offered their wares and services to “the queen of the demimonde,” a title Sadie arrogated with more or less diffidence and very little dispute. Nevertheless, despite the contrary pressure of her retinue and advisers, it pleased her once or twice a year to promenade through the marts of trade. Each of these occasions kept the tongues of urticated virtue wagging until the next visitation. It was as if Sadie had toted the whole primrose path into the centers of primness.
1/1/1890, Sadie Ray the licensed madam

Her visits were made afoot. Choice of the pedestrian role rested in a somewhat confidential understanding with the police. She descended from her unique equipage at the edge of the red-light district. There, the prancing pair of Arabian horses, the darkey driver in gorgeous livery topped with a red, white and green cockade, and the natty brougham trimmed in tan and maroon, remained the cynosure of gaping admirers while the flamboyantly overdressed mistress minced her way through the shopping sec­tion.

Sadie’s public appearances were always in state. A step behind her strutted a colored maid in a severely simple gray uniform. In the wench’s right hand, carried as if it were a floral bouquet, showed a crystal vial encrusted with jewels. To the uninitiated, this coruscating object might have been the symbol of an occult rite. But Sadie was averse to mystery. She dismissed all doubt with opportune calls for her smelling salts. Beside the maid swaggered a Negro footman in a regalia that matched the outre costume of the coachman waiting “across the creek.” He, too, bore an emblem of courtly service—his mistress’ gold-mesh purse.

It was a diverting show. Perhaps a paucity of humor accounted for the fact that vexation greatly exceeded the amusement it pro­duced. But there were other reasons for puritanic impatience among San Antonio’s bourgeoisie. They ran through the texture of civic hypocrisy that the budding crusader sought to unmask. They linked his campaign with his first view of the peach-bloom enamel on Sadie Ray’s piquant face.
The encounter spilled a mess of sociologic riddles. Phil Shardein, chief of police, had just halted Sadie with her garish retinue in her carriage of many colors. Why had the chief of police stopped Sadie Ray? There had been an argument. What was it about? Sadie terminated the conversation with the gesture of a sultana dismissing an ambassador.

“It’s nothing your paper will print,” Shardein growled, “but, of course, you nosey reporters have to know everything. Well, I’ll tell you. I just gave Sadie hail Columbia for crossing the dead­line.”

An impulsive question clamped a curb on the police chief’s inclination to talk. “What and where is the deadline?” he re­peated in unconcealed disgust. “Oh! That’s a little joke we use to keep the girls under control.” And the novice knew his faux pas would entail a search elsewhere for the facts. It had been a silly blunder. Why had he forgotten the one commandment that appeared in the codes of two worlds—the axiom observed alike by the hunter and the hunted, the cop and the crook—“Never wise a sucker.”

There was a deadline. But its devious course led through labyrinthian zones no map revealed. It had the covert sanction of smug committees and boards of social purity leagues. Invested with that pious authority it had grown into an institution that none paused to question. Sadie Ray’s chromatic parade was per­mitted as far east as South Flores Street. There she might drive alongside the back wall of San Fernando Cathedral. But the deadline barred her from the front of the edifice. It was not the theory that the church might be more susceptible on one side than another to the effluvia of Sadie’s proximity. Ostensibly, the rule was devised to shield arriving or departing communicants from the carnal distractions of her perambulating show. Actually, it set a mark for the valuation of special liberties. Privileges and favors were created for sale or barter. Spurious licenses of personal freedom were extended or restricted by the wave of a hand.

The boy journalist probed the system under which such patronage became possible. It seemed to him a mockery of law and justice. No ordinance or statute delegated to any official the power to institute or regulate such a practice. There was convincing evi­dence that sordid profits accrued to those in control. There was no testimony of any benefit to the public. Of course, there was the age-old claim of moral advantage—that virtue was conserved and fostered by such regulations as kept in the background the realities of vice. But there was also the contrary view that a false curtain of concealment served as the most effective provocateur of prurience.

A court proceeding resolved these speculations into definite action. Warrants were issued for 340 men and women on charges of disorderly conduct. Apparently, the judicial machinery of San Antonio had been geared to mass operation. But the occasion was not novel. It was a regular round-up. The defendants were fairly well divided between the two sexes. The men were professional gamblers. The women followed an older if no more honorable occupation. Each had been a resident of the city for the three months preceding their arrest. Their arraignment was attributable as much to the calendar as to the nature of their respective offenses. Four times a year, they were hauled into court and run through a grist mill in which pleas of guilty and sentences rolled out as if from an automatic contrivance.

Three months before, this routine had offered no special sig­nificance to the cub. But now the name of Sadie Ray flared up from the docket. She had been assessed the same penalty imposed on each of the other women—$25 and costs. Surely, “the queen of the demimonde” deserved a different rating. Why were identi­cal punishments meted out to all the culprits? Were there no degrees of culpability? Or was this proceeding something aside from the processes of justice? Was it part of the sinister skein from which the apocryphal deadline was drawn?

The first bolt of publicity was loosed that afternoon. The story was recounted as straight news. No editorial conclusions were essayed. They would have been joyously excised by the city editor.

The second story was purely statistical. It showed that the public coffers had received $8,500 from 340 fines of $25 each, while the court costs of $90 per case amounted to $30,600. The innocent statement was included that the latter sum was absorbed in the regular fees legally allowed to the various public officials who shared in the initiation, recording and prosecution of the proceed­ings.

Then came the blast. It was the third and last instalment of the series. The county clerk was quoted in confirmation of the fiscal data. On the basis of the last quarterly round-up of the underworld, the average annual contribution to the public treas­ury was $34,000. This was compared with the yearly yield of $122,400 in fees to officials. These officers received no salaries. In lieu of fixed remuneration, they collected the charges prescribed by law for each form of official service they could devise. At this point, comment was necessary to expose the viciousness inherent in the custom. Conclusions offered by the reporter would be eliminated. But a statement from an outsider would be news. The crusader presented an interview with an anonymous soci­ologist.

“By this procedure,” ran the statement, “our prosecuting officials are set up in a partnership with crime. They are forced to look for their compensation in the profits of those whose incomes are derived from violations of the law. So, it works out that the emoluments of office are dependent in large measure on the con­tinued operations of harlots and gamblers. Small wonder that we note a supervisory attitude—a sort of paternalism—toward these law-breakers. Every bawd and every gamester saved from prema­ture incarceration will be one more contributor on the scheduled ‘pay-off’ days. We cannot deny that this usage puts upon our citizenship an onerous responsibility that should be gravely con­sidered.”

A list of the fee officers followed. It evoked an outburst of indignation from every man named. Their protests resounded throughout the county courthouse. They had been branded as the beneficiaries of prostitutes. They had been “held up to the ridicule, contempt and abuse of the community.” That was an ominous phrase. It appeared in the Texas statute defining crimi­nal libel.

A conference of the political inner circles was called. Republi­cans as well as Democrats attended. This was a situation that involved both parties. The attack had not been aimed at a partisan group. If it were followed through, it might affect the whole county set-up. What was Sam Maverick trying to do with his newspaper? Somebody was throwing rocks. If it wasn’t Sam it was his crew of Northern newcomers. And if he couldn’t or didn’t prevent them from starting this backfire maybe he couldn’t or wouldn’t prevent them from continuing it. The district at­torney—a Republican—had a plan to take the load off Sam’s shoulders. At the same time a wholesome lesson could be given Maverick for the future. The grand jury happened to be in ses­sion. There was no question that indictments for criminal libel could be slapped on the pestiferous busybodies that were trying to snarl up the orderly processes of honest government in Bexar County.

The district attorney’s plan was adopted. The next day, three true bills of indictment for criminal libel were returned against W. A. Stinchcomb, managing editor, Charles Merritt Barnes, city editor, and M. Koenigsberg, reporter. It was a crushing surprise to the beardless crusader. He received the news with more be­wilderment than dismay. Stinchcomb drew him aside.

It was the managing editor’s cue to feign an indignation he didn’t feel. The cub was his find—his protege. “I don’t want to lay it on too thick,” he said, with a hint of apology in his voice, “but I must point out that you’ve gotten us all into a jam. I won’t even discuss the blame. I merely notify you of your immediate dismissal. A lawyer may explain to you why I have to take this step. I will say that I think you have the fault of over-zealousness.”

And so ended my first newspaper crusade. But the fight was not abandoned. The evils of the fee system of compensation for prosecuting officials had been publicized. Reformers in San An­tonio and elsewhere took up the attack. And, over the years, the lone crusader grew to realize that the loss of his job on the Times had not been a sacrifice in vain.

It was a grievously perplexed boy that turned from Stinchcomb’s desk for a dolorous trudge to the sheriff’s office. There, Chief Deputy Druse handed him a blank bail bond for $500. “Get the first two men you meet to sign this and bring it back,” he said with a friendly smile. There was something reassuring about this. Obviously, Druse didn’t share Stinchcomb’s feeling of grav­ity. He didn’t even care who the bondsmen might be. But the jobless journalist decided on caution in this respect. He sought out two friends of the Koenigsberg family. On their loyalty he felt he could rely. Yet his selection led to a quaint crisis.

It followed his decision to abandon San Antonio to its fate. He would transfer his journalistic ardor to larger fields. His resolu­tion was hastened by several developments. He detected a lack of hospitality in the local newspaper offices. Either a simulated or a genuine misunderstanding prevailed concerning his ill-fated crusade. Sharp criticism came from various quarters. What had this young upstart attempted? Did he think “the powers that be” would stampede over a silly newspaper item? Did he think he’d get anywhere throwing pebbles at pyramids? An editorial com­mentator tagged him “a misguided gossoon.” That was the last straw. It turned the scale for immediate departure. Other cities would appreciate the public service that true journalism could confer.

But the libel indictment might pop up to hamper freedom of movement. A conference with counsel was necessary. Colonel Shook, the boy’s revered mentor, volunteered to serve without fee. The venerable lawyer predicted that the case would never be called for trial. “I’m quite sure these indictments were not in­tended as part of any punitive program,” he elucidated. “It’s the first time I’ve known it to be done in the South, but in your case grand-jury proceedings have been employed to quash a newspaper campaign. Writs of injunction were unobtainable. But this process is more advantageous to its sponsors than such writs would have been, even if valid. It averts the expenses of a civil suit and you will observe that it achieves the desired effect of complete suspen­sion of the acts complained about. The chief value of these indict­ments to the complainants lies in their pendency. Once they are brought to trial, this value ceases.

"Of course, all this is most irregular. It involves vicious con­spiracies, corruption of court processes and various other crimes. But who is going to the trouble and expense of ferreting out the culprits and establishing the proofs of their offenses? Certainly you re not in position to do so at this time. Obviously, what you want most is an opportunity to find a job. Go where you please. Even if they make the pretense of pushing the case for determi­nation, I’ll arrange for abundant time for your return to face them. I don’t think that occasion will arise.

“You ask what Stinchcomb meant when he said a lawyer might explain his reason for dismissing you. That action would fortify his defense in the event he went to trial. It put him in better posi­tion to disavow responsibility for anything you had done.”

This was a Godspeed. The great arenas of metropolitan journal­ism beckoned. But the unattached journalist reckoned without his sire. A determined effort was afoot to prevent the boy’s departure from San Antonio. Disclosure of the facts followed an urgent summons from one of his bondsmen. L. M. Michael, a neighbor­hood patriarch, was in a quandary. He had readily signed the bail bond with G. B. Frank, a merchant in the next block. “Both of us assumed your father would approve our action,” he began. “Instead, he was very much displeased with us.”

“You probably know,” Mr. Michael continued, “that your father was grief-stricken when you became an active newspaperman by accepting a job on the Times. This morning he bewailed to me that a son of his might pass through jail to the companionship of gutter drunkards.

“I do not want to influence your course. It is necessary for me, however, to acquaint you with facts that you must consider before it is too late. Your father is absolutely determined to prevent your leaving the city at this time. He believes your departure now would mean your irrevocable commitment to a newspaper career. Also, he insists it is your duty to remain here until your indict­ment is disposed of. He will not exercise parental authority to re­strain you because he is convinced that would only fortify your obstinacy and make more certain your ultimate disregard of his wishes.

“I wonder if you realize how strong a character your father is and how inflexible can be his determination. Perhaps you’ll form a better judgment after a brief review of his young man­hood. I daresay I know more of the details than you do. Neither of your parents is loquacious. Your mother’s father was a Polish patriot. His regular occupation was the breeding and trading of horses. This vocation lent itself to the assembling of mounts for armed troops. There were many uprisings against Russia in those days.

“Your grandfather was of considerable service to the insurgents. Once he was overtaken with a group of companions attempting to ford the Vistula River. He had an extraordinarily powerful physique. A Cossack grabbed his horse’s bridle. He slapped the soldier out of his saddle. The Cossack drowned. Your grandfather was sentenced to Siberia. Friends were able to obtain his release. He returned home to live out an oath he had taken on the steppes of Siberia. He vowed that no daughter of his would be­come the wife or the mother of a conscript of the Czar.

“So, no suitor was acceptable who would not agree that on their wedding night he and his bride would leave Russian juris­diction forever. Your father cheerfully assumed this pledge. Sev­eral days before the time set for the nuptials, he was notified to present himself for military service. His failure made him a fugi­tive. While soldiers were seeking him, he was sheltered by kins­men at whose home the wedding was finally performed in great secrecy. Meanwhile, your mother’s father put together a large chest into which pillows and cushions were fitted. In this box, artfully hidden under a load of hay, your parents spent their wedding night on the road that led out of the Czar’s domain.

“All went well until the frontier was reached. There a squad of dismounted Cossacks became suspicious. They ordered the driver to halt. But he was prepared for this contingency with some reversible barbs in the harness. A tug on a strap suddenly turned the sharp points into the horses’ flanks. The animals reared and plunged and the soldiers scurried away from the seemingly unmanageable animals. The driver lashed the team into a gallop and not until then did the Cossacks detect the trick. Firing at the wagon as they ran for their horses, they mounted for pursuit. But the fugitives had crossed the border before their pursuers could get under way. So, your parents left their native land under a hail of bullets.

“How they made their way to England, how they lived several years in London and Liverpool, how they came to America after the close of the Civil War, how they moved westward with protracted stays in Cincinnati and Memphis and how they reached New Orleans, your birthplace, you probably know in de­tail. But what you have probably never pondered sufficiently is the resoluteness and tenacity that carried your father with the re­sponsibilities of his growing family through all the trials and hardships of this exploration of a strange country. Do you realize what it meant when at New Orleans he applied for and secured the contract to serve as sutler to a battalion of General McKenzie’s army on its march through Indian Territory and western Texas?

“He knew that he would accompany troops traveling through regions filled with savage Indians. Remember this is a man who had never held a gun in his hand. How he ever got the courage to take his family on that expedition, I have never understood. But he did; and the unyielding firmness he showed should be in your mind when you analyze his present disposition.

“All this merely leads up to why I sent for you. Your father has fully resolved that the safety of a prison cell would be better for you than the pitfalls of the life of what he calls ‘a tramp re­porter.’ For that reason, he has pleaded with both Mr. Frank and myself to vacate your bond so that the sheriff may take you into custody. Mr. Frank has finally consented on condition that I do the same. I have declined your father’s request. But he has great perseverance. Nevertheless, I’m satisfied he would give up his plan if its execution passed even for a moment beyond the friendly hands of Sheriff Campbell. I shall quote a threadbare maxim: ‘A word to the wise is sufficient.’ ”

Mr. Michael was in an irksome impasse. He could reject but he could not repress the importunities of the distressed father. He could warn but he could not direct the contumacious son. But his warning was effective. It made clear to the boy that the danger of detention lay only in Sheriff Campbell’s bailiwick. That danger must be instantly averted. Daybreak must find the journal­ist outside Bexar County. There was no time for even the scantiest preparations. The matter of funds was a disturbing problem. Cash resources on hand totaled just 65 cents. But this was a plain case of skedaddle in which belonged no thought of comfort or prefer­ence.

Anyhow, older newspapermen had on occasion overcome the difficulties of traveling without money. There were several meth­ods. One which had always sounded the simplest was to find unobserved lodgment on a freight train. That was the mode of transportation selected for the flight from San Antonio.

There had been a preparatory course for the night’s adventure. During his apprenticeship on the Times, the boy had picked his favorite companions among itinerant typesetters. “Tramp print­ers” they called themselves. In no other circle did he find so rich or so ready a fund of current information. These men absorbed and assorted in facile memories all the thoughts and facts that passed through their fingers into type—speeches by famous ora­tors, reprints of carefully culled articles on the progress of the arts and the sciences, digests of government reports, census re­turns, statistics of all kinds, the papers of statesmen of the old and the new worlds, editorial essays on all these topics and the wealth of curious data assembled by the exchange editors of that generation. The nature of their craft was in itself a college of general learning. The curriculum was as catholic as the range of printed intelligence. There were no outmoded masters under whom to stagnate. An unquenchable wanderlust forced upon them a variety of mental stimulation as wide as their wander­ings. The newspaper apprentice had used the procession of these vagrant philosophers as a self-replenishing staff of preceptors for his university of empiric knowledge. Now, he was to turn to practical account their lectures on the lore of the nomad.

A “through” freight offered many advantages. It reduced to a minimum the probability of contacts with prowling watchmen. It curtailed the opportunities for extortion by callous trainmen. At midnight, the young dabbler in vagabondage was stumbling over tracks in the Southern Pacific freight-yards. His tutelage under veterans had proved of no avail. He couldn’t find a through train to board. He was at the door of desperation when a section hand stopped him. The railroad man was painfully de­void of gentleness. His words and gestures betokened an excessive dissatisfaction over the boy’s presence. A swiftly approaching loco­motive interrupted the scuffle. A parley ensued. It transformed the bellicose railroader into a friendly guide. A munificent honor­arium of fifteen cents hastened the transformation.

Daylight found the errant journalist asleep on the catwalk of a cattle car rumbling eastward from San Antonio. He was not burdened with impediments. A package containing a change of linen lay inside the folds of a light fall overcoat on which his face was pillowed. And so, with a criminal indictment hanging over him, with the professional rating of a discharged reporter and the economic status of a hobo, he set out on a pilgrimage to journal­istic crusades. He had attained the eighth month of his fourteenth year.

The immeasurable boldness of precocious youth!

Chapter 4 Part 1 next week    link to previous installment   link to next installment


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