Thursday, June 22, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 5 Part 2
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
At The Editorial Valhalla (part 2)link to previous installment link to next installment
Disgust over the Kansas City Sunday Sun only heightened my pride in the Evening Star. But a disillusionment was at hand. Salaciousness was not the only ogre that leered at the sacredness of the sanctum. Corruption stalked a newspaper in various disguises. One of these masks was unexpectedly lifted by a bit of diligent reporting. Upheaval of my own office resulted.
A new Bexar County courthouse was in course of construction at a cost of $240,000. George Dugan had come from Kansas City to land the job. He was a common type of the times. A promoter and manipulator of public work enterprises, he “knew all the angles.” Otto P. Kroeger, an amiable young San Antonian and member of a prosperous family, was in position to enlist local capital. That would, in turn, command political influence. Dugan picked Kroeger as his partner. They got the contract. Some of the unsuccessful bidders did not accept their defeat gracefully. They alleged various irregularities. The county commissioners ignored these accusations until specific charges were filed. A formal complaint set out certain violations of agreement by departures from the specifications. Official action could be no longer evaded. Public hearings were ordered. They were held by the county court, consisting of the judge and four commissioners. This was the same tribunal that had awarded the contract.
The Evening Star covered the inquiry in considerable detail. A dozen building specialists consumed four days discussing the dimensions of stones best suited for the making of concrete. There was general accord on one point. Rock fragments as large as four inches in diameter were satisfactory. Indeed, they might be more advantageous than smaller elements. The commissioners were evidently pleased with the course of the investigation. They indicated to me privately their cordial approval of the thoroughness of my reports. Their urbanity did not excite my suspicion.
On the fifth day a bombshell burst. A barrel of mud was dumped into the investigators’ tank of whitewash. An expert violated the agreement by which he had been permitted to testify. He demolished the testimony of all his predecessors on the witness stand. The contract with Dugan & Kroeger specified stones half the size of those actually used in the making of the concrete. Broken rock cost much less than cement. The bigger the fragments, the less would be the proportion of cement entering into each cubic foot of the mixture. Use of the larger stones caused an inferior product at a greater profit to the contractors.
It did not occur to me, at the moment, that this exposure spelled my first reportorial contact with “big time” graft. The external facts alone constituted important news. One expert had torn into tatters a fabric woven under oath by a group of his colleagues. That was the basis of my story in the Evening Star. There was no allusion to sinister implications underlying the disclosure. It wasn’t needed.
Neither of the other two dailies in San Antonio had been represented at the actual sessions of the commission. They had relied on the clerk for an account of what happened each day. This was not an unusual practice. Reportorial staffs were too small to afford attendance at meetings that seemingly promised nothing beyond a technical inquisition. The Express and the Light received regularly the county board’s versions of the testimony adduced. It hadn’t dawned on me that this might have been assured by special arrangement. Nor had any inkling reached me of any reliance on the Evening Star to publish reports satisfactory to the county board.
So, it was a complete surprise that afternoon to run afoul of a ton of irate officialdom. The clash literally upset me. The county commissioners had been in a huddle on Main Plaza. All of them, save one, were unusually large, heavy men. As I approached them, a whimsical notion occurred to me for a paragraph about the weightiness of office-holding problems. Here, in less space than a lariat’s loop, was massed 2,000 pounds of the subject. In a blink the whimsicality faded into arresting realism.
Commissioner Dwyer grabbed my collar. Yanking me into the center of the group, he let loose a blast of billingsgate. The sulphurous quality of his tirade compelled more attention than its meaning. His companions joined in a chorus of interpretation, much noisier but no more lucid. The scene bordered on the ridiculous. An angry effort to break through the cordon of abuse produced a slapstick comedy. Three of my bulky vilifiers, reaching around each other to halt me, fell in a most undignified sprawl. That they had carried me with them did not ease their discomfiture. Our disentanglement was the signal for adjournment.
The impromptu party had been neither a social nor a political success. It did bring to my attention a rather sharp dissatisfaction with the Evening Star’s one-man news-staff. But what qualifications did these men possess to pass on my professional ability? Repeated references to a “double cross” had mystified me. Dark hints of the paper’s impending doom had aroused my concern.
Hamilton, Callan and Nordhouse received me as if at a funeral. At first they were too morose to talk. But bit by bit the facts were matched together. Adam Maurer had provided our “bank roll.” He was a building contractor. Others in his line of activity were also contributors to our operating funds. Maurer and his associates had looked forward to a newspaper that would serve their interests. “We want to advance the substantial and constructive elements of the community,” had been Maurer’s explanation to Nordhouse, Hamilton and Callan. And with that statement of a highly laudable program, the three were content.
These inner workings of a Texas daily in the ’90s were not peculiar to the section or to the period. They have been paralleled by journalistic undertakings throughout the country. They are reviewed here as a composite illustration of numerous counterparts. Maurer had not explained that there were any special interests to foster. He had outlined his financial and business connections. He had assumed these facts would afford sufficient guidance for the editorial policy of his newspaper organ. None of my associates had revealed to me the identity of our financial sponsor.
None of them had intimated to me that there were any “sacred cows” to safeguard. While the county commissioners were upbraiding me in Main Plaza, Maurer was berating my partners in the Evening Star office. He had never been there before. He never returned. His mission was to sever all relations with the newspaper. The Evening Star had lost its angel.
In the midst of our doldrums, the landlord entered. He had served as unofficial treasurer. All daily collections had been entrusted to him and Maurer’s check covering the weekly deficits had been made out in his name. He doled out the cash for wages and current expenses, retaining for himself the amounts due for presswork, newsprint and rent. Thus, the bank records would show nothing beyond a considerable business between Adam Maurer and W. L. Winter. These tactics not only limited Maurer’s liability, but they would enable him, if he chose, to disavow responsibility for the Evening Star. And now Winter told us, “We come to the end of the rope on Saturday.” It was a calamity. But it was also the end of a comprehensive course in finance, politics and newspaper promotion. Never again would my name appear on a payroll defrayed from an invisible source.
At Winter’s urging, we set out to “dig up a new bank roll.” Two friends, Dan Lewis and Emmet Kehoe, responded readily to my solicitation. Dan, in his late thirties, was a member of a wealthy family with extensive land and cattle interests. He insisted he had “no ax to grind.” Some time later, Dan’s brother, Nat, became a candidate for sheriff. Kehoe, chief of the fire department, disclaimed any motive in helping me beyond “putting the Evening Star on its feet and the opportunity for a profitable investment.” Time and circumstances attested his sincerity. For immediate needs, Lewis handed me $300 in cash and Kehoe wrote a. $200 check. Sunday afternoon, Nordhouse, Hamilton and Callan met me with Winter. None of my associates had been able to raise any funds.
Winter was deeply impressed with my $500 plus the assurance that enforceable contracts would guarantee whatever money was needed up to $4,500 more. That was a considerable amount of capital at the time. Hardly more than a decade earlier, Joseph Pulitzer had bought the St. Louis Dispatch with a down payment of $2,500. A couple of years later, Henry J. Hearsey found $2,250 an adequate stake for the establishment of the New Orleans States. Winter took charge of the meeting.
“We must have a clean slate,” he announced. “If you continue with the name of the Evening Star in my plant, I must be protected against claims from anybody on account of past transactions. If necessary, I shall extend a reasonable credit provided the wages and expenses are not increased without my consent. But I won’t stand for any squabbling. I’ll deal with one person only. I’m sure Koenigsberg’s backers will want him to be that person. Therefore, he must act as publisher.”
Four months were to elapse before my fifteenth birthday. It was the winter of 1892-93. But there was no misunderstanding of my new estate. It was not a prize captured by newspaper talents. It was a responsibility growing out of exigencies that friends had helped me to meet. So, my first job as a publisher, even at that age, afforded me small sense of achievement. There would have been more of a thrill in a big scoop. There was one real triumph. The Evening Star had been saved.
It was neither advisable nor expedient to make any public announcement. When the occasion arose, however, the Evening Star would proclaim its independence of all political parties. The new publisher could not be dissuaded from this course. He set up for his newspaper a rule to which he pledged his own lifelong adherence. Professional manipulators controlled partizan politics. It was a game playable only by insiders. The individual or the newspaper that blindly served a political organization was in the same category of dupes to which belonged the victims of the three-shell fraud. They were the pawns of the sharps. Partizan fences were screens for sculduggery. The fervor of election campaigns was whipped to a white heat in order more firmly to intrench the leaders of both sides. Then, when the voting was over and the tumult and the shouting died, the real innings of the bosses began. While the voters were immersed in other matters—while their heads were turned—the spoils were traded and shifted and graft traps were framed for the mutual benefit of those who would again make ugly faces at each other when the stage was set.
Was not ample proof of all this supplied by my own experiences? Did not a Republican district attorney procure my indictment for criminal libel as a backfire to protect Democratic officeholders? And now, was not my present position traceable to a political hippodrome that went amiss? Had it not required both Republicans and Democrats to arrange the set-up that was knocked down by the Evening Star’s courthouse disclosure? No matter how sophomoric may have been the mind that pursued this reasoning, the conclusions have stood the test of time.
Journalism was caressing my fondest hopes. The Evening Star was forging ahead. Then Major Mose C. Harris came to San Antonio. His coming marked a turning-point in my newspaper career. Dan Lewis told the facts bluntly.
“Mose Harris has bought the Evening News," he announced in a tone in which one might recite an obituary notice. My apparent lack of concern nettled him. “You don’t seem to know much about him,” he resumed. “If you did, you’d lie down and turn over. He’s bad medicine for anyone he doesn’t like. And if I helped you to stay in the field as his competitor, he wouldn’t like either of us. It’s much better to have him with us than against us. And I’m fixing it the better way.”
The Evening Star was to fade out. Lewis had already effected a deal with Major Harris. It converted Lewis’ investment into a one-third interest in the Evening News. This was to be in the name of Koenigsberg, who would be taken over with the same drawing account that he had been receiving.
In his early forties, a scant five feet and six inches in height, compactly built, Mose C. Harris had the air of a man with an arrested bent for foppishness. He was a baldish dandy whose appearance suggested the dandruff he didn’t have. Dancing brown eyes belied the laziness of a drawl. The straggling ends of a small, sandy mustache sought refuge between lips too full to conceal. His voice fluctuated between a throaty purr and a deep rumble. It was an admirable vehicle for a voluminous magniloquence. His presence alternately denied and affirmed his reputation as a daring soldier of fortune. But his speech left no doubt about the vigor of his brain.
Only those soliciting favors addressed Harris as “Major.” He was invariably referred to as “the Majah.” Because of his own pronunciation, he could not resent the implied banter. “Rest assured that San Antonio will be just as responsive as other communities that have indulged a keen appetite for my offerings,” he boasted. “Once, I published a paper behind barricaded doors and for eleven days the good citizens came up under the guns to buy each issue.” This was more than braggadocio. Less than five years before, this swashbuckling journalist had been the central figure in one of the strangest newspaper dramas ever enacted.
A tramp compositor, Harris “came up from the printer’s case” to the writing staff. His trenchant pen kept him constantly in hot water. The javelins of his caustic scorn were loosed as readily by a baby’s prattle as by a politician’s declamation. His piquant individuality found a fitting background in the turbulent Hot Springs of the late ’80s. There he launched the Horseshoe. Its contents consisted of spicy comment.
The Arkansas resort was seething with a struggle for control of gambling privileges. Three Flynn brothers dominated the field. They owned a string of saloons with gaming-rooms overhead. Their competitor was Jim Lane. Cures effected by the waters from springs on the abutting government reservation drew visitors from all sections of the country. The end of Central Avenue, the principal street, was being hewn from a mountainside under a federal contract involving several hundred thousand dollars. The town was a gamesters’ El Dorado with all the bustle and vividness of a western mining camp.
The Horseshoe espoused the Flynns’ cause. A score of shootings over a period of months had enlivened the gambling competition. Then Lane sent to New Orleans for reinforcements.
Major Billy Doran, a notorious gunman, responded. He brought with him a gang of “trigger sharps.” The feud reached its climax in a street battle the desperateness of which is still a saga of the South. Doran and his gangsters lay in ambush opposite Billy McTague’s saloon. The Flynn trio approached in a hack. Jack Flynn was killed by the first shot. The driver, with half a dozen bullet holes through his body, toppled to the ground. His last gesture wedged the frightened horses against the curb. The carriage was literally riddled into splinters. It fell apart. The two surviving brothers became exposed targets. Frank Flynn, his hand shattered by a revolver bullet, dropped beside Jack’s body. Billy Flynn, his chest pierced by a rifle ball, grabbed Frank’s Winchester. His gun spitting fire at each step, Billy drove the Doran gang to cover. He was standing alone in the blood-spattered street when a posse, hastily organized by Police Chief Toler, arrived.
Doran and his followers, several of them badly wounded, were marched to the courthouse.
That night, law-abiding citizens organized the Committee of Safety. It formed a military organization. Flintlock muskets with bayonets were carried for show. Revolvers in hidden holsters were carried for emergency. The plant of the Horseshoe was converted into an armed fort. A barricade was erected behind the front doors, which had been further secured with a lattice of iron bars. Since the building backed against a mountain, there was no rear ingress.
The Horseshoe, which had been issued weekly, became a daily the next afternoon. It was an eruption of fire and brimstone. Harris had dug out of the slime and slush of Hot Springs politics the semblance of a righteous cause. He charged that the Flynn brothers had been shot down in furtherance of a conspiracy of corruption. A scheme had been hatched whereby illicit profits accrued under the government contract for the excavation of Central Avenue. Sites owned by favored property-owners were selected. The blasting of rock from these building lots greatly increased their value. Use of this stone by the contractors saved for them the large expense of transportation from other points. Jim Lane had engineered the deal. Municipal officials shared his profits. The Flynn brothers demanded part of the gains. Their removal followed. The Horseshoe presented all this in the form of a serial.
Each edition was a chapter of absorbing interest to Hot Springs. Harris, armed with a repeating rifle, stood on guard beside the barricade while buyers of the paper thrust their coins through the iron bars in exchange for their copies. Food and supplies were lowered to Harris on a rope through the skylight in the building roof. A note was handed in by a reader. It announced the flight of Hot Springs’ mayor. “The Majah” rejoiced. Later that afternoon he learned that the police chief had decamped. Harris drank a pint of champagne in celebration. But the Horseshoe’s allegations were disturbing the peace of many substantial citizens. The Committee of Safety sent word that it would be a salutary measure for Harris to seek an abode remote from Hot Springs. That was on the tenth day. The next afternoon, the Horseshoe published a resume of “The Revelations,” with an announcement that a copy was being sent to each member of Congress. A furor ensued. Harris was attacking the community’s tenderest spot. If a scandal touching the government contract reached Washington, it would cause a Congressional investigation. That might mean a suspension of the work. The danger of such a disaster was appalling. Harris must be stopped.
The Committee of Safety assembled outside the office of the Horseshoe. Fifteen men with fixed bayonets formed a half-circle in front of the barricaded doors. In the background crowded most of the citizenship of Hot Springs. The posse commander, carrying a sword, called to Harris to “come forth.” Several moments elapsed before “the Majah” presented himself. There was a wry grin on his face. In his best public meeting manner, he asked, “To what am I indebted for this extraordinary attention?”
“We are here,” the man with the sword answered sternly, “to give you safe escort out of Hot Springs. Your presence is an instigation to riot. Our best citizens agree that your absence is necessary for the preservation of peace. We shall protect you against violence on the way to the railroad station. But you are warned that we will not be responsible for your safety if you attempt to return.”
“It has been a custom in the valley,” Harris intoned as if delivering an address, “both on the arrival and the departure of a distinguished citizen, to accord him the compliment of a brass band. I call for a brass band.”
“Hang the----- !” came a chorus.
“Under the circumstances, we’ll dispense with the brass band,” announced “the Majah,” apparently less ruffled than an orator who has just been hissed.
The men with the bayonets formed a hollow square. In its center, Mose C. Harris was marched to the railroad yards. There he was put aboard a switch engine that had been waiting with steam up. That was in the fall of 1888. Harris afterward filed suit for damages in the federal court at Little Rock. He was awarded a verdict of $1,200. The Committee of Safety defendants paid the judgment.
The story of the Hot Springs episode revived my hopes. Here was an editor who had “defied the intrenched forces of iniquity even to the bayonet’s point.”
Chapter 5 Part 3 Next Week
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