Thursday, August 03, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 7 Part 2
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
Old Man River (part 2)link to previous installment link to next installment
In the late afternoon of May 27, 1896, the Mississippi Valley was visited by the most devastating tornado in its history. The brunt of the calamity was borne by eastern Missouri and southern Illinois. The next morning for the first time a local story appeared on the front page of the Globe-Democrat. It was my report of the havoc that attended the destruction of more than 250 lives in St. Louis and East St. Louis. It followed a general survey of the ravage wrought throughout the region.
A classic operation in news gathering followed the catastrophe. The tornado had slashed diagonally southeastward through those sections of St. Louis and East St. Louis that face each other on opposite banks of the Mississippi. It destroyed every line of communication across its path. The Missouri metropolis was completely isolated from the territory east and north. The Eads Bridge, which ordinarily linked St. Louis and East St. Louis into one community, had been rendered useless. Its eastern pier was dismantled.
Disaster threshed at both ends of the great steel structure. Only a few hundred yards lay between. The channel span is 520 feet. Yet more than 5,000 miles of wire were required to exchange the tragic tidings. Messages from St. Louis were sent to Galveston. They went from that Texas port via the then shortest cable relay through Vera Cruz to Halifax. Land lines transmitted the dispatches from Nova Scotia to New York for distribution through the East and North and for delivery to the stricken town across the Mississippi scarcely half a mile from their point of origin. Dispatches traveling the same 5,000-mile route in reverse brought the only advices received that night from East St. Louis.
One, at three o’clock in the morning, startled into renewed activity a staff on the verge of collapse from exhaustion. It was packed with an emotional content rivaling the shock of the tornado itself. It contained three elements of sensation. First, it announced that Governor Tanner of Illinois had proclaimed martial law in the devastated area. Second, it told of organized groups of vandals defying the armed forces which opposed them and looting the city from street to street. Third, and most lurid, was the report that women ghouls, “captured in the act of robbing the dead victims of the storm,” had been hanged by militiamen. The bulletin, sent by a regular correspondent of the Globe-Democrat, concluded with a request for staff assistance.
The telegram thrust upon Obadiah R. Lake a critical problem. As night editor, he confronted a pressing duty. He must hasten reportorial help to East St. Louis. The city editor had notified him that it was impossible to get men across the Mississippi. To persist in the face of that notice might mean the assumption of too great a responsibility. Lake was in a jam between the urgings of professional ardor and the promptings of conscience. Twenty years later all his worries would have been eliminated by the radio. In this quandary he resorted to an expedient.
The last edition had gone to press. Ordinarily, at that hour, the offices were deserted except for three men on the “dog watch.” This morning they were crowded with reporters, copyreaders and special wire operators reading the biggest local story ever printed in a St. Louis newspaper. More than forty men answered the night editor’s summons to the telegraph department. The exciting message, that had come 5,000 miles from the sender less than the length of a dozen city blocks away, was read aloud. “Are there any suggestions?” Lake asked. The response was a noteworthy instance of journalistic zeal. As with one voice, every man in the room volunteered to go. Lake behaved as if a heavy load had been lifted from his shoulders. He selected Frank J. Price and me.
Price, then twice my age, started out as if on a lark. Our first reverse came at the St. Louis approach to the Eads Bridge. A militiaman with a rifle barred our way. His instructions were to permit no one to pass under any circumstances. Both argument and cajolery proved fruitless. We withdrew for consultation. Neither of us believed the sentry would actually shoot a newspaperman. We had learned that his orders were not to leave his post. So, a simple stratagem was evolved. Frank would edge along the north side of the bridge while I distracted the guard’s attention. When he had gained sufficient distance, Price would shout a signal, at the same time putting on a burst of speed. That would be my cue to sprint. The sentinel, debarred from leaving his post, would be powerless to overtake either of us.
All went well until Price yelled. He had already started his spurt. A shot halted him. It seemed to come by command of Frank’s voice. The explosion dazed me. But the sequel quickly restored my self-command. “Stop that!” bellowed Price. “You’ve spoiled my shoe!” For a moment, the man with the smoking gun stood irresolute. Then he joined my laughter. Frank ignored our levity. Here was a man who seemed to prize his safety less than his footwear. The guardsman was amazed. Instead of detaining us for a provost marshal, he offered friendly advice. “Call it a day,” he urged. “The bridge is impassable and the river is choked with wreckage. It would take a steel-armored battleship to get across now. Anything else would be crushed like an eggshell.”
While Price’s show of annoyance had won a laughing exit from an awkward pinch, the effects menaced the equilibrium of our comradely morale. Frank felt himself cast into a matrix of heroic hardihood. He had to bulge out to fill the mold. He steamed up an aura of dense dignity. There was no comment until his stride changed to a swagger, retarding our movements. Then a four word sentence pricked the bubble. It laid bare the inner structure of Frank’s seeming bravado. Price was a native of the Ozark Mountains. Shoes in his boyhood were a precious luxury. They came to be the hobby of his adult years. So the normalcies were reestablished by the simple quip: “The Ozarks belched up.”
The bridge sentry’s counsel had fallen on skeptic ears. We were convinced we could find a vessel that would carry us to East St. Louis. It was four o’clock when we reached the levee. The cobblestone embankment was hidden in a blackness more opaque than a photographer’s idle darkroom. Will-o’-the-wisp twinkles showed the upper contours of craft moored in solid array along the waterfront. The faint glimmers came from lanterns hung below deck on the far sides of the silent boats. The only audible sounds were the muffled crashes of floating masses of debris tossed against each other by the sullen river. It seemed impossible to arouse a crew. Shouting and the hammering of dornicks against wood and iron remained unanswered. We groped our way to what felt like a boarding-ladder. Hand in hand we began to climb. In another moment we were aboard, floundering in the folds of a malodorous tarpaulin. It had been thrown around us. Excited voices discussed our capture. We were prisoners on a Mississippi packet. That it was the Dixie Dispatch meant nothing to us at the instant.
Again Frank Price’s ready resentment scored a triumph. His caloric volubility awed our captors. They had mistaken us for renegade roustabouts hunting plunder. Word had gone down the line that prowlers were raiding every accessible cargo. Our efforts to attract attention had passed as trickery to “smoke out” or test the alertness of those on watch. Nobody apologized. Disappointment mixed with displeasure in the faces around us. Angry men are not quickly appeased at that time of night. But the jingling of pocketsful of silver coins presently encircled us with friendly smiles. Our request for a rowboat snapped this cheeriness into a forbidding gloom. The explanation presented a new problem. Nothing could be done for us without permission from the Captain. He was asleep. No man on the Mississippi could match the violence of his temper. At the best, it required courage to accost him in ordinary routine. It would be unshirted folly to awake him at this hour at the behest of a stranger.
“No capable reporter can be defeated by difficulties of approach.” So ran a maxim credited to Joseph B. McCullagh, our Globe-Democrat chieftain. “Obstacles are tests of reportorial ingenuity” was a companion adage. These phrases were inspirational guides in the years of their author’s ascendency. They lapsed into the limbo to which a later day consigned “the overworked clichés of a crude stage of journalism,” much like the printer dumps into the “hellbox” for recasting the type that he has used. Their verity continued unchallenged but their virtue attenuated. The fading of their force synchronized with the transition of news-getting into news-letting, with the passing of the newspaper from an individual enterprise to a mass operation. But the vigor of their fullest meaning animated the two Globe- Democrat reporters on the Dixie Dispatch.
Price divided with me a series of brief but strenuous shifts at high-pressure suasion. The Captain might resent being awakened, we argued, but he would never forgive stupid neglect of his major interests. These men looked to him for their jobs, but he in turn looked to the owners for his own berth. Proprietors of boats courted the favor of the press. Didn’t they pay money for advertising? What would the real bosses of the Dixie Dispatch do when they learned what had happened tonight? What would they do to him and what would he do to the men who put him in that hole? A break came sooner than we expected. The first mate and the steward beckoned us to a whispered conference in an adjacent aisle. A couple of greenbacks closed a bargain. We would be shown the skipper’s quarters. Both officers would call out so that he could recognize their voices. Thereafter, it would be “every man for himself.”
The mate wore a set of brass knuckles. Repeatedly, he raised them to rap on the Captain’s cabin. Each time, his arm dropped in a gesture of impotence. The show of trepidation provoked an impatience tinctured with suspicion. Such a case of jitters did not comport with the bowel equipment necessary to become second in command of a Mississippi steamboat. The steward was carrying a carpenter’s hammer. It seemed like a call of duty to grab the tool. The steel head was banged against the door panel. The mate jumped in surprise. “Newspapermen to see you, sir,” he called out, vanishing immediately with his fellow-officer. The next few moments erased all doubt about the genuine indigo of his funk.
Our credulity was taxed. It seemed impossible that one man could produce the vocal bombardments that assailed our ears. The vessel had little need for a foghorn. The Captain’s voice was adequate. Its high notes had a strident quality that set one’s teeth on edge. On this occasion, its volume was no more nerve-racking than its messages were scarifying. There burst upon us a catalogue of the most astounding epithets that ever reached my hearing. Its authorship compelled a certain awe. The faunal nomenclature alone, without the dizzying roster of hybrid fantasies, was a challenge to scholastic achievement. But the need for expedition held a higher claim than wonderment over the skipper’s unique talent. My watch showed that more than seven minutes had passed since the avalanche of profanity started. Then there was an instant’s pause, as if for breath. Before we could speak, an order thundered out.
“Take them up to the pilot house and kick them to hell off into the river!” Evidently, the master of the boat believed his subordinates had waited for instructions. Evidently, also, he was not lavishing hospitality on newspapermen. But that fact didn’t divert us. Our trump card remained to be played. The Captain didn’t realize that he confronted the power and the influence of the Globe-Democrat. The name of that newspaper was something to conjure with. It was a shibboleth that demanded respect wherever the Mississippi flowed. Our words merged as if by signal into a single shout: “We represent the Globe-Democrat!’’ There was a brief silence and then a sharp command to “repeat that.” We obeyed. The promptness of the result exceeded my expectations. “I’ll see you in a minute,” came a modulated, businesslike voice. The change in tone was more than astonishing; it was positively refreshing. It converted tenseness into buoyancy. What a remarkable institution was the Globe-Democrat! How penetrating and pervasive was the prestige of a truly great newspaper! Its mere mention worked miracles.
The chief of a Mississippi steamboat was still an outstanding figure in that day. No autocrat of an Atlantic liner exercised an authority more absolute. But there was a sharp difference. Commands from the quarter-deck were translated into actions that all eyes could observe. Orders from the texas were often executed in the absence of witnesses. The sea captain moved deliberately in the firm security of centuries of traditional discipline. The river despot struck quickly in the lurking shadows that lingered from Reconstruction reprisals. Seldom did one of these side-wheeler overlords deign to report a casualty among his crew. Even in such a moment of condescension to outsiders, he maintained the formality of reserve befitting a foreign potentate. It was not smart to invite official interest. That might lead to an investigation. Opinions might clash as to the actual nature of “a mutiny nipped in the bud.” And there was always a maudlin sentiment about Negroes among those who never handled them.
At first, the skipper of the Dixie Dispatch seemed quite different from the ogreish bully that his tantrum had suggested. Tall, well-knitted together, with aggressive features, he had an air of competence. He might have been mistaken for a ringmaster in a circus or a floorwalker in a department store. This fellow knew what he wanted. And what he wanted just now was to determine whether we were actually employees of the Globe-Democrat. Apparently, he felt it would be best for us to disavow the connection. What we had considered an ace was dwindling to a deuce. The packet boss was questioning me when Price edged to the door. Frank tried the knob. It wouldn’t turn. The lock was fastened.
“Then there’s no mistake; you have been delivered into my hands!” The words fell as if a stage manager had timed their utterance. They sounded too artificial for credence. But the next sentence clinched them to chilling reality. “I am Captain Frank Bilbo.”
Why, out of all the craft along the levee, had we picked this one? An unhappier choice could not have been made. Bilbo’s name was anathema in the Globe-Democrat organization. No one else holding a master’s license on the Mississippi had ever gained a wider notoriety for highhanded defiance of the authorities. The Globe-Democrat had done much to promote his conspicuousness. On a number of occasions it had severely chided public officials for what it defined as neglect of the Captain. These editorials pointed out that Bilbo might be persuaded to repair omissions and correct errors in various mortuary records. A bitter feud developed. The Captain denounced the Globe-Democrat. He demanded reparation. Also, he pronounced various threats. To these the newspaper made cavalier response. Now, with much effort, we had succeeded in convincing him that we came to his cabin direct from the Globe-Democrat. Perhaps this was another instance of overzealousness.
Captain Bilbo gave a more or less artless exhibition of an aggrieved man working himself into a fury. An impassioned recital of his wrongs followed an ascending scale of intensity. His gestures breached the dramatic unities. They distracted attention from his speech. They were made with a cutlass that he had wrenched from the wall. It was brandished with so much emphasis that at times the speaker’s words were lost to his listeners in their concentration on the flashing blade.
The fear grew on me that Bilbo’s emotions indicated a pathologic phase. How else account for his fits of satanic glee? How else explain the sadistic satisfaction with which he outlined his program of vengeance? For weeks, he told us, he had planned “to slit off the ears of the first Globe-Democrat man he met.” He had intended to send them to the editor—such a message of contempt as no words could answer. But tonight fate had bestowed on him a double sign of its favor. Instead of one pair of ears, here were two. He would send both. Each of us could carry our own, or the other fellow’s, as we chose. The graciousness of this permission betokened a degree of considerateness for which it was impossible at the time to frame a fitting expression of appreciation.
Frank Price was no longer the devil-may-care brave of the Eads Bridge. A wistful air had replaced the insouciant mien of an hour before. Still, he had a look of self-possession that stirred my envy. Obviously, his mind was functioning while mine seemed inert. My thoughts were numbed by the feeling that we faced a man impervious alike to reason and sentiment. It is possible our jeopardy was not as great as we feared. It is possible that providence would have intervened to avert a maniacal assault; but my hands were moving to shield my ears when Price launched the diversion that fended off the crisis.
“Listen to a proposition!” Frank shouted. Bilbo paused in astonishment. “Don’t you own a pack of fine hounds?” Price asked. Then, without waiting for an answer, he went on in the hurried speech of one seeking to avoid interruption: “That means you’re a sportsman. I want to make a sporting proposal. You’ve told us you were a God-fearing man. My proposition is that if you will kneel with me in prayer for five minutes, repeating what I quote from the Bible, you may then have your will of me without further resistance.” Price’s offer was like a kick on the shins. It both aroused and irritated me. No matter how pressing he considered our peril, he had no right to hang my safety on so slender a reed. Without protest from me, Bilbo might accept Frank’s terms as a joint tender. And there was grave doubt about Price’s familiarity with the Scriptures. Suppose his tongue got tangled over a couple of quotations! In another instant, the significance of Frank’s coup flashed on me. Anything to get this fellow’s mind off his madness for a mess of ears.
The idea was like a shaft of light. It dispelled the muddle into which Bilbo’s phrenetic ravings had crowded my thoughts. A veritable hurricane of words whipped out. Either the velocity or the vehemence of my speech—or both—compelled his tongue-tied attention. His hounds were barking up the wrong tree. My indignation on his account was greater than his own. All the offenses he complained about were committed without our knowledge or consent. They should be fully requited. We would see to that. We were in position to do so. Nursing a grudge could fit into the private life of a commonplace citizen. But Captain Bilbo was an important public character and his quarrel with the Globe-Democrat was an important public affair. What would give the Captain more satisfaction—to vent his anger in physical violence or to receive vindication through an open apology from the Globe-Democrat published in its own columns? Of course, there could be but one answer.
It may have been that Bilbo’s choler and skepticism were simultaneously exhausted. That would explain his conversion from blood-lust to amity. Or, perhaps, as Price afterward claimed, the scales of Bilbo’s mood were balanced in our favor by the piety implied in Frank’s proposal. The assurances we advanced entailed no salving of our scruples with the excuse of duress. But it was fortunate that the Captain didn’t analyze them. Careful consideration of their meaning might have altered the outcome. It would probably have withheld from us the skiff which the Captain shortly placed at our disposal with three Negro roustabouts.
Two of the Negroes tugged sturdily at the oars, while the third, at the tiller, directed them how to avoid heaving heaps of wreckage. The current had dragged us far south of our course. I was trying to count the miles when a lurch of the little craft upset me. The man at the rudder had suddenly flung himself to the bottom of the boat. He was wailing in abject terror. He had used a paddle to ward off an object bobbing around in the water. It turned out to be a coffin. The thrust of the oar cracked it open. A corpse became visible. In a few moments, the gruesome case sank from view. But the awe-stricken Negro could not be persuaded to look. He had “done wrong to the dead.” He was a doomed man. Already, the voodoos were grabbing for him. His horror infected the two men at the oarlocks. They sat as if paralyzed.
Passing debris knocked the skiff in all directions. A metal shaft, projecting from a half-submerged crate, pierced the bow. Water poured through the hole. It washed the darkies loose from their hobgoblins, but too late to finish the boat ride. Fortunately, the sun had risen. Slipping into the river and swimming alongside, the three roustabouts guided the skiff with their hands. It was seven o’clock when we waded ashore on the Illinois sands. The current had carried us eleven miles south of East St. Louis. Nine o’clock had come when Price alighted with me from a railroad handcar in the ravaged district.
The report of women ghouls robbing the dead was untrue. It was one of the exasperating mockeries of journalism. A canard may lay on newspaper energies a larger tax than many a story of historic consequence imposes. “Nothing happened,” was Price’s rueful comment, “except that we covered another assignment.”
Chapter 7 Part 3 Next Week
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