Pistol packin’ prairie publishers

were polished at name calling

© 2013, David Chartrand

Like most Americans you are growing increasingly offended by the shocking things you read and hear in the mass media.

It’s a good thing you weren’t born in the mid-19th Century. For one thing, you’d be dead by now. You’d also be more accustomed to raw language. Consider, for example, the editorial wars among the nation’s earliest newspapers.

The 1800s was a time of blustery newspaper wars. Name-calling was a prized art on the Great Plains. Rival publishers saved their best shots for each other.

In the 1850s, Thomas J. Key, editor of the Doniphan Constitutionalist, dueled frequently in print with archrival publisher Sol Miller of the Kansas Chief at White Cloud, Kan.

Editor Key:  “We would gently hint to the cross-eyed, crank-sided, peaked and long razor-nosed, blue-mouthed … empty-headed, snaggle-toothed, filthy-mouthed hammer-hearted, splaw-footed abolition editor to attend to his own affairs or we will pitch into him in earnest.”

Editor Miller, fighting fire with fire: “We said his name was Thomas Jefferson Key. We beg Thomas Jefferson’s pardon — it should have been Thomas Jack-ass Key! No insult intended to jackasses generally.”

These journalists had what one Kansas historian called, “tremendous vocabularies.” They were hotheaded, vituperative wordsmiths who ignored the line between press freedom and personal freedom.  Their editorial shouting matches were catalogued in a glorious essay written in 1944 by Cecil Howes for the Kansas Historical Quarterly, entitled, “Pistol-Packin’ Pencil Pushers.”

For example, the publisher of The Jacksonian in Cimarron, Kan., fired this diatribe at a nearby adversary, on Aug 2, 1889:

“We are onto the lop-eared, lantern-jawed half-bred and half-born whisky-soaked, pox-eaten pup who pretends to edit that worthless wad of subdued out-house bung-fodder, known as the Ingalls Messenger.”

The Marysville Enterprise, on May 16, 1868, described the editor of a competing paper as a “red-headed, frizzle-headed, mush-headed, slab-sided brainless deformity and counterfeit imitation of a diseased polecat.”   *

And the Eminence Call in 1897 rendered this tribute to one of its local competitors:

“He, of course, was not responsible for the fact that he was born a complete degenerate and fitted out with a face that causes children to scream with fright and old, staid farm horses to break their halters and run away when they see him coming toward them. Those who have known him from childhood say that the first sentence he ever uttered was a lie and since then he has never told the truth except on compulsion.”

Kansas historian Don Wilson, in a 1978 essay, “Barbed Words on the Frontier,” noted that the men who ran these papers had one thing in common: They were never neutral about anything.

“Their language doesn't wiggle, wobble or waver, beat about the bush, put out a smoke screen, play hide and seek or dodge the issue,” Wilson wrote.

Despite what you believe, newspapers today are far more attentive to reader sensibilities. Kansas journalists today would never refer to state legislation as “outhouse bung-fodder”?  For crying out loud, there haven’t been any outhouses around Topeka for 100 years.

* It is no longer considered in bad taste today to refer to a Kansas publisher as a “diseased polecat.”

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