Joel B. Henderson, Chattanooga State Community College, “Catharine Helfenstein and Little Eva: The Mass Media Origins of Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
The iconic death of Little Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin has long-been hailed as the quintessential deathbed scene in American Sentimentalism. However, origins of the sentimental deathbed scene have received considerably less attention. In this paper, I explore the American Tract Society (ATS) as the originator of mass media in early nineteenth-century America and as the creator of a newly evangelicalized version of American sentimentalism that shaped the genre’s historical evolution and created a reading public that made possible the bestseller status of Stowe’s most famous novel. Specifically, in this paper, I trace the connections between an early nineteenth-century ATS publication entitled “Catharine Helfenstein” and the character of Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Historical and biographical connections between the American Tract Society and Stowe’s family and the similarities between the two publications’ deathbed scenes evidence a likely influence by the ATS on Stowe’s creation of her archetypal sentimental scene. In short, this paper argues that the American Tract Society is largely responsible for the success of Stowe’s novel and, thus, the novel’s subsequent contribution to the genesis of the American Civil War.
Cayce Myers, University of Georgia, “Southern Traitor or American Hero?: The Representation of Robert E. Lee in Northern Press from 1865 to 1870”
This paper examines the portrayal of Robert E. Lee in 109 articles from popular northern press from the end of the Civil War in 1865 until immediately after his death in 1870. Through this examination of the post-bellum northern press two distinct images of Lee emerge—one of Lee as a traitor and one of Lee as a hero. In examining these portrayals of Lee this study examines how the northern press framed Lee in terms of his involvement with secession, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. These articles also demonstrate the difficulty the press had in reconciling the positive image of Lee with the unpopular image of the Civil War. Using scholarship on the Southern Cavalier Myth, the Lost Cause, and American hero creation as theoretical frameworks, this study analyzes these articles to show the genesis of the creation of Lee as an American hero and analyzes the justifications used by the press for his positive portrayals. From this analysis this study shows how Lee’s image transformed from a traitor to the United States, to good man, and ultimately an American hero. This evolution of press portrayal of Lee highlights the complex evolution of the creation of heroes, particularly those who have to overcome politically charged associations. Lee’s evolution shows that popular northern press in the early post-bellum period divorced Lee from any negative political or social associations and focused on his personality as a means to cast him as a hero.
Zosia Bober, Georgia State University, “The Postwar Political Struggle of a Traitor: Clement L. Vallandigham and Civil War Reconstruction 1865-1871”
Politician, lawyer and activist, Clement L. Vallandigham was an obstinate and voiced member of the Ohio Copperheads throughout his lifetime. Vallandigham was regarded as the leader of the Peace Democrats. Though an accomplished politician, his party affiliation drew negative government attention during the Civil War and as a result he was banished to the confederate states. After the war, Vallandigham tried to continue his political career, but struggled with post war stigmas. His title as Copperhead and traitor prevented his acceptance by constituents. Vallandigham was then forced into a career as a newspaper editor. After being unsuccessful in the press world, he became a lawyer. His last trial was the case of Tom McGehan. Vallandigham’s untimely death was a result of this trial. In commemoration of his life now passed, the press gave many different interpretations of Vallandigham’s accomplishments. But even in the wake of his loss, Vallandigham was criticized for his position as a Copperhead and as a traitor. His political struggles were misrepresented and his accomplishments all but forgotten due to the Civil War label of conspirator and deserter.
Nancy Dupont, University of Mississippi, “‘Lawless Louisiana’: New Orleans Newspapers, Race, and the Battle of Liberty Place”
Reconstruction in New Orleans was a particularly violent period for the South’s biggest city, with public murders and street fighting rampant. Yet it is the events of September 14, 1874 that are remembered, mainly because of a controversial monument standing in the city today. In the months before the battle, two newspapers, the New Orleans Daily Picayune and the New Orleans Bulletin, abandoned all pretense of objectivity to encourage white citizens to take back their city from what they saw as a dangerous element: carpetbagger rule enabled by newly enfranchised African-Americans.
Despite arguments against violence from the neutral but racist New Orleans Times and the party organ New Orleans Republican, the Daily Picayune and the Bulletin fomented alarm throughout the summer of 1874. As violence from newly formed white militia groups spread throughout Louisiana, the Daily Picayune and the Bulletin supported the Crescent City White League. By reporting on the formation of Black Leagues, which may or may not have existed, the newspapers whipped up a frenzy of suspicion of all African-Americans, including those who had lived peacefully in antebellum New Orleans as free people of color. When police intercepted arms being sent to the Crescent City White League, the stage was set for a bloody battle based primarily on racial hatred.
Ford Risley, Pennsylvania State University, “Synthesizing the History of the Civil War Press”
Scholarship on Civil War journalism has enjoyed a renaissance in the last decade. Although the new research has contributed greatly to our understanding of the era’s press, the majority of studies have dealt with individual journalists, organizations, events, and subjects. What is needed now are works that take a broader look at the history of Civil War-era journalism. This paper will discuss reasons why more synthesis is needed and how it can be done.
Mary M. Cronin, New Mexico State University, “‘With us, defeat is not thought of and disaster to our army would be absolutely ruinous’: Southwestern Newspaper Coverage of Col. John Baylors’s Invasion of New Mexico”
This research examines the Southwestern media’s response to and representations of the initial invasion of New Mexico by Col. John Baylor in July 1861, up to and including General Henry Hopkins Sibley’s arrival in Mesilla in December 1861. The press in Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico provided the bulk of the news coverage of the invasion of New Mexico to Confederate and Union newspapers. None of the region’s newspapers had trained correspondents following the troops. Instead, the news largely was provided by soldiers’ letters.
The campaign bears examination because the New Mexico invasion was unusual in several respects from other U. S. Civil War battles. At more than 2,000 miles, it was the longest campaign of the war. The New Mexico invasion also included the Civil War’s only lancer charge—a disastrous affair that pitted anachronistic weapons against rifles and pistols—at the Battle of Valverde. Then, too, the campaign also involved a substantial number of Hispanic soldiers on both sides, but prevailing racial ideologies influenced press coverage to the Hispanics’ detriment.
Although the New Mexico campaign was far from the seat of the rest of the war, the potential stakes for the Confederacy were enormous--the seizing of the rich mineral-laden lands of the western territories followed by the eventual acquisition of California’s port cities. A successful military campaign also could have led to diplomatic recognition of the Confederate States by European nations, a much sought prize. It was incumbent upon Texas’ editors, therefore, to carefully explain Baylor’s (and, later, Sibley’s) offensive, aggressive actions, not only to their own citizens, but to the world. By contrast, Colorado’s and New Mexico’s editors needed to impress upon a harried Union government and its citizens the importance of these far western battles as well as the consequences of failure.
Bruce W. Eelman, Siena College, “Free Speech or Treason?: The Democratic Press and Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination”
Throughout the Civil War, the northern Democratic press vilified Abraham Lincoln for his wartime policies, his interference in civil liberties, and a host of political and military actions. The opposition press could be personally vicious, attacking Lincoln as everything from an incompetent bumpkin to a corrupt politician. These attacks continued right up to his assassination in April 1865. The national tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination created a crisis for the Democratic press. They now had to deflect attacks that their “unpatriotic” and “treasonous” language prompted the assassination. Mobs stormed Democratic newspaper offices and destroyed property, even threatening or actually murdering editors. My study explores how the opposition presses responded to Lincoln’s assassination as well as the public outcries looking to silence and implicate these publications in the assassination. In part, this analysis reflects on a historical question that is particularly relevant to today: how does a national crisis alter the notions of free speech and the role of dissent in the American media?
Drawing on Democratic and Republican newspapers throughout the North, unpublished manuscripts, and relevant historical literature, my paper looks at a rarely examined aspect of the public press in the Civil War era. Following four years of Copperhead Democratic attacks on the President and his Party, many Republicans and other Lincoln supporters reacted to the assassination with vengeance and violence that made a mockery of the late President’s call for “malice toward none.” In the end, such a study reveals the struggles of holding fast to free speech and dissent after a period in which one form of dissent, namely secession, was blamed for over a half a million deaths and the near destruction of a democratic nation.
Patricia Ferrier, University of Southern Indiana, “The President’s Private Life: A New Explanation for ‘The Right to Privacy’”
In 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis wrote of the need for privacy from the press for everyone – even people in the public eye. Since 1890, scholars have suggested myriad explanations for what has been called the most often-cited law review article ever written. Those suggestions primarily have focused on press coverage of Warren’s private life. This study, however, suggests the article was a reaction to the 19th-century press coverage of President Grover Cleveland, whose private life was the stuff of headlines even before he moved into the White House. Using popular newspapers of the day, this study traces press coverage of the first president to marry in the White House and the first president to serve non-consecutive terms in office. This study includes news reports that contradict some of the Cleveland lore and offers another interpretation of the catalyst for a legal remedy for privacy invasion by the press.
At a time when readership was growing and the role of the newspaper was changing, Cleveland’s sexual exploits as a bachelor, his marriage to a woman less than half his age, and speculation about his married life made sensational headlines. This study suggests that the press coverage from 1884 to 1888 also provided the first step in an attempt to protect future presidents and other public officials from similar treatment.
John Kvach, University of Alabama, “Pushing the South Forward: J.D.B. De Bow’s Editorial Contributions to the Postwar New South Movement”
From 1846 to 1867, J.D.B. De Bow used De Bow’s Review to challenge and educate southerners on the importance of economic modernization in the American South. Despite living and working in a region that often tried to limit dialogue that ventured beyond the implicit support of proslavery ideology and King Cotton, De Bow used his editorial power to call for the antebellum development of cities, railroads, better farming methods, and increased commerce. Through his monthly journal he created a pre-Civil War New South movement that would reemerge in the postwar South. Recast by postbellum boosters such as Henry Grady and Henry Watterson, De Bow’s initial call for economic modernization became a viable plan for southerners searching for salvation after the Civil War. De Bow’s Review served as a journalistic beacon for many southerners who trusted De Bow’s willingness to assess new ideas and innovations. War had exposed many of the South’s weaknesses, and in De Bow’s short post-war editorial career, he acknowledged that southern factories had mostly produced cotton goods and that new factories had to expand into different product lines. Although De Bow’s influence was cut short by his untimely death in 1867, his legacy continued to influence readers who embraced his message of a diversified southern economy.
Whereas current historiography focuses on individual entrepreneurs or regional industrial projects, my work explores the ways in which De Bow offered intellectual legitimacy and a guiding plan for southern industrial development. He embraced the benefits of free expression and used his journalistic power to help guide southerners at a time when the South needed answers to difficult questions.
Crompton B. Burton, Marietta College, “‘I See Much to be Preserved’: New England Journalists and State-Sponsored Narrative Histories of the American Civil War”
Chronicled in scholarly histories and memorialized in monuments of stone and brick, newspaper correspondents reporting the triumph and tragedy of the American Civil War remain topics of interest generations after first delivering their dramatic dispatches to anxious audiences of hometown readers. Celebrated for their enterprise, daring, and colorful accounts of unfolding events, their contributions to the historical record of the conflict are well-documented.
Less well-known are the post-war efforts of fellow journalists who took up the challenge of transforming the correspondents’ original and often ephemeral reportage into substantive narrative histories of the war. Publishers, editors, and reporters themselves, they were uniquely qualified to organize research, craft voluminous copy, and document such minutiae as desertions and discharges. Because it was their lot to toil in less glamorous settings than on bloody battlefields or on arduous campaign, their challenges in pressing forward on state house steps, in smoke-filled veterans halls, and under wind-swept reunion tents are largely lost to history.
Their story is worth the telling not only for the context it provides for the
authoring and underwriting of narrative history in the late nineteenth century, but also for its demonstration of the advocacy, ingenuity, and tenacity necessary to see such projects through to their conclusion in the difficult circumstances of the post-war period. In addition, their works, monuments of a sort in their own right, also provide an invaluable window to the very personal and profound effect that the writing projects had upon their unsung champions and authors and to the enduring impact their unceasing efforts had upon the creation of a body of literature in which they sought to preserve their Civil War experience and legacy for future generations.
Dianne Bragg, University of Alabama, “Nellie Bly: Flying in the Face of Tradition”
Nellie Bly began her life in a rather inauspicious traditional way. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864, in a small Pennsylvania town. Early on, she was given the rather feminine moniker “Pink,” but it was not the name that would endure. At the age of 20, using the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl,” Pink Cochran wrote a letter to The Pittsburg Dispatch in response to a column that railed against women who wanted anything more than to remain in the domestic sphere. It was a letter that would catch the editor’s eye.
He sought out the orphan girl, and then promptly gave her a job at the newspaper. It was here that she took on the pen name, Nellie Bly, and her life took a trajectory no one predicted. In an era of sensational journalism, Nellie paved her way with stories on injustice and suffering, from insane asylums to factories, while at the same time endearing herself to an audience captivated by her sensational escapades. Nellie was not satisfied to live the life of desk reporter or women’s news columnist. For her, life was sensational, and she meant to live it to its fullest and share it with her readers. Anything less would have counted as failure.
In Bly’s book on her infamous 72-day trip around the world, she wrote: “I would rather go in dead and successful than alive and behind time.” It was a mantra she lived by throughout her career. This paper will examine how Nellie Bly used sensational stories and tactics to take investigative reporting to new heights at the end of the nineteenth century, and, in doing so, opened doors for the muckrakers and female journalists yet to come.
“A Moral Panic on the Plains?: Press Culpability and the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee” Brian Gabrial, Concordia University
This article examines the reporting in five mainstream newspapers about the increasingly tense situation in South Dakota's Pine Ridge during December 1890, focusing on the 28 days leading up to the Wounded Knee massacre. In particular, it examines whether a type of "constantly alarming and hyperbolic" reporting, which the linguist Roger Fowler called a "hysterical style" could be identified as sensational. Further, the research examines whether this reporting style contributed to a moral panic among settlers and other white authorities who encouraged the U.S. military to take the action against the Lakota, regardless of real or imagined threats.
Debra Van Tuyll, Augusta State University, “Marches, Massacres, and Mayhem: Social Identity Theory and Sensational News During the American Civil War”
Some news stories seem almost to beg to be sensationalized: crime, scandal, personalities, salacious trials, and anything involving sex easily falls into that category. A long, bloody war that cost the lives of more Americans than all the country’s other conflicts combined, the Civil War, would seem to fall within the scope of events likely to produce sensational stories, and it did – many of them.
The purpose of this paper is to explore whether social identity theory can help explain why Civil War-era newspapers in Georgia and Colorado reported as they did on war-related barbarities that occurred in their home states. Two events were chosen for study: Union General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, and Col. John M. Chivington’s Sand Creek Massacre.
Todd Thompson, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, “‘A Hoosier Michael Angelo’: The Politics of Lincoln’s Physical Appearance in Popular Media”
In this paper I make the argument that Abraham Lincoln’s consistent caricatures of his own appearance through his self-presentation helped him reap the benefits—that is, publicity and image control—of visual caricature without suffering extensively from its denigrations.
Wallace Eberhard, University of Georgia, “‘Mother Enterprise’: Georgia’s Frontier Editor and the Birth of Fitzgerald”
Mrs. Nettie C. Hall was 54 and living in Dakota Territory when she turned South and joined the new, planned Soldiers’ Colony in South Georgia. Originally called Swan, a population of less than a hundred mushroomed as settlers arrived. They were drawn by the promises of a better life from Philander T. Fitzgerald, editor of a large-circulation newspaper for Civil War veterans called the American Tribune. His plan would reunite the North and South once more, he thought, and provide a change from the drought-stricken Midwest.
Mrs. Hall became the community’s first woman journalist as editor of the Fitzgerld Enterprise. She had a unique, chatty, pointed story telling style, and earned the title “Mother Fitzgerald” early on because of the service she rendered to other newcomers while plying her journalistic trade.
This research paper discusses the development of the colony, Mrs. Hall’s career prior to moving to Georgia, and her life and work as journalist in Georgia.
W. Joseph Campbell, American University, “Yellow Journalism: Why So Maligned and Misunderstood?”
Few vestiges of 19th century American journalism live on like the epithet “yellow journalism.” It’s a sneer that trips off the tongue with scorn and condescension, a term that’s often invoked to deride journalism in the 21st century. “Yellow journalism” is sometimes invoked as synonymous with sensationalism and over-the-top treatment of the news. It’s also invoked as a short-hand description for the practices of William Randolph Hearst, whose robust, activist-oriented newspapers helped inspire the first use of “yellow journalism” in 1897. This paper will examine why “yellow journalism” is such an amorphous and ill-defined term — and why it is so readily, and mistakenly, associated with the worse that journalism can offer.
Amber Roessner & Jim Stovall, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, “Another Side of Woman’s Suffrage: The Journalistic Stances of Sarah Hale, Jane Cunningham Croly, and Ida Tarbell”
As the protests of “radical” women’s rights activists grew louder in the late nineteenth century, many Americans began to grapple with woman’s suffrage. A number of outstanding historical studies have examined how suffragists and anti-suffragists used the press as a forum to mobilize the masses in the battle over the extension of the franchise. Little work, however, has been done on where female journalists working at mainstream newspapers and magazines fit into the mix. This study attempts to fill the gap in scholarship by exploring the mediated views of three prominent female journalists, who acted as voices for the mainstream. Using a historical case study approach, this manuscript analyzes the suffrage stances taken by three prominent female journalists—Godey’s magazine editor Sarah J. Hale (1788-1879), nationally syndicated newspaper and magazine columnist Jane Cunningham Croly (1829-1901), and muckraking reporter Ida Tarbell (1857-1944). Overall, this study involved the analysis of approximately 200 articles written by Hale, Croly, and Tarbell about woman’s suffrage from 1836 to 1915. Employed at mainstream newspapers and magazines that reached mass audiences, these workingwomen contributed to the national discourse surrounding woman’s suffrage. This study contends that many late nineteenth and early twentieth century ladies of the press were torn over the “woman question.” This study begins to illuminate some of the nuances in the debate over woman’s suffrage. In particular, it sheds light on the range of perspectives shared by prominent workingwomen in the male-dominated field of journalism from 1836 until 1915.
Jennifer Moore, University of Minnesota, “‘Ours Has Been No Pleasing Task’: Sensationalism in Frank Leslie’s Campaign Against Swill Milk”
In 1858, New York City inhabitants were captivated by a pictorial exposé in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper that exposed the “swill milk” trade. Illustrated newspaper pioneer Frank Leslie claimed that drinking swill milk – the result of using distillery slop to feed cattle confined in filthy and crowded urban stables – caused thousands of deaths, mostly among the city’s poor, infants and children. While other newspapers had reported the problem for years, it was not until Leslie’s exposé that citizens reacted in large numbers, causing city officials to feel enough public pressure to investigate the urban milk industry. Leslie and his staff did not bring down the business of swill milk altogether, but they did ignite a public conversation and increased awareness of the negative effects of industrial milk production on the public. Not only did Leslie communicate news about swill milk through investigative and pictorial reporting, he also employed promotional tactics that reflect characteristics that were later used in the heyday of the 1890s “yellow journalism” era in the United States. This paper focuses on Leslie’s use of what can be arguably characterized as sensational approaches as he reported on swill milk and promoted his investigation of the swill milk industry. This work is part of a larger project that places Leslie’s reportage on swill milk in the milieu of mid-nineteenth century New York City and the burgeoning conception of public health.
W. Joseph Campell, American University, “What Media Myths Tell Us About Media History”
Every good historian, British scholar Gerard De Groot has written, “is a mythbuster.” Why that is so will be a focus of this luncheon speech, which will address why it is essential to bust media myths — those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. The talk will range widely across the 19th century, and draw from the mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, which was published last year.
Thomas Terry, Idaho State University, & Donald Shaw, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “To Always Be the Tocsin: Josephus Daniels, the News & Observer and the Beginnings of Jim Crow”
This study looked at the News & Observer from June 1, 1898 through November 9, 1898, focusing especially on the newspaper’s coverage of the pivotal North Carolina election of that year. These five months were filled with national and international tensions, provided by the drumbeat of one war and the muffled echoes of another. Relentlessly and with increasing vehemence and growing numbers of news stories and political cartoons, editor Josephus Daniels and the News & Observer pounded home the necessity of a Democratic victory to restore the natural racial balance of the state and the South. Reporters, editors, and editorial writers tried to manipulate public opinion through appeals to racial prejudice and sexual fears. Blacks were demonized and their threats to the social structure generally and to white women in particular were constantly repeated.
Ieva Larchey, Emory University,“The Disabled Civil War Soldier in the 19th Century American Press”
The American Civil War and improvements in warfare brought on an unprecedented carnage, with hundreds of thousands soldiers dead, temporarily wounded, or permanently disabled due to amputation or otherwise. Multiple scholars, notably Drew Gilpin Faust and David Blight, have shown how the Civil War legacy was employed to foster reconciliation between the North and the South in the decades following the War. For example, processes of grieving for the War’s dead and caring for the Civil War graves fostered cross-sectional unity. The Blue and Gray reunions also furnished images of the aging, military-clad veterans as symbols of a reconciled nation. In my paper I focus on a somewhat less explored aspect of the aftermath of the Civil War: the lives of disabled veterans, or veterans in need of public assistance. The sectional difference in eligibility for federal pensions (no Confederate veteran qualified for such a pension) generated a variety of sentiments—resentment, outrage, pride—on both sides of the reunified nation. The difference in veteran treatment is observable even in today’s scholarship where extensive volumes are available about the Union veterans and only very scarce, scattered information about the Confederate ones. Albion Tourgee’s recently republished novel Bricks of Straw (1880) features a disabled Confederate veteran Hesden Le Moyne. I use this novel as a departure point for mining the post-Civil War 19th century newspapers and sketching an argument that the figure of the disabled Civil War veteran, especially when not attired in military gear and ready to be photographed, posed serious obstacles for the national reconciliation project. Drawing partly upon recent scholarship in disability studies, I speculate that the polarizing effect of the figure of the ailing veteran arose both out of financial concerns and cultural anxieties about less-than-whole bodies.
Brian Gabrial, Concordia University, “‘Alarming Intelligence’: Sensationalism in Newspapers after the Raids at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and St. Albans, Vermont”
Blaring headlines about two daring raids – the first occurring on the eve of the Civil War and the second as it began to wane – captured readers’ attention and dominated news coverage in the autumn months of 1859 and 1864. The first, of course, being John Brown’s October 1859 foray into Virginia, gave Southern, pro-slavery editors ample cause to release a firestorm of inflammatory responses while their newspapers published sensationalistic reports of further planned abolition attacks. The second event, occurring nearly on the fifth anniversary of Brown’s raid, involved a small band of Confederate jihadists, who came south from Canada, hoping to push the Union into a fight with Great Britain by attacking the small Vermont town of St. Albans. Like Harper’s Ferry, this raid generated dire headlines, only this time in Northern newspapers, warning that further Confederate machinations were afoot by operatives north of the border. While the original sparks for these sensationalistic newspaper accounts differ in geography, their rhetorical aftermath in the newspaper coverage suggests striking similarities. This research examines the newspaper accounts following the two raids, looking for similarly sensationalistic tones in the headlines and published accounts. Certainly, such accounts may enlarge already existing fears among readers, thinking the worst was yet to come. A guiding research question then is did sensational news coverage of these events create fear and contribute to a state of panic?
Crompton B. Burton, Marietta College, “‘Despicable Journalism’: Sensationalism and the American Presidency in the Nineteenth Century”
The American public’s fascination with their presidency and the men who have occupied that most venerated position remains as strong as when George Washington first took office in 1789. For those who might doubt the enduring nature of that curiosity, merely consult the latest attendance figures for the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.. The two most popular exhibitions continue to be those featuring the presidents and their first ladies. Away from the capital, the chief executives’ private residences remain national shrines with such retreats as Washington’s Mount Vernon, Jefferson’s Monticello, and Jackson’s Hermitage visited by thousands every year.
It has always been thus and the public’s original obsession was fueled through the early decades of the nineteenth century by printers and journalists anxious to chronicle both the pivotal role of the president in American politics as well as their individual and highly visible deeds, misdeeds, foibles, and quirks. The reward for such aggressive and often partisan reportage was the creation of an audience of readers hungry for news and information relating to the privileged few perceived to wield great power over their lives and, as a result, enhanced newspaper circulation especially with issues hanging in the balance during political campaigns and in time of crisis.
That much of this coverage, especially during the early years of the republic, should be characterized by a sensational voice designed to “excite the emotions of the reader” or “gossip about the socially prominent” should come as no surprise. Under such definitions sensational reporting appeared in the very first journal of record in the American Colonies; Benjamin Harris’ Publick Occurrences both Foreign and Domestic which debuted in Boston in 1690. His accounts of kidnappings, suicides, murder, revenge, and infidelities by the royal family of France, all in just his very first edition, hinted at the nature of American journalism yet to come and explains a great deal about the ethics and values in place by the time the newly independent nation focused its attention upon its recently created chief executive.
Gregory A. Borchard, Stephen Bates, and Lawrence J. Mullen, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, “Publishing Violence as Art and News: Sensational Prints and Pictures in the Nineteenth Century Press”
This paper provides an overview of visual materials, including photographs and illustrations, published in the mid-to-late nineteenth century press featuring sensational content, specifically depictions of violence, examining samples of work that appeared in the popular illustrated newspapers of the era and in the photographic studios of Mathew Brady. These items demonstrate how photographic images gradually became part of the mainstream press by attempting to replicate the visual expectations audiences held for the more familiar themes and symbols emphasized in illustrated work, which during the Civil War included depictions of violence and death. The paper suggests that during Reconstruction and in the Gilded Age, the sensational content of newspapers demonstrated continued use of Civil War-era techniques in producing visual representations of violence, relying on the familiar themes of dramatically constructed subjects from the nation’s war experience.
Lee Jolliffe, Drake University, “Deepening Racial Divides: How Murder Stories in 19th-Century Newspapers Across the U.S. Used Sensationalism as a Tool to Foment Racial Tensions”
The U.S. yellow press was once thought to have arisen from the social milieu that followed on industrialization and occurred mainly in post-Civil War urban centers. Some journalism history textbooks still emphasize the splashier stories of the Bennett, Hearst, and Pulitzer newspapers when recounting the derring-do of these attention-seeking yellow-press publications.
But now, access to broad collections of historical newspapers via widely available databases allows scholars to view not just the big-city dailies saved in university microfilm collections, but to study also the newspapers of the small towns and burgeoning frontier cities of the young United States.
This paper compares the “everyday” murder story of the era to the 1,661 stories of murder involving members of more than one race, from newspapers large and small across the 19th century and the U.S. continent in the Gale database of 19th-century newspapers. These newspapers generally sensationalized their stories involving that most heinous crime, murder, whenever murder involved the intersection of two races. Newspapers without the resources to sprawl huge headlines, multiple decks, and expensive copper engravings across their front pages still managed to entice readers into their publications with inflammatory language, bloody details, and rampant moralizing. And—in a land where many old-country mores had already been broken and shared values were only just being constructed—these interracial murder stories called on readers to maintain racial divides or face dire consequences.
Consider, for instance, that later-convicted ax murderer Lizzy Borden was referred to in contemporaneous stories as “Miss Borden,” but African-American ax murderer John Johnson, when not being called a “boy,” was a butcher, heinous murderer, and fiend. Meanwhile, a presumably Caucasian Jack the Ripper ran amuck in London under the news moniker, “White Chapel Killer”.
This paper explores the sensationalist devices used to deepen racial divisions, the regional differences in narrative construction, and the purposeful social norming underneath the blood and gore of the 19th-century race-murder crime story.
Jack Breslin, Iona College, “Politics and Private Lives: 19th Century Sensational Coverage of the Presidents”
In addition to crime, celebrity and gossip, politics was another leading topic in sensationalistic 19th Century newspaper reporting during both the Penny Press and Yellow Journalism eras. In order to study this genre, this paper explores two examples of sensationalism in political coverage of two presidents, Martin Van Buren and Grover Cleveland, in their public and private lives.
David Bulla, Zayed University, & Heather Haley, Ames, Iowa, “Sensationalism in Local News at Mid-Century: The Rhetoric of Crime, Accidents, Disease, Natural Disasters, and Oddities”
Sensationalism in newspapers involves three primary traits: (1) topics that are salacious to readers; (2) rhetorical manipulation of such content by journalists; and (3) the degree of manipulation based on length of article, origin of story, placement or prominence, and the use of rhetoric. Based on a study of five U.S. newspapers from 1853, the authors found that rhetoric was a key trait in making a newspaper article sensational, as were length, origin, and placement. The newspapers studied in this chapter came from New York, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, and Kentucky. This study is part of an ongoing examination of sensationalism in local news in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s—that is, during the Civil War era—with the goal being to show how this journalistic phenomenon was developing en route to its becoming a prominent feature of the press in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
David Bulla, Zayed University, & Heather Haley, Ames, Iowa, “Sensational Journalism in the Civil War Era: A Comparison of Non-War News Coverage in Northern and Southern Newspapers”
This study examined more than nine hundred articles in seven Northern and seven Southern newspapers near the midpoint of the Civil War to determine the nature of sensational news stories during this war. The study developed five main topics in sensationalistic reporting during the war: (1) crime; (2) accidents; (3) health; (4) weather; and (5) a miscellaneous category arbitrarily called “others.” The main “other” categories included politics, race, and news of the bizarre or grotesque. Sensationalism had become a staple of urban newspapers on the East Coast in the 1830s and 1840s, but the Civil War offered both a fresh opportunity and a challenge to this type of generally local reporting. Sensationalistic news had been championed by James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald. Bennett thought crime reporting could provide a public service to his readers by letting them know about the transgressions in their neighborhoods. He also believed, as did the police at the time, that crime reporting would serve as a deterrent to crime. Another possible reason for sensationalism in the press was psychological. As mass communication scholar John D. Stevens observed, readers developed a peculiar need for the sensational—a sort of guilty pleasure in the misfortunes of others. In their analysis of the fourteen wartime newspapers, the authors found that Northern papers tended to have a greater volume of sensationalistic news than their Southern counterparts. There also was generally a greater emphasis on crime reporting in the North.
David Bulla, Zayed University, & Heather Haley, Ames, Iowa, “Scandals to the Fore: Sensationalism in News Coverage in 1873”
The authors examined sensationalism in news coverage from six newspapers in 1873. In examining more than 300 articles, they found a new type of sensationalized local and national news coverage not seen in their previous studies of 1853 and 1863: namely, articles about scandals on the federal level. This gave the newspapers a new area of coverage. It added to the already existing categories of crime, accidents, weather-natural disasters, and oddities. These scandal stories were found in the same places in the newspaper as the local and national crime, accident, weather, and oddity stories—on the front page and inside news pages. Furthermore, coverage had an element of politics since the scandals involved members of Congress, the executive branch, and the banking community. The scandal stories typically were longer than those in the other categories. This suggests a whole new national issue—political corruption—that replaced the larger topics of the Civil War (slavery, states’ rights, economic policy).
David Sloan, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, “Don’t Believe Anything You’ve Read about the American Press Before 1865”
Most historians after 1870 who wrote about journalism in the Civil War and earlier did not understand the nature of that journalism. The cause of the problem was their interpretive perspectives. They tended to view the past in terms of the assumptions about professional journalism and ideology of their own time. In essence, the problem was the same one that all historians must deal with — that of present-mindedness. As a consequence, most of the articles and books that they wrote over the next 100 years provided questionable explanations. Although today’s historians who take the study of history seriously — such as those who attend the Symposium on the 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression — are aware of such problems, unfortunately our field of journalism history still has many people who claim to be historians but who seem unacquainted with some of the most elementary practices of good history. Thus, some of the same problems that plagued historians of the 1870s still haunt us today.
Stephanie Erbesfield, Georgia State University, “Thomas Kennedy and Maryland’s Jew Bill: The Jewish Struggle for Political Equality, 1823-1825”
An Act of Relief for the Jews of Maryland, or the Jew Bill was a major historical event which granted the Jewish population in Maryland political freedom. In this paper, the press coverage of the Jew Bill in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and nationally is explored. The focus of the research was the coverage of Thomas Kennedy, a delegate from Washington County, who was mercilessly ripped apart in the newspapers for supporting the “anti-Christian” bill.
Pamela Dorsett, Georgia State University, “Newspaper Coverage of the Cherokee People after Removal to the West, 1839-1846”
The experiences of the Cherokee people before and during the Trail of Tears have been well-documented in many scholarly articles. The present paper focused on newspaper coverage of the Cherokee people after their arrival in present-day Oklahoma in 1939 and ended with the signing of the Treaty of 1946. From the time the government forcibly removed the Cherokees from their Eastern homelands until the Treaty of 1846 was signed, the tribe faced political factionalism and violence. The primary topics the press in the South and Northeast covered during this time included the assassinations of three Cherokee leaders, the ensuing violence related to party differences and vengeance and the events leading up to the Treaty of 1846. The Arkansas press, located in closest proximity to the Indian Territory, focused on violent altercations among the Cherokees and between whites and Cherokees. This coverage seemed to mirror the images many whites had of Indians as violent, uncivilized savages and reflected citizens’ fears of the Cherokees. However, evidence of profiteering and fraud perpetrated by whites on the Indians did not get printed. Overall, the Northeast papers appeared to provide a more open forum for discussion of issues from multiple positions rather than support of a single viewpoint.
Anthony Fellow & Gail Love, Fullerton, “Civil War Censorship: Setting the Precedent for Conflict Between the Military and the Press”
The Civil War posed a new set of security questions for the nation. How do you balance national security and the public’s right to know? It’s a perennial problem, which has never been solved, and continues to plague both Washington and editors. Coverage of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars as well as America’s recent involvements in Iraqi and Afghanistan and our continuing conflicts with Pakistan illustrate how the answers to this national security question continues to elude us. The Civil War was America’s first experiment in how to control information. The military was careful what information it disseminated, and the White House was not shy in reaching out and suspending publications from printing news it thought harmful to Union advances on the battlefield. The military and the press also had to deal with the newest technology, the telegraph—which allowed rapid transmission at a great cost. The war introduced ways to censor information coming across the telegraph and unto the news pages of the North and South presses. The South was much better at censorship than the North at the beginning of the war. As the war progressed, the South lost leadership, structure, and resources, and thus its ability to manage the media. The North, on the other hand, increased its censorship of the media and was organized and effective by the end of the war.
Jack Breslin, Iona College, “Naughty Seeds of Sensationalism: 19th Century Newspaper Coverage of Celebrities and Politicians”
Gossip items and invasive stories involving the private lives of famous individuals helped spark the rise of sensationalism in 19th Century American newspapers. Beginning with famous actors and authors, this sensational celebrity coverage influenced political news, including the private lives of presidents and other politicians. In studying these influences on the growth of sensationalism, this paper focuses on newspaper coverage of actor John Wilkes Booth prior to the Lincoln assassination and President Grover Cleveland during his 1886 honeymoon.
Paulette D. Kilmer, University of Toledo, “Rattling the Narrative Skeletons in Humanity’s Closet: The Psychological Roots of Sensationalism”
News reflects the mores and customs of each era. Although vestiges of objectivity existed in the nineteenth century press, full-blown dispassionate reporting took a long time to develop. Since propaganda campaigns on both sides during World War I had disillusioned people, news standards shifted toward balanced coverage that reflected the tensions, innovations, and needs of the twentieth century. However, in 1869, journalists still told compelling stories that frequently taught lessons about how to be a good citizen, cope with urban realities, and reconcile material needs with spiritual longings.
After the Civil War, supernatural stories that seem ridiculous or quaint today might have provided closure for folks traumatized on the home front as well as the battlefield. The article about the persistent ghost gained meaning only when readers processed it according to the web of their own experiences and feelings. Reporters could not control how individuals would respond to news stories, but the details they selected conveyed symbols that evoked universal imagery in plots tailored to reflect cultural identity.
Stephen Banning, Bradley University, “Letters to Lincoln About a Country Editor: The Political Rise and Fall of a Border State Publisher during the Civil War”
This study examines what happened when Lincoln discovered one of his appointees, an ardent Unionist, was also publishing pro-slavery positions in his newspaper. Letters written to Abraham Lincoln show Lincoln discovered William Switzler had published accounts condemning Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
During the Civil War editor William Switzler was appointed Provost Marshal by Abraham Lincoln. Switzler was not only a political rising star and a well regarded editor, he had cultivated prominent political friends who would support and recommend him. Abraham Lincoln was careful in his treatment of officials in the Border States of Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland because of their southern sympathies. For instance, while Missouri was in the Union, it was also legal for Missourians to hold slaves. There weren’t enough Republicans with popular support in Missouri to fill the positions that were needed, so Unionists were also recruited.
Switzler was happy to collect a salary from Lincoln for acting as Provost Marshal. However, he could not resist publishing his pro-slavery opinions. The repercussions continued after the war, when Radical Republicans came to power, determined to punish those who sympathized with the south. Switzler's rise to prominence and fall from grace are chronicled.
“‘What H.G. Knows About...’: Cartoonist Thomas Nast’s 1872 Crusade Against Presidential Candidate Horace Greeley” Jennifer Moore and Hazel Dicken-Garcia, University of Minnesota, William Huntzicker, St. Cloud State
Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune, was lauded during his life and in subsequent histories of the United States because of his anti-slavery stance. Historian Allan Nevins wrote in American Press Opinion, "Greeley's role in this particular drama [slavery] which ended with the Emancipation proclamation was as great an any statesman save Lincoln." The Harper's Weekly editor wrote that, "Greeley at once became the banner-bearer of the new [anti-slavery Republican] party, the herald and harbinger of a free Union. The daily issue of 'the Tribune' was a startling drum-beat and 'the weekly tribune' became an incessant broadside."