the creation of the police reporter

The Sun and the Moon (book cover)I’m reading The Sun and the Moon by Matthew Goodman. So far, it’s a greatly entertaining read, but the title is so bad that I never would have picked up the book if it hadn’t been classified as the sort of history I like to read. That was enough to get me to buy it a couple of years ago, but not enough to get me to start it until I happened to be rummaging through my unread titles over the weekend.

The subtitle doesn’t help: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. That makes it sound like one of these themed collections, like The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York or The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements.

The Sun and the Moon turns out to be about the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, perpetrated in the New York city newspaper the Sun, and the role it played in inventing modern newspapers and modern journalism. (Get it, the Sun and the moon? It’s one of those titles that seems clever if you already know what the book is about, but it does nothing to inform the potential book buyer.)

I haven’t gotten to the hoax yet, but the history of the Sun and how it changed in the news business is fascinating.

Here’s a section on the creation of the police reporter:

No New York newspaper had ever had a police court reporter on staff before. The Courier and Enquirer and one or two of the other papers occasionally ran police reports, but only on especially slow days, when none of the foreign or national papers had arrived and the editor was desperate to fill the news columns. And even this modest outlay of space had been met with furious criticism from rival papers, who assailed the reports as inappropriate for the pages of a respectable newspaper. “It is a fashion which does not meet with our approbation, on the score of either propriety or taste,” declared the Evening Post. “To say nothing of the absolute indecency of some of the cases which are allowed occasionally to creep into print, we deem it of little benefit to the cause of morals thus to familiarize the community, and especially the younger parts of it, to the details of misdemeanor and crime.” (“Besides,” the Post added pragmatically, “it suggests to the novice in vice all the means of becoming expert in its devices.”)

The Sun, on the other hand, reveled in the police court reports, which appeared without fail and eventually filled as much as a third of the entire news page. Every morning George Wisner rose at three and made his way through the dimly lit streets of Lower Manhattan to the long yellow police court building behind City Hall, settling himself into a corner of the noisy, crowded courtroom with his paper and pencil to await the call of the morning’s cases.

  • William Smith, alias Fitz, “got drunk by drinking too much.” The magistrate informed him that this was the way in which people always got drunk, and admonished him to lead a sober life in the future; after which he was discharged.

  • John Votey, of Reed street, was charged with getting drunk, and assaulting his father and mother. John was a mischievous boy of about 38 — his father was 93, and his mother who appeared as complainant, was 88. John was in the constant habit of getting drunk and abusing his parents — yet the mother couldn’t find it in her heart to have him sent to prison. The old lady was so overcome with the fatigue of getting to the police so early in the morning, that she fainted. One of the officers supported her in his arms until she recovered, and, taking the arm of her drunken, disgraceful son, she left the office in tears.

  • Mr. and Mrs. Townsend made their appearance this morning to settle their connubial disputes after the manner the law has prescribed. It appeared on investigation, that Mrs. Townsend asked her husband yesterday for a two shilling piece to buy some brandy “to wash the children’s heads”; that the husband not believing that his lady would allow the spiritous liquid to go as high as the head, without saluting it with her lips, refused to grant the request; a quarrel ensued, and Mr. Townsend was driven out of the house by the infuriated dame. Last evening, when Mr. T. returned from his work to get his supper, he found his wife in an unmentionable condition, and upon his upbraiding her, she took up the tongs and smote him over the head. Mr. T. then knocked her down. They were both committed.

  • Susan Burke — a lady vagrant — hadn’t any home for 3 months. The magistrate said it was time she had one, and gave her one for 6 months.

Passing through the courtroom each morning was a dismal parade of drunkards and wife beaters, con men and petty thieves, prostitutes and their johns. But Wisner could also see love, fear, anger, jealousy, greed, sometimes even tenderness and generosity, and while it is an overstatement to call him “the Balzac of the daybreak court,” as he was called by a historian of the Sun, he did display a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, the ability to limn a character in a few short strokes. His police reports were filled with the distinctive voices of the Five Points and its environs, by turns argumentative, wheedling, rueful, furious, mocking of themselves and those around them. Many of the cases he dispensed with in a single brisk sentence (“George McCarthy was charged with stealing a stove from 491 Pearl street. Committed.”). Most he granted a couple of sentences, but sometimes, when the material seemed especially inviting, Wisner presented his readers little set pieces, complete with dialogue and stage directions:

Hugh Kelly, was charged with attempting to pass bills of a broken bank, knowing them to be such. Mr. Kelly was a man of about 40 — bald head — long face — and had on a neat gray quaker coat.

MAG. — What’s your occupation, Kelly?

PRIS. — (quite angry) My occupation!! I’m a merchant, Sir.

M. — What do you deal in?

P. — Goods, to be sure, and what does your honor suppose I’d be after dealing in?

M. — Where’s your store?

P. — (Rather bothered) Why — its — its — what’s that you say? M. — Where’s your store? P. — O, your honor, I meant I was a travelling merchant.

M. — Ah, you’re a pedler, then — where are you from?

P. — I have the misfortune to have come from Ireland.

M. — Then you call it a misfortune to be an Irishman?

P. — I do, your honor, — If ever the Almighty erred it was when he made my native country — my own swate Ireland. (Laughter.)

M. — Stop Sir, we don’t allow blasphemy here.

P. — (Seating himself very coolly) Very good.

Nothing like this had ever appeared in an American newspaper. Wisner’s police reports were at once scary and amusing and titillating, a daily glimpse into a world previously hidden from the public’s gaze. New Yorkers were riveted by the spectacle; the police office column instantly became the most popular feature of the paper.

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2 Responses to the creation of the police reporter

    • bkmarcus says:

      Thanks, Scott. I really appreciate the links.

      Here’s what The Sun and the Moon has to say about boardinghouses:

      For families like the Lockes, looking to make a home in the city but having no family to call upon or much money of their own, the ill-lit, dingy streets around the waterfront offered numerous boardinghouses where, for anywhere from fifty cents to three dollars a week, payable in advance, guests would be provided a small, damp, poorly ventilated room, with little in the way of sanitary facilities. (Backyard outhouses were the rule; boardinghouses did not supply chamberpots to their guests, the vast majority of whom were too new or simply too poor to have purchased their own; as the saying of the day had it, they were “without a pot to piss in.”) Often as not, the paying guests had to share their room with permanent residents such as flies, bedbugs, and wharf rats. Still, despite the lowness of the accommodations boardinghouses were a necessary expedient for many new arrivals, and probably it was in one of them that the Locke family found lodging, at least for a short while, and probably for a time after that in one of the “rookeries” just then becoming widespread in New York—large buildings, such as warehouses, breweries, and churches, converted by enterprising property owners into numerous tiny apartments.

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