1897 American journalism’s exceptional year Journalism History 29, (4) Winter 2004

‘Leprous new journalism’


The transitory nature of 1897 was underscored in October that year by the death of the “pope” of American journalism,91 Charles Dana, the erudite but ill-tempered editor of the New York Sun who had been a force in American journalism for fifty years. By 1897, Dana was 78-years-old and among the last of the nineteenth century’s prominent, old-time American editors.92


His death may not have been deeply mourned; indeed, the Fourth Estate said that Dana had “hosts of admirers and legions of enemies.”93 Dana and the Sun were nothing if not adamantly resistant to the typographical innovations of the late nineteenth century. The old editor, one contemporary wrote, “set his face firmly against any of the ‘freaking’ and other devices which have converted so many American newspapers into curiosities of typographical delirium tremens.”94 Dana, who likened himself “an old-fashioned expert,” was more hopeful than prescient in predicting a few years before his death that illustrations in newspapers would prove “a passing fashion.”95 He conceded never having taken a liking to the linotype “because it didn’t seem to me to turn out a page as handsome, in a typographical point of view, as a page set by hand.”96


In Dana’s last months, the Sun lent enthusiastic support to two widely publicized if clumsy attempts to restrain what the newspaper termed the “leprous new journalism.”97 One effort was a noisy campaign in early 1897 to expel the Journal and World from social clubs, reading rooms, and libraries across metropolitan New York. The other was legislation that sought to forbid unauthorized publication of caricatures in newspapers in New York state. Although both campaigns ended in quiet failure, they revealed how the transitions in American journalism troubled and unnerved not only journalists who were traditionalists but many politicians as well.


The Newark Free Public Library was the first institution to ban what the Sun called “the chronicles of crime, of lust and of general nastiness.”98 The library’s trustees voted on February 4, 1897, to cancel subscriptions to the Journal and the World and remove back issues of the newspapers from library’s files.99 By May 1897, the Journal and World had been banned by nearly ninety institutions,100 including the Century Club in New York, the New York Yacht Club, the Harlem Branch of the YMCA, the Montauk Club of Brooklyn, the Flatbush Young Republican Club in Brooklyn, public libraries in Bridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut, 101 as well as the reading room at Yale University Library.102


The inchoate protest—which faintly evoked the “moral war” against James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald in 1840103—withered by mid-year 1897. In its energetic and enterprising newsgathering, the Journal (and, to a lesser extent, the World) effectively overwhelmed the protest: The newspaper’s successes in 1897 were too interesting to shun, too engaging to boycott for very long.


The boycott was spreading in metropolitan New York about the time the state legislature began considering a measure to prohibit publication of portraits and cartoons without the subjects’ written consent. The legislation proposed fines of $1,000 and jail terms of up to one year, and it was aimed unequivocally at the perceived illustrated excesses of the Journal, notably, and of the World. The measure was sponsored by the state senate’s mirthless Republican leader, Timothy E. Ellsworth, who gained a reputation of never having smiled in public.104 What came to be called the Ellsworth Anti-Cartoon Bill won approval in the state senate105 before dying without a vote in the lower house.106


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91. A. B. [Arthur Brisbane], “Hon. Charles Anderson Dana,” The Journalist, May 15, 1897, 26. Brisbane wrote: “If the newspaper business were religious, which it isn’t, Mr. Dana would be the pope.”

92. See “The Death of Editor Dana,” San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 18, 1897, and “Death of Charles A. Dana,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 18, 1897.

93. “Profession or Trade?” Fourth Estate, Oct. 28, 1897, 4.

94. “The Death of Editor Dana,” Oct. 18, 1897.

95. Charles A. Dana, “The Making of a Newspaper Man,” lecture at Cornell University, Jan. 11, 1894, published in Dana, The Art of Newspaper Making: Three Lectures (New York: Appleton, 1895), 98. Dana also said of newspaper illustrations: “I don’t believe so many pictures are going to be required for any great portion of the next century.”

96. Dana, “The Making of a Newspaper Man,” 74. Despite such reservations, Dana was well-versed in the innovations and developments in newspaper technology of the 1890s, a period he referred to as “the age of experiment.” Dana, “The Making of a Newspaper Man,” 96.

97. “Leprous New Journalism,” New York Sun, Feb. 27, 1897.

98. Ibid.

99. Ibid. See also, “Freak Journals Reprobated,” New York Times, March 3, 1897.

100. “Yellow Journalism Denounced Everywhere,” New York Press , May 3, 1897.

101. These and other, similar decisions were reported on the front page of the Sun. See ”World and Journal Put Out,” New York Sun, March 7, 1897; “World and Journal Cast Out,” New York Sun, March 9, 1897; “World and Journal Cast Out,” New York Sun, March 11, 1897; “World and Journal Kicked Out,” New York Sun, March 14, 1897, and “World and Journal Shut Out,” New York Sun, March 17, 1897. See also, “’New Journalism’ Removed,” New Haven Evening Register, March 22, 1897.

102. “’New Journalism’ at Yale,” New York Times, March 15, 1897.

103. This observation was made by, among others, Hy B. Turner in When Giants Ruled: The Story of Park Row (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), 128.

104. See “Down on Cartoons,” Troy Press, Feb. 25, 1897. The Troy newspaper said Ellsworth was “the one member of the legislature who has the reputation of never having smiled in public,” adding, “If he could see a few cartoons of one Timothy Edwards Ellsworth of Lockport perhaps his physiognomy would broaden into an occasional smile.” Other newspapers characterized Ellsworth as the servile agent of Republican machine politics. See, for example, “Soldier of Politics,” Buffalo Morning Express, Feb. 11, 1904.

105. See “Wants the Press Muzzled,” New York Herald, April 7, 1897. The state senate’s vote in favor of the Anti-Cartoon Bill was 35–14.

106. “Danger is Over,” Fourth Estate, April 29, 1897, 3. In 1898, Ellsworth proposed another measure to restrain the press. His “Newspaper Bill” called for a year-long prison term and a $1,000 fine for anyone who “conducts or engages in the business of editing, publishing, printing, selling, distributing, or circulating any licentious, indecent, corrupt or depraved paper.” See “ New York Legislature,” New York Times, March 2, 1898. That measure died without a vote in the legislature. See “Newspaper Bill Dropped,” New York Times, March 9, 1898. Editors of the state’s Republican-oriented newspapers told Republican legislators that supporting the measure would be “suicidal from a party standpoint.” See “Ellsworth Bill is Killed,” Fourth Estate, March 10, 1898, 3.