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War of Words

Simon Read
In Print
Union Square Press (2009)

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This entry created 27 May 2013. Last revised on 5 September 2016.

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War of Words

A True Tale of Newsprint and Murder

Rating: gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star no star no star (8.00)

310 pages. Bibliography, source notes, index, a few maps and photos

This book is an account of the feud, in 19th Century San Francisco, between the De Young family (publishers of the San Francisco Chronicle) and the Kallach family (headed by a hellfire preacher turned politician). And along the way, the author gives us some of the history of newspapers in California; of justice, corruption, and vigilance committees; of politics, immigrants, and an early labor movement; and of guns, honor, and morality.

The tale begins with a brief recounting of the life of James William of King, first publisher of the Bulletin, who in 1856 dared to expose in print the criminal past of county supervisor James Casey. In retaliation, Casey shot down King in the street. With the city in an uproar, the vigilance committee - composed of the city's most prominent men - took charge, removed Casey (and another murderer) from police custody, and executed them by hanging. Which is a nice foreshadowing of the rest of the book...

The author now alternates between the lives of two men. One is Charles De Young, who rises from poverty to found the Daily Dramatic Chronicle - a newspaper covering the theater - along with his partner, Michael. The brothers shrewdly grow their enterprise until it becomes the San Francisco Chronicle, the first daily newspaper in the country.

Meanwhile, Isaac Kallach is a rising star in Methodism, preaching abolition and prohibition in a dramatic fashion. He eventually settles in Boston, where he preaches to packed congregations. His career seems to derail when he's prosecuted on charges of adultery, as witnesses (peering through the transom window!) have seen him in a hotel room consorting with a woman not his wife.

De Young finds that publicity sells newspapers, and is not shy about engaging in feuds with other newspapers or prominent people. During a feud with the Sun, an enemy of De Young pens and publishes an attack on the moral character of his mother! Outraged, Charles De Young attempts to assassinate the author... but he misses, and the courts overlook his misdeed.

Kallach goes to trial and is acquitted, as his attorney has discredited all the witnesses, and the jurors cannot agree. His fellow religionists stand behind him, but the newspapers of the day follow his every move, hoping to find more scandal. The minister goes out west to Kansas, becomes involved in town building, railroads, a college, and other activities, but there are always accusations of fraud. At last, he moves on to San Francisco, where he returns to his preaching roots at one of the city's largest churches.

As the U.S. economy falters after a series of bank failures, politics in San Francisco turns rough. Losing confidence in the established political parties, out-of-work laborers and new European immigrants unite as the Workingmen's Party. Led by a charismatic but illiterate Irish immigrant, their politics call for taxing the rich, limiting major corporations, and ridding the country of the Chinese.

Charles De Young tries to ride on the coattails of this new political movement, hoping to increase his paper's circulation and make a bid for public office... only to clash with party leadership and turn against them. Isaac Kallach, meanwhile, starts out defending the Chinese, only to switch sides when he sees an opportunity to become a leader of the Workingmen - and soon finds himself a candidate for mayor!

This sets up the final drama, as De Young reveals Kallach's past to discredit him as a candidate (and even attacks Kallach's deceased father!), only to spur Kallach into obtaining and publicizing the old article attacking De Young's mother.

In an age when a slight against honor had to be satisfied, and in a city where packing a gun was commonplace, someone was going to die...

I found this to be a fascinating historical tale, ranging from the 1850s to the 1880s, with plenty of material to inspire the imaginations of gamers interested in the 19th Century.

Reviewed by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian.