History of Newspapers: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch Part 1

About the history of the United States newspaper The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, information about the editor Joseph Pulitzer and some of their scoops.


The Past. Joseph Pulitzer, a tall, scraggly, German-speaking immigrant from Hungary, became one of America's greatest newspaper publishers. He began his career when he founded the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1878 by merging the Dispatch with the Post, which he bought for $2,500. The Post-Dispatch immediately became a crusader. John A. Cockerill, whom Pulitzer hired as editor, promptly began a series of exposÈs: of a public utility that was extorting money from customers, gamblers ("What will the police do about it?" the Post-Dispatch asked innocently), a lottery racket, a horsecar monopoly, and an insurance fraud. Cockerill published a list of local tax dodgers and a list of whorehouse owners. In doing so, he and Pulitzer made enemies. Pulitzer carried a gun because of those enemies; however, on one occasion, a tomato saved him. One night in 1879 he was bringing home some tomatoes--to satisfy a craving of his pregnant wife--when he saw a suspicious character loitering near his house. Realizing that the man was waiting to jump him, Pulitzer threw a tomato at him and dashed safely into the house.

Carlotta Patti, the concert singer, sued the Post-Dispatch for saying that she was drunk during her performance in Leavenworth, Kans. The paper not only did not retract the story, but ran the subsequent headline, FULL AS A TICK. In the story underneath the headline, it said of Patti's attorney: "Mr. Herman is not so well provided himself that he can afford to go dancing in front of newspaper offices in war paint and feathers, and we may take a notion one of these days to set him up where the public can admire his beautiful moral proportions."

The paper stressed sensational crime reporting, which pushed sales up. Cockerill once said, "Political events do not affect our sales favorably. Next to the assassination of President Garfield, our greatest increase has been by a local hanging."

Within 3 years of its founding, the paper had 12,000 subscriptions and was making $45,000 in profits a year; by 1883, profits had risen to $85,000 annually.

The paper's most dramatic moment came in a political fight between Cockerill and one of the city's leading lawyers. During a congressional race, Cockerill called the lawyer--who worked for Jay Gould--"a servant of the rich and corrupt." The lawyer's partner, Col. Alonzo Slayback, retaliated by calling the Post-Dispatch a "blackmailing sheet." The argument came to a head when Slayback, with blood in his eye, came storming up to the city room where Cockerill was chatting with a couple of his employees. Slayback drew a gun and took a shot at Cockerill. Cockerill quickly retaliated by shooting and killing Slayback. The Missouri Republican, which was in competition with the Post-Dispatch, accused Cockerill of killing Slayback in cold blood. (Cockerill was freed on a plea of self-defense, however.) Understandably, tempers rose. A group of angry citizens gathered in front of the Post-Dispatch Building and threatened to lynch the owner and burn the building down. Pulitzer supported Cockerill, though later he had to let him go.

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