From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:
The Autobiography Of A Crank
by W. O. Saunders
I guess I was predestined to be a crank. My father was a Hard-shell Baptist, my mother a Southern Methodist, and I a robust, mischievous, enthusiastic, ambitious American boy, born and raised in a poor little antique Southern town, where three churches struggled to prepare everybody to live a life hereafter and one little two-teacher school half-heartedly taught a few children to read, write and figure their own way through this life.
Two things interested me more than anything else in my impressionable childhood: the first was the preacher who came to town once a year to conduct what was called a protracted meeting in the Baptist church. The second was a patent-medicine faker who came to town twice yearly to harangue the court crowds, amuse them with his card and ring tricks, give them a spiel about his panacea, compounded of herbs, barks, and leaves, and rake in the silver shekels for his effort.
At the age of ten, going on eleven, I wanted to be either a patent-medicine faker or a preacher. The medicine faker, I realized, had a wider field than the evangelist. We didn’t have the union revival in those days. Baptist would not unite with Methodist to save a soul that might turn Methodist, or vice versa. But the medicine faker was positively non-sectarian; everything was his meat.
But I didn’t become either an evangelist or a patent-medicine faker. About that time I discovered Elbert Hubbard’s “Philistine” and the crisp, pungent editorials in a New York newspaper of enormous circulation. I began to dope on these and decided that the editor had everyone else skinned forty ways. The preacher couldn’t reach more than the pew capacity of his church. The medicine man’s audience was limited to the range of his voice. But the editor’s words, leisurely written on paper to-day, were read throughout the world to-morrow. So I decided to be an editor.
The fact that I wasn’t qualified to be one didn’t bother me a bit. I became an editor at the age of eighteen, and the first thing I did was to write an editorial boosting the proprietor of the New York paper for the Presidency of the United States. That was the beginning of a series of “damphool” things that seem to be the only recognizable mile posts marking the path of my life. At the age of eighteen I had established my claim to the title of crank.
I left home at the age of seventeen and set out to find employment in Norfolk, Virginia. I had abounding energy and a captivating enthusiasm. My education didn’t count much. My parents were very poor and unlettered. They tried to send me to the village school, and kept me there when my labor wasn’t needed in the butcher shop where Dad eked out a miserable livelihood. I had only begun to explore physical geography and first steps in English history when I had to leave school.
I found employment in Norfolk on a daily newspaper, in the circulation department. But the work didn’t please me; and a fellow of my temperament never succeeds at anything he isn’t interested in. It wasn’t many months before I had lost my first job and was back in the little meat shop in Hertford.
Then a murder mystery put Elizabeth City on the map. A beautiful young girl had mysteriously disappeared and her bruised body was found in the river a month after her disappearance. Her sweetheart had been arrested and was to be tried for her murder. The case contained all those sensational elements that appeal to the metropolitan press, and several of the big Eastern papers had their best space writers covering the sensation for them.
The day before the great murder trial at Elizabeth City was to have begun, the news editor of the Norfolk paper on which I had worked woke up to the fact that he had no one to cover the trial. Somehow he discovered that I was only eighteen miles from Elizabeth City; so, without further inquiry, he wired me to go tackle the job. There were no other instructions.
Talk about that fellow who carried a message to Garcia! He was a piker compared with this prodigy. I had never before broken into print with anything more than a few paragraphs of personals representing the village news. But I was sure I could cover that murder trial as well as anyone else. And I did cover it. I don’t know now how I got away with it, but the paper printed my stuff about as I wrote it, and one of the leading lawyers in the case told me that my reports of the case were the most accurate of all the reports that went out. Thanks to my youth and inexperience, I had given accuracy the preference over news values.
The editor of Elizabeth City’s own newspaper, a boastful weekly, discovered that I was not a regular reporter and would be out of a job when the big trial ended.
He offered me the editorial chair of his paper at a salary of six dollars a week to begin. And so I became an editor.
I began at the very top of the journalistic ladder instead of at the bottom. I was green; I was ignorant; I was unsophisticated, in every way unqualified. But that very fact made my work unique. Knowing no beaten path, never having encountered a string of editorial don’ts, never having been permitted to see the relation between the counting-room and the editorial office, I made my own path.
The owner of the Elizabeth City “Tar Heel” didn’t recognize his paper in another week. In a month I had the town stirred up and in a fighting mood. I printed everything that looked like news. Nothing was suppressed. I saw a lot of things in the town that looked like meat for a reformer. I began to try to reform them, blissfully ignorant of the fact that taking the “r” out of “right” and putting it on “evolution” is one of the most dangerous of all human experiments. The result of my efforts was that there was hell to pay in Elizabeth City! No one knew what I was going to do next. I didn’t know myself. I nearly wrecked the paper in a few months, and found myself fired.
I don’t know how I got off so easily. I had an idea that a true reformer ought to suffer worse martyrdom than that. I thought it would be a fine thing to be jailed once and to write my editorials behind prison bars. Then humanity would read, and weep for me. But the nearest I got to jail was the cell in the town hall. It was against the law for minors to smoke cigarettes in Elizabeth City. I smoked a cigarette on the street and blew the smoke in the policeman’s face. He just had to arrest me. I refused to give bond for my appearance in the magistrate’s court and I was locked up. But ! didn’t stay locked up long. A friend got me out in spite of myself.
Well, I had lost my job as editor of the “Tar Heel” and must find a new field. Edenton, thirty miles below Elizabeth City, had an idle printing plant, but no editor and no newspaper. The Edentonians didn’t know me and were glad to lease me their printing material; so there I started my own newspaper. It lasted three months only; but in the last issue I wrote an editorial that aroused laughter wherever it was read. Someone showed that editorial to James M. Thomson, then publisher of the Norfolk “Dispatch,” and now publisher of the New Orleans “Item.”
James M. Thomson was laughing over that editorial of mine when I slipped into his sanctum one morning and asked him for a job. Again I went to work for six dollars a week. I made a good reporter. In fact, I became such a good reporter that I kept the paper continually in hot water. But something about me fascinated Thomson. He dared to remark one day that the one coat I wore was ridiculously short. I told him I would add an inch to my coat for every dollar he would add to my pay. I got three inches more coat. Later I got more, but when Thomson sold the “Dispatch” to a competitor I was out of luck. No one else wanted an untamed reporter.
Drifting into clerical work, I became chief clerk of the North Carolina Pine Association, with headquarters at Norfolk. But I was restless. The urge of the reformer was strong within me — and a lot of things in Norfolk needed reform. So I made a deal with a printer and started a little vest-pocket monthly which I called “The Muck Rake.” I easily got enough ads for it to make it pay expenses. It didn’t occur to me that a lot of the fellows who bought my advertising space thought they were buying immunity.
“The Muck Rake” was short-lived. I offended the political boss of Norfolk. He met me on the street and told me that he was going to kick me the first time he caught me in a public place. He wouldn’t do it then and there, because he wanted a crowd present at my humiliation.
That was about nine o’clock one morning. At noon that day there fluttered from the top of Norfolk’s one skyscraper several thousand printed slips of paper inviting the boss politician to meet me on a certain corner at four o’clock that afternoon. I said: “I prefer having this thing over with at once, to waiting around indefinitely under the dread of an unexpected kick from behind.”
By two o’clock that afternoon every policeman in Norfolk, except three, was called to Main Street and Commercial Place to handle the crowds gathered to witness the fun. The three spare policemen were detailed to arrest me and lock me up. They did. But my friends arranged bond for me, and I was released at five o’clock P. M. with orders to go home via back streets and not to show up on Main Street that day, or I would be jailed for life.
That was the end of “The Muck Rake.” That item of publicity might have made it a go, but the North Carolina Pine Association didn’t like the publicity, and dropped me from its pay roll. I had to find other work, and found it with a lumber trade journal published in New Orleans. I held that job until I began to show a tendency to muck-rake the lumber industry, contrary to all the rules of trade journalism. I lost that job.
In the meantime I had acquired a family. The girl loved me and I wanted to be loved. The fact that I wasn’t financially able to indulge in such a luxury didn’t seem to occur to me. I always was slow to see obstacles. I stumbled on them later, but usually got over.
Anyway, I had a wife and two babies. The younger of the babies was born in December and I was out of a job in January; and out of a job in Norfolk, where nobody wanted to give me another one.
But the wife’s parents lived in Elizabeth City and had a spare room. It was the one port in a storm, and I made it. That was in 1908 — and 1908 was a tough year for the unemployed. There were several million normal, dependable humans out of jobs in those days, and cranks couldn’t get a look in.
I did get employment after a while on the “Tar Heel” again, having persuaded the owner that I had gained a lot of experience and caution. But I held this last job just two weeks. Three times in one of these two weeks I threw the monkey wrench into the machinery of the master politician and leading citizen of the community, and that settled my hash.
Fired again, I could see just one way out: The only newspaper upon which I would ever be permitted to work in my own way would be my own newspaper. But starting a newspaper without capital in a hostile town is not an easy undertaking — not for a crank! I had no money, no friends, no credit. But I was twenty-four years old; and a chap twenty-four years old can do anything. I began to investigate the cost of a printing plant, and found that I could buy a press that would print a two-page sheet for about four hundred dollars. It would take about twice as much more to buy the type and material to go with it. The type foundries were selling stuff for one-fourth cash, balance on time. I needed only three hundred dollars to start.
I tried to organize a stock company, offering thirty shares of stock at ten dollars a share, but the stock just wouldn’t go. However, there was a lawyer in the town who had political ambitions. It was campaign year. He figured that I would be good for about three months as a publisher, and that was as long as he needed a newspaper. So he offered to negotiate for me a loan of three hundred dollars. He accepted my stipulation that there should be no strings tied to it, and that the editorial policy of the paper was to be in no way influenced by this loan. What really happened was, he passed the hat among a few of his friends and took up a collection of three hundred dollars, which he turned over to me. The contributors put up for my newspaper in about the spirit they would have backed a dog fight. But I didn’t know it at the time.
On June 9th, 1908, I gave the Elizabeth City public the first issue of my own newspaper. I called it “The Independent.” And then the fun began. There probably never was and never will be another newspaper like “The Independent” in its early days.
I don’t know which is to be more pitied, a man taking himself too seriously, or the public taking a man too seriously. I took myself very seriously at the age of twenty-four. My public took me as seriously. Here was a barrier indeed to any sort of understanding; and a crank, of all persons under the sun, needs understanding. Given a little sympathy, a little encouragement, and a little tolerance, he is often the most tractable fellow on earth. No one is more appreciative of true friendship than an honest crank, if we may accept the definition of a friend as one who pays us the compliment of always expecting the best of us. An honest crank will display as much interest in reforming himself as in trying to reform someone else, if given the right direction.
Elizabeth City was not in a tolerant mood when I began the publication of “The Independent” that June day in 1908. Elizabeth City had a few native cranks who already had divided the town against itself with factional differences. The Baptist Church was in the throes of a row which had split that institution wide open, and the bellicose factions were lambasting each other in their already established local press.
I determined not to get into this community religious row, but keeping out of a row is not my long suit. The very first issue of “The Independent” incurred the wrath of the leader of one of the factions, who instantly jumped to the conclusion that the new paper was a tool of the other faction. He told me that he had no objection to my running a newspaper in Elizabeth City, but that his name must be left out of it.
What more could have been needed to energize a crank? I could not let the challenge pass, and began to search for reasons why “The Independent” mustn’t use his name. I found them, a whole series of them, and I was prosecuted for libel time and again. For three or four years there was hardly a term of court in several northeastern North Carolina counties at which I was not arraigned for trial.
In one case a magistrate sentenced me to six months on the roads at hard labor when I waived a preliminary examination in his court. I published a cartoon of myself in prison stripes with regulation ball and chain, pick in hand, breaking rocks, with a broad grin. I labeled the cartoon, “I should worry and grow thin;” and I laughed the case out of court.
Trough all those trying times, I laughed. I laughed to keep the wife from being disheartened. I laughed to impress the public with my indifference to hard knocks. I laughed when a big muscular fellow called me out of the comer drug store one night to give me a drubbing, I laughed, and asked him for a match. He didn’t have a match. I reached up, took his cigar from between his teeth, lighted my cigarette with an air of nonchalance, laughed again, and told him to proceed with his argument. He turned on his heel and walked away, explaining to his friends that he “couldn’t hit a damned baby who was so innocent as to ask him for a light when he had only a licking for him.”
I had my picture taken smiling, and published that picture week after week. The picture gave the lie to the word that had gone forth that I was a horned ogre, a hideous assassin of character, and a monster destroyer of the peace. Still, farmers’ wives, who came to town and had their husbands point me out to them, seemed afraid of me. This awful man told everything he knew! Someone said I had the face of a cherub, but beneath it was the soul of an executioner.
Repeated drubbings and threats of greater violence did not deter me. I was waylaid in dark places and badly beaten. Once a coterie of wrathful citizens heated a pot of tar and ripped up a bed tick for my adornment. I eluded them and slept a-top my own ticking that night while the irate ones cooled off. I never lost sleep.
But fist fights, libel suits, and continued threats did not put “The Independent” out of business. I was boycotted by local advertisers, so I went outside of town for advertising. I did that which no other country publisher ever succeeded in doing, so far as I have been able to find out: I personally solicited “ads” in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, and got the business.
But in all that time I never solicited a medical or whisky advertisement. These two classes of advertising never appeared in “The Independent.” A crank may have ideals. My ideal of a newspaper was one that printed no such advertising. And I never did. Two features of the country newspaper are its patent-medicine advertising and its columns of personal items about the comings and goings of the local folk. Neither of these features ever appeared in “The Independent.” One had to make real news to get his or her name in “The Independent.”
All the time, my enemies were plotting my destruction. Finally, they tried to array the churches against me. They declared that I was an infidel. Being a crank and not a practical person I did not bother to deny the charge that I was an infidel. I even dared to assail the popular religious beliefs, and have it out with the ministers in my news columns and editorials.
The entire adult male part of the congregation of one of the leading churches marched from the church to my house one Sunday night and gave me twenty-four hours in which to leave town. They were inspired by the hatred and animosity of some of the members of the church who had been attacked in “The Independent.” I pulled a gun on the crowd assembled in front of my house and ordered them to disperse. The answer was a threat to take me, then and there. To this I replied with three shots fired in the air.
I fired those shots deliberately. I reasoned that here was an opportunity to bring things to a head. I thought those shots would awaken an apathetic public, and draw attention to the fight I had been making on local conditions. I thought that if people would only look, they would see that I was right, and that my fight was their fight. I did not think that a host of Christian brethren, right out of the sanctuary, would be armed with guns. But I was mistaken. The answer to my shots, fired high in the air, was a fusillade of bullets fired into my house. Neither my wife, standing in the doorway, nor myself, standing on the front stoop, was hit. Miracles do happen.
Following that affair, there was a reaction in favor of “The Independent.” New subscribers flocked to the paper. But the fight was not won. A leading citizen, who had been my most persistent opponent, was now bringing criminal libel actions against me. He had me indicted in three different counties at one time. In whatever county a copy of my paper appeared, there the alleged libel was alleged to have been published.
I was railroaded to one county where I had not a single acquaintance. The train on which I was carried to the place of trial arrived at one o’clock P. M., and the trial was to be at three P. M. In the intervening two hours I distributed several hundred sample copies of “The Independent,” giving my version of the case to be tried, and asking the people to send my persecutors back to their own county to wash their dirty linen. And the people did just that. Incidentally, I established “The Independent’s” circulation in that county.
I came out victor in the last of a long line of libel suits. But while I was victorious, I was also broke. My printing plant, which had been facetiously designated by my enemies as “a vest-pocket printing press and a shirt tail full of type,” was about worn out, and was altogether inadequate for an increasing circulation. I had no money with which to make improvements. I laid the facts before my readers, and asked them to help me buy more equipment. They did. Nearly a thousand dollars came in response to that appeal. With it I bought a new printing press and settled down to business.
But the fight was not won. Half the leading citizens in town didn’t speak to me. I was a social outcast. “The Independent” was taboo in many of the so-called respectable homes. I could get almost no local advertising.
Then came to town one Burke Culpepper, an evangelist of Memphis, Tennessee. A tent was pitched for him, and he began a series of union revival services, backed by all the churches. I stayed away from his meetings until it was necessary for me to attend at least one service to write about it intelligently. The evangelist captured me. He was different from the common run. There was no ranting, no bombast, no cant. The fellow was pleading with the church people to take Christ into their lives. He said a man who professed to be a Christian and who wasn’t on speaking terms with every man in his town ought to get right with God or get out of the church. That sounded like honest-to-God religion to me. I went to hear Burke Culpepper again.
My second appearance at the tent was a signal for a determined and united effort upon the part of the active brethren and sisters to save my soul. It was an embarrassing situation for me, and I might have quit the meetings but for an invitation from the evangelist for anyone to testify as to any benefit derived from the meetings. I came to my feet. I told the evangelist and his audience of possibly two thousand that I was delighted with his work and with the message he had brought to the people. I told them that I had no quarrel with Christianity; that nowhere in any of my writings against preachers and churchianity would they find one word in conflict with the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. I told them that if there was any great divergence in our views it was that I believed that the teachings of Jesus were practicable, and the Church didn’t. I was sure the Church did not believe in the practical application of the teachings of the Master; because, while stressing its creeds and dogmas, it had utterly refrained from frankly facing the economic obstacles to a literal acceptance of Christ’s teachings.
There was an embarrassing silence following my qualified confession of faith and expression of doubt. And then the evangelist stepped to the very front of his platform, and leaning far out, told the congregation not to worry about the salvation of W. O. Saunders. “I behold in him a man who is seeking God for himself, a man capable of thinking for himself. He will find God.”
That evangelist from Memphis, Tennessee, knew how to handle a crank.
Before he finished his campaign in Elizabeth City he had persuaded the church people themselves to bury their differences. He went into the very courthouse, where court was in session. Two lawyers in that court had been implacable enemies for years, and one had carried murder in his heart for the other. Before Burke Culpepper got through with them they had their arms around each other’s neck and everybody in the court-room was shaking hands with everybody else.
Suddenly I discovered that I, the crank, the pariah, the monster, the assassin of character, had become popular. People who had never spoken to me before remembered that I had done a lot of good for the town! There was less graft than in former years. The streets were paved. The sanitary condition of the town had improved. The town had forged ahead in every way. A year later, I was unanimously elected to represent the county in the General Assembly.
The autobiography of this crank is a long story, full of many details that must be omitted. If it contains anything of value to other cranks, if it carries any life lesson worth while, it is probably this: A crank may be made either a useful or a useless instrument in a community, according to how you turn him.
I am often told that “The Independent” * is the best-looking, best-edited country newspaper in America. It has the respect and confidence of the northeastern North Carolina public which it serves. “The Independent” has succeeded only as it has served its people. I have worked almost sixteen hours a day for more than thirteen years, putting my best and my worst into this country newspaper. The best has survived, while the worst has nearly disappeared with the fading recollection of those wild days when spades were spades. I have given much punishment and, in turn, have been punished much for my crankiness. Out of it all I have learned a few lessons that may be epigrammatically stated:
I have learned that the American people have a lively passion for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about everything and everybody — except themselves and their family connections.
I have learned that the people prefer entertainment to reformation. Even the medicine faker could not have sold his wares without his bag of tricks.
I have learned that there are few heads for facts and figures, but that everybody has a heart.
I have learned that I am not at all unlike other men, and that other men are not at all unlike me; all of us have our ideas, our ideals, our whims, our idiosyncrasies — call them what you will — and a graveyard no larger than a county will eventually hold us all.
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