Let’s take a break from COVID-19 with some Pushing Ink …
There once was a gentleman by the name of Benjamin Harris, who found moderate success as a publisher in London in the late 1600s. At least, successful until called out for his attacks on the government, which resulted in fines, arrests, and a trial.
Somewhere along the line, afraid of further persecution, Harris moved his family to America.
Once in Boston, Harris opened the London Coffee House, serving up coffee, books, and foreign newspapers. However, amongst the sleepy atmosphere of glass clinks, chair legs dragged across floorboards, and monotone conversation, it simply wasn’t enough.
I can well imagine Harris stewing in his coffee house, serving drinks and cherished books, mulling over the fact everyone was reading newspapers, not of his making, and wanton to do something with the stories shared by his fellow colonists.
Let’s face it. Once it gets in the blood, it is hard to let go. So far from the London authorities, Harris published what is considered the first American newspaper titled Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick, heavy on the [sic], in 1690.
In that first multi-page issue, Harris makes the declaration it would be printed monthly, or if any “glut of occurrences happens, oftener.” He would also try to obtain a “faithful relation” regarding the news, that his stories would be truthful, and should someone give him false information, they’ll be called out — in his newspaper, of course.
Harris goes on to write about smallpox, fevers, babies born with distemper, a fire that consumed some twenty homes, followed by another fire destroying six more. He made a point to mention a victim of the fire was at fault for not having wakened up and thus missing the “wits that should have taught him to help himself.”
I don’t know how else to respond to this statement without writing a book, so we’ll just leave it at — ouch!
A great deal of space in the heavy on the [sic] newspaper was left to what would soon be the makings of the Battle of Quebec. Harris set about criticizing the victims, in this case, Native Americans, stating they were unable to join in battle due to a “pretend” outbreak of smallpox. An even worse — ouch!
There’s no doubt Harris would have continued if not for the government shutting down operations due to both a disbelief in his reports and a lack of licensing. So it is of no surprise it took several years before another newspaper graced the colonies, The Boston News-Letter by John Campbell, the Boston postmaster, in 1704.
Unlike his predecessor, Campbell had a license, the publication a beauty to behold with two solid columns of running stories and the notable medial letter S. So, the title itself looks odd to modern eyes — The Bofton Letter.
Considered less than prosperous, perhaps due to the sudden competition of other newspapers popping up, Campbell held onto his weekly publication until 1722. It was then handed off to Bartholomew Green, the printer, who held the position until it was inherited by his son-in-law, John Draper, in 1732.
After Draper, the newspaper went to his son, Richard, until his death, where I must admit to imagining each passing occurring suddenly, without warning, as they either read the latest edition or labored over the printing press. I guess I prefer the overly dramatic?
So it goes that with Richard Draper’s passing, the publication was inherited by his widow, Margaret. (An interesting side note, Margaret was a granddaughter of the previously mentioned Bartholomew Green making her and her husband cousins).
I must make another admittance to picturing Margaret as exhausted, eyes bloodshot, hair an absolute beehive, whiskey in one hand, a cigar tucked into the corner of her mouth as she poured over the day’s print. She was determined to keep the paper going, regardless of the outcome, but not thoroughly understanding all the reasons behind her drive. I suppose a movie about her would include a haircut scene akin to The Legend of Billie Jean with Pat Benatar’s Invincible playing in the background.
This information relating to the early days of American newspapers is missing the finer details considering the fact Margaret departed with the British troops in 1776. So you can quickly fill in the rest but it gives one something different to write about in these challenging times. It also showcases how the business gets into the blood. Folks were committed. They are still committed today even though some of us are waiting for our haircut moment and nostalgic 1980s pop music playing in the background. A much preferred moment as opposed to keeling over with that day’s edition in hand.