A Bare-knuckle Journalist Who Ended Up in Sing Sing

By every measure but one, Charles E. Chapin is a legendary Chicago newsman. There’s no legend.

Chicago, a town that remembers, has forgotten Chapin, even though he left town in 1891 as one of the city’s most prominent journalists. Granted, he went on to greater fame in New York. But three decades later so did Ben Hecht, whose name every Chicago cub reporter knows. Hecht wrote memoirs drenched in romantic hyperbole, and Chapin didn’t. But Chapin murdered his wife, and nothing Hecht did matched that.

Chapin was a reporter for the Tribune and city editor of the Times and the Herald at a time when Chicago journalism was getting full of itself. Eugene Field was already on hand, George Ade arrived, and in 1888 Chapin hired Finley Peter Dunne for the Times right out of high school. In 1887 Chapin wrote his greatest story. A former police chief named William McGarigle, who’d been awaiting sentencing for corruption, had escaped from jail. He slipped onto the schooner Blake, bound for Ontario with a load of wheat. Chapin, then a 29-year-old maritime reporter for the Tribune, worked out what was going on and followed the Blake north by train. Aboard the same train were the owner and city editor of the rival Morning News.

The tale’s told in The Rose Man of Sing Sing, a new biography of Chapin written by James McGrath Morris and just published by Fordham University Press. One of its pleasures is its picture of the Great Lakes as Chapin knew them, a frontier swarming with commerce and intrigue. Arriving in Mackinac City, the Morning News team rented a tug and set out to intercept the Blake. Chapin asked around and established that the Blake, a stiff wind in its sails, might already have entered Lake Huron. Gambling his career, he caught another train south to Port Huron.

There he spent a day on a tug, hailing boats and asking their skippers if they’d seen the Blake. At 4 AM in heavy seas, he spotted four schooners under tow. The Blake was one of them. Suddenly a yawl split off and dashed toward Canada. With Chapin’s tug in fast pursuit and McGarigle lying hidden below the rail, the yawl reached foreign soil. Chapin followed the fugitive ashore and caught up with him at a livery stable. He shook McGarigle’s hand, chatted him up, and found him a hotel room. There wasn’t another reporter within 100 miles.

Back in Chicago, Morris writes, managing editor Robert Patterson “stationed guards around the pressroom to prevent any leaks to rival newspapers.” Chapin’s story, “JUST OVER THE LINE, That’s Where Boodler M’Garigle Landed Yesterday,” ran across four columns of the front page and from the top of the page to the bottom. Its lead: “This morning a Tribune reporter stood on the deck of the tug Orient and waved his hat at McGarigle as the escaped boodler planted his feet on British soil.”

To the right of Chapin’s endless account, the two-column sidebar “Matson Hears the News” offered local reaction: “The dispatch, which reached the Sheriff’s office about 1:30 o’clock yesterday afternoon announcing the safe arrival of Boodler McGarigle upon Canadian soil, threw the whole force into a fit of the deepest gloom.” The story in the far-right column had nothing to do with McGarigle, but it carried the headline “A ‘Boodle’ Conference.”

Morris had to deduce that the lead story was Chapin’s. There were no bylines in that era, and reporters then were as anonymous as, in their most sodden moments, reporters today like to think they are. Two years later Chapin tracked down McGarigle in Banff, Alberta, and interviewed him. The Tribune was so proud of this exclusive that it printed Chapin’s initials, C.E.C., at the end of the piece, a rare tribute. C.E.C.’s cocky allusion to his earlier scoop gave Morris the proof he needed that Chapin had written that too.

The Banff story demonstrated Chapin’s license to make himself the hero of his own reporting. “I have often wondered why McGarigle buried himself away up here on the summit of the Rocky Mountains amid deep snow and everlasting glaciers,” it began. The next paragraph started, “I have known him for many years.”

McGarigle was in Banff living the life of Riley, but in Chapin’s deft hands he became a man to pity and admire. “Of course the separation from his family, to whom he is strongly attached, has caused him anxiety and sorrow,” Chapin wrote, “but otherwise his sojourn in Canada has had a beneficial effect, morally as well as physically. I told him so, and he said perhaps I was right.”

McGarigle longed for home. “I have as yet formed no plans for the future,” Chapin had him saying, “but if it could be arranged so that I could return to Chicago I think I could soon demonstrate to the people there that McGarigle is not so black as he has been painted.” Since no one in history ever actually talked like this, we can only hope that at least the sentiment was genuine. At any rate, things worked out for McGarigle. Within a few months his prison term had been reduced to a $1,000 fine, and he was back in Chicago free as a bird.

Chapin worked for Chicago newspapers from 1881 to 1891. Illness ended his run here, and when he recovered, Joseph Pulitzer hired him for his New York Evening World. From the dawn of the Spanish-American War almost to the close of World War I he was its fearsome city editor. “His management style was notoriously harsh,” Morris writes. The only failing Chapin could forgive a reporter was the one he shared. He fired a man he’d sent out of town who didn’t file a word for days because he was drunk, and a few weeks later put him back on the payroll.

Chapin lived extravagantly, and his debts became unmanageable. As Morris tells the story–his main source being Chapin’s autobiography–Chapin feared arrest and the life of penury his ailing wife Nellie would be doomed to. He decided the only way out was to shoot her and then himself. One September night in 1918 he accomplished half his plan. He wandered New York the next day, two guns in his pockets, and that evening turned himself in to the police. He got 20 years to life.

A reformist warden with literary ambitions befriended him at Sing Sing, and Chapin had pretty much the run of the prison. He wrote and edited the prison newspaper, wrote and published an autobiography, and became the prison horticulturalist, turning two acres of hardscrabble into magnificent rose gardens that still survive. He died at Sing Sing in 1930.

If he’d died in Joliet, Chicago would surely have remembered Charles Chapin. The lack of bylines is obviously one reason it didn’t, but bylines weren’t that common in Hecht’s day either. Other factors come to mind.

“He was unbalanced, cruel, not sadistic but mean-spirited,” Morris says. “He was also antisocial.” In other words, he was never a part of the collective fabulism by which a generation asserts its immortality.

In the 1980s the favored watering holes were Riccardo’s and O’Rourke’s. In 1889 there was the Whitechapel Club, a reserved room in the back of a saloon behind the Herald decorated with skulls from the Elgin state hospital. One of these, says author Richard Lindberg, whose Chicago by Gaslight tells the Whitechapel story, was said to be the skull of Waterford Jane, a famous streetwalker. When Chapin became city editor of the Herald he put the Whitechapel Club off-limits. “As a result,” writes Morris, “all his best reporters quit.”

And he showed up on the wrong side of some key events. Tribune publisher Joseph Medill despised the radicals who gathered at Haymarket Square in May 1886, and Chapin took his cue from the boss. When a bomb went off and police opened fire, the suspects who were rounded up insisted they were innocent. Chapin refused to buy it, writing, “The Nihilistic agitators, Spies, Fielden, and their fellow-conspirators, remained in the cells below the detectives’ quarters last night.”

There’s something about the Tribune that’s hostile to legends. Chapin doesn’t show up anywhere in the 800 pages of Lloyd Wendt’s Chicago Tribune: The Rise of a Great American Newspaper. And the Tribune doesn’t show up in the acknowledgements of Morris’s book.

“I wrote to them years ago about this,” says Morris, discussing his research, “and they’ve always been uninterested. I wrote a fair number of people there.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where Chapin worked for Pulitzer for a stretch, opened its archives to Morris. “The Tribune,” he says, “had a deaf ear about exposing this part of their history.”

News Bites

The new Tribune series “Struggle for the Soul of Islam,” launched February 8 with a promise that installments will appear occasionally throughout the year, has been posted at www.chicagotribune.com as a “special report”–which means it can be read online at no charge.

The online package contains not only the first two stories in the series but the unusual review of them by Tribune public editor Don Wycliff. Wycliff’s verdict: not nearly as bad as I expected.

“My reactions were relief and embarrassment,” he wrote on February 12. “Relief that the series [two years in the works] finally was started and that the Bridgeview mosque story”–which he said Chicago-area Muslims had let him know they dreaded–“had turned out not just not bad, but quite good. Embarrassment that I had doubted my colleagues’ ability to strike the delicate balances necessary to bring that off.”

Like the Muslim readers he’d heard from, Wycliff had been afraid the Tribune would produce an investigative piece that chased rumors linking the mosque with terrorists. (Not that it would have been so terrible if it found the links.) Instead, editors Robert Blau and George Papajohn told the more universal story of an immigrant group’s moderates and conservatives clashing over control of their place of worship.

A “heartened” Wycliff is looking forward to the rest of the series, and so am I. It’s a sign of how awkward it is these days to talk about Islam that the Tribune is advertising its ombudsman’s seal of approval.

“The mosque community [in Bridgeview] is more conservative than ever,” the Tribune reported. “Many women believe that not even three hairs should show beneath a head scarf. Men and women are often separated at weddings. Many worshippers refuse to finance their homes with mortgages, believing that interest payments are banned in Islam.”

A few months ago I happened to hear a local banker on WBEZ explaining his bank’s murabahah mortgages for Muslim home buyers. In theory these mortgages eliminate interest because the bank buys the house from the seller for one price and, over time, resells it to the buyer for another. Because the obvious question wasn’t asked, I called the banker. What about the tax deduction for mortgage interest?

“There’s an artful dodge here,” he admitted. “Conceptually it’s a purchase and resale, but we do in fact send out interest statements at the end of the year because it’s on our books as a loan. They can either claim the deduction or not claim it. That’s their choice.”

From the Sun-Times editorial page, February 16: “Now whispers about a presidential hopeful are breaking into the mainstream media. Perhaps unfair, perhaps untrue–they nevertheless present another hurdle that must be jumped over to attain the Oval Office. We hope these rumors are passing ripples and not the foreshadowing of a tidal wave of scandal to come. But if they are, we hope that they will be dealt with in the open and honest manner that the American people demand of a president, or someone who would be president.”

You mean, in a manner as open and straightforward as this editorial?

If the Bush administration were still on top of the world the Tribune might have been content to wag a little finger at Antonin Scalia over that hunting trip with his pal Dick Cheney. But instead of a short tut-tut at the bottom of the editorial page, the Tribune kicked butt last Friday in a stern lead editorial.

Three years ago the vice president convened a task force to set national energy policy but refused to say who was on it. The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch took him to court to reveal the names, a lower court ruled against him, and the high court accepted Cheney’s appeal. And then last month Scalia and the vice president flew down to Louisiana to spend a few days shooting ducks–guests of the owner of an oil services company. Now Scalia won’t recuse himself. “It’s acceptable practice to socialize with executive branch officials if there are not personal claims against them,” he told a questioner at Amherst College. “That’s all I’m going to say for now. Quack, quack.”

He was asking for it. “Unless the strong-minded Scalia changes his mind and recuses himself,” commentator Daniel Schorr predicted on NPR on February 9, “you can expect in coming weeks to hear a lot of ‘If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…'”

Sure enough, three days later the Press & Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, New York, ripped Scalia in an editorial headlined “If it quacks like a duck…” The next day the Christian Science Monitor reprinted Schorr’s commentary. That same day the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, which broke the duck-hunting story in the first place, had this to say about conflict of interest: “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, indeed…Quack. Quack.” And Jack Ohman drew a cartoon for Portland’s Oregonian that he labeled “Justice Is Duck Blind.”

The Tribune called its editorial “If it walks like a duck…” It lectured, “Scalia needs to embrace a basic axiom of public life. An apparent conflict of interest has one thing in common with a duck. If it walks like one, it is. Quack, quack.”

This Monday’s Miami Herald said the same thing. On Tuesday the Tribune reprinted Ohman’s cartoon.

Let’s hope Scalia and Cheney have learned their lesson: Next time hunt pheasant.

Page one, Sun-Times, January 7: “Has columnist Paige Wiser gone insane? Judge for yourself. Lifestyles, Page 44.”

Page one, Sun-Times, February 10: “Dero votes for Love. What’s he thinking? Jim DeRogatis, page 37.”

Where this could lead: “Hedy Rips Steppenwolf. What got into her?” “Mariotti slams Maddux. Is it time to lock Jay up?” “Sun-Times endorses Bush. Have we taken leave of our senses?”

Chicago Media Workshop has just published the 13th edition of its invaluable Getting on the Air & Into Print–the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of more than 3,000 journalists at some 600 news outlets. For more information call 312-344-6400 or go to www.newstips.org.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Brown Brothers.