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Portsmouth Herald Seeks Its Own Birth Date

Penny_Post_Birthday
HISTORY MATTERS

The metaphorical party hats were on and the imaginary cake all decorated for the 125th birthday of the Portsmouth Herald. According to newspaper records, the Herald was born on September 23, 1886. Then the editor asked the darned historian to check the date. Sorry to spoil the party, folks. You got your own birth date wrong. (Continued below)

 

The first copy of the newspaper actually appeared two years earlier on September 23, 1884. And it wasn’t exactly the Herald. Back then it was called the Penny Post because the “spicy” little, four-pager sold for a single penny. By 1886 the Post claimed to be the most subscribed penny newspaper in New England. The Post appeared daily, except for Sundays and holidays. But the first official Portsmouth Herald was still more than a decade away. So what happened to the facts?

Rags to riches

Fernando Wood Hartford / Portsmouth AthenaeumTo sort out the confusion we must take a quick trip to upstate New York for the birth of the first Herald editor. Fernando Wood Hartford was born in 1870, or 71, or 72, or 76, according to various printed accounts. Apparently named for New York City Mayor Fernando Wood, head of the famous Tammany political machine, “FW” also was a force to be reckoned with.

He started at the bottom, serving as a newspaper carrier and “office devil” for the Manchester Daily Union in New Hampshire from age 10. He sweated in the city’s cotton mills for $2.75 per week. He worked his way up the newspaper chain of command to office boy and bookkeeper while attending business school at night.

Still in his late teens Hartford was sent to Portsmouth as a “utility man” for $9 a week. His job was to report the news and beef up seacoast-area circulation for the Manchester Union, forerunner of the Union Leader. In 1890, Hartford married Elizabeth Downing of Eliot, Maine. He also worked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for many years attaining the position of chief clerk to the purchasing paymaster. Legend says that the young FW attracted the attention of former politician and ale-maker Frank Jones, then the city’s wealthiest and most influential businessman. In 1891 Jones reportedly loaned young Hartford $2,000, a princely sum, to purchase the Penny Post.

“I think that’s when Frank Jones grub-staked FW to buy the Herald,” says Portsmouth Herald publisher John Tabor today.

Tabor rummages through the surviving Herald history “archive” located in the top drawer of his desk, the same desk, he assumes, occupied by publishers dating back to Hartford himself. According to the archives, Tabor says, Jones cleverly gave young FW $1,000 worth of “sweat equity” so he could buy his way in to the paper.

“You’re my boy,” Tabor says, imagining Frank Jones speaking to Hartford in 1891. “You don’t want to be peddling the Union Leader on the street. I’ll give you a chance.”

Frank Jones had a lot to gain by investing in the local media. A former NH congressman and Portsmouth’s youngest mayor, Jones came to own local banks, hotels, railroads, utilities, and insurance companies. In 1896 Jones made a seismic shift from lifelong Democrat to Republican. According to Jones’ biographer Raymond Brighton (also an editor and owner of the Portsmouth Herald) young FW Hartford went along for the ride, and the Herald appeared the following year.

CONTINUE PORTSMOUTH HERALD UNBIRTHDAY


Nicole Cloutier with Penny Post first edition / J. Dennis Robinson

 

Journalism as blood sport

Newspapers in the 19th century served as soap boxes for diverse and often contentious political factions. Editors pulled no punches in the war of words, often insulting one another in print. “Politically, we’re so tame,” Tabor says of modern journalism compared to an era when fair and balanced reporting was not necessarily the goal.

The competing Republican daily, the Morning Chronicle, described the start-up Penny Post in 1884 as “well made up and well printed,” while noting that “it flies a republican flag of the largest size.” But in 1892, soon after Hartford took the reigns of the Penny Post, the same rival paper lambasted FW in print as having “a lump of diseased tissue that serves him as a brain.”

According to Brighton, Hartford fought back. He brought legal action for this and other insults and, by the following year, FW managed to gain control of the daily Chronicle. He also took over its weekly publication, The New Hampshire Gazette, established on October 7, 1756 by printer Daniel Fowle. According to Tabor, FW officially purchased the “property, assets, goodwill, and business” of the two Portsmouth papers a few years later for $2,956.

Fuzzy math

This is where the story gets murky and much more digging is needed. No paper or microfilm copy of the Post (elsewhere called The Evening Post) dated beyond 1890 could be found at the public library or the Portsmouth Atheanuem. The Post seems to disappear from the City Directory by 1893. Possibly Hartford abandoned the Penny Post in favor of the two more established papers. The Chronicle was the city’s oldest daily dating back to 1852, while the Gazette, according to its own slogan, was the nation’s oldest newspaper. During this era Hartford is still listed as working at the shipyard and as correspondent to the Manchester Union.

The first mention of Hartford’s new Portsmouth Herald pops up in the 1897 City Directory. There is a large ad in the back of the directory, but it reads simply “Subscribe for the Portsmouth Herald.”  Historian Ray Brighton dates the founding of the Herald as 1897, but the first issue of the Herald on microfilm is dated January 1, 1898. The newspaper owns no original printed copies. The first copy on microfilm promised “More local news than all other dailies combined” and claimed to be “the family favorite.” In 1898 that meant front page stories about dog fights, whist tournaments, navy yard wages, runaway horses, financial stats, fires, and local gossip. One early feature focuses on a Dover man on trial for poisoning a woman with arsenic.

Penny_Post_Front_page_1884

Stop the presses

Another last-minute sweep of the top floor Portsmouth Athenaeum archives has just turned up the earliest known cache of the Portsmouth Herald dated from July 1, 1897 to the end of the year. The heavy cardboard cover has long since broken from its binding. The pages are brown and extremely brittle. They have apparently never been copied onto microfilm. The start-up paper sold for two cents, and a tiny box in the upper right corner read: “Hasn’t 5,000 circulation, but this is good growing weather.”

Yet this fragile, perhaps one-of-a-kind collection from 1897 still does not appear to contain the very first Herald. There may still be earlier copies. There is no bold introduction by the editor as with other Portsmouth papers. A year later on April 5, 1898, FW Hartford announced that the Chronicle and the Gazette were under his management. The daily, he promised, would remain a “clean” and “fearless” republican paper, while the nation’s oldest newspaper would not suffer in his hands “if hustle and enterprise can prevent it.”

But we are left, at this writing, with no precise idea what transpired between Hartford’s purchase of the Post in 1891 and the arrival of the first Herald six years later.

“As far as I know nobody’s ever dug deep enough to get the hard facts,” says Steve Fowle, editor and publisher of the fortnightly New Hampshire Gazette. Fowle has devoted years to studying the complex and contentious history of newspaper publication in Portsmouth. His detailed timeline of 40 local newspapers dating from before the Revolutionary War is a key resource for researchers.

With the constant shifting of newspaper names, offices, editors, and publishers, Fowle says, it is not surprising that mistakes are made. Since 1884 the Herald has moved from Congress Street to Pleasant, back to Congress, down to Maplewood, and out to Pease International Tradeport. Since the digital age, local newspapers have largely disposed of the paper “morgues” that held their published back issues. Print copies of many city newspapers are missing from the archives at the Portsmouth Atheanaeum. And collections on microfilm are often spotty with missing copies and incomplete editions.

“Newspapers are too busy trying to get out the next paper and scurrying around trying to find out who’s doing what to whom on the city council,” Fowle says. “Every day you put out a newspaper you have the opportunity to make a new mistake.”

History is always an abbreviated best guess. Facts get fudged, lost, and truncated. One historian reports what the last one wrote.  Harford considered the Herald an extension of the Post and did not restart the clock when his new daily appeared in 1897. This is a common practice, Fowle says. In the same vein, Portsmouth, first settled around 1630 and named Strawberry Bank, has appropriated the 1623 founding date of nearby Rye.

PORTSMOUTH HERALD HISTORY continued


And then there was one

There were six newspapers in the city when Hartford arrived as a youthful correspondent. By the turn of the twentieth century a decade later, Hartford owned half of them. He kept the daily Morning Chronicle alive to balance his daily evening Herald until 1921. Over the next few years he bought and shut down the other three newspapers in town. By his death in 1938, only his young Herald and the ancient NH Gazette were left standing. In the meantime Hartford was an early owner of the Music Hall, served as mayor of Portsmouth seven times, and became the loudest cheerleader of the era for the economic and cultural attributes of his adopted city.

FW’s only son Justin Downing Hartford ran the paper from 1938 until his own death in 1963. JD is credited with moving his father’s newspaper away from partisan politics, and making the Herald, in Hartford’s own words, “as independent as a hog on ice.” JD too kept the weekly NH Gazette alive during his tenure. It was dropped in the 1960s under new management and the phrase “Continuing the tradition of the NH Gazette” was added to the header.

Steve Fowle, NH Gazette editor

Steve Fowle, who acquired and revived the NH Gazette in 1989 pays homage to the Hartfords for keeping Daniel Fowle’s 1756 paper on life support all those years. He is, he says with a sly smile, Daniel Fowle’s third cousin, five times removed,

“FW had deep sentimental attachment to the Gazette as the nation’s oldest newspaper,” Fowle says, “and he went to considerable effort and expense to keep the paper alive rather than letting it die on his watch.”

The twentieth century trend away from highly partisan newspapers and the rise of corporate ownerships, Fowle says, was happening all over the country. FW Hartford was simply a bit more successful than many small city publishers, and a little ahead of the curve.

“By buying and shutting down all the other newspapers in town,” Fowle explains, “he lowered his overall expenses and increased the revenue to that one paper. It was an efficiency thing. It also meant there were no competing editorial voices, and that had to have an appeal to him. And that’s why plutocrats love monopolies.”

Setting the record straight

The uncertain birth date of FW Hartford and the murky early years in Portsmouth may not be accidental. While later campaigning for a Republican congressional seat, Hartford received media attention as the rags-to-riches “Alger Boy.” The reference is to the bestselling novels of Horatio Alger Jr. that featured impoverished boys who reached great success and respectability over impossible odds through their hard work and clean living. The Boston American lauded FW’s rise from “newsboy to publisher,” and the Herald happily reprinted the article. It was a story Frank Jones, born a poor farm boy in Barrington, also used in his political campaigns. The more youthful and poor FW appeared to be when he launched the Herald, the more powerful his legend became. Hartford may have come, over time, to believe his own press clippings.

The confusion that launched this report comes from a 1997 Portsmouth Herald clipping in which the editor mistakenly dated the paper to September 23, 1886. That erroneous date likely came from a brief history of the Herald found in the files of the Portsmouth Public Library. The typed two-page essay apparently written in 1980 is unattributed, offers no sources, and gets other dates wrong. Meanwhile, a rare print copy of the authentic Penny Post dated September 23, 1884 remains on file in the same library archive.

“We have an obligation to be as accurate as we can,” says publisher John Tabor, who notes that history is a work in progress. “We revise and correct in real time,” he says.

Tabor agrees that a deeper study of the Herald’s true origins is now in order if a history volunteer or student intern can be found. “It would be a fun thing to do,” he says.

The result might just change history. Should the Herald stick to its 1884 roots in the Penny Post? Or does it actually begin with the arrival of FW Hartford in 1891? Or should the paper search for its lost 1897 first-issue and adopt a more accurate date?

If the latter, then the Herald’s true 125th birthday party will arrive in 2022. That could be perfect timing because the following year is 2023. That date marks the 400th celebration of the founding of the city in 1623, and promises to be an exciting gala for historic Portsmouth. Okay, technically, we stole that birthday from the town of Rye – but who remembers?

 

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s “History Matters” column appears in the Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent history Web site SeacoastNH.com. His most recent book is Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection (edited by Richard M. Candee). This article was written with research assistance from Carolyn Marvin, Nicole Cloutier, Maryellen Burke, and Richard E. Winslow III.)

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