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Portsmouth Herald Seeks Its Own Birth Date

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 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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