Friday, July 19, 2013

Friends in High Places

Remember those reading comprehension exams from your school days? The ones where you had to read through a short piece—usually no longer than a couple paragraphs—and then answer four or five questions based on what you read?

I don’t know about you, but I used to ace those.

If yesterday’s newspaper excerpt had been included in one of those exams, though, I’m not sure I’d do so well. On the face of it, while that 1896 article in the Fort Wayne Gazette seemed shrieky, it was most likely intended as a sarcastic cut at the opposition. However, after delving into the behind-the-scenes details, one gets the impression that there is an explanation missing.

I’m having trouble connecting those dots.

I say “sarcastic” because that’s the splat of it, when words like “decapitated” in the headlines slap my face. Obviously, there couldn’t have actually been an ax swinging in that scene involving Fort Wayne’s Board of Public Safety.

To see terms included in quotes, like “resignation,” clues me in to some behind-the-scenes pressure for certain men on the city’s police force to give up their position.

There are no particular charges that can be brought against these men, save that they voted for Oakley.
Of course, it would help to know who Oakley was—one would presume a candidate for local office—and we’ll save that foray into political history for tomorrow’s post.

But for now, here’s the spot that perplexes me: as far as I can tell from the tone of this article, the writer’s perspective could be considered as pro-Republican—or at least anti-Democrat. After all, that’s a reasonable conclusion to make after reading a line like, “They will be given positions as rapidly as the Republican members on the force can be decapitated upon trumped-up charges,” wouldn’t you think?

A Vendetta of Political Genocide

Whoever was behind that article for the Fort Wayne Gazette, you’d think he had it out for Democrats. He—whoever the writer was—decried firing a man for “no particular charges.” And, apparently, the only ones being fired under these circumstances were Republicans.

That treatment, however, wasn’t unusual, give the time period of the late 1890s. While the political spoil system had been business-as-usual in government ranks for so long, though, things had begun to change. At least on the Federal level, citizens had been clamoring for civil service reform as early as the 1860s. With the formation of an actual Civil Service Commission in the 1880s, progress was finally being made, at least on the national scene.

As far as city governments went, though, traditions were a powerful force to be reckoned with—in some cities well into the 1900s. Apparently, as far as those city traditions went, Fort Wayne had plenty of company.

Depends on Who Your Friends Are

The reason for the great purge of the rank and file was to insure that each employee “have in him the making of a good ward heeler.” In other words, the powers that be were insisting on someone who “can be of some assistance in campaigns.”

So…John Kelly Stevens received his appointment not for any law enforcement qualifications he might have possessed, but solely thanks to having voted the right ticket in the preceding election.

Oral tradition in this family held that, later on, John Kelly Stevens lost a position for that very same reason—a story we’ll visit in a future post. Seeing that he gained one here prompts me to think of that trite saying, “Easy come, easy go.”

What confuses me, though, is not the continued existence of a political spoils system, even though headway was being achieved at the federal level.

What I’m confused about is the source of this very newspaper article. Would you not agree with me that a report like this one would lead an impartial observer to conclude that the Fort Wayne Gazette was a pro-Republican publication?

And yet, taking a look at the very history of the newspaper, since its very earliest days, the Fort Wayne Gazette was decidedly known as a pro-Democrat organization.

Perhaps now you see why I begin to doubt my prowess in reading comprehension: what gives, here?

While this quandary will cause us a detour from our intended focus of John Kelly Stevens’ family history, I’d like to look more closely at this seeming contradiction tomorrow, to see if we can finger the strands that contribute to the turmoil of the political environment in which average folks like John Kelly scrambled to keep their jobs.


  1. Perhaps the item was an "editorial" from a reader - sounds like they were both bitter and kicking up a fuss.

    1. You know, I did think of that, Iggy...but I couldn't tell from looking at the scan of the newspaper page. It certainly wasn't signed as if a letter to the editor, and the rest of the page didn't seem to contain editorial content--other than this very obvious editorial slant.

  2. The main editor might have been out on sick leave. In our local little paper..I am continually putting out small fires that they is closing..moving..broke..yada yada.:)

    1. Now that's a thought! And it does seem incendiary enough an entry to have sparked some flames!

  3. You've got a good point! Very interesting discussion. Maybe the article IS ironic.

    Let's see. It says those who "resigned" voted for Oakley, the Democrat, so those forced out are being "decapitated" by Republicans. Choice one: This statement is ironic (the kind where what is said is the opposite of what is meant), and it's defending the Republicans by making fun of the charges against them, so, it's pro-Republican. Choice two: This statement is straight and means what it says, so it's attacking Republicans for real, so, it's pro-Democrat.
    It could be taken either way.

    The trouble is, there are no verbal clues for irony. It's all tone. I'll be eager to see what more you find out about this newspaper!

    1. Whatever it is, Mariann, I was so surprised to see such overt editorial slant in newsprint! Just shows some of the fingerprints of the mood of the times, if nothing else.


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