Article, Undercover Reporting

American Journalism: “Re-Dating History”

December 4, 2015


This panel presentation of October 2014 was published in essay form in American Journalism, Vol. 32, Iss. 4, December 9, 2015

Brooke Kroeger, New York University

[from a panel presentation, AJHA, 9 October 2014, Minneapolis MN]


Kate Bolick is a former student of mine who has been out of school for a good while now and naturally, all of us who were her teachers have been thrilled with the exceptional career she has fashioned. Its peak to date was her fetching appearance on the cover of the Atlantic in November of 2011 to herald her widely discussed, reported-cum-personal polemic on the virtues of living on one’s own. The impact of her piece was such that it led to a contract for a book eventually titled Spinster, published in April 2015.

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 11.40.35 AMWith this backdrop, knowing well from Kate’s student days the interest we share in historical literary figures who happened to be women, I could not resist passing along to her a page I found entirely by chance in a 1912 scrapbook held by the Schlesinger Library.

The article had almost nothing to do with the topic I was researching, but it caught my eye on Kate’s behalf. It’s a piece from the New York American of October 3, 1912, written by the author Gertrude Atherton, under the headline: “GIRLS, DON’T WED UNTIL 30, SCOLDS GERTRUDE ATHERTON; MANY Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 11.03.15 AMBETTER NOT WED AT ALL.” And it advanced some of Kate’s seemingly brand new ideas. So I sent it along to Kate with my good wishes for her book. And Kate wrote right back:

“Amazing! Thank you!~ I’ll add it to my collection of artifacts that – if all goes well- I’ll then post on my Spinster website. Part of the entire point of my book is to show how long this conversation has been taking place, and artifacts like this prove that so beautifully. Thank you, thank you!”

Such a reaction was wholly familiar to me since my own work over the past 20 years. It is a good segue into a discussion of the issues that emerge from unquestioning reliance on the accepted “periodization” of history as a starting point for new research. “Periodization” is academy-speak for widely accepted date-to-date designations of historical periods that don’t start with a specific event, such as a shot heard round the world or invention of a printing press. Common examples would be The Progressive Era or the Antebellum Period.

My first encounter with this issue was in the early 1990s and the un-learning my research on Nellie Bly caused of something I had believed without questioning since my university days a couple of decades earlier: that the pro-feminist arguments of the revolutionary period for women in the late 1960s and early 1970s were altogether new.

Never having taken a women’s history course, it was in researching Bly’s life and times that I discovered there was nothing new about these arguments at all. In fact, even very specific issues, such as the debate over the economic sense it made to hire out child care and enter the work force over against women staying home to provide it themselves, had been well dissected in publications such as  The Westminster Review by as early as March of 1899. Or in articles like this, again, in the same publication, in January of 1904.

In fact, what in my ignorance had been to me a revelation, struck me so profoundly at the time that I went looking for a next biography subject, again a woman, who could explain to me how the amnesia had happened; how everything already discovered and understood by before the turn of the last century had to be learned again 70 years later as if for the first time. I sought a subject whose life was as fascinating and vibrant as Bly’s, another huge figure of popular culture in her day. Like Bly, she needed to be “second-tier,” an Every Woman figure, someone, also like Bly, whose life intersected with just about every other major figure of the era, peer-to-peer. And just as importantly, the life span of the subject had to end in 1968, as the second wave of ardent feminism gathered real steam. I wanted to know why a second revolution had been necessary, why all that well-plowed ground had to be plowed all over again. And so the biography of Fannie Hurst resulted, with just this prominent subtext.

I don’t remember thinking much about re-dating history with my third book, Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are, though, in fact, it represents a kind of inverse trajectory — pushing the dating forward instead of back.  The book was about the act of passing, the phenomenon of presenting oneself as other than who one understands oneself to be. I set out to show how contemporary the subject still was, even though the very idea of passing was more closely associated with the pre-Civil Rights era.

But it was the work on Undercover Reporting that brought the re-dating issue back powerfully anew. The research radically altered my previous understanding of when the practice of planned deception — surreptitious reporting — began in the press. It moved the commonly accepted dating for when undercover reporting became a “thing” back at least forty years, from the late 1880s to the 1840s and 1850s. It turned out that in the pre-Civil War years, for Northern reporters investigating slavery in the South, you could almost call the use of undercover reporting techniques a trend.

How did this come to pass? It started for me with a gift from my NYU colleague, the recently retired William Serrin, a great Civil War buff and writer of journalism history in his own right.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 10.15.26 AMOn learning about what I was working on at the time, Bill gave me his copy of James Redpath’s book, The Roving Editor. I wasn’t entirely sure why, since it predated my period. But I read it and from it I learned of Redpath’s antics on behalf of the New York Tribune. These were performed in repeated trips to the south to learn about slavery from the mouths of slaves, as Redpath himself put it. From him, I also learned about the slave auction buyer ruse of the 1840s and 1850s, what turned out to be a convenient way for white Northerners to gain close access to buyers, auctioneers, slaves for sale and their owners without raising suspicion as to their real intent. Slave catalogues made very discreet undetectable notebooks. This, in turn, made possible further searches for other reporters who performed similar feats – something I would not even have thought to look for had it not been for Bill’s gift. That in turn made a sizeable collection of stories of this kind from the 1840s and 1850s possible to find and amass.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 10.16.09 AMAt almost the same time, again as I shared what I was up to with my friend and colleague, Patricia O’Toole, she said, “Oh, you must include Doesticks” and proceeded to tell me about the slave auction ruse of Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B. (for “perfect brick,” pen name of Mortimer Thomson). His story for the Tribune about the South’s largest slave sale in March of 1859 in the dismantling of a major Georgia plantation had an extraordinary impact.

Patty herself had also learned about Doesticks, completely by chance, when she was doing the research for one of her earlier books, Money and Morals in America. This is how she tells it:

“As you probably remember, “What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation” sold out and was reprinted in booklet form a number of times.  That’s the form in which I read it, at the Georgia Historical Society Library in Savannah.  I was actually there doing research for an earlier chapter, on Oglethorpe and the founding of the colony of Georgia.  But I finished a day or two ahead of schedule and decided to take a look at whatever they had on slavery.  And there was Doesticks, in that form.  That was in about 1992.  By the time M&M was published, the Library of Congress was well into its digitization project, and the piece was online, but when I read it, it was still pretty obscure.  I used it the way I did because it gave me a fairly contained way to write about slavery (i.e., a chapter rather than a whole book).”

For me, this was a complete godsend. It led me to the original Doesticks article in the Tribune and an MA thesis from Northwestern about Thomson – there really was little else available at the time – perhaps even now – except for Thomson’s own books and his entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. And from these and other sources I located the article in book form, published in Britain under Greeley’s name (and I see Google Books has now removed the image on its once-incendiary cover, if not its offensive title. I should have taken a screen shot) and also Doesticks’ many earlier undercover ruses of a more light-hearted sort. These were published during the 1850s and were reported and written as humor pieces well before “American Civilization Illustrated.”

The earlier works were Thomson’s window into New York City life. With that, it became perfectly clear why Greeley had given the Georgia assignment to Thomson, who had never reported on slavery. Doesticks could act.

And then, through the wonders of stealth search, a practice familiar to all of you, I know, came Albert Richardson’s book, The Field, Dungeon and Escape, in which he too chronicles the disguises and identities he assumed on his forays in the antebellum South. Like Redpath, he also used elaborate encoding schemes to send stories back north.

From Richardson, I happened onto Henry S. Olcott and his how-I-got-that-story essay on a harrowing reporting episode that took place 16 years earlier, “How We Hung John Brown.”

At the time, Olcott was a lowly assistant agriculture editor at Greeley’s Tribune. The assigned correspondent in Charleston was run out of town and had to flee, leaving the Tribune without a reporter on the scene. So someone unknown in the area, someone from New York who would not be suspected, had to go South in his stead. Olcott volunteered and posed as a Petersburg Gray to make the trip. That and his Masonic connections kept him safe. Fortuitously, the Grays were charged with escorting Brown to the gallows. So thanks to Olcott’s clever undercover ruse, his view of the hanging became very up close and very personal. That led me to identify what appears to be Olcott’s original article with all of its extraordinary detail.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 10.14.26 AMFeeling pretty excited about all of this, I presented at a Joint Journalism Historians Conference back in 2008 or 2009 and Richard John, whom I had never met, was kind enough to come up and introduce himself. He told me all about William Morgan and the Masons, a story he also told me is very familiar to historians of early American history, of which I was clearly not one. That incident did not provided me with a cluster of people engaged in the practice of undercover work in the 1820s (and Morgan’s purpose was a lot about retribution; the Masons had blackballed him). But at least it becomes the earliest known episode on U.S. soil of a published undercover-like exploit. And the reverberations of impact on the Masons – as far back as the 1820s – are of a piece with the method’s purest journalistic intention: to shed light on closed off spaces; and often to expose wrong.

As for Nellie Bly, yet another coda. I, like most everyone who follows such minutiae, was reasonably content to consider hers the first attempt to get committed to an asylum and write about it. It’s a journalistic ruse that has remained as popular over the century and half since as posing as homeless or going to prison or working in a slaughterhouse.

I was of course aware of Margaret Fuller’s and Charles Dickens’ visits to New York area asylums and their well known reports of 1842 and 1845. But theirs were of guided tours, not undercover episodes, and for my purposes, they needed little more than a passing mention. What I didn’t know about it until after Undercover Reporting was published was about Julius Chambers’“Among the Maniacs,” his undercover foray, again for the New York Tribune, into the Bloomingdale asylum in August of 1872. This was some 15 years ahead of Bly.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 10.17.08 AMInterestingly, Chambers was one of Bly’s editors at the World, although in no known document is he given credit for having suggested the assignment (Joseph Pulitzer, John Cockerill, and Bly herself are the known contenders.) Thanks for the Chambers revelation goes to another great colleague, Andie Tucher. She writes:

“Chambers was an important editor, spent years at the Herald and also worked for the World. He mentioned the madhouse story in his News Hunting on Three Continents, published posthumously in 1921, a collection of accounts of “how I got that story” that has often been cited for insights into how reporters worked in the late c19. But a while back I decided to use all those great new digital search engines to track the originals of the articles he was describing and to compare those to what he said about them later. Turns out that half of his “accounts” were complete fabrications, in fact had been published earlier as fiction in literary magazines, and he simply changed the third-person pronouns to the first and presented them as true. But that’s when I did find that the madhouse story was one of the authentic ones. I’ve got a piece coming out in the next issue of American Journalism in their “why journalism history matters” series that includes some of this.”

Andie’s mention of the piece has at least allowed me to include it in the database at if not to be able to give him his due in either book.

So for me, what are the takeaways from these encounters?

*Surrender to the strange angels of serendipity. Share openly with your friends and people you barely know. You never know what might come back.

*Be willing to unmake the conventional wisdom. And be on the lookout for those opportunities.

*Relish a swim in cross-disciplinary waters. You’ll note that every one of these finds came from someone working on or just enamored with a completely unrelated topic.

*Revel in the unique historical potency of newspapers and their capacity not only to date and re-date precisely but to capture the historical moment and provide a reliable sense of of what can reasonably called a trend, or even the real start of a period (e.g. antebellum Northern reporting in the South), and what’s equally interesting, but probably more of an isolated example (e.g. Morgan and the Masons).

And then, just to be open to and excited by the new insights the shake-up that is re-dating can make possible.