By: Barbara Bedway
Michael Lesy, historian and author of the classic 1973 genre-defying Wisconsin Death Trip and 10 other books ? most of them marked by a vivid use of photographs and news clippings to document American history as it has rarely been seen ? stumbled onto the subject of his next book while studying digitized images from the Chicago Daily News collection online.
“I wanted to teach students how to look at vast quantities of images and not go crazy,” says Lesy, who is finishing the book Murder City while on leave from teaching literary journalism at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. “I was trying out the site to see how user-friendly it was ? and because I’m bloody-minded, I typed in ‘murder.'”
The search brought up riveting images of murderers from 1920s-era Chicago, then in the throes of a bloody circulation war between William Randolph Hearst’s papers (Chicago American and the morning Chicago Examiner), and Col. Robert R. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune. Both publishers exploited the lurid crimes of the day ? Tribune reporter Maureen Watkins wrote the play Chicago based on two women who murdered their lovers ? and both employed gunmen and thugs to intimidate rival news dealers.
“Gangs of tough guys would hijack newspaper trucks, burn down newsstands, beat up newsboys, and threaten and sometimes kill news dealers,” says Lesy, warming to the subject in a phone interview. In the war to increase circulation, even readers were at risk, he adds: “The ‘hitters’ went on trolleys, and whoever was reading the wrong paper, they’d pitch out the paper and sometimes the reader, too. There were around 52 deaths in 20 years.”
Among the more famed hitters for Hearst (official title: “circulation managers”) were the Annenberg brothers, Max and Moses, the latter the father of media magnate and philanthropist Walter Annenberg. Moses eventually amassed a great fortune in his expansive underworld dealings before he went to prison for tax evasion in 1939.
Equally memorable was the lame florist and eventual gang leader Dion O’Banion, who got his start as a hijacker for Hearst and was later murdered by Capone gunmen. And while the newspapers ratcheted up their coverage of the city’s plethora of murders ? coverage that could go on for months, with extra editions carrying new revelations (one reporter likened a Hearst paper to “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”) ? absent from the papers was coverage of the mayhem wrought by the brutal circulation war itself.
“None of the papers covered the newspaper war,” Lesy points out. “They called these crimes ‘labor disturbances.'”
His book will combine excerpts from various Chicago newspapers and the Illinois Crime Survey of 1929 ? along with photos from the Daily News ? to tell the story of 23 murders, “none of which are the famous ones, the kind of epic, mythic stories of cruelty that Chicago essentially inserted into our American identity,” says Lesy. Press reports “became the melodies that kept on being played, that everyone listened to,” he recounts. “The best part for me was that the stories used a lot of quotations, some of which were accurate, and some fabricated. People being written about come off the page quite vividly.”
Unlike Wisconsin Death Trip and Lesy’s recently published Angel’s World: The New York Photographs of Angelo Rizzuto (a tribute to a reclusive, little-known photographer), Murder City “is more a reading book than a photo book,” Lesy notes. The photos are used “more as they’re used by the newspapers, as illustrations.” Lesy has the same hopes for Murder City as for all his other books, which amount to an attempt to “subvert what passes for the agreed-upon story of our country,” he asserts. The images he chooses are not exactly “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” he adds.
Lesy will return to teaching literary journalism at Hampshire College in the fall, a genre that has exploded in popularity in the last decade. He describes it simply as “narrative nonfiction, long-form, character-driven,” but to his students he introduces it this way: “You are the equivalent of a dog with a video camera strapped to his back; what you see is what we see. It’s trying to tell the truth about the world by hanging out, immersing yourself, becoming what anthropologists used to call being ‘a participant observer.'”
He continues to read The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London and the Amherst (Mass.) Gazette, among others, but looks at them from a slightly different angle than most readers: “For me, newspapers are forms of literature and storytelling, which happen, on occasion, to be representative of reality.”