I read something the other day that reminded me of a very funny short story by Mark Twain. I first heard the Twain story years ago in a college journalism class. My professor guffawed so hard reading it aloud that his belly jiggled and his glasses fogged. It was a hilarious yarn. I promise to share it with you if you plow to the end of this column. There are quite a few rows, but the reward for finishing will be good.
As a tantalizer, Twain’s story instilled the phrase “gives me the fantods” in my lexicon for life. No one has ever understood me when I drop a fantod or two into a conversation. Their loss.
While almost everyone knows the letters “lmao” in text message-speak means “laughing my arse off” in English English, absolutely no one knows what a fantod is. Some figure it is a polite reference to what escapes from an overloaded diaper. I assure you, those aren’t fantods.
The 19th-century usage, which was spelled fan-tods before the great devaluation of the hyphen in punctuation power circles, means to feel a nervous apprehension, to have the fidgets, or, in short, to get the willies.
For example, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Occupied Texas, asserts that original “Star Trek” Capt. James T. Kirk would be a Republican. That gave Canadian-born actor William Shatner, who played Kirk, the fantods. In a tweet set to stun, Shatner called Cruz’s assignment of political preferences to “interstellar characters … silly.”
To return to the crux of this column, I was reading an old book with amusing nuggets from the media world. The book had to be old because there are no longer any amusing stories about the world of media — unless someone has pantsed a corporate bean counter, and we haven’t heard about it because of the paucity of reporters.
One anecdote concerned Joseph Pulitzer, the titan of American journalism who revolutionized newspapers, first in St. Louis, then in New York City, by making them crusading, entertaining, interesting, sensational and the domicile of color comics. I vaguely recalled Pulitzer from a journalism history class as one of many bearded men in stiff collars who did something way back when. But my current knowledge was limited to the Pulitzer awards given annually for excellence in journalism and in the arts and letters.
I never won a Pulitzer — despite a superb a story I did in 1983 about an A-list, gala ribbon-cutting and grand opening of a sewage transfer station in Marina. That story is still talked about today, if only by me. And I once shared a press table with an entrant for a Pulitzer, a status that requires a $50 entry fee and a patrician boss with a Hearst complex.
Excuse the digression. This piece is growing more twists than the Mississippi River, which is the setting for the Pulitzer anecdote that got me thinking about the Twain story. As I said this occurred recently, though it may seem like eons have passed. Don’t get the fantods.
The abridged anecdote: when Pulitzer was a young reporter in 1870 for a German-language newspaper in St. Louis, he shot a corrupt building contractor in the leg, paid a $400 fine and left town quickly.
Wow, I thought, this raises more questions than it answers. Why hadn’t we heard about this gunfight in my journalism history class? People may have stayed awake. A reporter shooting someone? That’s crazy. Reporters don’t shoot people: they cover shootings. The greatest prize in journalism is named for a gunman? And a poor shot, to boot?
My memory held only one Pulitzer detail. He would stride between rows of desks in his newsroom and loudly declaim, “Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!” to the staff. Nothing about him waving a gun, which doubtlessly would have swayed even the laziest reporters to quadruple-check spelling and hyphenation.
I hungered for more about the gun-wielding reporter. It cuts against the image of the contemporary, liberal, gun-control-loving journalist, who packs a smart phone, laptop and attitude rather than heat.
Side note: One source I found said Pulitzer strode through his newsroom shouting, “Accuracy, terseness, accuracy.” This could be suspect, since the second “accuracy” would seem to contradict the “terseness” mandate.
But let historians haggle. To the gunfight.
Pulitzer, a 17-year-old Hungarian Jew rejected by the Austrian and British armies as well as the French Foreign Legion, was recruited to America in 1864 to fight for the Union in the Civil War. He served with a German-speaking cavalry unit, saw little action, and, after the war, arrived penniless in St. Louis.
He taught himself English in the library, struggled for work and eventually landed a job as a reporter on a German-language paper. He worked his tail off, roaming 16 hours a day to collect bushels of stories that people actually enjoyed reading.
Pulitzer’s sympathy for the downtrodden and contempt for grafters was born out of his first story. Pulitzer and some companions were promised jobs at a Louisiana sugar plantation, but the promoters kicked them off the boat 30 miles down river and kept their $5 fees. Pulitzer hustled back to St. Louis and wrote an exposé.
By age 21, Pulitzer won a seat in the Missouri state legislature. Still an ace reporter, he worked to expose government fraud in both of his jobs. He was four years too young to be a legislator, but Pulitzer grew a beard and mustache rather than write an exposé about himself. A wise move. Pulitzer’s chief targets were corrupt St. Louis County politicians who controlled government jobs and public works contracts, and the crooked operators who helped them loot the treasury.
One foe was burly building contractor Capt. Edward Augustine. Pulitzer sniffed out a far-too-lucrative contract Augustine got to build a new county insane asylum. One January night at the Schmidt Hotel, a press-politico hangout, Augustine bulled his way to Pulitzer’s table and shouted, “You called me a crook. You’re a damned liar.”
Living in a country saturated by violence and repugnant public rhetoric, Augustine’s words may seem tame to contemporary Americans. But that era, too, was violent, marked by fierce partisanship, and scores often were settled by blood. The Civil War had ended just five years earlier.
Pulitzer told Augustine to watch the language, went to his nearby room and grabbed his old war pistol. Ever the newsman, Pulitzer ran into a reporter on his way back to the hotel and advised him to stick around for “an item.”
Whether Augustine — who had a reputation for packing a pistol and brass knuckles — was armed that night remains in dispute. After the two men tossed more insults back and forth, there was a tussle to the floor. Pulitzer shot twice, and one round hit Augustine in the lower leg. Pulitzer was cut when Augustine bashed his head, perhaps with a small pistol.
Immediate press accounts varied. In those days, many newspapers — particularly those in rural and regional areas — stuck to party lines more than the facts, like Fox News. Some stories made light of the donnybrook, while others called for Pulitzer’s bloodied head.
Remarkably, Pulitzer never spent any time in jail. He was fined $5 the next day for disturbing the peace, and fined $405 months later on a charge of having “murder in mind.” A few prominent politicians quietly paid the fine. To add insult to Augustine’s leg injury, Pulitzer’s bill to end corruption in St. Louis County passed the legislature.
Pulitzer actually didn’t leave town quickly. In 1879, he bought the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and by 1883, he was rich enough to buy the New York World and lock horns with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal to define the era of mass-circulation … and the rest of that journalism history stuff. Years later, Pulitzer called plugging the crooked contractor, “The first hit I ever made.”
My Google search turned up no later information on Augustine. He was last reported to be sitting in the hotel parlor, smoking a big cigar and trying not to show any pain.
Thanks for you attention. As promised, here’s that Twain story, written a year after “Joey” Pulitzer tried to cap Capt. Augustine. It’s a sketch of a time in American journalism, which publishers like Pulitzer would leave far behind, when politics were fought with splendid invective and a touch of gunpowder, too. Watch for the fantods.