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  • "The Best Side of a Case of Crime":George Lippard, Walt Whitman, and Antebellum Police Reports
  • Carl Ostrowski (bio)

Many nineteenth-century American authors spent part of their careers writing for newspapers. Some authors whose literary reputations are now founded on works that had little to do with journalism found it expedient to be connected with newspapers, where they began to build careers as professional writers. In such cases, how did apprenticeship on a newspaper affect a writer's subsequent literary work in terms of subject matter, tone, or ideology? One answer to this question emerges from a look at the early writings of two authors whose careers follow a similar trajectory, beginning as journalists and moving on to more self-consciously literary forms of publication: George Lippard and Walt Whitman. In the 1840s, both Lippard and Whitman were working journalists, Lippard writing for Philadelphia's Spirit of the Times and Citizen Soldier and Whitman for a number of publications, most notably as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Moreover, they both worked in the same staple format of the an tebellum daily paper: the police report. Finally, critics praise both Lippard and Whitman for sympathizing in their literary work with outcast elements of society, a position that would have been particularly hard to reconcile with the demands of crime reporting. In this essay, I examine the police reports of Lippard and Whitman to see how they handled the form and where their reporting anticipated the racially and socially progressive perspectives of their later works. Such an inquiry requires familiarity with the police report as it appeared in two of the pioneering penny papers of the period, the New York Sun and the New York Herald, since the content, purpose, and ideological import of such reporting had been firmly established by the time Lippard and Whitman came to the format.

A number of scholars have analyzed in broad terms newspaper crime reporting of the antebellum period. In Dan Schiller's account, news about crime was the arena in which penny papers staked their claim as defenders of the interests of the common man. Appropriating the rhetoric of the labor press that died out after the Panic of 1837, [End Page 120] penny papers appealed to a wide audience of mechanics and laborers by exposing corruption in a criminal justice system weighted in favor of the social elite: "Modified and adapted, crime news in the penny press focused not only on the integrity of the state but also on the unequal effect of social class on the political nation and, specifically, in the law." 1 Schiller devotes sustained attention to coverage of the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett. The New York Sun criticized the acquittal of Jewett's accused killer Richard Robinson, claiming that his wealth allowed him to purchase a favorable verdict, while New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett saw revealed in the trial a conspiracy to cover up the misdeeds of the wealthy brothel patrons who set up Robinson as their fall guy. Either way, the editors wielded class-based rhetoric to impugn an anti-egalitarian legal system. 2 Also focusing on the Jewett murder, among other cases, David Ray Papke hears in antebellum crime reporting a voice for the working and middle classes: "the crime journalism in The Sun and The Herald championed mechanics, artisans, clerks, and small merchants over the traditional landed and mercantile elites, which well into midcentury held power in the modernizing nation." 3 Adding to this consensus, Alexander Saxton observes that "crime and sex were not politically neutral" in the penny press, whose ideological origins he identifies in the urban workingmen's movement of the period. 4 Together, these commentators make a convincing case that certain kinds of sensationalized crime news allowed editors to deploy the language of artisan republicanism. Alongside the occasional coverage of spectacular crimes and ensuing trials, however, the antebellum paper featured a more prosaic variety of crime news in its daily anecdotes about the activities of city police. Analyzing the daily police report, one finds a set of reportorial conventions with different ideological implications, and this was the format in which Lippard's and Whitman's commitments to defending...


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pp. 120-142
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