W. Joseph Campbell

Gotham’s exceptional New Year’s Eve: 1897

In 1897, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 31, 2010 at 7:05 am

W.R. Hearst

Publisher William Randolph Hearst was at the peak of his most innovative period 113 years ago, when he organized a New Year’s Eve bash for Gotham in 1897.

The year then closing had been a stunning one for Hearst and his flagship newspaper, the New York Journal.

He had introduced in 1897 a hearty brand of activist journalism: The “journalism of action,” the Journal called it. And it meant that newspapers had an obligation to inject themselves routinely and conspicuously into public life, to address the ills that government would not or could not confront.

Rivals scoffed and sneered; “yellow journalism” they called it.

But the stunning character of Hearst’s “journalism of action” had been demonstrated in October 1897 with the rescue of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner jailed by Spanish authorities in Havana for months without charges.

The Cisneros rescue, as I wrote in my 2006 book–a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–was the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history, “an episode unique in American journalism.”

In late summer 1897, as Cuba’s guerrilla war against Spanish colonial rule ground on, Hearst sent a reporter named Karl Decker to Cuba, ostensibly as the Journal correspondent in Havana.

Rescuing Evangelina

But Decker was under orders to organize the rescue of Evangelina Cisneros. With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and the vital support of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana, Decker succeeded in breaking her out of jail and getting her aboard a steamer to New York.

The “greatest journalistic coup of this age,” the Journal crowed, never reluctant to indulge in self-promotion. The “journalism of action” never seemed more robust, or more proud of itself, I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Rivaling the Cisneros jailbreak as the crowning achievement of the “journalism of action” was the 1897 New Year’s Eve bash that Hearst threw for New York City.

It was an exceptional occasion, marking as it did the consolidation of the boroughs of New York and the birth of the modern mega-city.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, New York officials “had planned no special event to celebrate the political consolidation of the five boroughs… William Strong, the city’s outgoing mayor and a foe of consolidation, suggested that a mock funeral would be more appropriate than a celebration. Hearst would have none of that.”

Hearst stepped forward to organize what the Journal called a “great carnival,” a celebration replete with “volcanoes of fireworks and floods of pulse-quickening music,” all centered around City Hall Park, near what then was Newspaper Row.

Weather conditions were awful that night in lower Manhattan. Drizzling rain turned to ice and snow during the waning hours of 1897. The weather was so poor that the Journal announced in the afternoon that festivities would be postponed. An hour or two later, it reversed itself and the celebration was back on.

Perhaps 100,000 merry-makers braved the inclement conditions to watch the parade of floats that snaked its way down Broadway to City Hall.

As midnight struck in New York, the mayor of San Francisco (as Hearst had arranged), pressed a button sending an electric current across country to lower Manhattan. The electric charge sent a small white object climbing the flagpole at City Hall.

Reaching the top of the staff, the object unfurled and revealed itself to be the flag of New York City. And with that, one news account said, “bedlam broke loose.”

Fireworks burst over lower Manhattan, sending up what one reporter called “showers of blazing stars,” and a National Guard battery began firing a salute of 100 guns.

Just as the Journal had promised, the celebration was the “luminous starting point from which the history of the expanded New York will be dated.”

Even such bitter rivals as the New York Sun complimented the Journal for having organized and underwritten the celebration, which cost at least the contemporary equivalent of $500,000.

“It was such a display of fireworks and enthusiasm as perhaps had never been seen before in the State of New York, certainly not in the vicinity of New York city,” the Sun declared, adding:

“The show that the New York Journal provided was all that that paper claimed it would be.”

It was an exceptional New Year’s Eve in Gotham–and, as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, it also was “a tremendous opportunity for the Journal to indulge in a celebration of its activist ethos.”

WJC

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