OLD NEWS: War puts readers in a tizzy for daily news

Posted: March 20, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Front page of the March 16, 1917 Arkansas Gazette for Old News reflects the overthrow of the Romanovs in Russia and the U.S. edging toward declaring war against Germany.

Telephones at the Arkansas Gazette rang off the hooks March 20, 1917, as readers called their trusted news source to check out a story that was going around about the Great War in Europe.

The next day's paper told the tale in a short, amusing "bright," and the editor of the editorial page quipped about it. In today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in-house lingo, bright is spelled brite. So here's the brite:

Rumor Said "Kaiser Killed" -- Rumor Lied

"No, the kaiser has not been assassinated."

"No, there has been no revolution in Germany and the kaiser is still living."

"Not a word of truth in it as far as the Gazette knows."

"No, the Associated Press has nothing about the assassination of the kaiser. Why hasn't it. Because he has not been assassinated."

"We don't know where the rumor started, but there is nothing to it."

The above are sample replies to telephone inquiries which kept the Gazette phones busy yesterday from early morning to late at night. The inquiries came not only from Little Rock, but from points far out in the state, the inquirers paying tolls to ascertain whether the rumor was true.

Just how such a rumor started has not been ascertained. It was in circulation long before noon. Business men and women going home to lunch helped to spread it; street car conductors unable to leave the cars to see the bulletins, sought confirmation. The rumor spread all over the city and was a most persistent one. Presently it was introduced, perhaps by long-distance telephone to the state at large.

And it was merely a wild rumor without the slightest basis in fact.

And here's the editor's quip, also published March 21:

According to the telephone calls that swamped the Gazette yesterday, old General Rumor seems to have launched his spring drive by killing the kaiser and converting Germany into a republic.

Please join me in attempting to draw three deductions about life in Arkansas 100 years ago:

One. Telephone poles were marching into rural areas.

Two. People were worried about Europe's Great War. "Kaiser" referred to Kaiser Wilhelm II, aka William, emperor of Germany and King of Prussia.

Three. There was something called "the bulletins" that was visible but not readable from streetcars.

Bonus deduction: The reporter liked the word "ascertain."

That March, it was more than a rumor that war was coming. Germany's all-out submarine

campaign was taking down American ships and killing Americans -- including women(!). President Woodrow Wilson had scheduled an extraordinary session of Congress for April 2, where, it was expected, he would ask Congress to declare war on Germany.

Little stories that suggest public suspicion about German-Americans' patriotism pop up more and more frequently as Old News advances through the 1917 Gazette archive.

German-Americans were a small but visible minority in Arkansas. Institutions founded by immigrants included the German National Bank, The Arkansas Echo newspaper (aka Das Arkansas Echo) and whole communities, especially in Pulaski and Saline counties and around Subiaco. Lutheran and Catholic churches had helped Germans settle here, and some parochial schools taught in German.

How did people get the idea that the kaiser had been killed? Who knows?

The surprising coup in Russia was big news that week. Tzar Nicholas Romanoff had abdicated March 2 and was soon stripped of power and arrested, but that doesn't seem to have reached the Gazette until March 15. Beginning March 16, the paper was full of the Russian coup.

Like Wilhelm, the Russian ruler was also called "emperor" in the press. Maybe some Arkansans were a little confused by geography and not sure where Nicholas lived.


The Gazette reported rumors often in the old days, sometimes making it clear the information was unverified and unlikely, but not always.

My favorite example of "not always" can be found on Page 2 of the March 1, 1914, Gazette, under the headline "Villa, Oklahoman, Is Report in Vinita: Mexican Leader Said to Be George Goldsby, Stepfather of Former Outlaw." Here's a taste:

Fort Smith, Feb. 28 -- Pancho Villa, the foremost figure in the Mexican revolution as a result of the execution of W.S. Beaton, the English rancher, is a former Oklahoman, it is reported in Vinita. He is said to be George Goldsby, formerly of Vinita and stepfather of Crawford Goldsby, "Cherokee Bill," Indian territory outlaw, who shot and killed Larry Keating, a guard in the United States prison here July 26, 1895. ... He is still very well remembered at Vinita. Goldsby is said to have served in the American army and to have been mustered out in the early eighties when he took up his residence in eastern Oklahoma.

Pancho Villa wasn't Mexican but instead a criminal's dad from Oklahoma? Wow.

When a modern newspaper makes a gaffe like that, readers expect to see a correction in print ASAP. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is proud of carefully correcting its errors. But newspapers didn't back in the day. They published several editions a day and simply updated things as they went. Or didn't.

But back to that rumor in 1917. What were "the bulletins" that streetcar drivers couldn't read?

Here again I speculate, but only after hunting for the word "bulletins" in the newspaper archives until my eyes crossed. It appears that (whether daily or under unusual circumstances, I don't know) the Gazette posted headline news in the windows or outside its building.

I haven't found photographic proof, but our buddy Google has a few photos of other newspapers' bulletin stations from the same period. (See nyti.ms/2mxOqMA).

Those photos show hand-painted headlines. But on July 2, 1910, The New York Times installed a "strange machine" called the electric bulletin press. Printed words appeared in the building's window as if by magic in letters 1 1/2 inches tall. Poof! As if by magic, some poor sign-painting schmo lost his job.

When Old News arrives at July 1917 and the announcement of the first military draft of World War I, we'll read how 1,000 Arkansans gathered in the street around the newspaper to read the bulletins.

Next week: Casket Company Offers Use of Plant to Nation

ActiveStyle on 03/20/2017