American Underground: The Scandal papers of the 19th century!


Before Gillette’s invention of the “safety razor” with a disposable blade, at the turn of the century, the barber with his straight edge was the way to go.  Of course, many continued to nick themselves at home for free.  While Gillette was not the first to create the safety razor he became the most successful.  Similarly The National Police Gazette was not the first “scandal” paper but it would become the most famous and influential.
Not until the “Flash” papers (The Sunday Flash, The Whip etc.) began the onslaught of exposing the underbelly of society with its revelations of brothels, houses of prostitution along with coverage of sports, theater and other oddities, would the clamor and debate begin. The editors immediately exonerated their use of risqué illustrations and titillating articles by claiming that such exposure was necessary to point out such vice and iniquities.  While, in fact such notoriety only enhanced business rather than deterred. Publishers and editors rather, gained favor with select brothels mentioned within while, at times, they engaged in blackmailing the named parties who were exposed within their journal.
The plight and fight for what was right for the “press” is an interesting story of individual persistence; pitting the editors against the outrage from the community while declaring their perceived right of freedom of the press albeit benefiting their own financial gain as the demands of a growing audience expanded.  It was not until 1845 when one of the Flash press proprietors, George Wilkes teamed up with a new partner, Enoch E. Camp and came up with a way to stay out of jail while continuing to produce a journal which would be “useful” to the community yet still expose the vices and crimes of the streets and street walkers; The National Police Gazette.
Throughout the 19th century hair and beard styles would change.  Beards of course were even more vogue after Old Abe adorned his face in the early 60s! The mustache and the long sideburns and mutt and chops were also in style for much of the latter half of the century.   More importantly, our “expose” of such scandal papers is more about the social aspects of such “masculine” papers which over time created a unifying bound between males of all strata, defining what it was to be a real man, changing the definition of the meaning of “ribald” to something more sociably accepted, progressive and newsworthy.
After the Civil War the barber shop focused primarily on hair cutting, less of teeth pulling and stopped bloodletting after laws had prohibited their century’s old right to do so, reducing the barber to a technician rather than a “professional.” Meanwhile, the shop had become a man’s haven where a woman might be adorned in the pages of the National Police Gazette in New York, or perhaps in the Illustrated Police News of Boston, but would never be seen in the barber’s chair!
At this time urbanization was well on the rise but still the vast majority in this country lived rurally. However, the distribution of newspapers and periodicals, including through the mail, had been perfected.  With technical advances came more and better illustrations and an added emphasis on sensationalism and exploitation.
By the 1870s the story papers were reaching their peak circulation giving their readers more daring stories of adventures.  At the same time such scandal papers were catering to a more mature audience who required their daring and darlings to be of flesh and blood rather than the fictional kind.  Enter Richard K. Fox.  Fox was to revolutionize The National Police Gazette to worldwide recognition and bring such papers to a prominence as never before imagined.
There can be little doubt that Fox intentionally targeted the barber shop for his Police Gazette as did Stetson in his neck of the woods, Boston.  After all, here to large degree, were the money makers who could afford the luxury of a cut and a shave on an ongoing basis.  Although there were newsboys, saloons, oyster shops and other means of distribution nothing provided the social setting as the local barber shop which would eventually be synonymous with the “Police Gazette” for decades to come.
It would be a long time before the safety razor would have an impact on the barber shop patron and readership, along with the other many tabloids that would eventually abound.  Unfortunately, little is known of Mr. John Stetson’s, The Illustrated Police News.  However, we are happy to be able to say that the collection of Mr. Rainone contains a good many samples (and even more of The National Police Gazette) along with many other true rarities of this nature; many which will be seen within these pages.
Lest we forget, the publishers of like papers were given a constant barrage by the likes of Mr. Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who was looking to close down any publication he thought obscene.   Fox and other publishers often found themselves paying fines, fighting legal battles and even at times were put in the clink.  A number of scandal papers, such as Frank Tousey’s, Under the Gas Light fell by the wayside but Fox and Stetson endured.  Some story papers, even before Fox’s tenure, such as Norman Munro’s The New Sensation, tried to combine the lure of the scandal paper with the story paper even adding color but just could not find the right combination to endure more than 3 years. Frank Leslie’s The Days Doings was more successful and innovative but also came under the sights of Mr. Comstock forcing him to tone down the sex and violent depictions.
As far as the regular folk at home go, one can quite imagine a typical scene of a family man surrounded by other young adults peering over his shoulder to see the latest sensational images of sport heroes, outlaws and of damsels in distress, along with dames not to be reckoned with!  It is extremely likely that most women disapproved and children were denied access; although, no doubt they would devise their own plan to sneak a peek when no one was watching.  Such images of gruesome crimes and salacious depictions, meant to titillate, were no doubt a constant temptation for the curious mind!  Dime novels and story papers might be entertaining…but this was the real deal!
Certainly Mr. King Camp Gillette would have approved of the Police Gazette, and all its imitators, for he was said to have enjoyed the nightlife! In fact, when Nellie Coffman, proprietor of the infamous Desert Inn, in Palm Springs California, was asked why she allowed the old gent who was often seen hanging around her establishment she responded, “Why that is King C. Gillette.  He has practically kept this place in the black the last few years.”

But let’s be fair, the Police Gazette and the Police Illustrated News, along with some of the other periodicals was exciting entertainment, be it sport, sex, criminality or oddity!   And, all for a dime!

Joe Rainone