George W. Plunkett was one of the under-bosses in the notorious Tammany Hall political machine that dominated the political scene in New York in the early 20th century. “If a family is burned out,” he said, “I don’t ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up till they get things runnin’ again.
“Who can tell how many votes these fires bring me?”
The “Muckrakers” were reform-minded journalists who were stars of the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s) and attacked bullying monopolies, corrupt institutions and bigwigs such as Tammany Hall head William M. “Boss” Tweed, the Chicago meat packers, and Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller.
It was a time when religious groups, members of the press and radical political groups clamored for reform.
Leaders of the Progressive Era movement included high-level leaders like President Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, President Woodrow Wilson and Al Smith — the four-term governor of New York and Democratic Party candidate for president in 1928.
Journalism in America after the Civil War was changing from “personal journalism” to straightforward reporting and investigative journalism.
Borrowing from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Teddy Roosevelt named those investigative journalists “Muckrakers,” — for “digging up filth and muck.”
He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but the writers were proud to be called one anyway.
Among them were Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Florence Kelly, Ray Stannard Baker, Will Irwin, David Graham Phillips, Jacob Riis, Charles Edward Russell and John Spargo.
Between 1890 and the start of World War I, the muckrakers unflinchingly aroused public attention and anger toward political corruption, bad business practices, monopolies, and social problems of urban poverty, dangerous and unsanitary conditions in the workplace, the plight of immigrants, prostitution, child labor, among other issues.
In doing so, Muckrakers risked their livelihoods and lives.
During those times, improvements in printing technology gave birth to inexpensive magazines that could appeal to a broader and more literate middle-class readership.
McClure’s Magazine was one of the first of those publications to offer a platform for muckraking investigative journalism, while also publishing articles from Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and many others.
Lincoln Steffens was editor, but in 1907 he, Tarbell and Baker left McClure’s and founded The American Magazine.
Steffens focused on political corruption in St. Louis, New York and other major cities.
While writing for the New York Evening Post, he exposed massive corruption by William M. “Boss” Tweed, a Democrat congressman from New York and later a New York County Supervisor, who was kingpin of Tammany Hall — a political machine of the Democratic Party.
Tweed had taken control of New York City government in 1869 and changed the city charter. He was able to wrest control of finances and ballot box from Republican-led commissions by bribing the Republicans to go along with it.
“I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating,” Tweed said.
His pals got the cushy jobs, and he became wealthy with multiple real estate holdings and investments, a Manhattan estate, two yachts and wore a 10.5-carat diamond stick pin.
He also controlled the county’s board of supervisors that forced vendors to pay them a 15 percent overcharge in order to do business in the city.
His biographer, Kenneth D. Ackerman, wrote in “Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York,” that “The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box.
“Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure (for) money-laundering, profit sharing and organization.”
Steffens’ muckraking articles and book “Shame of the Cities,” and the devastating political cartoons by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly helped bring down the 300-pound Boss Tweed and his ring of corruption.
The Tammany boss died of pneumonia in Ludlow Street Jail in Manhattan.
For almost a century, Tammany Hall continued — surviving numerous investigations, mobster ties, leadership rivalries, and opposition by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and President FDR.
It all ended by 1967, when Tammany Hall ceased to exist.
Some of the muckrakers attacked society’s problems through fictional exposé books, such as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” that described intolerable conditions in Chicago’s meat packing plants.
Sinclair spent seven weeks working incognito in the plants. He was appalled at seeing contaminated meat being processed, and the miserable conditions suffered by immigrants and other low-paid workers
He reported it all in a newspaper series and then the book.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for him however, with publishers at first rejecting his novel.
Macmillan publishers said, “I advise without hesitation and unreservedly against the publication of this book which is gloom and horror unrelieved. One feels that what is at the bottom of his fierceness is not nearly so much desire to help the poor as hatred of the rich.”
That comment may have been because Sinclair was a known socialist.
Doubleday published the book.
Ida M. Tarbell (1857-1944) aimed her biggest investigation at Standard Oil Company and John D. Rockefeller, who founded the company in 1870 — 11 years after the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania.
Standard Oil grew big during the post-Reconstruction era called the Gilded Age — a time of rampant corruption in America, when the very rich held great power, while the federal government was not yet a power behemoth.
By 1880, Standard Oil had ruthlessly driven many competitors out of business, merged with others, controlled railroad oil transportation fees, and was refining 90 to 95 percent of all oil produced in the U.S.
Government at all levels — mostly run by party bosses and big businesses — did nothing to stop them, and maybe couldn’t.
But Ida Tarbell did.
She was born in a log cabin in Pennsylvania and wanted to be a scientist. Instead she became one of America’s greatest investigative journalists.
Mark Twain put her on the trail by introducing her to Henry H. Rogers, a vice president and No. 3 at Standard Oil.
She interviewed him many times — Rogers possibly expecting a favorable account of the company.
Her findings, however, would result in a series of 19 negative articles in McClure’s starting in 1902 exposing Rockefeller and Standard Oil’s ruthless business practices.
Fellow journalists Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker contributed to the series, which later became a best-selling book — “The History of the Standard Oil Company” — published in 1904.
Pulitzer Prize-winning magazine historian Frank Luther Mott called the Standard Oil exposé a “masterpiece of investigative journalism.”
The muckrakers unflinchingly told the public about how the robber barons crushed competitors and those who got in their way, while creating unbelievable wealth for themselves and ignoring the misery of low-paid workers at a time in American history when the middle class had not yet achieved today’s successes.
Their efforts paid off.
Congress took notice and legislation that followed broke up Standard Oil’s monopoly, as well as other corporate giants.
The new laws included, among others, the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, Hepburn Act in 1906 overseeing the railroads, the 1910 Mann-Elkins Act creating the Federal Trade Commission in 1914 and giving the Interstate Commerce Commission power to set oil rates.
Congress also set new standards in food sanitation, revised Senate rules and reorganized the U.S. Navy.
“The effect on the soul of the nation was profound,” Fred J. Cook wrote in “The Muckrakers: Crusading Journalists who Changed America.”
“It can hardly be considered an accident that the heyday of the muckrakers coincided with one of America’s most yeasty and vigorous periods of ferment.
“The people of the country were aroused by the corruptions and wrongs of the age — and it was the muckrakers who informed and aroused them.
“The results showed in the great wave of progressivism and reform cresting in the remarkable spate of legislation that marked the first administration of Woodrow Wilson … For this, the muckrakers had paved the way.”
Lincoln Steffens said, “The spirit of graft and of lawlessness is in the American spirit.”
If he was right, where are the muckrakers today?
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• • •
“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
— Upton Sinclair, on public reaction to his 1906 novel
Journalism ethics lost…
In the 1950s and ’60s, UCLA’s Graduate Department of Journalism (now no longer in existence) taught Ethics in Journalism as a curriculum requirement — as other journalism schools no doubt also did in those times. But which universities today still have that requirement?
New form of journalism…
“Ida Tarbell’s biggest obstacle…was the craft of journalism as practiced at the turn of the twentieth century. She investigated Standard Oil and Rockefeller by using documents — hundreds of thousands of pages scattered throughout the nation — and then amplified her findings through interviews with the corporation’s executives and competitors, government regulators, and academic experts past and present. In other words, she proposed to practice what today is considered investigative reporting, which did not exist in 1900.”
— Steve Weinberg, Taking on the trust: the epic battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, W.W. Norton, 2008
A noble calling…
“I am deeply interested in the progress and elevation of journalism, having spent my life in that profession, regarding it as a noble profession and one of unequaled importance for its influence upon the minds and morals of the people.”
— Joseph Pulitzer
Behind the curtain…
“In all cities, the better classes — the business men — are the sources of corruption, but they are so rarely pursued and caught that we do not fully realize whence the trouble comes.”
— Lincoln Steffens
• • •
Invitation to readers…
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Popcorn History stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at email@example.com.
‘Look for History Popcorn every Wednesday brought to you by Ziggy’s.’