Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"War of Words"

Simon Read is the author of On the House: The Bizarre Killing of Michael Malloy, In the Dark: The True Story of the Blackout Ripper, and The Killing Skies: RAF Bomber Command at War.

He applied the “Page 69 Test” to his new book, War of Words: A True Tale of Newsprint and Murder, and reported the following:
When a gun-toting newspaper publisher collided with a hellfire preacher whose lust for the ladies equaled his craving to be mayor, sparks and bullets flew—with the citizens of San Francisco caught in the crossfire. Such is the plot of War of Words: A True Tale of Newsprint and Murder, the story behind the founding of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1865 by Charles de Young and the wild events that led to his fatal shooting in 1880.

Charles de Young used his paper to indulge his lust for power, promoting politicians he favored and lambasting those he opposed. De Young eventually focused the Chronicle’s firepower on the Rev. Isaac Kalloch, a golden-tongued preacher who had arrived in San Francisco to escape the stain of an adultery trial in Boston. Kalloch’s reputation for womanizing was legendary, with sordid rumors following him from one coast to the other.

When Kalloch decided in 1879 to run for mayor, it was more than de Young could stand. In his paper, he ran a series of scolding articles denouncing Kalloch’s past and labeled the man a “brute” and “demagogue.” Kalloch responded with a sermon at his Metropolitan Temple in front of a large congregation. “If the devil in hell has an organ on earth,” Kalloch proclaimed, “it is the San Francisco Chronicle.” Kalloch concluded his sermon in a spectacularly vile manner. “The de Youngs are the bastard progeny of a whore,” he said. “Conceived in infamy and nursed in the lap of prostitution.”

In the wake of Kalloch’s comments, de Young took up arms and turned the streets of San Francisco into a shooting gallery in his quest for vengeance. Gunfights and beatings ensued with deadly results...

Page 69 of War of Words depicts a scene from Kalloch’s 1856 adultery trial in Boston. A witness, who has testified she saw Kalloch in tryst with a woman other than his wife, has just been exposed on the stand for sleeping with her husband before they were married—a big no-no back in those days:

From the public gallery, there came a collective gasp. Mrs. Griffin, her pre-marital sin now part of the public record, lowered her head and scurried from the courtroom as the defense called character witness Thomas Frye, a physician and ten-year resident of Rockland, Maine. “I’ve known Mr. Kalloch for twenty-one years. I boarded at his father’s house,” Frye testified. “Mr. Kalloch’s general character for chastity and purity of character is good. It was good until this charge was made against him.”

Page 69 is not typical of the whole book, which is a rowdy tale of gunfights, irresponsible journalism and the lawlessness of 1800s San Francisco. It is, however, part of a chapter that sets the tone for Kalloch’s perverse character. The book, like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, weaves the stories of two very different men into a violent climax.
Learn more about the author and his work at Simon Read's website and blog.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue