The first issue of the New York Morning Herald hit the streets of New York City on May 6. Its editor, James Gordon Bennett, was a cantankerous, cross-eyed Scotsman possessed of a supreme indifference to public opinion. He set out to break the journalistic traditions of his day. “Our only guide,” he wrote in that first issue, “shall be good, sound, practical common sense, applicable to the business and bosoms of men engaged in every-day life.” Unlike most of the other fifteen papers then published in the city, the New York Herald would not be “kept”: “We shall support no party, be the organ of no faction or coterie, and care nothing for any election or any candidate from President down to a Constable. We shall endeavor to record facts on every public and proper subject,” Bennett wrote. But when New Yorkers discovered what he deemed proper to record, he was ostracized. Businessmen and competing editors took to assaulting him on the street, and eventually several attempts were made on his life.
The Herald ’s working-class readers were enthralled, however, and sent its circulation spiraling upward. At other papers, business news “was accessory to the swindling of the sharpers,” according to Bennett, who identified Wall Street miscreants in his daily financial column. Scoring one journalistic first after another, Bennett published religious news and lists of bankruptcies. He invaded high society and printed accounts of blue-blood gatherings. After financing the first two American-sponsored transatlantic cables with a partner, he gave thorough coverage to foreign stories that other editors neglected. And Bennett’s ranks of correspondents in the field during the Civil War—sometimes as many as sixteen in one battle—made the Herald ’s coverage far more thorough and accurate than any other paper’s. It became one of the few President Lincoln regularly read.
But it was his colorful and in-depth reporting of crimes and court news that propelled the Herald into first place among New York City’s papers. Bennett’s stories about the murder of a supposedly beautiful young prostitute drew thousands of new readers. When rival papers accused the publisher of taking a thirteen-thousand-dollar bribe to make the initial suspect appear innocent, the Herald ’s circulation leaped by ten thousand copies a day.
The worst intentions of Bennett’s enemies worked to his advantage once more during the campaign he led against prudery in May 1840. Petticoat was a taboo word in polite society at that time, a custom that outraged Bennett into writing: “Petticoats—petticoats—petticoats- there, you fastidious fools, vent your mawkishness on that.” In the commotion that followed, he was called everything from an “obscene vagabond” and a “leprous slanderer” to a “profligate wretch” and a “turkey-buzzard.” Priests and editors exhorted the people to abandon his newspaper. Bennett was unruffled. “These blockheads are determined to make me the greatest man of the age,” he wrote.
Neither success nor the wear of years made Bennett more amenable to human society. Although the publisher did marry, his wife couldn’t tolerate sharing his pariah status and, after witnessing a gang whip and beat him senseless in the street, left him to live abroad with their two children. “He had no friends at the beginning, he has made none since, and he has none now,” wrote a contemporary a few years before Bennett’s death in 1872.
Friendless he may have died, but he had invented a new kind of journalism. Even the rival New York World acknowledged the debt in its obituary: “Mr. Bennett was the Columbus, the Luther, the Napoleon, the what you will, of modern journalism.”