IDAHO HISTORY: Editors Reynolds and O’Meara were masters of insult

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANOctober 13, 2013 

Editors of early Idaho newspapers raised insult to an art form, and did it without using any of the four-letter words (although they certainly knew them) that are commonplace in novels, movies and on Facebook today. Statesman Editor Milton Kelly, featured in last week’s column, was a master at it, as was James Reynolds from whom he purchased the paper in 1871.

Reynolds, who founded the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman in 1864, carried on a spicy war of words with H.C. Street and James O’Meara of the Idaho World of Idaho City. Their words illustrate well the editorial style of that day. Street, for example, wrote of Reynolds in December 1866: “What will not the dirty dog resort to in his malicious spleen? The wonder is that so stupid a fool can be so great a knave.”

When O’Meara took over as editor of the World in 1868, Reynolds introduced him to Statesman readers with a long article that included these excerpts: “Mr. O’Meara is an Irishman, and runs his chances on his strength with the Irish and Catholics. He generally has some quarrel on his hands, but is supposed to assault with most vigor those whom he knows will not or cannot resent it. ... Mr. O’Meara is an accomplished gentleman of small caliber. He makes a good deal of sensation on a small capital of brains, and generally succeeds in passing his ‘dust’ for far more than its value. He makes a good stump speech, and is a useful man in a campaign. His copperhead-ism is of the purest dye, and his devotion to that and the Pope beyond reproach.”

We may well wonder why there were not more physical attacks on Republican editors who wrote stories like this, for in 1868 there were far more southern Democrats in Idaho than Republicans. In January 1869, Reynolds renewed his assault on O’Meara: “The dyspeptic editor of the World it seems has determined to disregard all sense of honor, manhood or decency in conducting his paper. ... He has become more of a sickly, half-crazed object of pity than of contempt. There is nothing left of him but the peevishness engendered by a disappointed and misspent life. Poor Jimmy.” The response from O’Meara was equally insulting: “Now Reynolds, you consummate ass, haven’t you put that big foot of yours in it? You have corroborated our very words. ... but then, we are not, as Reynolds is, a blackguard and a libeler.”

The World’s next attack, in July 1869, which surely sold newspapers and delighted its readers, was even more personal: “You mistake us, Reynolds; we never called you a schoolteacher. You tried to teach, but proved incompetent; besides, no pupil could endure the poisonous miasma of your fetid body, or the putrescent volume exhaled from your nasty mouth. And then, the noxious insufferableness of your huge feet, which in later days, even the Hurdies of The Dalles and Boise City could not withstand! You a teacher of youth? No, no Reynolds; we could never so insult the noble army of preceptors as to include you among them.” (“Hurdies” were Hurdy-Gurdy girls who danced with men in saloons, typically for a dollar a dance and a drink.)

When O’Meara left the Idaho World in September 1869, he took a parting shot at Reynolds: “We leave with the hope that you may yet live long enough to try to become decent and good, Reynolds. But do not shade the good name or endanger the existence of any church by joining it now. Bye-bye, Old Badness; abjure your present ways and so avoid that final trip (into hell).”

Despite pleasantries like this, when the Statesman received a copy of the Portland Bulletin, the next paper O’Meara edited, Reynolds was able to treat him almost kindly: “Mr. O’Meara is well-known in this section of the country, and as an editor possesses the ability to infuse into his paper the spirit and enterprise necessary for a first class journal.” “Spirit and enterprise” obviously included personal attacks on political opponents. It was all part of the game.

Reynolds and O’Meara never came to blows, but in Portland, what O’Meara printed in his paper about Sylvester Pennoyer, former editor of the Portland Herald, cost him a lot of pain. A Statesman item, printed Jan. 27, 1872, read: “The report is that Pennoyer first spit in O’Meara’s face and then knocked him down and beat him cruelly.”

Pennoyer would serve as governor of Oregon, 1887-1895, and mayor of Portland, 1896-1898. O’Meara would edit several California newspapers in a long and eventful career.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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