Political insults, with or without any factual basis, have been used extravagantly throughout American history, and even against men now revered as our nation’s greatest heroes. Newspaper editors produced most of what found its way into print, as did this from the Salem Advocate of Salem, Ill. In referring to local resident Abraham Lincoln, newly elected president, he wrote:
“His weak, wishy-washy, namby-pamby efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world.” Harper’s Magazine called Lincoln a “filthy story teller, despot, liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, ignoramus Abe, old scoundrel, perjurer, swindler, tyrant, field-butcher, land pirate.” That is not the Lincoln we learned to admire and respect in grade school, is it?
Idaho Territorial Gov. Mason Brayman was described by a political foe as “a convicted liar and slanderer; an established fraud and bilk, without character or morality or integrity… a stench in the nostrils of this people.”
Some newspaper editors on the Western frontier raised the political insult to an art form, much to the delight of readers who agreed with them. Nowhere is this illustrated more entertainingly than in the exchanges between the Radical Republican Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman and the Democrat Idaho World of Idaho City.
James S. Reynolds, founder and editor of the Statesman, had this to say about P. J. Malone on Sept. 19, 1865: “The World of last Saturday has a fiendish correspondent from this city over an anonymous signature, but the matter it contains bears unmistakable evidence of having been written by that crawling and loathed reptile, P.J. Malone, who is said to be editing the scabbiest and filthiest copperhead paper in Oregon.”
Of James O’Meara, editor of the World in 1869, Reynolds had this to say: “The dyspeptic editor of the World it seems has determined to disregard all sense of honor, manhood, or decency in conducting his paper. He is 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.”
O’Meara’s response: “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. 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.”
Judge Milton Kelly, owner and editor of the Statesman in the 1870s, was another master at political insult. Here is an example, published in May 1875: “A Dirty Dog’s Vomit. Our readers will pardon us for again referring to the low reptile and dirt-eating hybrid who scribbles for the Idaho World. Of all the reptiles that crawl upon the earth in human shape, it would be impossible to find one who has less pride of character or less regard for what he proclaims than this miserable wretch Tom Sutton. To the idiotic nincompoop of Idaho City: When you have taken your departure to the Hot Place, which you so richly deserve, we shall not fail to announce the fact to the world, although you are as despicable a thing as crawls the earth.”
When Sutton left the World later that month, Kelly wrote:
“But as we have no desire to kick a dead cur, we dismiss him with, Good-by Sooty. Thy jig is up. Thy comb is cut. Thy goose is cooked. Vanish. Evaporate. Skedaddle.”
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.