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The Rose Man of Sing Sing

February 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: The book is “The Rose Man of Sing Sing” by James McGrath Morris. He’s an historian, high school teacher and former journalist.

He describes the rise and fall of renowned newspaper editor Charles Chapin, and his contributions to American journalism. James McGrath Morris, welcome.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell us a little about Charles Chapin. What an extraordinary life.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Well, when Charles Chapin was alive he was as well known in the United States as Ben Bradley is today. He was a powerful, influential media figure in New York who shaped the coverage of the city and the press at that time. So everybody talked about Charles Chapin, but he’s now completely disappeared. He’s in the dustbin of history.

TERENCE SMITH: And it is a life that begins in the Midwest and goes and ends up, as the title suggests, in Sing Sing prison.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Chapin’s life parallels the growth of the American mass media. He was there at its birth. And he was just a very fortunate guy.

Every place he ended up, he ended up getting the best stories, the best beats, and rose up to become one of the stars in Joe Pulitzer’s constellation in New York City. And that in itself would have been a great story.

But of course what makes the story more interesting is at the end of his life he murders his wife, and is sent to the sensationally notorious prison Sing Sing. And instead of fading away from everybody, he ends up growing acres and acres of the most magnificent roses ever grown inside or outside of prison.

So at the end of his life he takes on a new moniker, he is then known as the Rose Man of Sing Sing.

TERENCE SMITH: He murdered his wife?

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Yeah. In 1918, after being married to her for 39 years, he murdered his wife not out of malice; his contemporary fans it as a mercy killing.

Chapin lived way beyond his means. He parlayed his relationship with Russell Sage and Joe Pulitzer to borrow money from people. And this was, of course, before the Securities and Exchange Commission, so he dabbled in insider trading. He lived in the Park Plaza Hotel. He had horses, a yacht and lived the high life of New York.

When he believed that that world was going to collapse and that he would be destitute, he thought the only solution was to murder himself and kill his wife — a suicide — kill his wife. He managed to do the first and not the former.

Now this is the man who had written the most sensational headlines in New York for all the murder trials. And so you can imagine what a field day the other papers had that day covering his murder conviction and trial.

TERENCE SMITH: And you write that this man had fired 108 reporters in his career.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: He was not lacking enemies in the press.

TERENCE SMITH: And so I’m sure they had a few scores to settle.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: But, you know, editors in that time were known to be that way. It was a very fierce world.

The cutthroat competition that existed in journalism, and still shapes journalism today, was hatched in that period. So it was not uncommon to go and work for a dictator. The difference was that people wanted to work for Chapin because he was the best in the business. If you had his backing, he never gave up on you. It didn’t matter how far on the limb you went. But if you messed up once, that was the end of it by lunchtime.

TERENCE SMITH: And he would go to any lengths to get the story. You have the wonderful account of his big scoop when he was editor of the Pulitzer’s Evening World of the details of the sinking of the Titanic.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Well, the Titanic was the first major media event in the 20th century.

We know the ship has gone down, but communication between the rescue ship and New York has been cut off. And so New York is sitting there waiting for the details, and Chapin has a reporter on board the ship coming back in with survivors. So all of these other newspapers rent tugs and go out in the harbor in hopes of boarding the ship coming in. And the long and short of it is Charles Chapin gets the first eyewitness accounts thrown to him from the ship onto the tug.

TERENCE SMITH: Physically thrown…

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Physically thrown to him. This is the kind of competition they engaged in at that point, and he rushes the tug back into the harbor and they print an addition to the Union World that greets the survivors of the Titanic as they disembark from the Carpathian. And it’s a great tale.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: But the reason the tale is significant is I want people to understand that these papers, we call them evening papers, but they weren’t. They started publishing at 9 in the morning. This is before radio.

And so the only way people in town knew the news was to go out in the streets and buy one of these papers from the newsies. And so this intense competition to be the first had serious economic ramifications. You were on the street first with the story, you dominated the street for an hour, you made a lot of money, and there were a lot of newspapers in this competition. Now today, American journalism, as you know we have left in most towns with one or two papers. And very often the second paper is really not a competitor.

Yet journalism retains a competitive spirit. And this was the period in which it was hatched. And what I like about Chapin as an author is that it gives me a chance to show people that world from the inside, and it’s from that world that our modern notions of journalism come from.

TERENCE SMITH: You write about how the newspapers had their buildings down in lower Manhattan, in Park Row, and the people would go and gather there to get the news.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Exactly. It was really a social event. As many as 20,000 would gather on the park right below city hall, and on the buildings would be these large blackboards in which election results were posted or in this wonderful case of America’s Cup, they constructed these two little ships and they hung them on the front of the building and they moved them depending on the position….

TERENCE SMITH: For the yacht race. Exactly.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Exactly. And there would be people in their suits and hats gathered for the evening there. There was a boxing match thousands of miles away in which they telegraphed the results and they had marionettes reenacting the blows. It was so popular, they have made the marionettes do the whole boxing match all over again.

TERENCE SMITH: Now you make the point that since these editions would come out sometimes hourly if it was a big enough story, that in a sense it shaped the American taste for immediate news, what we today call the 24-hour news cycle.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Yes, this notion of news as entertainment, something you would buy. The sense that you mediate reality by looking at a paper is hatched in this period. I always think of the high school football hero who does something. And what’s the first thing the parents do is they cut out the paper and put it on the refrigerator.

It’s not that his achievement wasn’t important in and of itself, but when it is established as a news event, mediated through the eyes of news, it takes on a new significance. That all comes from this period. And what is so important about what Pulitzer and Hearst were doing is they were covering the news that mattered to the new Americans.

You know, yellow journalism is considered a pejorative thing. We talk about a sensationalist press, and that’s misunderstanding what is going on at that point. Instead of covering what is happening on Fifth Avenue, they were writing about what was happening on the Lower East Side.

So the headline reads: Child Plunges To His Death From Three Stories As Mother Looks On. Those on upper Fifth Avenue are saying, “Oh, dear me, that’s sensationalist treatment.” Oh, no, by no means, that’s what was talked about on the lower east side. And Pulitzer’s genius Chapin was the general in the army, and his genius was to recognize that writing about the news that matter to that group created a group of readers and created this notion that “Did you see that in the paper today?” That’s when it was hatched.

TERENCE SMITH: And then these papers became truly mass media.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Exactly.

TERENCE SMITH: Rather than the information flow to the elites.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: Not only was it mass media; they lowered the price, they began adopting commercial methods of using huge headlines. You read the older papers in the libraries today, and there might be a dispatch about the Crimean War, you have to get to the last paragraph to find out who won or lost. And then the Spanish-American war, those headlines are three inches tall, and it’s almost like the newspapers screamed in comparison to the old days. That’s what was going on. That was the big change.

TERENCE SMITH: Did — how does Chapin’s life end?

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: He is in prison and….

TERENCE SMITH: …He’s 61.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: And he becomes one of America’s most notorious prisoners because of his gardens, and he is well known. He publishes his autobiography, it becomes a best-selling book, and two women become quite interested in him and carry on correspondence, one of whom becomes devoted to him and visits him in prison and he has a full-fledged love affair with this woman.

And upon his death in 1930, they both publish his letters anonymously. One is called “The Constance Letters of Charles Chapin.” And in the course of researching this book, I discovered their identities. He dies peacefully in 1930, and is buried here in Washington, D.C.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s a wonderful story. The book is “The Rose Man of Sing Sing.” Jimmy Morris, thank you so much.

JAMES McGRATH MORRIS: You’re welcome. It was my pleasure.