"The Desire for the Sensational": Coxey's Army and the Argus-Eyed Demons of Hell

Article excerpt

Coxey's Army and the Argus-eyed Demons of Hell

When Chicago Record reporter Ray Stannard Baker arrived at a farmhouse outside Massillon, Ohio, in March 1894, he thought the bizarre-looking man who greeted him was "too good to be true."' Carl Browne, seated beside a mountain of letters, telegrams, and newspapers piled on the home's dining room table, was strongly built and heavy. His face resembled Buffalo Bill's, except Browne had fleshy cheeks and a hint of jowl beneath the beard he combed into two spirals. His clothes were those of a Wild West showman: fringed, leather coat; tight, knee-length cavalry boots; sombrero; and breeches. His coat buttons were silver coins stamped with the word "Free." Completing the effect, he handed Baker a card that said, "The pen is mightier than the sword."2

That day in the home of sand merchant Jacob Coxey, who with Browne's help was planning a mass march of unemployed people to Washington, D.C., Baker recognized the elements of a major story. The two organizers predicted that their political beliefs a mix of populism and a Christian form of reincarnation-would lead 500,000 men on May I to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where Coxey would demand passage of two bills he had written proposing unemployment relief.3 The march of "Coxey's Army" was a sensational yet factual event, virtually guaranteed to draw readership day after day during the highly competitive era of 1890s journalism. Over the next month and a half, it generated the most newspaper coverage of any event since the Civil War, with the possible exception of the disputed presidential election of 1876.4

This article presents the newspaper coverage of Coxey's Army as a symbiosis between the journalists who covered the march and its principal organizers. The journalists, who came to be known as the Argus-Eyed Demons of Hell, wanted drama and sensationalism to win and maintain readership. Coxey, and more particularly Browne, recognized the potential of newspapers and telegraphy as tools of grass-roots democracy. They responded to the journalists' needs by creating pseudo-events and exaggerating the march's circuslike qualities-a skill that Baker called Browne's "genius for oddities."5 Both sides acknowledged this collaboration. Browne and Coxey wrote in 1895 that "the main idea of the march was to call the attention of the whole people of the United States to the Coxey bills," rather than, as Browne had said a year earlier, to "Get there!" in order to petition Congress en masse.6 The Demons admitted that they had abetted Browne's publicity campaign by ignoring or distorting facts for the sake of a good story. The most striking example of this acquiescence was their agreement to not identify Browne's lieutenant other than by the name that Browne had given him, "the Great Unknown," or his pseudonym, "Louis Smith." News accounts of Coxey's Army often speculated about the Unknown's identity, but both Browne and the reporters knew he was P.A.B. (or A.P.B.) Pizzaro, a patent medicine seller. "He was recognized at once by the Chicago demons-but they called him the 'Unknown' for the reason solely that that it excited interest and made the story the more readable and interesting," the Baltimore American said after Pizzaro was thrown out of the march.7

This study, focusing on the relationship of the Demons and the march's leaders, examines the press coverage of Coxey's Army and the influences that shaped it, relying primarily on the personal papers of Ray Stannard Baker and two newspapers, Baker's Chicago Record and the Evening Independent of Massillon. The Record was chosen for the opportunity it provides to compare Baker's private thoughts on the march with the stories he produced for public consumption; the Independent was selected for its unique coverage, as Coxey's hometown paper, of the genesis of the ideas for the army and the beginnings of Browne's theatrical methods of attracting press coverage. Unfortunately, no significant collection of private papers could be found for the Independent's Demon, and no other archives of Demon reporters could be located for this study except a scrapbook of news clippings, telegrams, and photographs belonging to Wilbur G. …