“The central dilemma in journalism is that you don’t know what you don’t know” – Bob Woodward

ghost_reporter
That’s what they meant by “deadline”.

Amor J. Williamson (1823-1867) of Lancaster, Pennsylvania apprenticed to a printer as a young man, which is no doubt where he got the notion of becoming a newspaper magnate.  Ink in the blood, so to speak.  After what were described as a series of “vicissitudes of fortune”, and at least one failed 1845 attempt to start a newspaper, he managed in 1846, along with his partners Watson (about whom everyone is very quiet) and William Burns, to launch the reasonably successful weekly New York City Sunday Dispatch (after 1854, it was called the Weekly Dispatch). Williamson and Burns were proprietors and editors, but when Burns passed away in 1855. Amor became sole proprietor, and got himself involved in the Tammany Hall politics of “Boss” Tweed.  The Sunday Dispatch was considered a fairly Republican-leaning organ, and given Williamson’s clear sympathies, it’s no surprise he waded into the political arena, securing a seat as Alderman of the Second Ward in 1853, chairing the Union republican Committee, and eventually securing a position as New York City Tax Commissioner, not to mention running for congress twice (defeated both times).

Towards the end of his life, Williamson had a rather extended illness, and by 1867 when he died, he had relocated to Now Orleans, Louisiana, ostensibly for the better climate – something which nobody in their right mind would ever accuse New Orleans of, unless of course your sole criteria are swampy heat and an abundance of alcohol.  The Sunday Weekly (nee Dispatch) marched ever onward under a new owner, and out of respect for their founding father employed Williamson’s thirty-year-old son as a reporter.  Only out of respect, though as it turns out there is evidently no newspaperman gene (or it’s highly recessive).  Contemporaries agreed that the younger Williamson had less than adequate talent as a reporter, and sub-standard writing skills, coupled with dubious intellectual ability.  What he did have was an unusual obsession with the fire department.  His Sunday Weekly editor A.A. Hill, an experienced wordsmith, and grizzled former editor of such worthy journals as The Blacksmith and Wheelright and The Amateur Sportsman once commented, “It was his duty to take care of the city fire-department news and gossip, and his interest in the fire department and its affairs was unusual — I could almost say, phenomenal. Moreover, if to his faithfulness and zeal for his work had been added average talent, he would have been a treasure as a reporter”.  Fire department news was considered a trivial beat, so it seemed like that was where Williamson’s son could do the least harm.  Sadly, he was later stricken with illness and died quite suddenly.

Editor A.A. Hill needed a new reporter to cover the fire department beat, but wasn’t keen on paying a large salary, so he figured he would contact a young and eager journalist of his acquaintance from another city willing to work for slave wages and presumably piecework.  Some things never change in the writing racket.  Hill scrupulously avoided mentioning that the position was to fill the vacancy of a previously full-time dead man.  The cub reporter arrived in the big city the next week, and Hill gave him the deceased Williamson’s old desk of many years, told him to relax, and hurried off to attend to business, intending to later escort him uptown in search of lodging.  According to A.A. Hill’s own words taken from correspondence with Isaac Funk (publisher, editor, lexicographer, and spelling Nazi), that’s when things started to get weird.

In about fifteen or twenty minutes he suddenly appeared at my desk, looking astonished and agitated. He laid two sheets of manuscript before me, written on the usual copy paper of the office, with the remark: ‘I did not write that.’ I could not see much sense in the remark, but replied: ‘Well, if you didn’t, who did? Some of it looks like your handwriting.’ His reply was: ‘I don’t know; as soon as I sat down I never felt so peculiar and drowsy in my life. I must have gone to sleep and when I was awakening I found myself writing, but it doesn’t all look like my handwriting.’ Now, I should explain that this young man’s handwriting was nervous, small, and not clearly legible, while his dead predecessor had written a large, round hand that could be read easily. But the writing in question varied between that of the two; some of it was like the writing of the dead man and some like that of the new reporter, and other parts of it were a composite or intermixture of both. The last few words were undecipherable, and the sentence was apparently unfinished. It should likewise be stated that the deceased reporter had for years begun his report of the meetings of the fire commissioners in this form: ‘The regular weekly meeting of the fire commissioners was held last Wednesday, Commissioner in the chair.’ The manuscript the young man had placed before me began that way, although if he himself had been the author of it in his normal condition, it would by no means be the form he would begin a newspaper story of that kind. It purported to state what had been done at a fire commissioners’ meeting, and although it was not all clear or complete, there was enough to puzzle me. Now comes the most singular fact: I preserved the two pages of manuscript, and the next day ascertained what had been done at the fire commissioners’ meeting, held perhaps an hour or two before it had been written. I was astonished to find that so far as it went, it was a correct report of what had actually taken place. What was the agency by which this information was conveyed? Was it thought-transference or mind-reading? It could not have come from me. I certainly neither knew nor cared what they did at the meeting, and I had intended to omit publishing the report for that week altogether, or get an abstract for publication from some other paper, not sending the new man for the report until the following week. The information could hardly have been ‘thought transferred by any living fire commissioner from another part of the city; none of them was especially anxious that the Sunday Dispatch publish their reports, even if he were able to thus ‘project’ the information through space in this way. It could have been no one in the newspaper office, for no one had such information to impart, and there was only an office boy and a bookkeeper on the floor. It could not have been any trick or duplicity on the part of the new reporter himself. He knew nothing about the fire commissioners, or their meetings, or that they were published in the paper which was to employ him, even though he had possessed the miraculous power of reporting a meeting several miles away and when not attending it (Funk, 1907, p187-190).

Vincent Van Gogh, presumably not long after he cut off his own ear, once said, “There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke”. In the heart of young Williamson lurked a passion for fire, and though his journalistic career was but a wisp of smoke to his colleagues, one can only tip their hat to the monomania that compels a person to return from the grave to report on the minutes of the weekly fire commissioner’s meeting.  That’s commitment.

References
Funk, Isaac K. 1839-1912. The Psychic Riddle. New York: Funks and Wagnalls, 1907.
“Obituaries – Mr. Amor J. Williamson”.  New York Times.  March 2, 1867.

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