Pioneering Journalist

It is 1848. Revolutions rumble through much of Europe. Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Rome are shaken by demonstrations of students and workers, demanding democracy and reforms. English philosopher John Stuart Mill shakes up economic theory. Karl Marx writes about the exploitation of the laboring masses. In the United States, it’s a presidential election year and Daniel Webster and Henry Clay find once again that the executive office has eluded them both. A determined group of women are gathering in Seneca Falls, New York. The Oneida Community begins a radical experiment in group living. The Associated Press is organized. Telegraph service extends from New York to Chicago. Gold is discovered in California at Sutter’s Mill. Over a quarter of a million (226,527) immigrants enter the United States, of whom 49.8% come from economically ravaged Ireland; And in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a new weekly newspaper appears. It’s revolutionary because its editor is a woman.

Her name is Jane Grey Canon Swisshelm. Jane Grey Cannon was born in Pittsburgh on December 6, 1815. Jane’s father died when Jane was 12, leaving his wife Mary with three children to support. Mary Canon put Jane to work, sewing dresses, making lace and fashioning corsets for well-to-do women. Jane received some formal schooling yet was like many nineteenth century women and men–naturally bright, a voracious reader and mostly self-educated. [For other examples, consider magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, business developer Madame C J Walker, politician Abraham Lincoln and activist Frederick Douglass.] When 21 years old, Jane married James Swisshelm, handsome, extremely rich, cold-hearted and rather narrow-minded. Mr Swisshelm was not well-prepared for a wife like Jane–petite, slender and with a will of iron and voice determined to speak her mind. At age 32 Jane Swisshelm’s name had already appeared in print in letters and articles. She was against capital punishment, against slavery, and in favor of Pennsylvania’s Married Woman’s Property Act which sought to protect the financial interests of wives from greedy husbands. She relished stirring the pot

Jane Grey Canon Swisshelm

Ms Swisshelm was writing regularly for the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial Journal when fate moved her to begin her own newspaper. As she tells in Half a Century her autobiography, local abolitionists began to gather their scattered forces and wanted a Liberty Party organ. To meet this want, Charles P Shiras started the Albatross in the fall of ‘47. . . . He was of an old and influential family, had considerable private fortune, was courted and flattered, but laid himself and gifts on the altar of Liberty. His paper was devoted to the cause of the slave and of the free laborer, and started with bright prospects. However, after only a matter of months, Shiras’ paper failed. Swisshelm decided to fill in the gap. She convinced Robert Riddle, editor of the Daily Commercial Journal, to enter a business arrangement with her, allowing her to print her paper at his facility.

The coming advent was announced, but I had no arrangements for securing either advertisements or subscribers. Josiah King, now proprietor of the Pittsburgh Gazette and James H. McClelland called at the Journal office and subscribed, and with these two supporters, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter [sic], entered life. The mechanical difficulty of getting out the first number proved to be so great that the forms were not onthe press at 3 P.M. By five the streets were so blocked by a waiting crowd, that vehicles went around by other ways, and it was six o’clock, January 20th, 1848, when the first copy was sold at the counter. I was in the editorial room all afternoon, correcting proof to the last moment, and when there was nothing more I could do, was detained by the crowd around the doors until it was after eleven.

Her newspaper caused an immediate stir locally and nationally. It was customary at the time for editors to exchange complimentary copies with other papers, even rival papers. This provided plenty of canon-fodder for papers of differing opinions to attack one another. Ms Swisshelm describes the response to her first issue:

My paper was a six column weekly, with a small Roman letter head, my motto, “Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward,” the names of my candidates at the head of the editorial column and the platform inserted as standing matter. It was quite an insignificant looking sheet, but no sooner did the American eagle catch sight of it, than he swooned and fell off his perch. Democratic roosters straightened out their necks and ran screaming with terror. Whig coons scampered up trees and barked furiously. The world was falling and every one had “heard it, saw it, and felt it.”

A woman had started a political paper! A woman! Could he believe his eyes? A woman! Instantly he sprang to his feet and clutched his pantaloons, shouted to the assistant editor, when he, too, read andgrasped frantically at his cassimeres, called to the reporters and pressmen and typos and devils, who all rushed in, heard the news, seized their nether garments and joined the general chorus, “My breeches! oh, my breeches!” Here was a woman resolved to steal their pantaloons, their trousers, and when these were gone they might cry “Ye have taken away my gods, and what have I more?” The imminence of the peril called for prompt action, and with one accord they shouted, “On to the breach, in defense of our breeches! Repel the invader or fill the trenches with our noble dead.”

“That woman shall not have my pantaloons,” cried the editor of the big city daily; “nor my pantaloons” said the editor of the dignified weekly;”nor my pantaloons,” said he who issued manifestos but once a month;”nor mine,” “nor mine,” “nor mine,” chimed in the small fry of the country towns. Even the religious press could not get past the tailor shop, and “pantaloons” was the watchword all along the line.”

Ms Swisshelm enjoyed making a stir. And her first issue was just a modest beginning. James Swisshelm had taken Jane with him to Kentucky where she observed to her horror, a slave woman, about her own age, naked to the waist, strapped to a post and being publicly bull-whipped by her owner. Jane swore to her Presbyterian God that she would do all she could for the oppressed–that is, slaves and married women. So when a Dr Robert Mitchell from Indiana County, Pennsylvania, sheltered and fed a fugitive slave named Jerry, was arrested, tried and fined by a judge named Grier for the kindness shown, Swisshelm was outraged. Of note, the $5000 fine levied by Grier would equal $108,000 today. The unrepentant Dr Mitchell said he’s do it again, regardless. In her second week as an editor, Ms Swisshelm took on the judge. Her account follows:

 There was disappointment that I had not criticized Judge Grier’s course in the first number of the Visiter, but this was part of my plan. In the second number I stated that there had been for a long time a great legal luminary visible in the Pennsylvania heavens, which had suddenly disappeared. I had been searching for him for several weeks with the best telescopes in the city, and had about given him up as a lost star, when I bethought me of Paddy, who had heated his gun-barrel and bent it around a tree so that he might be able to shoot around corners. Paddy’s idea was so excellent that I had adopted it and made a crooked telescope, by which I had found that luminary almost sixty degrees below our moral horizon. From this I proceeded to the merits of the case.

Judge Grier and Dr. Mitchell were both elders in the Presbyterian church. The Judge administered to men the eucharist oath to follow Christ, then usurped the law-making power of the United States to punish them for obeying one of the plainest precepts of the Master.

The article threw the judge into a fit. He threatened to sue the Mr Riddle, the owner of the Daily Commercial Journal who printed The Visiter and threatened Ms Swisshelm with imprisonment in the county jail and a libel suit. Grier demanded a published apology. He didn’t know who he was dealing with in that newspaper editor

My next article was headed “An Apology,” and in it I stated the circumstances which had called it out, and the pleasant prospect of my being sent to Mount Airy (our county jail) in case this, my apology, was not satisfactory. I should of course do my best to satisfy his honor, but in case of failure, should take comfort in the fact that the Mount would make a good observatory. From that height I should be able to use my telescope much better than in my present valley of humiliation. Indeed, the mere prospect had so improved my glass, that I had caught a new view of our sunken star, and to-day, this dispenser of justice, this gentleman with the high sense of honor, was a criminal under sentence of death by the divine law.

Judge Grier had helped a gang of thieves to steal Jerry, whose ancestors had been stolen in Africa. The original thief sold all he could sell–the title of a thief–and as the stream cannot rise above the fountain, Jerry’s master held the same title to him that any man would to Judge Grier’s horse, provided he had stolen it. The purchaser of a stolen horse acquired no title in him, and the purchaser of a stolen man acquired no title in him. The man who helped another steal a horse, was a horse thief, and the man who helped another steal a man, was a man thief, condemned to death by divine law. Jerry, after having been once stolen, had recovered possession of himself, and his master and other thieves had re-stolen him! Judge Grier, with full knowledge of this fact, had prostituted law for the benefit of the thieves.

Nothing more was heard of a libel suit. Two years after, James McMasters was sued for harboring a fugitive; was to be tried before Grier, and spoke to his lawyer about summoning the editor of the Visiter. The attorney exclaimed: “Oh bring her, by all means! No matter what she knows, or whether she knows anything; bring her into court, and I’ll win the case for you. Grier is more afraid of her than of the devil.”

Two years later, when Congress debated Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850, Swisshelm became the first woman to sit and work in the press gallery. She covered the proceedings not only for her weekly but also as a stringer for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. [It is worth noting that Greeley had hired Margaret Fuller as a stringer when she went to Europe to view first-hand the Revolutions of 1848.] Like many others in the North who shared anti-slavery sentiment, Ms Swisshelm was shocked by Daniel Webster’s speech of March 7th, and accused Webster of selling out to the southern slave power. She described the event:

Darkest of the dark omens for the slave, in that dark day, was the defalcation of Daniel Webster. He whose eloquence had secured in name the great Northwest to freedom, and who had so long been dreaded by the slave-power, had laid his crown in the dust; had counseled the people of the North to conquer their prejudices against catching slaves, and by his vote would open every sanctuary to the bloodhound. The prestige of his great name and the power of his great intellect were turned over to slavery, and the friends of freedom deplored and trembled for the result.

For more than a decade, Ms Swisshelm made trouble and enjoyed doing it. In a brilliant piece in her newspaper, she described her feelings about what was refered to as “the woman’s sphere.”

If you wish to maintain your proper position in society, to command the respect of your friends now, and husbands and children in future, you should read, read–think, study, try to be wise, to know your own places and keep them, your own duties and do them. You should try to understand every thing you see and hear; to act and judge for yourselves; to remember you each have a soul of your own to account for; –a mind of your own to improve. When you once get these ideas fixed, and learn to act upon them, no man or set of men, no laws, customs, or combinations of them can seriously oppress you. Ignorance, folly, and levity, are more or less essential to the character of a slave. If women knew their rights, and proper places, we would never hear of men “making their wives” do this, that, or the other.

Hence, before Women’s History Month is completely gone, I take a moment to salute this pioneering journalist. Learn, gentle readers, from the woes of editors whose pants were stolen by a woman and the judge who feared the editor who did not fear jail and the senator who broke faith.

Swisshelm's grave, Pittsburgh PA

Oh, a final note– March is celebrated as Women’s History Month. But the history of women runs from January 1st to December 31st every year, every decade, every century. If you doubt it, remember, Clio, the inspirational muse of good historians, is female!

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