That Unsavory Sheet

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Last night I pulled out the copy of the Citizen’s Advocate that I bought for a dollar when I stopped at the newspaper office in Henning on last Friday’s bike ride.   It was interesting to see the surnames that had been familiar to me during high school days,  and to wonder whether the people in the local news were grandchildren of some of my classmates.    One thing I didn’t find, though, was surnames of those people who had been involved in sometimes violent controversies back in the earliest days of this newspaper.

The sign above the door of the office, as well as some of the advertisements in the paper, say the Citizen’s Advocate was established in 1891.   Back when I went to school here, the paper was known as the Henning Advocate.   If I remember correctly, the woman at the drug store told me the new name came about after a merger with another local newspaper.   A writer in the county history published in 1916 referred to the paper as the Henning Advocate when describing events of the early 1890s.  He also called it “that unsavory sheet” for its role in the controversies of that period.

The county history writer didn’t have the name quite right, though.  The actual name of the paper in those days was the Alliance Advocate. The paper was a partisan of the Farmers Alliance party, which was a party of protest and sort of a predecessor to the Populist party of the 1890s.   (I learned the actual name from the Michigan Minnesota Historical Society archives.  The archives are closed due to the Minnesota government shutdown, but the online catalog is up and running.)

The writer who called the paper an “unsavory sheet” was John W. Mason, an attorney from Fergus Falls, where the political sentiment of the leading citizens was not the same as in the agricultural area around Henning.   (A photo of Mason is here, and I presume this is a photo of his house as it now appears.)     He wrote an unflattering biographical sketch of Frank Hoskins, who had been editor of the Alliance Advocate.  The following is from Chapter 33 of Volume 1 of the 1916 history:

Frank Hoskins made trouble enough in Otter Tail county to entitle him to a place in this history.   He was a Populist, a socialist, a free silverite, and anything else that diverged from a common sense attitude on all public questions.

During the panic of 1893 he was editor of the Henning Adovcate, which gave a scope for his pernicious activities equal to the circulation of that unsavory sheet.   He believed that thrift meant theft, and that if a man succeeded in keeping out of the poor house, he ought to be in the state’s prison.

The bankers of that period will never forget the effect of Secretary of the Treasury Carlisle’s statement that he expected that silver certificates and greenbacks would have to be redeemed in silver.  That statement meant ruin to the banks, life and fire insurance companies and other great interests of the country.

President Cleveland counteracted the statement in so far as he was able, by declaring that, rather than resort to the redemption proposed, the government would issue its bonds to maintain the gold standard, and calling an extraordinary session of the Congress to repeal the purchasing clause of the Sherman Act.  But the people were panic stricken.   Depositors commenced to withdraw their money from the banks.  Financial institutions all over the country were tumbling like houses of cards; the ghost dance of populism and free silver was abroad in the land, and no one could foretell the ultimate results.  In the midst of this panic, the comptroller of the currency called for bank statements as to conditions on July 12, 1893.

The three national banks of Fergus Falls published such statements, and Hoskins gave in his paper a purported analysis of such statements, alleging the insolvency of each of such banks, and advised the withdrawal of deposits.

People now cannot imagine the effect of such a statement made at such a time.  It was false in every particular, and made with a view of creating a ‘run’ on the banks.  The business men of Henning called a mass meeting and passed resolutions condemning Hoskins’ statements, and expressing confidence in the said banks.  No concerted run was made, but gradually depositors came and took out their money.  The officers of the banks used to meet and sit up nights, wondering when the doors would have to be closed, while Hoskins was having the ‘time of his life.’

The extra session of Congress lasted several months and finally was forced, by the statesmanship and iron will of President Cleveland, to repeal the silver purchasing clause of the Sherman Act.

As soon as this was done, matters began to ease up; confidence, in a great measure, was restored, and customers began to bring their money back to the banks.  The Hoskins episode was forgotten and would have remained so but for the impetuous action of C.D. Wright, president of the First National Bank.  Ordinarily, Mr. Wright is a cautious and level-headed man, but the action of Hoskins in libeling the banks still rankled, and he wanted revenge.

Without consulting any of the officers of the other banks, he went before a justice of the peace, R.H. Mardin, and swore out a warrant for the arrest of Hoskins, charging him with criminal libel.  Hoskins, when brought before the court, was not pacific.   There he gave vent to the mental gymnastics and abusive language which showed him a past master in billingsgate.  He abused the court, the banks and plutocracy in general.  Mardin, the justice, was a Vermonter, and fully alive to the dignity of his office and the respect due him as a magistrate.  He, in turn, filed with the probate court an information against Hoskins for insanity.  The latter was examined before the probate court and a jury of doctors, and pronounced insane.  On this finding he was duly committed to the Fergus Falls state hospital for the insane.

He remained there but a few weeks when he was paroled, and finally discharged.   Soon after coming out of the hospital he commenced an action against C.D. Wright, J.P. Williams, vice-president of the First National Bank; R.H. Mardin; Dr. George O. Welch, superintendent of the hospital, and J.W. Mason, member of the board of trustees of the hospital, for false imprisonment, laying his damages at fifty thousand dollars.   This suit was tried and resulted in favor of the defendants.

For some reason unknown, Hoskins had the greatest antipathy against Williams, and took his revenge in an unique way.   In 1898 Williams was a candidate for county attorney in the Republican convention of that year.  C.L. Hilton beat him for the nomination.   Williams bolted the ticket and ran independently against Hilton.  Hoskins had removed from the county and gone to Minneapolis.   When he learned that Williams was running against Hilton, he, Hoskins, came back, got a petition signed by the requisite number of voters, and announced himself as an independent candidate for county attorney.   Hilton was elected, but the votes plainly demonstrated that it was the Hoskins candidacy that elected Hilton.   So Hoskins had his revenge, such as it was, against Williams.

So if anyone thinks it was only in the Soviet Union that political dissidents were locked up in mental hospitals, here is an example showing that it could happen here, too, in the land of freedom, in Otter Tail County, Minnesota.  (Yes, I am echoing the title of a book written by one of Minnesota’s famous authors:  It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis (1935))  But it sounds like in this case, a partial measure of justice was done in the end.

Note that Mason himself was one of the defendants in the lawsuit.  He was not exactly a disinterested party, so grains of salt are required.   His version of this story may not be definitive.

I had some very good history teachers at Henning High School, and I’m pretty sure that was where I first learned about the populist movements of the 1890s.   But one thing we didn’t learn was how Henning itself and its newspaper were at the center of some of the early populist protests.

This whole episode raised a lot of questions for me, most of which are still unanswered, some of which are probably unanswerable, and some of which may make for future bike rides in Otter Tail County.  It also led me to some additional reading, some of it on the internet, and some in books that are now on their way to me from the library of the university where I work.   I’ll get to those next.

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  • Over the years, when I’d return to my home town for an annual visit, I’d scan the faces at checkout lines and on the street for former classmates. I never found any.

    Then, decades later, when I do the same thing, I see some that cause flickers of recognition. On second thought, though, I realize that the faces I’m looking at have to be the children or grandchildren of my former classmates (if there’s any connection at all).

    I’m still looking for faces as they were, not as they are. Funny how that works.

  • Spokesrider

    I’ve had that happen with distant relatives whom I haven’t seen for decades. I see their children and think they are the ones we used to know, when they’re really a different generation. I have to keep correcting myself, over and over.