September 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

“The pen is paralyzed…”

By |2018-03-21T19:02:54+01:00October 24th, 2014|Auld Lang Syne|
A sketch of the "Westfield" disaster by W. Long Palin for an 1871 issue of Harper's Weekly.

hose now entertained by the rhetorical exaggerations of cable television and Internet news have no idea what they’re missing. Mid-19th-century British and American newspapers encouraged hyperbolic journalism, which in the United States featured so-called “purple prose” that was later identified with the tabloid press. At the time, florid language was most associated with accidents and disasters. The best editors were entrusted with graphically embroidering agony and pathos to force a sentimental response.

Rarely did any reported articles appear without first being “colored,” which gave also birth to the expression “coloring the news.” Even the esteemed New York Times regularly colored the news, reveling in all things fateful and trying whenever possible to raise calamity to Biblical proportions to please a citizenry that still associated disaster with acts of God. Then as now, so-called objectivity — the intercession of critical distance between an event and sentimental responses— was often overrun by an almost self-mocking emphasis on the horrific.

The Times‘ coverage of the July 30, 1870 boiler explosion aboard the Staten Island Ferry “Westfield” was a case in point. The ferry was still docked in Manhattan, crowded with Saturday passengers, when it exploded. The Times report began with a single column headline that read “Appalling Disaster” and was followed by many extravagant subheads, including, “Dreadful loss of life and limb the result” and “Terrible Scenes and Incidents.”

The report itself picked up where the subheads ended. It began: “The City, which has lately supped so full of horrors, has never been afflicted with a tragedy so appalling as that which burst upon it at 1 1/2 o’clock yesterday afternoon when the boiler of the Staten Island ferry-boat Westfield exploded while the vessel lay in her slip…”

Coloration then took over: “In an instant of time hundreds of human beings were killed, or maimed, or scalded. Aged men and women, at the thresholds of the middle passages of vigorous life, laughing children, and cherub babes, in the arms of doting parents, were alike involved, and were the victims of a catastrophe so terrible it cannot be described…”

But the Times did describe it, or try, printing thousands of words in an effort to transcribe the “unutterable woe” that had befallen the boat and the city “in the middle of a peaceful Sabbath.”

The inspection certificate of the ferry’s boiler (“that terrible engine of death”), the report continued, “hung in horrid mockery” in a portion of the “timbers of the vessel left intact” (in fact, only the stern was devastated).

Though no reporter witnessed the explosion, the tradition of the day was to provide an emotionally detailed reconstruction of events based on the aftermath and eyewitness accounts. The Times account may have been even more lurid than usual because a competing paper, The New York Herald, had offices across the street from the explosion site, forcing the Times to redouble the gore and dub the “Westfield” as “the vessel of death.”

“The pen is paralyzed in an attempt to describe the scene that followed instantly upon that terrible incident,” but it wasn’t paralyzed for long. “The whole end of the boat was torn to tatters; fragments went upwards and outward. But that mass of humanity! Who can picture. Who can dare even to think of it.” If you did wish to think of it, there were “mangled, roasted, men, women, children, babes” shrieking in “agony that came simultaneously from hundreds of lips.”

After the report itself came a list of the known dead along with eyewitness accounts, which, the newspaper promised, contained “many facts of thrilling interest.” The word thrilling was central to all purple prose, something early Hollywood films would later try to copy. An estimated 90 to 25 people died (no final death toll was ever released) and hundreds more were injured in the “Westfield” disaster.

Purple prose abated somewhat after the horrors of two 20th-century world wars and was followed by a wave of less emotional, fact-based newspaper reporting. But first-person web reports are again making emotional perspectives widely fashionable, introducing a new wave of coloring.

About the Author:

Handwritten and typed letters are disappearing. The "Auld Lang Syne" column is an effort to gather letters, notes, telegrams and other items sent via mail, most culled from the archives of the magazine's writers. These included personal and business correspondence and other tidbits that help reflect a time when nothing was instant, especially replies, and stamps mattered.