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Skagit River Journal

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William Lightfoot Visscher
and the "Eden of the West", Part One

By Lewis O. Saum, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, January 1980
(Visscher mug)
William Lightfoot Visscher
      The first intimations of a summer dawn in 1889 had already touched the draperies of the banquet rooms in the new and splendid Tacoma Hotel when the officer presiding over festivities proposed yet another toast: "The Humorists of America." William Lightfoot Visscher, who rose to respond to that toast, had been in Washington only a few months, but already he was one of its best-known men and in some ways its most fabulous.
      At the beginning of the statehood year, Harry Morgan, the proprietor of the Theatre Comique in Tacoma and reputed vice lord of the city, hired him away from the Portland Oregonian to edit a newspaper which Morgan had bought to counter the righteous fulminations of the Tacoma Ledger. Aside from a short street in an unprepossessing part of Tacoma, almost no other evidence or recollection now remains of this man who did so much to brighten life in Washington and to enhance the state's reputation save that he came at the beck of gambler Morgan to say, as Murray Morgan once put it, "something nice about vice" [EN1].
      But Visscher did not confine his observations to that subject. He said something about many things, and, before disillusionment both general and personal overtook him, he acted as the most vocal herald of a new order which he envisioned in his adopted city and state. One of the prototypes for such heralding visited Puget Sound just at the time that Washington Territory was created. In 1853 a young traveler, Theodore Winthrop, a descendant of John Winthrop and of Jonathan Edwards, made his way through the area where Tacoma would be built, and he rhapsodized about the people who would in time inhabit this country. They would, he contended, feel the inspiration of the mountain: "in a climate where being is bliss — where every breath is a draught of vivid life," they would be enhanced and ennobled. Indeed, they would "elaborate new systems of thought and life."
      Romantic Winthrop did not survive into the age of drab realism, but when the first blush of statehood came a generation later, he had a spiritual descendant in William Lightfoot Visscher. Visscher came at a propitious moment, thought the auspices of Harry Morgan might, to some, seem uninspiring [EN2].

Visscher's life, pre-Washington Territory
Footnotes 1-5
  • 1. Tacoma Morning Globe, June 2, 1889, hereafter cited as Globe with appropriate date; Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound A narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle 1979), p. 266.
  • 2. Theodore Winthrop, The Canoe and the Saddle: Adventures Among the Northwestern Rivers and Forests, and Isthmania (New York 1862) p. 128-30.
  • 3. See, for example, Fairhaven Illustrated: Containing a General Review of the State of Washington and a Compilation of the Resources, Terminal Advantages, General Industries and Climate of the "Focal City," and the Country Tributary to It (Chicago, 1890). This brochure, including the biographical sketch of Visscher, may have been written by him. Obituaries have similar descriptions. Brief accounts of Visscher's Tacoma stay can be found in Herbert Hunt, Tacoma, Its History and its Builders, 3 vols. (Chicago 1916), I: 520-22, II: 162-63, and Paul W. Harvey, Tacoma Headlines: An Account of Tacoma News and Newspapers from 1873 to 1962 (Tacoma 1962), p. 22-26.
  • 4. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: or, What Happened to the American Dream (New York, 1962), p. 57 (quotation); Administrative Papers of the State Governors, Series 1, Governor Elisha P. Ferry, RG2, Washington State Archives, Olympia.
  • 5. See Washington State, Annual Report of the Adjutant General for the Year 1890 (Olympia 1891), p. 25; and Biennial Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Washington, for the years 1891 and 1892 (Olympia 1890, pgs. 114 and 213 (summary of Visscher's Civil War service); Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 11, 1924.
      Visscher wrote a good deal about his life but, regarding the years prior to his Civil War service, his accounts have an attenuated and impressionistic quality. He was born in Kentucky in 1842, by his telling, into a family that had elevated ancestry — the House of Orange, Huguenots, cavaliers, artists, poets and soldiers. He served in the Union ranks through a sizable part of the war, and at its conclusion made a brief attempt at practicing law. He then turned to journalism, working for a time as amanuensis for George D. Prentice of the Louisville Journal and serving a stint under Henry Watterson in the early days of the [Louisville] Courier-Journal combine.
      The months he spent operating a newspaper on the riverboat Richmond possessed an emblematic quality, for Visscher's endeavors were peripatetic to say the least. The serialized autobiography with which he obliged his Tacoma Morning Globe readers bore the apt title, Tales of Many Cities: the Confessions of a Bohemian. The list of those cities is not exhausted by citing Louisville, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Washington D.C., Kansas City, St. Louis, St. Joseph, Omaha, Denver, San Francisco, Oakland, Laramie, Cheyenne and Portland [EN3]
      When the first segment of Tales of Many Cities appeared in the Morning Globe of April 16, 1889, it carried a brief introduction by one of the premier newspaper humorists of the era, Edgar W. "Bill" Nye. After stating his confidence that his friend Visscher "would not, intentionally, make any misstatement, which he thought would ever be ferreted out," the man who made the Laramie [Wyoming] Boomerang famous before going on to the New York World noted:

      The work does not contain any statistics, whatever. Those who purchase it hoping to find a wealth of mental arithmetic or mirth-inspiring crop reports will be bitterly disappointed. I conversed with Mr. Visscher on this subject sometime ago and tried to show him that he ought to weave in some statistics, but he thought he would not do so. . . . He did not feel like trifling with his readers by inserting flippant columns of figures. He said, moreover, that figures would not lie, and for that reason they would be lonely and unhappy in this work.
(Theater Comique)
Harry Morgan's Theater Comique, 1893. Original courtesy of the Photography Collection, University of Washington
      Although Nye wrote facetiously, the spirit of his remarks has a certain aptness in that those who might seek concrete and substantive bases for Visscher's large reputation — earned so quickly in Washington — will be, if not "bitterly disappointed," then at least somewhat puzzled.
      One might believe that Visscher, insofar as he arrested the attention of his time and place, was a fabrication of the Graphic Revolution, a person "who is known for his well-knownness." But there are to Visscher's credit some solid achievements and some earnests of others. When the first state governor, Elisha P. Ferry, set about making appointments to the various state agencies created by the constitution, recommendations of Visscher provided an ample amount of reading. Ever obliging, Visscher supplied typed copies as well as the originals of over a dozen letters bearing signatures of 27 notables, which urged that he be placed on the Harbor Lines Commission. Tacoma noteworthies, including Allen Mason; Henry Drum; the governor's kinsman [nephew] "Duke of Tacoma" C.P. Ferry; Nelson Bennett; Mayor S.A. Wheelwright; W.J. Fife; and Elwood Evans made common cause in this enterprise, with others such as Congressman John L. Wilson and Judge George Turner of Spokane Falls [EN4].
      But, commendatory words notwithstanding, Visscher seems only to have received an appointment as assistant commissary general on the general staff of the Washington National Guard. Contrary to the Chicago Daily Tribune obituary, this appointment did not begin the editor's identification as Colonel Visscher. The onetime volunteer Army second lieutenant brought the honorary title to Tacoma with him, but his years on the general staff made it all the more appropriate [EN5]. In his professional realm of journalism, Visscher began his Washington stay as editor of the Tacoma Morning Globe. Then, when Nelson Bennett extended his real estate promotions into the Bellingham Bay area, the colonel followed as boomer editor of the Fairhaven Herald. After that venture, Visscher seems to have had a brief connection with the newly founded Tacoma Evening Call. Later, at the time of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he acted as correspondent for the Tacoma Daily News, and he ended his Washington involvements with a stint as editor of the Tacoma Morning Union in 1894.
      At the third annual meeting of the Washington Press Association in August of 1889, Visscher, who had been in Tacoma some seven months, was chosen poet of the organization. A year later he became president, thus suggesting that if Harry Morgan had originally hired him to "say something nice about vice" he had chosen a capable man to say it.

Not just another pretty face
(Nye, Visscher and Field)
From l. to r.: Bill Nye, William Lightfoot Visscher and Eugene Field, circa 1890s. Original courtesy of William K. Bixby Collection, Wshington University Libraries, St. Louis.
      But, as is the case with those statistics that Bill Nye impishly urged, the basic biographical details fail to register the impression and reputation of "the genial, kindly hearted, whole-souled man, orator, poet, editor, the friend of humanity, Colonel Will Lightfoot Visscher." To be sure, some were immune to the charms of Visscher, but he evidently possessed a warmth of personality and a variety of attributes and talents that arrested attention and rendered him a man for almost any occasion. It seems that his appearance would be the place to start [EN6].
      As Visscher rose to respond to the toast, "The Humorists of America," applause greeted him, and then "everybody cheered and howled with delight" at his confession that earlier in the evening he had been in a state of anxious expectancy" when the master of ceremonies had made a call for "handsome men." Opie Read, a humorous and literary giant of his own era — if not of ours — and Visscher's closest friend for years, remembered him as "truly a poet, but he was as far from personifying the part physically as any man that ever cursed a broken shoestring. He was short, pudgy and squat-gaited when he strode."
      Bill Nye, himself renowned for a strikingly bald head, could yet call attention in a humorous vignette to Visscher's "wealth of brow and superficial area of polished dome." And the colonel's nose was not just noteworthy; it was awesome. Read recalled an instance in a Chicago store when Visscher, concluding that some young women were giggling about his nose, rebuked them in this fashion: "I've owned better people than you are — owned them, sold them and spent the money for liquor, by God." Visscher looked like W.C. Fields, and he often acted like him [EN7].
      Few people had greater aptness for responding to a toast to humor than did Visscher. He practiced humor in his newspapers, considering it a necessary leaven and lubricant for a well-ordered society. In the extended, small-book form that his address that June night in Tacoma took some years later, he generalized about the emergence of his own kind:

      Within the last half century, the broad, exaggerative style of American newspaper humor was planted and it has run riot ever since. Indeed there is a sort of itch for humor that seems to be catching, and it has set a great many to scratching. It is one phase of cacothes scribendi [EN8]
Footnotes 6-12
  • 6. Fairhaven Independent as quoted in Tacoma Evening Call, Oct. 29, 1891.
  • 7. Globe. June 2, 1889; Opie Read, I Remember (New York, 1930), pgs. 204, 205-206; "You Heah Me, Sah!" in Edgar W. Nye, Bill Nye's Remarks (Chicago, 1891), p. 445 [See this Journal site for that column.]; Locally the colonel's nose received attention: the Tacoma Daily News, responding to Visscher's pronouncements on alcohol, acknowledged that the colonel had a "long and lurid experience with liquor "and it is evident on the face that he nose it" (May 24, 1889); and see Globe, May 23, 1889.
  • 8. Visscher, Ten Wise Men, and Some More (Chicago 1909), p. ix.
  • 9. Read, p. 205.
  • 10. "Tale of Many Cities" in Globe, May 1, 1889 ("very funny poem"); Robert Conrow. Field Days: The Life, Times and Reputation of Eugene Field (New York 1974) p. 122 (last quotation).
  • 11. Read, pages 206, 209-13; Walt McDougall, This is the Life (New York, 1926), p. 200; and see John J. McPhaul, Deadlines and Monkeyshines: the Fabled World of Chicago Journalism (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962), p. 152-53.
  • 12. Read, pages 204-205. Visscher did not mention the antics when it became his lot to eulogize Field; see Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 28, 1895.
      In his travels and his stays in various cities, Visscher had made the friendly acquaintance of a sizable part of that fraternity of journalistic humorists abounding in the late 19th century. Opie Read and Bill Nye figured very prominently, but the best-known and most admired of Visscher's friends was Eugene Field, a man who described Visscher's nose as being like unto a Bartlett pear, which, having taken the premium at a county fair for size, blushed blood red in exultation." [EN9]

Visscher counted John Barleycorn among his many friends
      If Field comes to mind at all today, he does so as a children's poet. But such things as "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" stand in quaint juxtaposition with his repute in his own time. Visscher's friend Field emerged as something of the exemplar of a startling propensity for the uninhibited that characterized many of those afflicted by what Visscher called a "phase of cacoethes scribendi." [defined as "the itch to write"] Field and those like him did not settle for an undiluted blend of humor and journalism. They were bon vivants and hellions of the first order. Visscher came to know Field in the 1870s in St. Louis and St. Joseph and they spent time in Denver in the 1880s. It was at Wherle's restaurant in St. Joseph in 1876 that Visscher heard a "very funny poem entitled 'Slug 14' ' written by Field and recited by him for the irreverent gathering. Newsmen such as Field and Visscher did not confine themselves to sub rosa poetry in which a befuddled typesetter handling a wedding report "got so confused and so reckless besides,/That for 'kissing' he set 'the groom pissed on the bride!' "; other antics were far worse [EN10].
(Lecture playbill)
Play bill for Visscher's lecture tour, from the Cameron, Missouri, Observer, Ca. 1875
      When he told the story of Visscher's upbraiding the giggling girls by telling them that he had sold better than the likes of them for hard drink, Opie Read added that "as to the liquor there could be no question." He went on to recount some prodigious efforts in those lines, including a compelling one about a drinking contest in which he and "Vissch" had participated while on lecture tour together in Kentucky. Vissch entered confidently and longingly, for he wanted the bull calf that would go to the winner, but an unexpected strong showing by the new neighborhood parson denied him the prize.
      For years Read and Visscher operated out of the Chicago Press Club, an adjunct of which was the Whitechapel Club, so named out of regard for Jack the Ripper's London tenderloin bailiwick. Walt McDougall, cartoonist of the New York World and a veteran of the after-hours diversions of New York City journalism, found that when a national convention brought him to the Midwest his eastern experiences were "swiftly half-toned" by Field and the other "entirely unrestricted Apaches of the pen and brush of Chicago." Perhaps the most legendary of their deviltries was their prevailing upon the sole surviving member of a suicide club to fulfill his obligations, thus affording them the opportunity to hold a ritual and bibulous cremation on the lake shore [EN11].
      Thus, of a man like Visscher who had entrée into such circles, Tacomans and others of the Northwest might well expect much by way of enlivening as well as enlightening. Thirsty and broke in a frontier mining town, the resourceful Visscher had once entered a saloon and, making certain that he would be heard by a gun-toting tough who enjoyed browbeating greenhorns into drinking with him, stated his defiance of any such degrading effort. Having announced that he had never taken a drink in his life, Visscher allowed that "I'd like to see the fellow that could ——" A gun appeared, followed by some commands, the first being that the bartender set up five drinks in a row along the bar.

      "Now, sir," said the shooter to the poet, "you begin up there and drink your way down. Quick. No words." The poet made swift use of his hands, ah-hahed his way, and reaching the end of the liquid journey, turned to the bad man and said: "Say, have him fill 'em up again and I'll drink my way back." [EN12]
As a personality Visscher was a man to be reckoned with.

A poet or not, or maybe a troubadour?
      "Nearly all humorists are also poets," Visscher told the gathered collegians that night at the Tacoma Hotel. He certainly typified that combination, for he published a half-dozen books of verse — what a later age might call doggerel — and his newspapers gave space to his own and others' poetry. A work on Kentucky authors duly noted that Visscher, for all his pleasing verse, had not reached "the sublime heights of true poesy." In a bittersweet little book that he wrote after his Washington stay, Visscher admitted that he may never have written "real poetry." But while his "Pegasus may have been lame in his feet," the aging man wrote in self-description, "weak in his wings, ungainly in shape, and altogether slow," that steed was the best he had [EN13].
Footnotes 13-16
  • 13. Globe, June 2, 1889 (first quotation); Visscher even managed to conclude A Souvenir of Washington's Third Legislature (Olympia, 1893), which he coauthored, with one of his poems. See John Wilson Townsend, Kentucky in American Letters, 1784-1912, 2 vols. (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1913), I, p. 343; Visscher Fetch over the Canoe: A Story of a Song (Chicago, 1908), p. 20
  • 14. Globe June 22, 1889.
  • 15. Ibid., June 13, 1889.
  • 16. Tacoma Morning Union, Feb. 13, 1894 (hereafter cited as Union with appropriate date).
      America's appetite for poetry was still broad-gauge and tolerant, nearly all of Visscher's life having been spent prior to the time when poetry — like philosophy — would be removed from the public domain. The taste for verse evidenced an older society's regard for the mastery of word and language. Colonel Visscher obliged that taste. When an amateur musical troupe from Seattle came to town to do a benefit performance for that recently flame-ravaged city, for example, he offered Globe readers the following verse.
Out of the breath of the blazes;
Out of the heat and blare,
Away from the stricken city,
Cometh the brave and fair;
Cometh the city's singers
With songs and roundelays
To bless us with their music. [EN14]

      Only a few days earlier, the Daily News, very likely with opponent Visscher in mind, allowed that Seattle, though suffering disaster, had thus far escaped "a perhaps worse infliction" — the poets. The colonel's long and wrathful retort had the informing precept that "people without poetic instincts" such "souls as guide the News" — are the most despicable of all humanity." [EN15]
      Visscher employed forms other than verse for his creative talents. He published several songs during his Tacoma years. Less than a month after assuming editorship of Harry Morgan's paper, he began serializing in it his first novel, Carlisle of Colorado: A Thrilling Story of Chicago and the Far West. It is not unduly charitable to describe that piece as no worse than a great many other things being serialized at the time. During his Tacoma years the adept colonel availed his readers of three book-length prose works by this segmented method, as well as various short stories and sketches [EN16].

Lecture tours, Northwest and elsewhere
      And energy and ability remained for yet other things. In 1892 an Olympia paper reported Visscher's "phenomenal" popularity as a lecturer. In other parts of the country he often went on tour, particularly with Opie Read. Locally, he did frequent occasional lectures rather than tours, but the fare was much the same — most humorous material such as his "Sixty Minutes in the War" or his composite of mime, anecdote and visual illustration derived from that circle of wits of which he was a member. But he could tailor the product to suit the consumers, as he seems once to have done in Salem, Oregon, at an alcoholism program when he combined his lecture on stories and storytellers with one billed as "The Keeley Cure, by a graduate." [EN17]
      Whether that testimonial to the Keeley cure required of Visscher dissimulation or stagecraft should perhaps go unexamined. But he had far more than a vicarious acquaintance with greasepaint. He seems first to have ventured onto the other side of the lights in New Orleans as a youth, and periodically through his life he was a theatrical troupes in California, and his descriptions in Tales of Many Cities of feckless forays into the small towns between San Francisco and Los Angeles make delightful reading yet today. At the beginning of the 1880s he went on the road with a troupe organized in San Francisco by his friend Captain Jack Crawford, one of Buffalo Bill's emulators and competitors, and the high point of that venture came with boycotted efforts to do an anti-Mormon play in Salt Lake City [EN18].
      At least once he appeared on the New York stage, that being in a dramatization of one of Opie Read's novels. And when W.J. Fife, a Tacoma area real estate promoter and amateur actor with professional aspirations, produced Virginius to benefit an imminent regional exposition in Tacoma, his obliging friend Colonel Visscher played Dentatus, a role he must have relished [EN19].

Intellectual criticism, science, literature and theater
Footnotes 17-21
  • 17. Olympia Washington Standard, July 8, 1892; Salem Daily Oregon Statesman, Feb. 10, 1894.
  • 18. Globe, May 4, 5, 7, 8, and 11, 14, 15, 1889.
  • 19. Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 11, 1924 (the obituary of the "soldier, author, raconteur" was supported by a photo in the picture section); Union, June 19, 1894 — it probably pleased Visscher to be case in James [Knowles's] play as a battle-scarred old Roman general whose caustic denunciation of the tyrannical manipulations of the Decemvirs caused them to murder him in order to still his voice.
  • 20. Globe, June 14, 1889; Jan. 5, 1890.
  • 21. Ibid., Jan. 21, 1890 (Ruskin); Union, April 10, 13 (Modern Novel), 1894.
      Visscher was an artist as well as a man of some modest intellectual credentials, and perhaps the most striking thing about his Tacoma newspapers was the amount of artistic and general cultural commentary they contained. Especially during lulls in public issues, such material dominated the long editorial page, which the colonel himself produced. Some readers must have felt surprised, challenged and perplexed by the fare they received. On one occasion Globe subscribers confronted Visscher's thoughts on forthcoming political matters, which took their departure from the challenge that St. George Mivart had posed to a theory of Charles Darwin and which incorporated ideas from Sir John Lubbock's On the Senses, Instincts and Intelligence of Animals. One surmises that, to cite another example, an editorial regarding the bettering of conditions in America would have been insufficiently expansive without invocation of Darwin and Huxley, dismissal of their detractors, and a quick view of the promising efforts of German universities to become, in the quoted expression of Professor Johannes Conrad of Halle, "workshops of Science." [EN20]
      Literature and theater laid greatest claim to Visscher's critical attention. For example, John Ruskin's insanity inspired a long editorial expressing sorrow and extolling the man who had provided the English-speaking world "a model of the finest prose which has been penned." The death of the now forgotten Michigan poet Ben King — another of the Chicago circle — begot a long editorial eulogy that included one of King's humorous poems. Visscher frequently discussed new books and shifts in literary currents. An editorial titled "The Modern Novel" reveals particularly well his worry about "the decadence of the imaginative faculty." Literature, this man of fancy lamented, had fallen into "dull routine," and the stultifying thirst for realism had substituted "Silas Lapham for the House of the Seven Gables," "Cable for Cooper, James for Irving." [EN21]
      And Visscher put his readers through even more demanding paces where theater and opera were concerned. On successive days in January 1890, he exposed the difficulties encountered by Gilbert and Sullivan's Gondoliers in New York City and analyzing at length Sarah Bernhardt's performance as Jeanne d'Arc. Three weeks later, Globe readers who may have felt unready for forthcoming operatic fare must have profited abundantly from column-length editorials giving historical, musical, and intellectual analyses of Gounod's Faust and Bizet's Carmen. The new Tacoma Theater had just opened, and the colonel stood second to none in confounding the enemies of the state and in heralding the ability of dramatic art to "soothe, refine and elevate." Perhaps had Theodore Winthrop lived to return 40 years after his 1853 visit, he would have found in the Morning Globe and the Morning Union at least a hint of those "new systems of thought and life" which he had prophesied [EN22].
      "Loveliness," the homely little editor pronounced in a way evocative of Winthrop, "is often the wellspring of noble deeds." That assertion came in "The Poetry of Motion," a paean to dancing that had historical and esthetic scope extending from David's dance before the ark to a forthcoming ball in Tacoma. And Visscher, like Winthrop, perceived ennoblement through nature as well as though art. In the chapter of The American Commonwealth titled "The Temper of the West," James Bryce, who had traveled in Washington Territory a few years before Visscher's arrival, gave an arresting illustration of the much-noted failure to appreciate natural beauty. After quoting a New Tacoma newspaper's recitation of "Why We Should Be Happy," Bryce called attention in a footnote to "one glory" of Puget Sound which went neglected — the view of "Mount Tacoma." [EN23]
      Some had eyes to see. On the evening of July 11, 1889, Tacomans beheld, as Visscher's editorial the next morning expressed it, something "Wondrously Beautiful." In late afternoon the snow-covered peak glistened strikingly in contrast to the dark band of smoke and cloud that enveloped the slopes. As the sun sank and shadow lengthened, the moon rose from behind the mountain, appearing to rest for a magical interlude precisely on the peak. Children interrupted their play and weary, home-bound men paused to admire "the moon and mountain in their perihelion"

      The scene will live forever in the memories of all who saw it. Poets will sing of it; painters will endeavor to transfer it to canvas; many will attempt to describe it by word of mouth, but only through the camera of remembrance can it be perfectly seen again, and then only through the remembrance of those who admire the majesty of nature and who love the beautiful therein.
It might not do to suggest that in the unlikely figure of Visscher we had a man to match our mountain.

Political concerns
      On another occasion some five years later, Visscher drifted into contemplation as he gazed upon the peak. To his mind's eye came an image of a town lying nearly in the shadow of that mountain, the town of Puyallup where stirring things were at that moment under way. Governor John McGraw had now arrived with the intent of confronting and advising the thousand followers of "General" Frank "Jumbo" Cantwell. There in the troubled spring and summer of 1894, political considerations were paramount. And Visscher, for all his reputation as a personality, entertainer and cultural commentator, never eschewed the political realm. Indeed he avidly participated in the political clamor and strife of the infant state. As his friend Eugene Field wrote, the multitalented Visscher could "wing a diatribe" as well as "pen a lyric." A brief but telling example of the former appeared in the Globeon May 22, 1889:
      If there is any way of discovering what malign elements could have been boiling together when the cramped, crabbed, foul sump and defoedation which stands for the editorial brains of the News, was evolved, then naturalists should not despair of finding the connecting link between the mud lark and the quagmire draggletail. [EN24]
Footnotes 22-28
  • 22. Globe, Jan. 13 (quotation) and Feb. 20, 21, 1890.
  • 23. Ibid., Jan. 25, 1890 (quotation); James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, new and revised ed., 2 vols. (New York, 1927), II, pages 896-97, n.1.
  • 24. Union, May 3, 1894; Field is quoted in Tacoma Daily News, Aug. 24, 1893 (hereafter cited as News with appropriate date).
  • 25. Globe, Sept. 5 (toughs), 9, 1889; Union. April 1, 1894 (last quotation).
  • 26. News, May 21, 1889; Tacoma Daily Ledger, Jan. 5, 1889 (hereafter cited as Ledger with appropriate date).
  • 27. Globe, Feb. 20, 1890 (Chinese); Union. March 9, 10, April 15 (masthead), 1894.
  • 28. Union, April 11, 1894.
      The Daily News bespoke the views of the Democratic party, and Visscher was a staunch Republican. G.A.R. functionary that he was, he persistently professed an inability to distinguish the Democratic party from disloyalty and disunion. Indeed, he had no qualms about using the imagery of the "bloody shirt." How much hyperbole entered into his writing is hard to gauge, but evidently there was a good deal. It probably amused the colonel to have an account of a meeting of Pierce County Democrats open this way: "A motley gang of toughs assembled at the Alpha opera house. . . . And later, even when the News enjoyed the editorship of Franklin K. Lane, who in time became Woodrow Wilson's secretary of the interior, Visscher described that paper as "reeking with falsehood, chicanery, demagogy and misrepresentation, working with the methods of the bum, the drab and the slanderer." [EN25]

His peers eschew the welcoming committee
      But Visscher's political persuasions had more complexity than his battles with the Daily News might suggest. He rarely exhibited the establishmentarian tropisms that one might expect of that era's orthodox Republicanism. He bore, of course, some stigma from the outset, having arrived in Tacoma as editor of what the News called "Harry Morgan's whiskey organ." But, disparage as it might, where shrill obsession with Harry Morgan, vice and Visscher were concerned, the Daily News could not approach the Daily Ledger. On the day that Morgan's Morning Globe announced the addition of Visscher to the staff, the Ledger carried an editorial with a sufficiently evocative title: "Sodom and Gomorrah." Within the year, Harry Morgan sold the Globe, and shortly after, the city fathers and then death mastered him. But Will Visscher's detestation of the Ledger endured [EN26].
      In the late fall of 1893 the Ledger, owned by Nelson Bennett and operated by C.A. Snowden, encountered sever labor problems, and as a result Tacoma news workers began their own publication, the Morning Union. Not long after, Visscher became its editor, one engaged in dire struggle against Bennett, Snowden and all who appeared to be their minions; and if the union cause failed it might mean, for example, the return of what Visscher had once styled those "rice-and-rat-eating heathen" who had been driven from the city a few years before. When the colonel became editor, the Tacoma Typographical and Printing Pressmen's unions ceased affiliation with the paper except as employees, and its masthead identified it as "a modern Republican newspaper." It proved sufficiently "modern" to espouse labor causes and to show some other unexpected proclivities [EN27].
      Visscher's few months at the Morning Union came during troublous times, and a private affair symbolizing larger disruptive forces occurred on an evening in early April in downtown Tacoma. Encountering each other unexpectedly, two dire enemies engaged in a brief altercation. It seems an inconsequential tiff, but, apparently undone by the excitement, one man suffered a seizure and died. The survivor was the Pierce County sheriff; the deceased had the notoriety of being an operative of the Thiel Detective Agency of Portland. Though Visscher had himself published charges of police brutality in Tacoma, he now took a different position. To counter stories that Sheriff Matthews had badgered or beaten Detective Sullivan, thereby precipitating his demise, the Morning Union unburdened itself of some thoughts on the deceased "enemy of organized labor" who was reputed to have fomented much difficulty in the King County mine troubles in previous years. M.C. Sullivan, the Union editorialized, was the most execrated man that ever died in Tacoma." [EN28]

(bullet) Continue to Part Two of Visscher's Profile.
(bullet) See the Visscher Introduction portal for links to our other features and a list of background sources.

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