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Skagit River Journal

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

By Lewis O. Saum, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, January 1980
Visscher reacts to signs of the coming Depression
(Pacific Avenue Tacoma 1891)
Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, 1891. Original courtesy of Wilcox Collection, Seattle-King County Historical Society
      The discontent of 1894 featured action far more momentous than, though related to, this personal feud. For a time, Puyallup — the subject of Visscher's reverie as he pondered the mountain — served as a dramatic focal point of the widespread dissent against a socioeconomic system turned sour after the collapse of 1893. The following spring, unemployed people in Tacoma began organizing for the "Commonweal," and soon they gathered in Puyallup, preparing for a protest trek to the national capital.
      To many beholders, the pungent tang of revolution hung in the air, and the northwest contingent of Jacob Coxey's Army — as the national phenomenon was styled — had a chosen a leader little suited to reassure the querulous. Frank "Jumbo" Cantwell had been a bouncer for Harry Morgan and a figure of some general prominent inn the city's night life. But he aspired to greater things. When Morgan died, Jumbo married the widow, and now in April of 1894 as "General" Cantwell, leader of the region's protest army.
      These developments elicited sardonic reactions from many, and reactions of dread from others. But neither response came from Visscher's Morning Union. That paper took Cantwell seriously and presented him in a favorable light. One news article featured a nicely done illustration of " 'General' Frank Cantwell." The account of the former bouncer's apparently unanimous election to leadership conceded that this language was "not very Emersonian," but it insisted that he had "natural eloquence." This was not the jumbo of "loud mouth" and "goddamn"-ing propensities remembered by the sophisticated New Englander, Thomas Emerson Ripley [EN29].
      Having returned from a brief but apparently serious illness, Republican Visscher described the general situation of the country as one in which the people had lost "the last drop of patience with the wrongs that have been brought upon them." He drew historical parallels between present dissidents and Swiss patriots vowing to free their land, Elijah Lovejoy at Alton and John Brown at Harper's Ferry:

      What the marching armies of Coxey, Frye, Cantwell and others may directly effect by their present crusade, the voice of prophecy does not give it to us to say, but is given to us to say that it is the beginning of a movement that is going to right the wrongs of the people. . . . Call this populism, democracy, republicanism, or Seventh Day Adventism, if you choose. It means "the commonweal!" [EN30]
      The unfolding summer witnessed ever more "Signs of Revolution," as Visscher labeled them on the 4th of July. Now it was the Pullman strike in Chicago, regarding which the Tacoma editor praised Eugene Debs, reprinted his friend Eugene Field's encomium to that labor leader, and excoriated those "thick-witted, stubborn fools," those "purse-proud and power-loving" men who "have become immensely rich through the manipulation of mobilized and concentrated labor." Something of an apogee of Visscher's indignation came in a May 14 editorial treating "Man's Inhumanity to Man." It combined angry description with a plea for reform and it ended in warning:
      Let them who heed not these suggestions cower, for cowards they are, and let them not beg when the day of retribution comes, as certainly it will. . . . The imposition of the people has gone far enough, and the armories that hold the guns are not safe from populistic indignation. [EN31]
Footnotes 29-34
  • 29. Ibid, April 16 (quotations); portrait: 1894: Thomas Emerson Ripley, Green Timber: On the Flood Tide to Fortune in the Great Northwest (Palo Alto, Calif., 1968), p. 121.
  • 30. Union, April 24, 1894
  • 31. Ibid, May 14, July 4 (quotations), p. 12 (Field on Debs), 1894
  • 32. Globe, Jan. 14, 1889; Tacoma Evening Call, Sept. 25, 26 ("The Era of the Parvenus"), 1891; Union, March 18, 1894.
  • 33. News, July 9, 1894. There is no easy construction to place on Visscher's view of Nelson Bennett. He both lionized and vilified the man depending on the situation. Also, the serious-minded modern reader can misconstrue the fulminations in 19th-century newspapers by forgetting that journalists often resorted to play, irony, hyperbole and unvarnished prevarication.
  • 34. Fairhaven Herald as quoted in News, April 30, 1890. This item came within days of Morgan's death. For Visscher's continued appreciation of Morgan, see Union, April 14, 1894. One of Visscher's best-known poems, "The Barbarian," is a variant of his concern about hypocrisy. In somewhat sing-song fashion it tells of a "barbaric warrior" who, hearing "How Christ was crucified," wonders about the "God-man friends" and their propensity for killing "unbelievers."
      "Man's Inhumanity to Man" contained another theme that suffused an extraordinary amount of what Visscher wrote, namely, that anything in the nature of shoddyism must bow before the necessities of the populists. We have before hinted at the condition of a parvenue [sic] who sits before the glowing fire of a rich club in an upholstered chair, wearing of the poor devils who are riding upon the brake beams and upon the top of box cars in the rains of this region, trying to go as a petition in boots to the powers that be.

On the warpath against parvenus and Bennett
      "We have before hinted" represents wild understatement. In these matters the colonel was inveterate to the point of obsession. Within days of assuming control of the Morning Globe, he castigated "parvenuism" and the "nauseating frequency" of "pseudo-exclusive gatherings." That he did indeed have a brief connection with the Evening Call seems substantiated by a lead editorial in that paper, which characteristically bemoaned "The Era of the Parvenu." And he wasted no time in fixing the same motif at the Morning Union. "Parvenuism is about the worst thing that the republic really has to contend with" began the vintage Visscher variations on the theme for the Union. Parvenuism and shoddyism, he continued, pave "the road to that place where ice cream won't keep and Bob Ingersoll says is not." [EN32]
      The feisty little journalist had a perfectly ingenuous admiration for successful businessmen, as long as they did not show affectation, social pretension, pomposity, insincerity, or hypocrisy. In the spring and summer of 1894, Visscher serialized his novel about city founding on Puget Sound, one fond figure of which is probably a thinly veiled Nelson Bennett. But perhaps incongruously, a different Nelson Bennett figured in a Morning Union story on July 1, 1894, headlined "Cowardly attack." " 'You're a G - - d - - - s - - of a b - - - - of a union man, ain't you?" yelled Nelson Bennett at 5:30 o'clock last evening." That began an account of the trials experienced by a man from the Evening News when he went to the Daily Ledger office to talk with editor Snowden and owner Bennett about business matters and ended up the object of the latter's "low, depraved and murderous" passions. When the visitor admitted he was honorary member of the typographical union, the response was: " 'O you - -! - -!! - -!!! - -!!!! — words that cannot be printed in decent newspapers — and Bennett, who, by the way, is one of Tacoma's 'best people,' grew frenzied with rage."
      That Visscher had developed a genuine detestation for Bennett may well be indicated by the fact that he would resort to fisticuffs, and do so effectively, when Bennett's character was under discussion. Late of an evening only a few days after the Union's account of the "cowardly attack," the spirit of cordiality among a small group of men at the Paragon Saloon was disrupted when one of the m, an employee of Nelson Bennett, declared Bennett "the whitest man in the city." Another member of the group, the scrappy Colonel Visscher, had remained silent to that point; but he found that commendation of Bennett insupportable. He promptly demanded clarification or retraction, but got only repetition. After a moment more of heated exchange, Visscher landed a blow on the offender's mouth, and "cleverly ducked" a return swing. The two were then forcibly separated, but when the Bennett man expressed a wish for a gun, Visscher broke loose. His opponent was "ready for the fray," but apparently not ready enough. The colonel this time "knocked him stiff," and as the defeated man was carried out by friends Visscher remained the "conqueror of all he surveyed." [EN33]

A Yankee Doodle, a populist, a booster
      Whether by the written word or by the clenched fist, Visscher was ever ready to do battle with the so-called best people. That helps to explain his ability to accept a Jumbo Cantwell and defend a Harry Morgan. This defense, direct and indirect, Visscher rendered when he worked for Morgan, after he worked for Morgan and when Morgan was in the grave. Again and again he cited the positive contributions that Morgan, without show or credit, made to the community. But the colonel had sadly to admit that Tacoma had many "Pharisees, pietists, bigots, hypocrites, raters [sic] and fanatics" who would not listen, people touched by "unctuous over-righteousness" and "sanctimonious Puritanism." [EN34]
      Like parvenuism, the very word Puritanism got a supercharged reaction from the versatile newsman. Theodore Winthrop had foretold that here "the crude and cruel Hebraism of the Puritans" would be overcome. William Lightfoot Visscher did his utmost to bring that prophecy to realization, and to some degree he discomfited those who preferred being "where 'Old Hundred' prevails and 'Yankee Doodle' is unknown," who would oppose bearbaiting on precisely the grounds that Macaulay specified, and who sought to work upon the entire community "the very sublimation of Puritanism." [EN35]

Footnotes 35-38
  • 35. Winthrop, page 129; Globe, Nov. 5, 1889.
  • 36. Globe, Jan. 31 ("Esau"), Nov. 5 ("goody-goody"), and 28, 1889.
  • 37. Union, March 16 (Tacoma), April 6 ("croakers"), 7 (last quotation), 1894; Globe, Feb. 25, 1890.
  • 38. Visscher, Way Out Yonder: the Romance of a New City (Chicago, 1898), p. 161; Union, April 25, 1894.
      As a figure of speech "Yankee Doodle" meant assertion, optimism, patriotism and progress, and much of Visscher's time went to unadorned booming. Thomas Emerson Ripley recalled the Daily Ledger as the epitome of Tacoma's ebullience in the years just before the crash of 1893, but Visscher's Morning Globe and, in some ways, his Morning Union not only exceeded the Ledger but berated it for lack of heart and enthusiasm for its city, just as the Ledger accused the Globe of faintheartedness and heterodoxy in its Republicanism. The Ledger, by Visscher's telling, was "an Esau in brotherhood, an Arnold in Warfare, a Nast in art, a Judas in Christianity."
      Instead of defending and celebrating Tacoma, it plugged into the frenzied "goody-goody" campaign that denounced the city for moral depravity in the fall of 1889, when a street murder triggered indignation that gravitated toward vigilantism. Having accused his opponent of bringing the city into disgrace by puritanically presenting it as a den of assassins, Visscher opined on Thanksgiving Day that the Ledger "should be thankful that it is allowed to eke out its miserable existence in this community which it has so often misrepresented and mortified." [EN36]
      According to Visscher, every community had its "croakers," and the Morning Union meant to counteract their baleful influence. Tacoma, the colonel had lately pronounced, "will be the most prosperous city on the Pacific coast within six months." Even enemies gained his approval when they acted in the better interests of their community. In 1890, Snowden's Ledger enlisted George Francis Train to go around the world, Tacoma to Tacoma, to break Nelly Bly's recent record, and Visscher's Globe joined in the approval of the publicity stunt. And four years later Franklin K. Lane, whom the Union delighted to pillory, earned unaccustomed praise following a promotional meeting for a prospective interstate fair at Tacoma: "Hon. Franklin K. Lane, editor of the News, made a glowing speech and created intense enthusiasm." [EN37]
      Editors of the colonel's day had that almost crucial function of creating enthusiasm. In his fictionalized account of the Fairhaven boom, Visscher wrote that the role of editor Van Waters (read Visscher) had been "the greatest factor next to Newton Morse's (read Nelson Bennett's) money, in the up-building of the remarkable city." "Up-building involved a positive not a negative role, and editors' aspersions and negations were best aimed at "croakers" within and, of course, at competitors without — another city, another state, another region, another nation. An editorial one-liner from the Morning Union shows Visscher turning outward with telling effect: "A suicide club has been organized at Seattle. It deserved to succeed and it will." [EN38]

Off to the White City, representing Washington in Chicago, 1893
      At other times — as in the summer of 1893 — an editor needed to assume a larger view of things. "My friend and everybody's friend Col. Will L. Visscher can do this State more good at Chicago than any other single State exhibit" — thus exuded Franklin I. Lane of the Daily News in a letter of recommendation to the Executive Committee of the Washington World's Fair Commission as its preparatory work came down to dead earnest. "Take him in tow," Lane urged the commission, "and give a choice location and finest pedestal you have."
      Less expansive but perhaps more important supporting words came from Governor McGraw, former territorial Governor Eugene Semple, Attorney General W.C. Jones, and others. And so in the summer of 1893, Visscher served with Edmond Meany and others as functionaries of the Washington Commission to the World's Columbian Exposition [EN39].
      At the same time he served as special correspondent for Lane's Daily News, thereby attesting even further to the fact that the sound and fury of editorial fusillades could be misleading. Visscher acted, of course, as a journalistic promoter, lauding the state, wheedling others into doing the same, scoring its detractors, and berating any who caviled at those doing the lauding. Thus when Ezra Meeker, originally a member of the commission, criticized the Washington exhibits, he drew this fire from the angry colonel: If Visscher should wish to convey to a person who knew Meeker "how entirely mean, vindictive, mis-leading, envious, scandal-mongering and backbiting someone was who possessed all those and even worse traits, in a superlative degree, I would simply say, 'He is as bad in those ways as Ezra Meeker,' and that would be more than enough." [En40]

Footnotes 39-42
  • 39. Lane to Executive Committee, March 8, 1893, Washington World's Fair Commission Records, University of Washington Libraries. The recommendations were conveyed under Visscher's cover letter but have been arranged chronologically in the correspondence files. Thus Lane's letter and McGraw's dated March 9, are located in Box 7, but Visscher's and Semple's, both dated March 7, and Jones's letter of March 4 are found in Box 6. On Jan. 30, 1893, Visscher, who was in Olympia at the time probably working on the souvenir of the third legislature, inscribe a copy of his Black Mammy: A Song of the Sunny South, and Other Poems (Cheyenne, 1886) to "Edward" S. Meany. A gift of the Edmond S. Meany Collection, that volume now resides in Suzallo Library, University of Washington.
  • 40. News, Sept. 5, 1893.
  • 41. Ibid., July 15 and Aug. 15, 1893.
  • 42. News, Aug. 15 (Lane quotation), pages 24, 189.
      But, by and large, Visscher luxuriated in Chicago. He hobnobbed with his journalist-artist cronies, giving, for example, a performance at the legendary Whitechapel Club, which featured mimicry of George D. Prentice dictating to him an editorial regarding George Francis Train. The Illustrated World's Fair devoted an editorial to his work for Washington, and that publication chose him to do a poem treating a grim episode which thousands, including Visscher and Opie Red, had witnessed. When fire broke out high in a tower of a cold storage building, several firemen went up to fight it, only to be trapped when flames erupted below them. As if in a spectacle staged for horrified onlookers, they leaped, one by one, to their deaths [EN41].
      Back in Tacoma, Lane, recently married to a sister of Visscher's doctor, boasted that the colonel's reports were the best coming from the fair and that the paper was receiving requests for copies from "the most remote corners of the country," "Won't California turn green with envy when she reads this paragraph — " Thus began a Daily News editorial that dealt with Visscher and the land for which he acted, according to the paper, as "missionary." The editorial was titled "The Eden of the West," a phrase borrowed from Eugene Field along with his words of praise for the "living, prowling, singing advertisement of Washington, the Evergreen state — Colonel Will L. Visscher."

      The muses are half-sisters to our cheery friend, but his sweetheart is Washington — that lovely virgin empire by the Pacific ocean, and he loves to sing of her. And we love to hear him sing those songs, for we, too, have faith in that Eden of the West whither all eyes are turning now and whither the tide of immigration will presently be turned. [EN42]
(Lecture playbill)
Play bill for Visscher's lecture tour, from the Cameron, Missouri, Observer, Ca. 1875
      Visscher sought to demonstrate that what Winthrop had long ago predicted was now in the making, that some unique enhancement of the human condition was nearing fruition in the Puget Sound country. In 1903 his companion Opie Read was to publish a now properly forgotten little book called The American Cavalier, in which he examined the various types of American men. "The Chicago Man," "The New York Business Man," and the other stock figures would share the billing with "The Puget Sound Man." One assumes that Visscher did much to inspire that essay, the first sentence of which declares that "a new atmosphere makes a new man." That "new man" is, in part, the informing precept of the novel that Visscher published in book form with introduction by Read in 1898, some four years after he had serialized it in the Morning Union. When Fay Fuller — Tacoma journalist, first woman to ascend Mt. Rainier, and Virginia to W.J. Fife's Virginius and Visscher's Dentatus — reviewed the book, she identified this "Romance of a New City" as the story of Fairhaven with Visscher playing dual roles. [EN43]
      In it the author perpetrated a good deal of panegyric. A sufficient earnest comes in the poetic anthem to the first chapter, a six-line verse of a poem that Visscher had read at a meeting of the State Historical Society in Tacoma in May of 1892 and which he published in various places: "Hurrah for the land of the setting sun!/Hurrah for the state of Washington!" And, at the end of the book, his partly fictive city was emerging as "the mighty metropolis of the Northwest Pacific coast." [EN44]
      But despite this celebration, the story of Fairhaven — Visscher's St. Movadu — consisted of boom and collapse; prosperity followed by panic and depression. And the novel repeatedly serves as a vehicle for the author's diatribes on the parvenuism that blights St. Movadu even in its palmiest days. That Visscher assumed two roles in the book — an insight, probably accurate, of Fay Fuller — also evidences an undercurrent of grimness. Jack Lacey, the bohemian and "Quixotic" from the South, overcomes occasional defeats by the bottle and gains success and a beautiful wife. But newsman Van Waters suffers total defeat, and, exhausted in a futile effort to retain control of his paper, Lacey's alter ego and the other half of Visscher's self-portraiture dies in his sleep.
      Whether the real Will Visscher was eased out of the Fairhaven Herald would be exceedingly difficult to determine; but there is no doubt that Nelson Bennett's Fairhaven Land Company acquired the help of a quite different type of promoter, one who had large regard for those statistics that Bill Nye had puckishly urged upon Visscher, one who had great talent for making crop reports persuasive if not "mirth inspiring." Colonel Robert Strahorn had vastly less of romance and sentiment than did Jack Lacey-Howard Van Waters-Will Visscher. Visscher became wealthy only as a character in his fiction; Strahorn enjoyed his wealth directly [EN45].

Footnotes 43-50
  • 43. Opie Read, The American Cavalier (Chicago 1903), p. 129. See review of Way Out Yonder in State, Vol. 3 (1899), p. 81; Fuller prefaced this installment of the review section with some thoughts on the "Advance of the Western Pen."
  • 44. Washington Historian, Vol. 1 (1899), p. 32. The poem seems first to have appeared in the July 4, 1889, issue of the Globe. And it appeared in what was probably Visscher's last publication, a compilation of his poems (one pertaining to each state) that included President Wilson's war message: The Stars of Our Country: A Collection of Poems (Philadelphia [ca. 1917]), Way Out Yonder, pages 9, 234 (last quotation).
  • 45. See Carrie Adell Strahorn, Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage (New York 1911), chapter 44, and Oliver Knight, "Robert E. Strahorn, Propagandist for the West," PDQ, Vol. 59 (1968), pages 33-35.
  • 46. Not long after she acted in Virginius with her father and the others, Viva Glen Visscher announced her intention of making a career of the stage — Washington Standard, Sept. 28, 1894; for her father's worries about a life in theater, see Union, July 6, 1894. Edgar Allan Poe, "Eldorado."
  • 47. Globe, June 2 ("three cheers"), p. 22, 1889; News, June 3, 1893 ("Goodbye, Wheelwright"). Visscher, who so often set his thoughts to verse, wrote what to me is one of his most compelling pieces using this incident and this imagery. The poem, "His Angel Slept," appeared in the News on June 23, 1893. It ends this way:
    He who had been guarded well,
    At he hands of demons fell —
    Through the shadows came they creeping;
    Worn, his angel guard was sleeping.
          Wheelwright's futile efforts can be glimpsed in letters he wrote appealing for support. Wheelwright to N.G. Blalock of the Executive Committee of the Washington World's Fair Commission, July 26 and Aug. 8, 1892, and to "Hon. Senators & Representatives of the Wash. State Legislature, Olympia," Feb. 23, 1893, Boxes 4 and 6, Washington World's Fair Commission Records.

  • 48. Globe, June 2, 1889 (quotation). State, Vol. 2 (1898) p. 79, and Vol. 5 (1900), page 63; Fay Fuller's connection with this periodical may explain the appearance of Visscher's work in it. Visscher to Tom Nicholl, Jan. 16, 1924, Tom J. Nicholl, Tom J. Nicholl Collection, Washington Historical Society, Tacoma. There are a few other Visscher items in this collection. Nicholl was a onetime Chicago friend who did illustrations for some of Visscher's books. "Kentuckian's Lament," Visscher, Blue Grass Ballads and Other Verse (New York 1900; rpt. 1971) page 52.
  • 49. Fetch over the Canoe.
  • 50. Ibid., see chap. 4; also p. 102 "Alone I Stand" (quotations). This peculiar and pathetic little book contains four composite illustrations featuring the photographed face of what I take to be Phillip's "Haidee" — perhaps Hazel Kirke Strayer, to whom the musical score at the beginning of the book is dedicated. Also, there is a halftone of what appears to be Visscher clad in a robe and seated at a study desk looking up at a portrait of the same woman.
      Perhaps the difference betokened a change of the times. A creeping earnestness and a hunger for those hard facts that Visscher often blithely transcended were settling upon the land, suiting it less and less for a man of poetry and a man of fancy. Howells and James had indeed displaced Cooper and Irving. And untidy reality took more direct forms than the novels of Howell and James. Praising the theater, for example, had been fine, until Visscher's only daughter decided to become an actress. And the headiest of those pronouncements about the grandeur of Washington came from Chicago at a time when the banks were failing in Tacoma. Like Poe's "gallant knight," the romantic little colonel had found "no spot of ground that looked like Eldorado." [EN46]
      At that gathering of collegians at the Tacoma Hotel, Mayor Samuel Adams Wheelwright had responded to the toasts, "The City of Destiny," and had done so with such success that he was interrupted several times by applause and received "three cheers and a tiger" at the conclusion. This refined native of New York, who once welcomed Visscher to a podium by asserting that his first glimpse of the colonel had proved that the stars in the heavens were not the loveliest of all sights, ended tragically, a personification of the theme of disenchantment. Four years after those hearty and whole-souled celebrations of 1889, Visscher wrote "Goodbye, Wheelwright" from Chicago where the former mayor, having failed in an effort to organize a Washington Club at the world's fair and now destitute and beleaguered by drink, had committed suicide. The colonel delivered an eloquent and poignant eulogy to the man whom he recalled:

. . amid music and flowers and bright lights, wit and repartee and the sparkling of the wine and the clinking of the glasses of good fellows. But it is dangerous to be a good fellow these times, for there are wolves who are waiting outside, in the wind and the snow and along the frozen way to feed upon the good fellows whose guardian angels have fallen asleep from much watching. [EN47]
      When, hours after the mayor had waxed dithyrambic about "The City of Destiny," Will Visscher spoke about American humorists, he noted that humor was a very "near kin to pathos," that the "man who laughs is the man who weeps." The colonel could have served admirably as Bardolph, but he could have done equally well as Quixote, or Cyrano, or Canio in I Pagliacci. After leaving the Northwest in the mid-1890s, he published poetry in a local journal for a time, and less than a month before his death in Chicago in 1924 he wrote to Tacoma illustrator Tom Nicholl that it was "quite flattering" to learn that "fairly reputable" people lived on a street that Allen Mason had named for him many years before. Away from the "Eden of the West," he composed a dialect "Kentuckian's Lament" which ended this way:
I'm goin' back — you hear me shout — clean back to Washin'tun;
I wanter find Old Skookumchuck, an' stay thar, too, mer son. [EN48]

But he probably never returned except by way of a sad little book of reverie [EN49].
      In some 100 pages of sketches, photos, composites, verse, song and prose, the aging troubadour told the story of "An Old Man's Love," in which an Orcas Island man marries a much younger woman only to have her precede him to the grave. Visscher, widowed in 1896, had fallen in love with a woman of beauty, fine family, artistic promise, and half his age. But the object of his love had not died, she had gone away, leaving him standing alone "on the wreck of my soul." And this was now Chicago, ordinary quarters on Belden Avenue, not Orcas Island, not Fairhaven, nor Tacoma. But it made scant difference. Eldorados could not be found, and Edens dissolved at the touch. Theodore Winthrop and his kind notwithstanding, it mattered little what names the places bore "as the wreck and I drift on.

      PNQ Editor note: Lewis O. Saum is professor of history at the University of Washington. His interest in American thought and culture includes the realm of frontier journalism. Greenwood Press has his book, The Popular Mood of Pre-Civil War America, scheduled for publication in summer 1980.

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