40 Greatest Stories

The Rowdy Days of the Dallas Dispatch

Ink-stained and booze-soaked memories of when this was a four-newspaper town.

This day in the mid-’30s was a fairly typical one for the staff of the Dallas Dispatch:

On Akard Street, by the newspaper’s offices, a married columnist was being chased by his girlfriend, who had caught him with some of his fellow newsmen in a whorehouse across from the Dispatch building. (The Fidelity Union parking garage stands on the site today.) Their race down Akard was observed and commented on by journalists leaning from the composing room windows on one side of the street, and by ladies leaning from bordello windows on the other side. The columnist’s girlfriend, who was Indian, brandished a high-heeled shoe, tomahawk-fashion.

Meanwhile, back in the city room, a wealthy businessman was threatening to mar the handsome face of city editor Clarke Newlon because the paper had run his son’s name in a story about a bookie joint bust. Cliff Blackmon, the stereotype foreman, was summoned. Wielding a 40-pound “pig” of lead, Blackmon, who doubled in brass (or lead) as city room bodyguard, chased the irate father down the stairs.

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This break in routine didn’t distract Newlon from putting together an “Extra” with a banner announcing that Bruno Richard Hauptmann had been found guilty of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. An army of ragged newsboys appeared from nowhere and began hawking the papers.

One of the newsboys ran to his appointed post outside the offices of the Dallas Times Herald, where trucks were being loaded with papers whose headlines proclaimed that the jury had found Hauptmann innocent. A thunderstruck Herald editor grabbed a Dispatch and rushed to check with Associated Press, their source on the verdict in the Lindbergh trial. He discovered that an AP man stationed in the courtroom window had fouled up the pre-arranged signals to his confederate on the ground. The Dispatch’s version, which had been phoned to them by someone at the scene, was correct.

The next day, page one of the Dispatch featured a six-column photograph of the Herald’s front page. Beneath it in bold type was a line reading “We’d Rather Be Right Than Be The Times Herald.” The taunt was composed by the Dispatch’s young assistant city editor, James F. Chambers Jr.

Today, Chambers is chairman of the board of the Dallas Times Herald.

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According to the legend, bareknuckle journalism began in Dallas one day in 1906 when a tall, stately Englishman, Alfred O. Andersson, stopped to study a cigar display in the window of a drugstore at Main and Ervay. Andersson smiled, gave his mustache a twirl, and said to himself, “This is it. A city where men can afford such expensive cigars will support another newspaper.”

Andersson had been sent out by E.W. Scripps, the Ohio newspaper entrepreneur, to pick the most likely spot for an afternoon paper in the Southwest. When he chose Dallas, Andersson, a former Kansas City newspaperman and war correspondent during the Spanish-American War, was named publisher, a role he retained for 32 years at the Dispatch.

The Dispatch was part of the Scripps-McRae Press Association, which in 1907 became United Press, whose wire services the Dallas paper used throughout its lifespan. Later the Dispatch moved under other Scripps umbrellas—Scripps-Canfield and the Scripps League—though never into the vast and better-known Scripps-Howard chain. It also received cartoons, features, and serialized adventure and love stories—forerunners of soap opera—from Scripps’ Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA).

Andersson launched his newspaper in September 1906, when the “Dallas Fair” was in progress. The first issue was, in fact, just a thousand copies, published in Kansas City and brought to Dallas by Andersson in a suitcase and trunk while the second issue was being edited in a small office at 319 Commerce. Number 1, dated Monday, September 17, 1906, was a broadsheet of four pages with only national news and no advertisements. Like hundreds to follow, it was a penny a copy. The second issue contained a story about the fair’s efforts to bring William Jennings Bryan to the exposition. The year before, the fair’s celebrities had been President Theodore Roosevelt and auto racer Barney Oldfield.

In 1906 Dallas was a town of 110,000. Virtually its only claim to distinction was that it was the country’s leading saddle-maker. In its second week, the Dispatch announced that an Indiana firm would build a factory in Dallas to manufacture men’s long underwear. The same edition carried an advertisement for Freckle-buster, a miracle face lotion manufactured by the Frecklebuster Company of Dallas.

There were already two newspapers in Dallas, the Times Herald, which had been founded in 1879, and the Dallas Morning News, which assumed that name in 1885 but traces its roots back to the much older Dallas Herald. (The News introduced a fourth paper, the Dallas Journal, in 1914.) From the beginning, Alfred Andersson aimed the Dispatch at what would now be called a “blue collar” readership.

The Dispatch often took swipes at public utilities, urging stricter rate controls. It fought increases in streetcar fares and exposed lax enforcement of pure milk and food laws. In the days before electrical home refrigeration, it supported the Dallas Council of Mothers in their fight against the escalating price of ice. Features about rat infestation in groceries, warehouses, restaurants, and homes brought about a three-year city program to wipe it out. In the ’20s, the Dispatch took on the Ku Klux Klan. Editor-in-chief Lewis Bailey was threatened by Ku Kluxers but refused to budge when they ordered him off a streetcar. Klansmen came to his house, but he slammed the door in their faces. Telephone and mail threats from the KKK were daily occurrences at the Dispatch offices.

The Dallas of the Dispatch’s heyday, the mid-’20s to late ’30s, was a rough, colorful town. Prohibition seemed to make forbidden pleasures all the more pleasurable. Bootleg liquor flowed freely, and gambling and prostitution were all but uncontrolled. (Akard Street, across from the Dispatch offices at Federal and Bullington, was the site of half a dozen bordellos.) Policemen and sheriff’s deputies were for the most part lenient. Their way of handling habitual criminals they couldn’t quite get the goods on was to take them to remote Bois D’Arc Island in the Trinity River and work them over.

The Dispatch kept an eye on the cops, too. The paper took on one police chief notorious for goofing off and gave its readers a daily report on his presence or absence from his office. City Hall reporter Vern Torrance needled ward-heeling city commissioners and had special fun with Mayor J. Worthington (“Waddy”) Tate, a good-old-boy populist from Oak Cliff elected by fluke in 1929. Among Tate’s few accomplishments as mayor was the removal of the spikes from the ledge around the municipal building so “the people” could sit there. Tate’s incompetence as mayor is often cited as the reason for Dallas’ adopting the council-manager form of government. The Dispatch’s exposure of corruption and incompetence in the commissioner system contributed significantly to this reform.

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