Joshua Brown

Paper presented at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hartford, Connecticut, October 17, 2003. A diff-
erent version of this paper was published as "The Social and Sensational News of the Day': Frank Leslie, The Days'
, and Scandalous Pictorial News in Gilded Age New York," New-York Journal of American History (formerly
New-York Historical Society Quarterly), 66:2 (Fall 2003).


“At last, at last!” Anthony Comstock’s diary exulted in January 1873. “Thank God!” The source of the moral crusader’s joy was the successful indictment of influential publisher Frank Leslie under the 1868 obscenity law. The sweeping New York State statute, promoted by Comstock’s patron, the Young Men’s Christian Association, covered every form of printed material and, for the first time, authorized police search and seizure. Comstock had come into public prominence only two months earlier for arresting the flamboyant feminist sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin for distributing their “obscene” weekly newspaper through the mail. But he had been pursuing Leslie for some time, and on January 14th, his quarry seemed in reach. “At last,” his diary entry continued, “action is commenced against this terrible curse. Now for a mighty blow for the young.”
     Leslie’s transgressions were not to be found in his popular eponymous weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, the first successful illustrated newspaper in the United States, nor in most of his other magazines and books. Instead, Comstock’s wrath was directed at a weekly sixteen-page pictorial paper with the bland title of The Days’ Doings and a more provocative policy, proclaimed on its masthead, of “Illustrating Current Events of Romance, Police Reports, Important Trials, and Sporting News.” Uncharacteristically, the paper carried neither Leslie’s name nor direct evidence of his ownership, but Comstock wasn’t deceived. Moreover, while he objected to The Days’ Doings’ illustrations of wanton and wayward women, Comstock was especially incensed by the advertisements in the paper’s back pages. The small notebook into which he pasted clippings of objectionable reading material included a rash of Days’ Doings ads for abortifacients and notices for “homosexual” illustrated books. Comstock purchased three such books—The Secrets of Affection, The Spice of Life, and Scenes Among the Nuns—from one of the paper’s advertisers, W. Jones of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as grounds for his complaint against Leslie to the District Attorney. [1]
     But The Days’ Doings was not to loom large in the annals of obscenity or censorship. To Comstock’s consternation, covert negotiations between the well-connected publisher and the prosecutor led to a compromise: Frank Leslie promised to eliminate some of his weekly's more sensational features, and New York District Attorney Benjamin K. Phelps dropped the charges. A dejected Comstock later left a note on his office blotter: “This case never called for trial. Fixed in Dist. Attys office.”
     Despite Comstock’s efforts and The Days’ Doings’ notoriety, the weekly has been mostly ignored by social and cultural historians of the Gilded Age. And, in contrast to its inspiration and more obstreperous (and successful) competitor, the National Police Gazette, for all its many illustrations it has not been exploited by filmmakers or anthologists on the lookout for evocative, not to mention copyright-free, images depicting the theatrical, sporting, and criminal worlds. [2]

What was this exceedingly public and alternately shady publication? The Days’ Doings held a distinctive place among the magazines and books published by the British immigrant engraver who was born Henry Carter but gained fame and fortune in the United States as Frank Leslie. New York publisher J. C. Derby remarked in his 1884 memoir that “Leslie deserves to be called the pioneer and founder of illustrated journalism in America. He understood what the great reading public in this country wanted, and provided it, so that all tastes were satisfied by one or another of his many publications." His flagship magazine, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, began in 1855 and then, along with its rival Harper’s Weekly, gained success and legitimacy covering the Civil War. While the Illustrated Newspaper attempted to encompass the increasingly varied post-Civil War reading public, Leslie’s other periodicals were targeted at more specified audiences—including German and Spanish readers, women, children, families, and religious Protestants—the overall effect embodying the range of the diversified literary marketplace. The aggregate circulation of all of Leslie’s weekly and monthly magazines, according to one contemporary source, averaged about a half million copies weekly. [3]
     But, following the lead of the antebellum sporting press—efflorescent papers such as The Flash, The Libertine, and The Weekly Rake—it was The Days' Doings that gleefully embraced the less sedate manifestations of New York’s postbellum commercial culture and brought Leslie perhaps more notoriety than even the enterprising publisher found practical. Beginning as The Last Sensation in 1867 and renamed in 1868, The Days' Doings' masthead proclaimed James Watts and Company at 214 Centre Street as its proprietor, but any alert reader could note the occasional reprinting of engravings previously published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, the signatures of regular Illustrated Newspaper artists gracing many of its illustrations, and the ads for Leslie's publications dominating its back pages. [4]

Figure 1. “Fond of pictures—Too fond nearly by half.” Wood engraving, The Days’ Doings,
June 5, 1869, 16. While employing racial stereotypes, this cartoon also indicates one
venue where readers consumed the weekly: the male preserve of a barbershop.

     Moreover, the appearance of The Days’ Doings marked the migration of tawdry material from the pages of the Illustrated Newspaper, making the latter more suitable for the parlor table, as opposed to the barroom, barbershop, or hotel lobby, where the more brazen sporting magazine often could be found. (Figure 1) For example, after 1868 the Illustrated Newspaper ceased its regular depiction of violent crimes. The paper still was not above occasionally covering “scandalous” acts of violence, such as the 1872 murder of Wall Street speculator James Fisk Jr. by a victim of one of his swindles. But the Illustrated Newspaper’s subsequent visual reportage of murder cases offered more temperate contextual information, such as the "scene of the crime" and portraits of the protagonists, leaving The Days’ Doings to feature re-creations of fatal assaults and, its favorite, "crimes of passion," whose narratives combined titillation with cautionary morality. Similarly, illegal sports such as dog fighting and particularly bare-knuckle boxing disappeared from the Illustrated Newspaper’s pages by the early 1870s , taking up residence in The Days' Doings as the relatively more demure sibling turned to celebrating races, regattas, and baseball. (Figure 2) In short, with The Days’ Doings, Leslie could pursue a male readership with a repertoire of sex, scandal, sports, and violence that would have undermined the necessary propriety of his most valued publication.

Figure 2. “The dog pit at Kit Burns’ during a fight.” Wood engraving, The Days’ Doings,
September 26, 1868, 261.

     Leslie continued to avoid direct acknowledgement of his ownership of The Day’s Doings. But by the time Comstock took action, Leslie seemed to take impudent (and, as it turned out, imprudent) pleasure in leaving obvious clues. James Watts disappeared from The Days' Doings' masthead around 1870 in tandem with the announcement of a new address at 535 Pearl Street, coincidentally and conveniently next door to Leslie's publishing house; that particular fiction was finally eliminated after Leslie's publishing operations moved to Park Place in 1878. For the close reader of the paper there also were editorial hints of the relationship almost from the start. One of The Days’ Doings’ early editorials suggested Leslie’s authorship in the very manner in which it proposed that the paper was edifying to the public, expanding the scope of the illustrated press by commemorating and uplifting the everyday through the visual arts:

  Nearly four years ago, the first number of THE DAYS’ DOINGS was issued. The design of the publishers was to supply a need which the mass of the public had long felt. Illustrated papers already existed, whose object was to furnish correct pictorial representations of great public events, and of architectural and scientific improvements, as well as fac-similes of the works of great artists and sculptors. But there was no medium through which the more commonplace, though by far the most interesting and startling, occurrences of the day could be presented to the people by the pencil of the skillful artist.

       As if to deflect the skeptical, the editorial then asserted that “no class of events” would be illustrated unless it had already appeared in the British or “standard” U.S. pictorial press—and then went on to lay it all at the feet of the New York Times. As a paper celebrated for “the rigid morality of its tone,” the Times had “furnished us with many of the choicest subjects that have been illustrated in our pages.” It was a wily defense (used previously in the Illustrated Newspaper) and, overall, a declaration worthy of P. T. Barnum, for whom Leslie had worked in his first years in the U.S. [5]
     However, unlike his mentor, Leslie, himself, was a figure of notoriety based on his heedlessly excessive life style—almost a caricature of the Gilded Age—and the scandal-ridden circumstances surrounding his divorce (involving his affair and then marriage to Miriam Follin Squier, the wife of the editor of the Illustrated Newspaper). Although he was unable to escape a scandalous reputation, Leslie managed to evade further legal harassment of The Days’ Doings by framing its profane material in didactic editorials and, shortly after his brush with prosecution, a more domestic orientation. “We intend that The Days’ Doings shall be a family journal,” a February 15, 1873 editorial announced, “fit for the instruction and amusement of intelligent, moral families, who wish to see the romantic world as it passes, typed and illustrated by pencil and pen.” Three years later, Leslie went one step further and changed the paper’s name. It was the intention of the “proprietor” of the newly christened New York Illustrated Times, to present “faithfully the dramatic side of human experience” and sustain “in all its departments, pictorial and literary, an elevated tone such as will commend it for universal household reading as in every way unexceptionable.” The notice closed with an admission that the Illustrated Times "will contain representations of all interesting occurrences happening after the publication each week of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, to which, in fact, the journal will be in all essential features an adjunct." [6] In marked contrast to the National Police Gazette, which usually thumbed its nose at any didactic mission, by 1876 some of the more outrageous aspects of The Days’ Doings were gone for good. Under the name of the New York Illustrated Times, so referential to and reverential of Leslie’s flagship publication, the paper seemed to have veered away from the barroom to the parlor. But the word adjunct was tantalizing and, to The Days' Doings' faithful readership, promising in its imprecision. That promise was often fulfilled by extensive pictorial coverage of news shunned by the respectable press, such as the 1878 arrest and suicide of the notorious abortionist “Madame Restell.” (Figure 3) The renamed newspaper continued to deliver a weekly dose of mayhem, its circulation hovering in the profitable range of 50,000. [7]

Figure 3. “Madame Restell arrested on charges of malpractice.”
Wood engraving, New York Illustrated Times, February 23, 1878, cover (305).
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[1] Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1927), 128-29; Anna Louise Bates, Weeder in the Garden of the Lord: Anthony Comstock’s Life and Career (New York: University Press of America, 1995), 78-79; Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 369, 388-89. BACK

[2] On the National Police Gazette, see Dan Schiller, Objectivity and the News: The Public and the Rise of Commercial Journalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981); Elliott J. Gorn, “The Wicked World: The National Police Gazette and Gilded Age America,” Media Studies Journal 6.1 (Winter 1992): 1-15. BACK

[3] J. C. Derby, Fifty Years among Authors, Books, and Publishers (New York: G. W. Carleton, 1884), 692-93; Madeleine Bettina Stern, Purple Passage: The Life of Mrs. Frank Leslie (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953), 189-98; Budd Leslie Gambee Jr., “Frank Leslie and His Illustrated Newspaper, 1855-1860: Artistic and Technical Operations of a Pioneer Pictorial News Weekly in America,” Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1963; Joshua Brown, Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). By the 1870s, Leslie's Publishing House, located at 537 Pearl Street, employed between three and four hundred people, including 70 engravers. Leslie's book publishing ventures, begun in the 1860s, resembled his approach to periodicals. BACK

[4] On The Days' Doings, see Stern, Purple Passage, 52, 191, 223 (Stern uncovered Leslie’s role in the publication); Fulton Oursler, "Frank Leslie," The American Mercury, 20:77 (May 1930), 98-99; Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1865-1885 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938), 44 (differing somewhat from Stern's account); and Horowitz, Rereading Sex, 323-27 passim. On the antebellum sporting press, see ibid., 159-93; Timothy J. Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), 133-35; James W. Cook, “Dancing across the Color Line,” Common-place, 4.1 (October 2003). BACK

[5] The Days’ Doings (hereafter DD), October 5, 1872. Oursler, “Frank Leslie” credits Leslie’s art editor and critic Sam McKeever as creator/editor of The Days’ Doings (the slightly altered Sam MacKeever crops up as a regular National Police Gazette contributor); the only other indication of the weekly’s editorship is in an 1868-69 lithograph by Edward Jump, “Saturday Afternoon at Frank Leslie’s,” which portrays 41 figures in the Pearl Street office, including “’Ike’ Reed, Ed. ‘Day’s Doings’” (Brown, Beyond the Lines, 64-66). Leslie worked for Barnum as illustrator for the 1850-51 Jenny Lind tour and as chief engraver of the showman’s own short-lived 1853 pictorial paper. BACK

[6] DD, February 15, 1873; October 7, 1876. BACK

[7] “Madame Restell arrested on charges of malpractice.” Wood engraving, New York Illustrated Times, February 23, 1878. George P. Rowell and Company, American Newspaper Directory . . . (New York: Geo. P. Rowell and Company, 1874), 135. BACK

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