An Editor’s Scoop

In the days when Chicago had a dozen daily newspapers, competition was fierce. Beating the other papers to a good story was the big thing. If the facts sometimes suffered along the way, that was unimportant. As long as you sold today’s paper, nothing else mattered.

That’s the theme of The Front Page—the play and its various movie incarnations. The tradition was already established in 1876, when the Chicago Daily News was founded.

The paper’s first editor was Melville Stone. The son of a minister, Stone is remembered today as the distinguished general manager of the Associated Press. But he first learned his craft in the jungle of Chicago journalism.

Stone’s Daily News was an afternoon paper. Among his competitors was the Chicago Post & Mail, published by two brothers named McMullen. Stone had worked for the McMullens before moving out on his own. He had no great fondness for them.

The Post & Mail and the rest of the afternoon papers were old-fashioned, dull, and stodgy. Stone’s paper was well-written and exciting. Soon the Daily News was selling more copies than any of its rivals. The McMullens fought back against the upstart in the simplest way possible. They began stealing stories from the Daily News.

The first edition of the Daily News came out at noon. Within three hours the Post & Mail was on the street with much the same copy. Most of the time, the McMullens didn’t bother to change a word. The pirating went on for weeks. Stone grew more and more frustrated, and more and more angry. He was particularly incensed when the brothers lifted a lively story on doings in the South Carolina legislature.

The climax came on December 2, 1876. The noon edition of that day’s Daily News trumpeted a disaster of epic proportions. There was a famine in Serbia.

Under the headline “Sad Story of Distress in Servia [sic],” the paper carried a report from an English traveler in the Balkans. He told of seeing a devastated land.

The people of Serbia were starving. Men young and old were marching through the streets, crying out for food, cursing the rich for not doing more to help. Young women were wandering around in a state of semi-nudity. Children by the thousands were dying.

The country was descending into anarchy. The priests could no longer keep order. In one village, a group of women had led a riot in which a dozen houses had been pillaged and more than twenty people brutally murdered.

Conditions were especially bad in the provincial town of Slovik. With food running out and the population desperate, the mayor of Slovik had simply given up. He had said as much in an official proclamation, which ended with the ominous words: “Er us siht la Etsll iws nel lum cmeht.” The Daily News translated the original Serbian as “The municipality cannot aid [anyone].”

So went the Daily News report of the famine in Serbia. It was a colorful, vivid account. And sure enough, the Post & Mail reprinted the entire story in its 3 p.m. edition. The headline was changed to “Horrid Starvation in Servia.” But other than that, the text was identical to the original Daily News story. The Post & Mail copied everything, including the Serbian quotation.

That was what Melville Stone was waiting for. He had a surprise in store for the McMullen brothers.

Melville Stone

December 2, 1876 was a Saturday. The Daily News did not publish on Sunday. But instead of waiting for Monday to spring his surprise, Stone contacted two morning papers, the Tribune and the Times. They were more than willing to help him in their own Sunday editions.

Now Stone revealed that the Daily News story of the Serbian famine had been a hoax. There was no English traveler, no riots, no dying children, no semi-nude women. The Serbian language proclamation from the mayor of Slovik was bogus. Read backwards, it said: “The McMullens will steal this sure.”

The McMullen brothers became the laughing-stock of the city. Within months, the Post & Mail folded. Melville Stone’s Chicago Daily News eventually folded too, but not for another one hundred years.

—30—

This is just one of the stories in my newest book, Unknown Chicago Tales.  Available in bookstores or on Amazon.

2 Responses to “An Editor’s Scoop”


  1. 1 Garry July 23, 2021 at 8:27 pm

    I seem to remember a lot of these fun stories from the book “Madhouse On Madison Street”

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt July 23, 2021 at 8:42 pm

      That book is a great starting point. But I made sure I checked the contemporary sources after that. Some of that book’s stories have been—shall we say?—“stretched.”
      –JRS


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