Called Mayor A "Tool"
by Elwin H. Powell
A Aged 21, Thomas Low Nichols glided into Buffalo on the Erie Canal in autumn 1837. A reporter for the New York Herald, he also worked for the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser. And he edited The Buffalonian, the city's first underground newspaper.
Nichols printed what others only whispered. Everyone knew a clique of leading businessmen had conspired to defraud Benjamin Rathbun (and his creditors) out of an estate of 2,500,000. When this oral allegation (mere gossip) was set in print it acquired a new force: with a daily press run of 3,000 copies The Buffalonian reached most of the 15,000 inhabitants of the city.
The clique consisted of Hiram Pratt, President of the Bank of Buffalo and Mayor of the city; Joseph Clary, Millard Fillmore's senior law partner; H. T. Stowe, the bank's attorney; Lewis Allen (of Allentown), and Dr. Thomas Foote, editor of the Commercial Advertiser. Until Nichols entered the scene this "clique", this old boy network ran the town and kept the peace: it was not difficult to arrange for grand jury indictments of undesirables.
But three successive juries over a 12 month period refused to indict; Nichols explained in the Buffalonian of Sept. 13, 1838:Mr. District Attorney Rogers has been before the Grand Jury of Erie County to get us indicted for libel. He seems determined to crush us, and destroy the only independent and efficient press that this city has ever been blessed with.
The first time was on the complaint of the treacherous David E. Evans, of Batavia. The Grand jury, instead of finding a bill, endorsed our statements.
At the next court, it was for libeling Hiram Pratt, President of the Bank of Buffalo, and one of the villainous assignees of B. Rathbun. That, too, was a failure. We said that the devout Bank President had committed perjury, and the Grand Jury of Erie County endorsed the statement.
On Tuesday another attempt was made to get us indicted for a libel on Judge Dayton Rogers went again before the Grand Jury, with the complaint and a copy of the Buffalonian and told them of the enormity of publishing that a Circuit judge is incompetent. He then retired to let them consider.
Not doubting but they would find a bill, he returned full of eager expectation. Well, said he, What have you done? Have you found a bill? No, Esquire, replied the foreman. We cannot find a bill upon that article there is too much truth in it!
June 18, 1839: It was about twelve o'clock, when an officer of the court escorted me from the court to the jail, a very short walk. And now I am seated in the cell occupied so long by Benjamin Rathburn, No. 20; the farthest of the upper range, and the most secluded in the prison. It is a strange coincidence. His enemies have been mine: I am here for advocating his cause.
What are my sensations? I have no new ones. For months, I have made up my mind, in case of conviction, to this result .... What if I am in a convicts cell? Greater men than I, wiser better men, have been in worse. John Bunyan, in prison, wrote Pilgrim's Progress .... in prison Cervantes wrote Don Quixote
[My cell] is eight feet long, and about the same height, and nearly five feet in width. The walls are covered with a very dilapidated papering ... It has no window; and all the light comes through the iron door, constructed after the similitude of a checkerboard.
The furniture of the cell consisted, first of a frame, on which was a piece of sacking ... which sagged down most pitifully....two blankets, filthy to the last degree ... a pillow and a wooden pail.
"I suppose I can send for my trunk, and make my cell as comfortable as I like," said I to the jailer.
"Certainly. You can get what you please, for yourself."
Pretty soon came a friend, with mattress and bedding ... then came my trunk, with books and stationary; which I had packed in readiness, two days before. Then came a carpenter, and made me shelves, a turn-up table, and a tiny wash stand. Then a chair and other et ceteras. My friends came pouring in to see me, and I was in excellent spirits.
And now tis night. The lock is turned upon me; and babel of confused sounds, with horrid music of clanking chains, has gradually sunk into silence.
Nichols real offense was agitation, "creative trouble making." Never before had the authority of the local elite been called into question in print. Sensibilities were shaken. After Nichols was finally indicted, convicted and jailed a rival newspaper, The Daily Republican (June 24, 1839) published Judge Stryker's address to the court on sentencing Nichols:
"As editor . . . you assumed the right to arraign Mr. Stow for supposed violations of his professional duty. You denounced him as "the bought and paid for tool" of certain individuals whom you styled 'his masters', and in other opprobrious terms, charged him with treachery and lying, and the sacrifice of the honor and reputation of his client. This accusation, boldly and deliberately, you attempted to justify at the trial.
"True the offence goes by no severer name than misdemeanor ... but where the attack is wanton and without justification, it is no blow at the liberty of the press to jail the offender. A licentious press is an abuse of freedom.
"Our records also exhibit evidence of breaches of public interest produced by the inflammatory publication of your paper.
"We see in you a violator of the peace, the malignant asperser of a respectable and good citizen. We conceive ourselves bound to hold you up as an example to others, that all similar and future infractions of law will be visited by this court with a punishment amply sufficient to correct the, evils complained of."
Judge Stryker was later indicted for a felony; whether his punishment served as an example to others is not known. But Thomas Nichols did his jail time with alacrity, defiantly publishing The Buffalonian from his cell, and in the end coming out on the side of history.
Today libel is only a civil offense, an injured party can collect damages but the state cannot jail the offender. When Nichols was indicted in 1839 two of his printers, who type-set the "libelous" story, were themselves charged with the crime of libel.
Proudly this we bring you the story of Tommy Nichols, Buffalo's first outlaw journalist...
June 19, 1839: 1 slept, and never in my life slept more soundly. I awoke as the gray light of morn was struggling through the gratings. As I lay upon my cot, I could see a few square feet of green grass, a branch of foliage, and a very little strip of beautiful blue sky. And now I hear a free bird caroling its glad strain outside the window opposite my cell.
One of my generous friends has ordered my food to be sent from Carr's Washington Coffee and excellent it is.
There are about fifty prisoners, making plenty of society, such as it is; nor is there any lack of conversation, which is of the character that might be expected from men confined for every grade of crime, from vagrancy to murder....
My cell .... is filled with presents. I have cake, wine, cigars, to give away, for I never use them , fruit and flowers. Most of them are from ladies, and some brought by themselves. Mrs. W.H. Pierce, one of the most excellent women and best actresses of the American Stage, has sent me a bottle of delicious wine.
Erie County jail, June 20: A change has come over the aspect of my affairs. The Christian fiends,my meek and lowly persecutors,are not yet satisfied. They have taken away my wine and porter ... All my friends, without distinction, are today ordered to be excluded,even my counsel find it difficult to see me. The door of my cell is kept fastened, and I am placed under most rigid surveillance. The jailer has orders to examine every scrap of paper that I send out, to see that there is nothing libellous. Such are the orders.... This making the jailer a censor of the press, is one of the richest jokes yet; but perfectly in keeping with the whole conduct of the stupid clique.
Sunday, June 23, 1839: .... Hiram Pratt thrust himself into the highest office in the city [mayor]; and when his resignation, and those of his infamous parasites [i.e. city council] who elected him, were demanded by two thirds of the citizens of Buffalo, he and they refused to obey. A more consummate hypocrite, a more false hearted knave, walks not the footstool of God. Of the other [clique members], Lewis Allen is a blustering, pompous blockhead; and Clary ... the soul of the conspiracy, is the wire-puller of the clique, and the one who plots what the others execute.
June 25, 1839: My door was locked, and when my brunette came to see me, she stood on one side of the door and I on the other. Interesting position! One eye looked through one square space, and the other had to make use of the next one to it. Lord! How comical. I got up quite close to the grate,a curious magnetism got both our noses to playing checkers, and finally drew our four lips into one space, and it was but an experiment. I doubted if it were practicable. A true philosopher never loses an opportunity of ascertaining any new phenomenon... TO BE CONTINUED...