By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
His suicide note said, simply, “The struggle under the competitive system isn’t worth the effort. Let it pass.”
One hundred years ago, on the night of Nov. 10, 1912 — just three days after one of the most unusual presidential elections in history — a newspaper editor in Girard retired to his upstairs bedroom, muffled a loaded handgun with a bedsheet, raised it to his open mouth and shot himself.
J.A. Wayland died early the next day after having been found by a housekeeper. He was 58.
Although the population of Girard, the Crawford County seat, was just 2,446 at the time, Wayland’s death notice was published the next day in The New York Times and other newspapers around the world.
He was famous because his newspaper, The Appeal to Reason, had single issue press runs that in the early 1900s reached as high as 4.1 million copies. Some historians say it played a direct role in the social reforms of the day.
Today, not many know of Wayland, said his granddaughter, Virginia Lashlee, a California resident. She was among those in Pittsburg this week to attend events and exhibits that chronicled his life and his paper, and compared the politics and reforms of 1912 with those of today.
“But through this, he lives on,” said Lashlee, 88.
Wayland was born in 1854 in Versailles, Ind., the youngest of seven children of a grocer and his wife. Cholera killed his father and two siblings, and hard times followed. The family lost the grocery store, and Wayland quit school as a youth in order to work.
At 23, he married, took his savings and moved west. Settling in Harrisonville, Mo., he was named local postmaster and purchased the Cass County Courier.
He came into contact with strikers seeking fairer wages in mining, railroading and agriculture, and he learned of their struggles. By 1895, he had begun a newspaper in Girard and borrowed the name, The Appeal to Reason, from Thomas Paine, rationalist thinker of the American Revolution.
Because of the conservative nature of the area, the Waylands were seen as social pariahs. His children were hooted in school and on the street. He himself was shunned. Personal danger occasionally threatened.
But the weekly paper was a success. Its first press run, on Aug. 31, 1895, was 50,000, at 50 cents a year. By the end of 1900, the paper’s paid readership topped 141,000.
As working class struggles and demands grew, so did the paper, and thus, so did Girard. Those who once were against Wayland looked the other way, because the post office rose from third class to first class as a result of the enormous increase in mail, and the local depot saw a significant uptick in trains to handle the volume.
A special Election Day issue in November 1900 — when Eugene Debs made his first run on the Socialist Party ticket for the presidency — had a press run of 927,000 issues, at the time a world record for any single newspaper edition.
One of the newspaper’s most historically noted accomplishments was commissioning a young socialist named Upton Sinclair to report on the Chicago meatpacking industry. That led to the eventual publication in 1906 of “The Jungle” and ignited sweeping factory reforms.
“During its peak, the paper employed about 100 people, and an ‘Appeal Army’ of some 60,000 people across the country distributed the paper,” said Randy Roberts, who replaced Gene DeGruson as curator of special collections at Axe Library at Pittsburg State University. “It was the largest employer in Girard, and was the largest employer of women.”
The newspaper played a prominent role in national change. According to Roberts, the Socialist Party movement began as an organized political force in the years immediately after the American Civil War when industrial workers who had few financial resources were working long hours in poor conditions and earned very low wages. Many were children.
Socialists like Wayland advocated for an end to poverty, inequality and injustice. He made no bones about it in his newspaper. Like most papers of that day, it gave no space whatsoever to opposing viewpoints.
The paper also played a role in the 1912 election. Four prominent and viable candidates were campaigning: Democrat and eventual winner Woodrow Wilson; the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft; former president and Bull Moose Republican Theodore Roosevelt; and Debs, the Socialist Party candidate.
Much of the support for Debs, who received almost 900,000 votes in the general election, was generated by The Appeal to Reason, Roberts said.
“It was the most powerful political newspaper of the early 1900s,” said Sharon Neet, an expert who has spent years researching the newspaper, Wayland and the paper’s later publisher, E. Haldeman-Julius.
Neet worked closely with DeGruson on her doctorate and is now a history professor in Minnesota. She has made several trips to Axe Library to research the nation’s largest repository for Wayland’s documents, photographs and artifacts, and the most bound original copies of The Appeal to Reason — some 100 volumes.
On Wednesday night, she spoke at the Hotel Stilwell, a building that once provided lodging to Debs. She noted the enduring social and political legacies of the Socialist Party in America, and discussed the 1912 presidential campaign.
“This all ties in to where we are at today,” Neet said. “Part of the problem today is, socialism in many people’s minds is tied to communism.”
Neet said Wayland was under attack by other newspapers and was investigated by double-agent reporters, was the target of court cases, and may have been despondent over the failure of the Socialist Party movement to win the presidency.
On Thursday at Axe Library, Mark Peterson, a professor in political science at Pittsburg State, presented “The Elections of 1912 and 2012: A Retrospective on Striking Similarities and Confounding Contrasts.”
“The very name of his newspaper, Appeal to Reason, reflected Wayland’s commitment to challenge the tremendous power of wealth that accumulated in the hands of those branded robber barons — John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, the Mellons, Vanderbilts and others — with an appeal to a different value: simple reason,” Peterson said.
While Wayland believed his newspaper would lead others to embrace his viewpoint of socialism, Debs carried just 6 percent of the popular vote.
“But Wayland’s efforts and those of many others during this period changed the U.S. forever in ways we continue to celebrate today,” Peterson said.
Many, Neet noted, were changes embraced by both Republicans and Democrats.
“We’ve implemented everything the socialist movement stood for from 1901 to 1904: the right to vote for women, child labor laws, (workers’) compensation, public services paid for out of a public tax,” she said. “Social Security. The direct election of senators, which used to be selected by state legislators. Socialism was reform.”
THE WAYLAND FAMILY recently transferred ownership of numerous additional historical documents, photographs and artifacts to Axe Library at Pittsburg State University. The items are featured in a new exhibit and a commemorative book.