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.”