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The XYZ Columnist: Part I

In 1888, journalism was an extreme sport

by Jack Neely

In those days, the newspaper kept office hours even on Sunday morning, but the clerk at the front desk, Alexander Rudd, didn't expect much business, especially on this cold, quiet morning in late January. A few days ago, an election had given Knoxville a new mayor—Martin Condon, the son of Irish immigrants and the first Catholic to hold the office. The Republican Journal had declined to support Condon's candidacy due to his ties to Gov. Taylor and the rest of the Democratic Party, but sometimes seemed sympathetic to Condon himself, whom the Journal called "an elegant gentleman."

The Saturday night before, Professor Bristol had ended his three-day stand at Staub's Opera House with his famous "Equus-Curriculum," a reportedly amazing show of "22 educated horses, ponies, and mules" who performed to the accompaniment of an orchestra. Besides that, it had been a slow news week.

The morning Journal was just barely on the streets—on their way to church, most subscribers hadn't even had a chance to read it—when four angry men walked into the Gay Street office at about 8:30. They demanded to talk to the writer of a front-page column titled, innocently enough, "The Appointment of a City Physician."

The column was about the publicly employed doctor, who had the responsibility of caring for the city's poor. The columnist declared the physician was uneducated and "notoriously incompetent"; for him, the columnist believed, City Council had repealed an ordinance that the City Physician actually had to be a graduate of a medical school. In addition, the columnist griped that the physician's salary had been increased to $1,000 a year, when there were many qualified doctors willing to work for less. "Why?" he asked. "This is a question the taxpayers have a right to have answered." The column was signed, "X.Y.Z."

Standards were different then. An anonymous personal attack in the newspaper was not an unusual thing in 1888, even in the Journal, which, edited by William Rule, was regarded as more balanced than most in the era of yellow journalism.

Rudd apologized that the columnist and editors had left a few hours ago. He suggested they come back tomorrow.

"This thing has gone far enough, and has got to be settled now, today," declared the oldest of the four. He was Thomas West, a downtown druggist who also called himself a physician. West was, in fact, the City Physician himself, the one the Journal columnist had called incompetent. Rudd told Dr. West that Rule had worked most of the night, and left for home at 4 a.m. Rule, the goateed, 49-year-old Union veteran, lived in a new suburb just outside of the city limits, very near the old Fort Sanders. In those days, the neighborhood around the earthen ruin was called West End. Rule lived on Grove, the ridgetop street which would later be called Laurel Avenue.

The men left the Journal office, but Rudd noticed that Dr. West lingered on Gay Street by himself. Rudd asked if he planned to return to see Rule tomorrow. "No," he said. "The boys have gone over to settle it right now, and I am waiting for them."

"The boys" were West's 25-year-old son John, who ran a drugstore at the often-troublesome corner of Crozier and Vine; his brother William; and their friend, candymaker William Goodman, who would later claim he came along as a peacemaker. They were bound for Rule's home. The Wests knocked on the door, which was answered by Rule's wife, Lucy. She informed them that she never bothered her husband while he was sleeping. When they insisted, she went upstairs and asked him about the matter. Rule claimed not to remember the column, assuming it might have been pasted in when he stepped away from the office during the night. Rule had faced down gunmen in the past—for an editor in 19th-century Tennessee, it was part of the job—but he let Lucy handle these particular strangers.

SHE WAS FIRM, the Journal would report. She wouldn't let them in to see her husband. They asked about her son, assistant editor Jim Rule, who was known to write many of the editorial columns. The younger Rule was 28, a UT grad who had worked in Washington as an assistant to the postmaster general, but returned home to work as a writer for his father's regionally-famous newspaper.

His mother told the Wests that Jim, who lived in another house a couple of blocks away, had probably already gone to church to sing in the choir. She probably shouldn't have told the men which church.

The Wests and Goodman returned downtown and staked out St. John's, the old Episcopal church at the corner of Walnut and Cumberland. Sunday School had just gotten out, and parishioners were arriving for the main services. John West went to the Walnut Street entrance and asked a "scholar" to go inside and tell Jim Rule that John West wanted to have a word with him. The Episcopalian responded that Rule wasn't there yet.

West didn't believe him. "Yes, he is," he said. "His mother told me he was to sing here. Go in and tell him, and I will pay you for it."

Meanwhile, West took a long knife from his pocket and slid it up his sleeve. He was overheard to say, "I will rip him open from head to foot when I get him."

At length, two young women and a well-dressed man approached. The man had a roll of sheet music tucked under his arm. He caught John West's attention.

"Is your name Jim Rule?" West demanded. When Rule replied it was, West said, "I want to talk to you about an article in the Journal."

The two women, Rule's sister and wife, went on into the church, as did most of the others. Services at St. John's were about to begin.

[To be continued...]

January 25, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 4
© 2001 Metro Pulse