Birth of The Union: How the newspaper started is a Wild West Cinderella story
March 22, 2014
Considering newspapers depend on their credibility in order to be viewed as a reliable source of news, it's quite a card to draw to have your paper founded by a guy named "Lying Jim."
But that's the hand we've been dealt here at The Union, which got its start way back in 1864 when a pair of newcomers rode into western Nevada County seeking to start a paper in support of the re-election of Abraham Lincoln and the Union effort in the Civil War.
As the story is often told, James W. E. "Lying Jim" Townsend — and some guy named "Blumenthal" — were paid by Union backers to start up Grass Valley's first "Republican" newspaper.
As was the case with the pioneer journalism of the Wild West days of the Gold Rush era, there was no expectation of a newspaper being "fair and balanced," as publishers wore their particular political viewpoint as a badge of honor — especially as an election approached.
“It bothered me that Lying Jim Townsend was the only one we knew about ... because he was only with the paper for eight days, and yes, he deserves credit for being there, but what he tried to do
— he nearly killed the paper or damaged it severely
— if he had gone through with what he intended to do; and if Blumenthal hadn’t stopped him. …”
A volunteer at the Doris Foley Library
"There were two kinds of people working for newspapers at that time," said David Comstock, owner of Comstock Bonanza Press, who penned a piece on Townsend and The Union for the Nevada County Historical Society in 1997. "They would often change editors during the year, bringing in a political editor for a few months before an election. Page two would largely feature opinions and editorials that were strongly pro party, saying some very harsh stuff about the other party. When the election was over they'd bring back the other editor, who'd sort of apologize for all the rhetoric and get things back to normal.
"Then there were people like Townsend and Mark Twain, and those folks who just liked to write and be published. These were very young men, but in fact, most of them didn't want to stay in the newspaper business. They'd rather have been writing books. Those funny-sounding names of towns that came about during the Gold Rush?
"I look at them as similar to the naming of rock bands, the same kind of people of the same age doing the naming. It's not something they would have gotten away with back home, but there was nobody in control and they were having a lot of fun."
By today's standards, in which readers expect stories to be actually factual and truthful, guys like Townsend would not survive in the business nearly as long as he did 150 years ago.
But it was through his storytelling talents that Townsend drew the kind of acclaim that led him to be the more memorable member of the duo who founded Nevada County's oldest newspaper — even though he was actually the villain in the story and though our hero, whose word proved to be impeccable, has been largely forgotten.
"Townsend was notorious among his buddies and people in the newspaper business, those in San Francisco and Nevada who knew about him," Comstock told The Union, noting the writer's work before and after his brief stint in Grass Valley.
The New Hampshire native was known to lie about his age, claiming to be older than he was, and as Comstock wrote, Townsend often recycled his father's sailing stories with himself as the hero to entertain his drinking buddies.
One of the people with whom Townsend would often pony up to the bar during his stint at The Golden Era in San Francisco, eventually established his own acclaim for telling tall tales that far surpassed that of Townsend.
"(Mark) Twain may have picked up some pointers on storytelling from James W. E. Townsend, better known as 'Lying Jim,'" David Dary wrote in "Red Blood and Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West."
"Twain was attracted to Townsend because he was a talker, a storyteller and a good drinking companion. Townsend's mere presence was entertaining. There is even a story that Townsend first told the tale that inspired Twain to write 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.'"
While at the Golden Era, where he worked as a compositor setting type, Townsend also apparently made an impression on Bret Harte, who eventually became the highest paid author in America, Drury wrote, and who used Townsend as the model for the title character of his poem "Truthful James."
Before and after he landed in Grass Valley, Townsend moved from paper to paper, "setting type and writing stories, the usual pattern of itinerant printers who chose not to stay in any town too long," Drury wrote.
"Sometimes Townsend even served as editor of a paper, continuing his inventive and hoax-filled stories."
One of Townsend's own editors at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nev., author of "An Editor on the Comstock Lode" and a member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, Wells Drury considered Townsend "a unique specimen, by all odds the most original writer and versatile liar that the west coast, or any other coast, ever produced."
In a chapter he titled "Sagebrush Journalism," sharing stories about scribes like Twain, Dan De Quille, Arthur McEwen and Townsend, Drury describes Townsend's talent for storytelling without much, if any, regard to facts.
"To read his paper you would think that it was published in a city of ten thousand inhabitants," Drury wrote. "He had a mayor and a city council, whose proceedings he reported once a week, although they never existed, and enlivened his columns with killings, law suits, murder trials and railroad accidents, and a thousand incidents of daily life in a humming, growing town — every last one of which he coined out of his own active brain.
"He was called 'Lying Jim' Townsend to the day of his death and could he have had his way it would have been graven on his tombstone."
Founded to preserve the Union
In stark comparison to the ink running in Townsend's blood, his publishing partner at the Grass Valley Daily Union apparently had no background in the newspaper business either before or after starting the paper — which, perhaps, helps explain his near anonymity after all these years.
In most versions sharing the story of how The Union was born, even within the pages of the actual newspaper itself, Townsend's partner has been most often referred to simply as "Blumenthal," "H. Blumenthal," "M. Blumenthal" or "H. M. Blumenthal."
"Blumenthal wasn't involved in the newspaper business at all prior to that," said Comstock. "He was just somebody Townsend knew in Virginia City. I suspect they brought him along because he had some money and was a guy who knew his way around."
"… when Jim was offered an opportunity to establish a campaign newspaper at Grass Valley, California, he seems to have leapt at the chance," Comstock wrote in his 1997 story published in the historical society bulletin.
"Lacking funds (as usual) Jim persuaded Henry M. Blumenthal, a Virginia City hostler (or stableman, who tends to horses), to join him in the enterprise and provide some cash for food and whiskey until the newspaper's backers came through with financial support."
As soon as the first edition was printed inside the "Exchange Building" — known today as the "Holbrooke Hotel" — and was circulated Friday, Oct. 28, 1864, the paper was praised by Republican newspapers in Nevada City, such as the Nevada City Gazette. But it wasn't as well received in Grass Valley, where Democrat papers such as the Grass Valley National, which opposed the re-election of Lincoln, dominated.
"As its name indicates, it is 'Union,' and we hope it will be the means of turning some of the vile Copperheads (or "Peace Democrats" opposed to Lincoln's war effort) from the error of their ways," the Gazette reported on the new paper.
John Rollin Ridge, also known as "Yellow Bird" and considered to be the first Native American novelist — writing "The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit" in 1854 — had become the editor of the Grass Valley National earlier that year and led it to become Grass Valley's first daily newspaper on Aug. 1, 1864, after having been a tri-weekly publication.
"(The Union's founders) were sent into Grass Valley by the Republicans in a last-ditch effort to get votes away from the Democrats," James W. Parins wrote in "John Rollin Ridge: His Life and Works." "Ridge wished the Union 'as much success as it deserves' and dismissed the rival paper as inconsequential.
"He had considerably more interest in the Union than he let on, however. A bizarre sequence of events took place on the eve of the election."
The plot thickens
There are various versions of what happened in the days leading up to election day, which resulted in Lincoln handily defeating Democrat George McClellan, as chronicled in both the Grass Valley National and the Grass Valley Daily Union. However, without the first 54 issues of The Union newspaper still in existence, we must largely rely on Nevada City's Republican papers to share The Union's side of the story.
But at least one thing is consistently clear no matter which source you read: James W. E. "Lying Jim" Townsend came this close to selling out the Grass Valley Daily Union to its rival paper led by Ridge, as the Nevada City Gazette reported.
"On Saturday night last an attempt was made at Grass Valley to perpetuate one of the meanest swindles ever heard of," the Gazette reported. "The parties to the infamous transaction are John R. Ridge of the Grass Valley National and J. W. E. Townsend, late of the Grass Valley Union, now of parts unknown. The particulars of the affair, as related to us by Mr. Blumenthal, proprietor of the Union, are as follows:
"Mr. Blumenthal, on his return from a visit to San Francisco … was told by Townsend that 'there is something on foot by which they could make some money.' In explanation, he said he had been offered by Ridge, of the National, in behalf of the Copperhead party, a large sum of money to sell out to the Copperheads."
The Gazette goes on to state that Blumenthal "refused to have anything to do with such a negotiation, and the matter was dropped between them." Ridge reportedly later approached Blumenthal and "under the seal of confidence offered him his own price if he would raise McClellan's name at the head of his paper (as opposed to Lincoln's), and then transfer the concern to the Copperheads. Mr. Blumenthal indignantly spurned the proposition, and informed the sneaking Copperhead that there was not money enough in town or the State to hire him to do an act so mean and contemptible."
But, apparently, Lying Jim Townsend did have such a price.
As the story goes, Townsend was scheduled to speak before a Republican club in Grass Valley on Saturday, Nov. 5, 1864, but didn't show. Blumenthal told the Gazette he suspected something was up and went to look for Townsend at The Union, where he learned from a colleague that Lying Jim had made the arrangement to sell out the paper later that night. Blumenthal then headed back to a room he shared with Townsend, only to find his partner had moved out.
"A thousand copies of the spurious edition were to be worked off, and the carrier of the Union, one Henry Waite, was to destroy the regular edition of the paper, and distribute instead to the patrons the bogus edition, prepared by Ridge," the Gazette reported on Tuesday, Nov. 8." … Mr. Blumenthal caused the cases to be speedily brought back, and called in a posse of Union men to guard the office."
When Ridge appeared around midnight to make the switch, he was turned away but took issue in that he believed he had brokered a legitimate business deal. When Townsend turned up nearly two hours later, he reportedly came clean, but said "he had not intended to swindle his partner, but would have given him his share of the purchase money. … He has not been seen nor heard of in the neighborhood of Grass Valley, and has probably decamped."
Our unsung hero
With Townsend out of the picture, Blumenthal remained at the helm of the paper, where he came under relentless attacks — in both print and physical confrontations — from Ridge and his cohorts at the Grass Valley National.
"On the following Monday, Ridge and two other men marched out of the National office on the northwest corner of Main and North Church streets and headed down Main … and burst in the Union office," Parins wrote. "An argument followed, during which Ridge challenged Blumenthal to a duel. Blumenthal refused, whereupon Ridge began beating him with his walking stick, all the time urging his victim to fight back.
"… Blumenthal and others subsequently maintained that Ridge had paid Townsend a sum of money for the Union and was upset when Blumenthal refused to turn over the paper or at least defect to the Democratic side. Ridge denied this and claimed he was motivated by a sense of honor."
Throughout the following weeks and months, the rivalry between National and the Union continued, with the challenge of duels made in both print and in person, although none apparently took place. Much of the back-and-forth badgering continued until April 1865, when the Civil War had come to an end, and shortly after, on April 15, Lincoln was assassinated. The news was delivered locally by both the National and the Union with black-bordered columns in observance of the slain president.
According to Parins, "Ridge expressed 'profound regret' for the death of the man he had so often reviled. The regret was probably genuine; in the procession at Grass Valley mourning Lincoln's demise, John Rollin Ridge and M. Blumenthal marched arm in arm."
Blumenthal had already sold his interest in the Grass Valley Daily Union on March 2, 1865, according to the paper's archives, as Donna Reynolds, a volunteer at the Doris Foley Library in Nevada City, discovered during her own research (See related story page A7 and online at TheUnion.com). Reynolds, who delivered The Union newspaper while growing up in Nevada City, said she was moved to look into "this Blumenthal character" because there seemed to be so little known about him.
"The men were fascinating," Reynolds said. "It bothered me that Lying Jim Townsend was the only one we knew about … because he was only with the paper for eight days, and yes, he deserves credit for being there, but what he tried to do — he nearly killed the paper or damaged it severely — if he had gone through with what he intended to do and if Blumenthal hadn't stopped him.
"So I'm thinking, 'Why don't we know who Blumenthal is?' I mean, we wouldn't have that paper today, in my opinion, if it wasn't for him."
Comstock said his research showed Blumenthal "hung around for awhile and tried to make something of the paper. I think he later bought a place to build a resort somewhere between Grass Valley and Colfax, but that didn't work out."
Eventually, as Reynolds discovered, Blumenthal went back to the business world and left newspapering behind, opening a laundry in San Francisco.
Considering the short span of time he stayed in Nevada County, and at the helm of The Union, it's impressive that by being a businessman who took pride in his word, that The Union has remained in daily circulation since its 1864 start.
"He was kind of a guy who got hooked into this thing and was a little indignant that he had gotten mixed up in something that was as unscrupulous as this," Comstock surmised. "There was nothing to indicate before or after that he'd participate in anything like that.
"He'd made an agreement with a bunch of people that he'd start a Republican paper. And so, I'm sure he had nothing but contempt for Townsend as soon as he found out about it. He simply wanted to live up to his part of the agreement."
Nearly 150 years later, we, here at The Union newspaper, and the community it continues to serve, are very glad he did.
Contact Editor Brian Hamilton via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 530-477-4249.
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