This story first appeared in The Feathertale Review No.9
Before Rupert Murdoch there was William Randolph Hearst.
And before Hearst there was J. Douglas S. Windermere,
the first tycoon and the real father of the yellow press.
It was sometime between 10:35 and 10:40 a.m. on December 18, 1837 — a Monday —when the first copy of the premiere edition of the inaugural issue of The Planet spat from an aged, hand-cranked printing press into the waiting fingers of its publisher, J. Douglas S. Windermere.
Outside, the city was in a state of rebellion. The frost of a winter’s morning could not cool the discontent that was, for the tenth day in a row, pouring out of the taps at Kelly’s Tavern and about to spill into the cobbled alleys and dirt carriage paths that made up this colonial town. Two hundred commoners were already gathering around those taps, muskets slung over their shoulders as they drank and prepared for another ill-guided raid on the citadel. But along the snow-covered cobbles that lay between the drunken rebels to the north and the armed authorities to the south stood Windermere’s manor. And between Windermere’s manor and the cobbled road stood Windermere’s coach house. And inside Windermere’s coach house stood Windermere, a fifty-four-year-old Presbyterian with a printing press (a rarity in the day) who, with the first edition of a single-paged newspaper, was about to make his voice the loudest in the city.
The clank and clatter of the press came to a stop as the barrel-chested pressman stepped away from his station, rubbed his ink-stained hands on his filthy apron, rested his frame against the coach-house wall, and waited for Windermere’s appraisal.
Windermere’s servant boy pushed his master’s top hat to the back of his balding crown, allowing the publisher an unobstructed and shadowless view of his creation. Gripping the edges of the paper between his fingertips, he raised that first copy of that premiere edition of The Planet ever closer to his bearded face. A tear began to form within Windermere’s monocled eye as he read his own words. The main headline, slathered on the pulped remnants of a maple tree and a discarded loincloth using ink harvested from a family of dead squid, screamed from the page as loudly as a stolen ten-point Baskerville type could. Spread more or less in a straight line across four columns, the headline to Windermere’s editorial set the paper’s self-gratifying tone: “A new, erudite and grammatically correct voice for everyone; elites and plebs alike, unite behind us, for we are The Planet.”
The pressman and the servant boy watched and listened as Windermere read with both his eyes and nose, inhaling loudly through somewhat stuffed nostrils as he proofread the paper. Windermere loved the smell of a freshly printed page in the morning. The sharp, metallic aroma of the ink-pressed type was as intoxicating as the newfound sense of power he now wielded with this single printed page.
There were 2,348 words in the first Planet. None of them contained the letters j or k. Such was the price of using a typeface that Windermere had personally stolen from a Catholic monastery on the outskirts of town, only to somehow lose the entire stock of those two letters while evading three desperate monks who still needed the typeface to complete their printing of the Book of Revelation.
Windermere was a tall man with a modest paunch. His face was long but not sullen, the result of a tangled beard that extended his chin to the top of his cravat. His moustache, curled into tips that ran parallel to his lips, was never as stained as his principles. His eyes were sunken but not dark. His skin was nearly as white as his shirt, but slightly more wrinkled. Although his wallet was as empty as his conscience, he was never one to wear his debts on his sleeve. Always impeccably dressed in a black-tailed jacket, oxford grey pants and a violet vest, he was rarely seen without his top hat, made of rabbit fur that he swore to be beaver, or his brass-tipped walking stick, which concealed a vial of bourbon and could give a lashing as good as his tongue.
“Well done, Mr. Peterborough,” Windermere exhaled in a raspy tone that masked his inner joy. “I think I’ll take this copy for myself. A keepsake of sorts.”
The pressman, Orville Peterborough, who was the oversized spawn of a Prussian whore and a Saxon émigré, wiped his brow, returned to his station and cranked the press back to life.
Without removing an eye from the page, Windermere summoned his fourteen-year-old servant boy, Julian. “Boy, mark the hour.”
Julian, orphaned six years earlier when Windermere killed his father in a duel over an unpaid debt — Windermere’s unpaid debt — reached into his master’s vest pocket and pulled out a watch. He flipped it open and peered at its face.
“It’s 10:40 a.m., Mr. Windermere, sir,” said Julian in his melodic, prepubescent voice.
Windermere’s nose whistled as he inhaled with satisfaction.
Just then, the second copy of the premier edition of the inaugural issue of The Planet spat from the press. Eighteen seconds later, the third copy emerged. And sixteen seconds after that, the fourth.
“Keep it up, Mr. Peterborough,” said Windermere. “We mustn’t slow the pace.”
“Aye, sir,” the burly pressman grunted as he leaned ever more into the crank.
By noon, 250 copies of The Planet were stacked in Windermere’s hands. There was one for every fourth man gathering at the tavern.
“Boy, get thee to Kelly’s,” said Windermere, passing the stack of papers to Julian.
“Sell them to every man you see. Accept no less than a penny a page, then hurry back. We’ll have more this afternoon, printed and ready for the soldiers by the citadel.”
“Yes, master,” said the boy, tipping his tweed cap and scurrying out of the coach house into the cold.
By nightfall, five hundred copies of The Planet had been printed and distributed to the gentry and the rabble alike. Of the day’s earnings, Windermere gave ten pence to Peterborough for the fourteen hours he had spent laying out the type and cranking the press. He gave two pence to Julian as a reward for braving the cold without so much as a mitten, and for hawking The Planet to armed men on both sides of a growing rebellion that seemed as much about confronting an irresponsible government as it was about desecrating the Irish prostitutes who lived above Kelly’s Tavern.
The rebellion would be crushed by Christmas. But The Planet would live on for another 175 years.
Julian returned to the coach house shortly after dark. But there was to be no rest for Windermere’s servant boy. After thawing his frostbitten fingers by the wood stove and dining on the mildewed crust of a three-week-old loaf of bread, Julian took his post by the coach house’s lead-paned window. There he stood until sunrise, with pistol cocked, as he peered into the street searching for the shadow of any of Windermere’s seventeen creditors — twelve of whom had recently vowed to kill Windermere upon their next meeting.
Of The Planet’s initial staff of three, only the pressman slept that first night. Curled up on a straw mattress that rested beside his latrine and within reach of the wood stove, Peterborough lay still in the darkness, dreaming of the crankshaft that would enslave him to The Planet for the rest of his years.
Inside Windermere’s manor, the publisher sat at his writing table, scribbling the next day’s editorial while downing twelve goblets of fermented inspiration. The homemade wine was necessary to keep him from falling asleep. He was devoid of both money and luck. All that remained in his keeping were ideas for stories and editorials that he could pluck from his home-schooled mind and convert into words that he would print in the next day’s paper. The following week would be integral to The Planet’s survival, as well as his own. Of the twelve creditors to have recently threatened his life, he knew that at least two of them — the banker and the apothecary — would soon try to have him killed or arrested.
Scratching his bearded chin with the inked tip of his feathered pen, Windermere searched for a headline that would gain him thrice the audience of the previous day. He knew there to be 28,000 people living in his divided city, and he estimated 1,500 of them to be at least moderately capable of reading. He would need to reach every literate eye in town, and he would need to do so soon if he had any hope of paying down his debts before being shot — or worse, shackled.
Self-preservation was what drove Windermere during the first weeks of The Planet’s run. By late January 1838, the paper had a daily circulation of 1,500 copies. By early February, Windermere had purchased a complete typeface allowing him to use all twenty-six letters of the alphabet in print. By mid-August, he had paid off all but one of his creditors, withholding payment from Gaston de Mirabeau, the owner of the paper mill, to whom his debt grew with every printed page. Windermere had long regarded Mirabeau to be a spineless Frenchman whom he could mistreat as he pleased. On the rare occasion when Mirabeau inquired about his money, Windermere would silence him with a promise to “castrate” the Frenchman’s reputation in The Planet if he didn’t “sod off.” The intimidation worked because Windermere knew what no one else this side of the Atlantic did: that Mirabeau was a former cheesemonger who had fled his native France and his profitable fromagerie on the southern slope of Montmartre when it emerged in the Parisian press that he was the bastard child of the Marquis de Sade.
As the threats on Windermere’s life diminished, so too did his sense of financial desperation. By the start of September 1838, self-preservation was just one of several mitigating factors that led him to continue publishing The Planet five days a week. An unconvicted conman and an undiagnosed sociopath, Windermere’s only conviction was his greed, and his only diagnosis was his unending quest for wealth and power. With The Planet, he would tell his readers what to think, and he would make a fortune in doing so. It was an unscrupulous beginning for what would, a century later, be one of the largest newspapers in the land — an insidious rag with a greater audience and more profitability than any other.
Under Windermere’s leadership the paper’s staff grew to eleven men and forty-eight boys, all of them Presbyterians. Four of his hired hands served as reporters, one as a cartoonist and two as ad men. Three others were dispatched to the coach house to work with Peterborough to speed up the laying out of the type and to help grow the press run from 1,500 in early 1838 to 5,000 by late 1841. Peterborough remained with the paper until August 8, 1842, when he cranked out his last Planet with one hand clutching the press, the other his chest. By the time he collapsed to the floor, another printer was ready to take his place. The press never slowed and continued to feed into the hands of the forty-eight orphans who took to the streets to hawk that afternoon’s news to the masses.
Unlike most papers of the day, Windermere’s Planet did not associate itself with any one political party. Instead, the paper courted favour with whichever politician was courting Windermere’s favour.
He had built his audience by pandering to both sides of the growing socio-economic divide in the city. Windermere’s editorials consistently contradicted themselves. He would advocate for populism on Monday, and then reveal himself to be an elitist on Tuesday, allowing him to both alienate and befriend readers in a manipulative fashion that few were able to recognize. His most memorable editorials were his most xenophobic. He argued that all men were created equal, so long as they were white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. He criticized the arrival of Irish nuns in his city. They were, as he lamented in a June 1843 editorial, “like goats dressed in the Lord’s robes, but goats nonetheless.” He argued that the Indians should be kept out of town after dark, and he advocated for the deportation of the French and the subjugation of midgets. Years after Windermere’s death, his biographer would lament that he “would have made a fine radio talk-show host, if only he had been born after Marconi.”
As The Planet’s audience grew, so did Windermere’s penchant for tyranny. When members of the clergy branded him a heretic and his paper a plague on society, he responded by printing an editorial that accused the clergymen of frequenting the chambers above Kelly’s Tavern. When a local politician called him a liar and a thief, he responded by printing false allegations that the politician was a Hapsburg spy and a child molester. When a local schoolteacher tried to start up a second newspaper to challenge The Planet’s monopoly of the local free press, Windermere responded by hiring a team of thieves and arsonists to torch the teacher’s home and confiscate his printing press.
Windermere remained the paper’s editor and publisher until the evening of Sunday, October 20, 1844. On that warm autumn night he was strolling down the cobbled road that led to his manor, pondering the next week’s editorials, when he was approached by a passing carriage. Reports in the next day’s Planet said a commotion ensued between Windermere and the occupant of that carriage. According to the lone witness — a potter who happened to be dragging a wagon of petunias down the road — the carriage stopped beside Windermere, and the occupant, hidden from the potter’s view, began speaking with Windermere. Before long Windermere became agitated, accusing the unknown traveller of being “an insufferable lech,” and issuing a warning: “Trouble me again and I’ll ravage you in the press. I’ll tell the world you sodomize stray poodles in the moonlight. And I’ll enjoy doing it.” With that, Windermere turned his back to the carriage, took two steps toward his home — and dropped to the ground with a hole in his head.
Windermere’s blood had not yet begun to pool on the cobbles before the carriage driver’s whip cracked upon the horse’s rump, charioting his assassin into the darkening night. The potter ran to the stricken publisher, held his head and watched, helpless, as he muttered his final seven words — which would be greatly misunderstood in the ensuing days and doom an innocent man: “’Twas the perverse hand that felled me.”
The next day’s Planet recorded that the potter reckoned Windermere never saw the pistol that emerged from the carriage window. And he probably didn’t hear the shot that struck him in the back of the head square between the ears and exited through his left cheekbone.
Although it was in truth Mirabeau, the Sadist bastard and owner of the paper mill, who had shot Windermere to extract the publisher’s growing debt in blood, it was the alleged Hapsburg spy and child molester who was deemed the “perverse hand” and hanged for the murder three weeks later. During the trial of the alleged killer, the prosecution declared the murder an act of revenge provoked by Windermere, whose standing in the public eye had been damaged by the libellous comments he had conceived and disseminated. The judge, jury and prosecution all concluded that the publisher’s lack of journalistic integrity had led to his own demise. It wasn’t until thirty years later, when Mirabeau admitted to the murder while on his deathbed, that the alleged Hapsburg spy was exonerated.
Contrary to Victorian tradition, there was no death mask taken of Windermere’s face; such was the unfortunate result of half his visage being destroyed by the shot that killed him. Instead, a mortician took a cast of Windermere’s writing hand prior to it being entombed with the rest of his remains in a cherrywood coffin.
Windermere’s body was laid to rest under a marble gravestone carved in the image of an angel. His epitaph: “Here lies Windermere. Man of letters. Father of the planet. Born January 27, 1783. Died October 20, 1844. A martyr.”
In his last will and testament, he decreed that all his worldly belongings be transferred in ownership to the closest thing he had to a relative. “To Julian Foster Holmes, the orphaned boy whom I have more or less adopted into my keeping as a servant and something of a slave/son, I bequeath to you The Planet.”
On the Monday after Windermere’s death, Julian F. Holmes inherited control of the closest thing the city had to a free press. The next day he inherited the plaster mould of Windermere’s dead hand.
At twenty-one years of age, Julian was a self-educated young man with no real family. He had been taken into Windermere’s employ at the tender age of eight after Windermere shot Julian’s father and acquired all his earthly goods in a pistol duel meant to settle Windermere’s unpaid debt of three shillings and a bottle gin. Despite the inauspicious start to their relationship, Julian had grown to admire the man who subsequently fed him and instilled in him an appreciation for the printed word and its power.
Windermere’s death and Julian’s subsequent acquisition of The Planet failed to hinder production of the paper, for it did not even skip a issue. The grass had not yet been seeded above Windermere’s grave by the time Julian finished penning his first editorial: an obituary, of sorts, that also served as a birth notice.
The editorial quoted Windermere’s dying words and pledged that the voice of The Planet would not be silenced by any bullet.
And just like that, the irony was lost.
Windermere’s libellous perversions may have led to his own death, but Julian ensured that The Planet’s first draft of history would record things differently.
The final words of his inaugural editorial nuanced the details to his liking and re-established the newspaper’s tone for generations to come.
“Windermere is dead. But The Planet will carry on.”
Illustrations by Pete Ryan