Copyright 2007 by William A. Mays, Proprietor
there was a magical publication called the National Police Gazette...
|A Sickening and Sanguinary Recital of the
Murderous Tendency of Mankind
|Of Sufficient Number and Variety of
Atrocity to Enable the Craving of the
Most Exacting TO FILL TO SATIETY
A century before Howard Stern hit the airwaves, there was a man who not only recognized the appeal of quasi-lesbian imagery, but–like Stern–knew how to make it an acceptable part of popular culture. Five generations before Stephen Colbert and Sacha Baron Cohen blurred the distinction between the real and fictional news correspondent, there was a man who populated his real-news publication with fictional editors and their semi-real exploits. Before there was the celebrity gossip column, he invented it. Before there was a sports page, he created it. Before the advent of the girlie magazine, he provided it. When the sport of boxing was illegal and widely considered immoral, this man championed, promoted, and popularized it all the way into legal and public acceptance. The heads of "respectable" publications looked down on him, but then raced to imitate him when his success became undeniable. Hugely popular, even across the ocean, the publication made an appearance in James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses. At a time when the barbershop was not just a place to get your hair cut, but served as the de facto gentlemen's club for the working class, it was known as the "bible of the barbershop." Its recipe mixed the titillating and funny with the informative and serious in just the right proportion, in a way that had never been thought of previously, in a way that led directly to what we know as today's tabloid journalism, sports reporting, skin magazines, shock jocks, and quasi-news programs such as the "Daily Show." The purveyors of these current forms of entertainment, as well as the professional sport of boxing, can address their gratitude to one Richard K. Fox and his publication the National Police Gazette.
The news was real, and it was shocking, but it was offered with a wink. If it was violent and gory, great; if it involved sexual infidelity, wonderful; if it included both, perfect. The details were gratuitously graphic. However, they were mixed with something Richard K. Fox and the Police Gazette may not have invented, but did manage to refine in a way never before seen in American journalism: Irony. At a time when newspapers took themselves as seriously as they took their subject matter, Fox and the Gazette set out to blow this pomposity apart. They stalked hypocrisy wherever it lay and went in for the kill, reserving special derision for religious leaders seen as failing to practice what they preached.
Before television and radio were invented, around when Jon Stewart and Howard Stern's great-great grandparents would have been walking the earth, books, magazines and newspapers were the only way to reach a mass audience. The person who mastered the print medium would be–if not king of all media–certainly king of all mass media. In pursuit of this goal Richard K. Fox set out to turn this text-heavy medium into something visually exciting. Not only did the number, size, and detail of the Police Gazette's woodcut illustrations mark a quantum leap above what was then the norm in other publications, their subject matter was calculated to arouse various areas of the–usually male–psyche. To top it off, he began printing his Gazette on pink paper, another departure–an ironic one at that–from his competitors.
And then there was boxing. When Richard Fox took control of the National Police Gazette in 1877, boxing was illegal in every jurisdiction in America. Matches were brought off by men lurking in the shadows, operating outside the law. Exact dates and locations were kept secret until the last minute, and communicated only to those "fancy" gentlemen known to be of the sporting fraternity. Participants and spectators at boxing matches risked arrest just by showing up. If newspapers caught wind of a big match, they would send a correspondent who would often write up every detail as if it were a legitimate sporting event, but then editorialize about how depraved and immoral the whole affair had been.
Richard K. Fox had no patience for such hypocrisy, and set out to cover boxing as if it were already legitimate, going so far as to promote individual fighters, act as stakeholder, and even sanction matches as representing the Police Gazette championship. Though it was a largely adversarial relationship–much of it likely hyped for public consumption–the association between John L. Sullivan and Richard K. Fox did more to raise public interest in the sport than anything else. And though his initial motivation for featuring boxing in the Gazette may have been–like so much else–in pursuit of irony, Richard Fox soon found himself the Bert Sugar of his day. The National Police Gazette became the only periodical in America that offered regular, thorough coverage unclouded by condescending opinion. If most things in the Gazette came with a wink and a nudge, its coverage of boxing–and to a lesser extent horse racing and baseball–became the only part that was serious and straight-faced. In 1890, boxing finally began breaking through into its much-sought-after legitimacy, which would rise so quickly in the public mind that president Theodore Roosevelt himself would be promoting it from the White House just after the turn of the century. Like so many other aspects of popular culture, this too had been foreseen by Richard K. Fox.