- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

In May 1864, a simple yet dangerous hoax, perpetrated in the name of greed, led President Lincoln to order the arrest of two editors and the suppression of their newspapers.

For all the trampling of civil liberties by the Lincoln administration and Union Army, this was the only known instance when the president signed such an order:

“You are … commanded … to arrest and imprison … the editors, proprietors and publishers of the aforesaid newspapers … and you will hold [them] … until they can be brought to trial before a military commission. … You will also take possession by military force, of the … ‘New York World,’ and ‘Journal of Commerce,’ and … prevent any further publication therefrom.”

Using his extensive knowledge of the newspaper business and the recently formed New York Associated Press (NYAP), veteran newsman Joseph Howard Jr. of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and fellow Eagle reporter Frank Mallison had prepared and sent hand-delivered to the New York newspapers (by a copy boy about 3:30 a.m. on May 18) a fictitious proclamation purportedly signed by Lincoln.

It was later described by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton as “admirably calculated to deceive” and by the Telegraph Age Journal as “the work of a skilled hand.”

The proclamation stated, among other things, that the government was going forward with a draft of 400,000 new soldiers.

Less than a year earlier, draft riots had engulfed New York City in terror and destruction. Many people did not approve of the war and might not accept another large-scale draft. Howard hoped, and reasonably expected, that his bogus proclamation would inflame the citizenry, panic the stock markets and shoot up the price of gold. It very briefly did all three.

The timing was especially sensitive to Lincoln and the Union for three reasons. First, two weeks earlier, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had begun the Overland Campaign, the final thrust to Richmond, one dead soldier at a time. The proclamation would signal failure. With the election just six months away and Lincoln’s hopes for re-election bleak, Grant simply could not fail.

Second, May 19 was “steamer day” in New York - the day news traveled across the Atlantic with the latest war updates. (There were no trans-Atlantic cables until 1866.) The proclamation would indicate the war effort was going badly, thereby likely pushing Europeans away from the Union and closer to the Confederate cause. (To help shape European sentiment, the government earlier in the war had adjusted publication of news to fit the schedules of trans-Atlantic steamers.)

Finally, on the same night that Howard had penned the bogus proclamation, Lincoln had written a genuine proclamation calling for 300,000 new troops. Lincoln, however, had put his proclamation away in a desk drawer. Waking up to see a proclamation very much like the one he had put away a few hours earlier unnerved him greatly.

Howard, who had worked previously for almost all the New York papers, was the reporter who had claimed back in February 1861 that Lincoln had snuck through Baltimore in the middle of the night in a “scotch plaid cap and a very long military cloak.” He had annoyed his former editors with clever pranks, including holding the telegraph lines open and filling them with Jesus’ genealogy. On another occasion, he had violated an order banning reporters from the funeral of Gen. Philip Kearny by sneaking in dressed in a clerical robe.

Two New York papers printed the bogus proclamation. Coincidentally or not, both were vehemently hostile to the Lincoln administration. The New York World, 10 months earlier, had stirred draft riots to full deadly boil by ridiculing the president’s call-up as “unnecessary and mischievous.” The World, according to one analyst, was “the most malignant, the most brutal, the most false and scurrilous of all assailants of the president.”

The other paper, the Journal of Commerce, had been named in a grand jury presentment in August 1861 as disloyal to the government. Its mail privileges had been revoked and later restored only with the paper’s reorganization and its editor’s resignation.

The draft news caused the markets to open just as Howard had expected. Lincoln’s secretary John Hay reported the stock exchange was “thrown into violent fever.” Gold prices skyrocketed, and angry crowds started to form, demanding the proclamation be rescinded.

Union Gen. John A. Dix saved the day and prevented a full-blown riot by quickly solving the case. Thinking the scheme had been set in place by someone looking for a gold spike, he inquired about gold purchasers. (A few days earlier, Howard had asked gold merchants about the effect such a proclamation would have on gold prices.) Dix promptly nabbed Howard, who, along with Mallison, quickly confessed.

The other newspapers then ran stories reporting that the draft proclamation was a hoax, quieting the mob. Samuel Cunard agreed to delay the departure of his steamer the Scotia to Europe until the matter got straightened out.

The military arrested the owner of the Independent Press, a newer and less government-connected competitor of the NYAP. Stanton incorrectly concluded that the Independent had sent the story out over its wires. It turned out that the NYAP’s wires had sent out the story. (It was picked up in the New Orleans Picayune.) Stanton later tried to “soothe the righteous anger” of the Independent by leaking important military news to it.

Also arrested were editors and employees of the two newspapers. Although they were not aware the proclamation was phony, they were imprisoned and not able to publish again for four days. A riot was averted, civil liberties trampled. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who blamed Secretary of State William Seward for forcing Lincoln’s hand, called the seizures “hasty, rash, inconsiderate, and wrong.”

The Journal’s editor later wrote to Lincoln asking (and answering) whether he would have suppressed the other, pro-Lincoln, newspapers, as he had the Journal and the World, if they had unwittingly published the bogus proclamation. “You know you would not. If not, why not? Is there a different law for your opponents and for your supporters?”

He claimed the government’s actions were “a shock to the public mind.” Even the New York Times seemed to agree, calling the actions analogous to “hanging a man in advance of the trial.”

Censure resolutions were offered unsuccessfully in the House and Senate shortly after the incident, calling the government’s response a “violation of the Constitution, and subversive to the principles of civil liberty.”

Not much is known about Mallison. Howard spent three months in jail. He was later elected president of the International League of Press Clubs and became one of the first columnists to be syndicated throughout the country.

At least one merchant tried to capitalize on the excitement of the issue. In an advertisement, it was promised to not be a bogus proclamation that “Golden Bitters - are the best tonic in town!”

• Paul N. Herbert (pnh9202@verizon.net) will provide the footnotes for this story upon request.

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