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Marvin Weisbord
February 18, 1963
How an immigrant Irish lad took over a trashy journal and transformed it into the premier sporting publication of the world
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February 18, 1963

The Bible Of The Barbershop

How an immigrant Irish lad took over a trashy journal and transformed it into the premier sporting publication of the world

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Richard K. Fox esteemed the Police Gazette. The Police Gazette esteemed Richard K. Fox. "In all that concerns gentlemanly and manly sports," the Gazette was wont to report, " Richard K. Fox is today the supreme figure on the Western Continent." Of the Gazette, Fox said, "It stands alone and unrivaled, a powerful factor for good." Fox was the editor and publisher of the Gazette.

From 1880 to 1910 Richard Kyle Fox and his Police Gazette ruled supreme over the sporting world. With a whoop and a cry, the weekly pink sheet covered Coney Island frolics, Paris inside out and the lives of famous poisoners. It promoted boxing, rowing, horse racing, dog fighting, cockfighting and a wondrous footrace called the Richard K. Fox Six-Day-Go-As-You-Please. For his readers, Fox built up a profitable feud with John L. Sullivan, crowned Annie Oakley the best shot in the world and transformed Billy the Kid, a narrowchested juvenile delinquent from Brooklyn, into a Galahad of the West. For Fox, two New found land fishermen rowed more than 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in 55 days in an 18-foot rowboat. One reader, enthused about the sporting life, offered to walk 700 miles around a flour barrel in 134 hours for $50. Fox said he would pay if the man would do his walking inside the barrel. Another reader offered to jump off the top of the Gazette Building arm in arm with John L. Sullivan. All he wanted was $2,500 and his picture on the cover with the caption, "Champion Jumper of the World."

Built on athletic hoopla and spiced with a show of garter, the Gazette was the greatest editorial success of the age. It was sad, loud, funny, vulgar, gory, completely outrageous—and thoroughly compelling. Dubbed The Bible of the Barbershop, it had a circulation of half a million in all the states and territories and 26 foreign countries. Once a reader wrote from Sempronius, Texas: "Have been on the move so much lately that I have not received the Police Gazette regularly. Please send me a copy here and oblige. Jesse James."

Compared with Fox, Hearst and Pulitzer were dull indeed. Fox was the first editor to make lavish use of pictures, and with its elaborate woodcuts, sensationalism and sports, the Gazette was the immediate progenitor of the tabloid. Fox virtually invented the sports page, the Broadway gossip column and the newspaper prize contest. He knew how to get the most out of his writers. On Saturday night he would lock them in a room with food, whisky and comfortable couches. On Monday morning he would let them out, giving them $10 apiece for their finished copy. The whisky, Fox believed, spurred creative effort, and the more imaginative a story, the better he liked it. He didn't give a hoot for libel suits. Once he published a list of more than $3 million worth of suits that had been brought against the Gazette in a six-month period, daring any of the plaintiffs to collect. He was, wrote H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in joint tribute, "the most enterprising, the most audacious...of the American editors of his day."

Fox actually knew next to nothing about sports. He never played any and, with the exception of boxing, knew the rules of none. He was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1846, the grandson of a minister. At 14 he became an editorial slavey on the Banner of Ulster, a Presbyterian church paper. Four years later he went into the countinghouse of the Belfast News Letter and spent 10 years there before sailing to America in 1874.

In New York, Fox went to work for the Commercial Bulletin, the forerunner of The Wall Street Journal , as an advertising salesman. A personable young man, he made friends with a couple of engravers who, in lieu of cash owed to them, took over a dying journal called the Police Gazette. Founded in 1845, the Gazette was the oldest weekly in the country. It had begun as a crusader against crime, but under the inept direction of George W. Matsell, ex-chief of police in New York, its standards had sunk so low that it was eventually selling only to the crooks it was supposed to expose. The engravers hired Fox to sell ads, and he did so well he soon had them in his debt. They paid him off by giving him the paper.

In 1876 Fox assumed the editorial chair at the Gazette. He had just one idea in mind, but as Edward Van Every points out in Sins of New York , a history of the Gazette, "it was a valuable one." The idea was that if potential customers couldn't read, give them pictures to look at. In came an army of artists to draw what Fox ordered, mostly the shapely legs of pretty girls. To get around the flourishing puritanism of the day (and the floor-length dresses), Fox's artists were forever sketching damsels falling down on roller skates, getting their shoes blacked, sleeping on fire escapes to beat the summer heat or being buffeted by the wind ("Playful pranks of March breezes"). Occasionally the reader got a double-barreled eyeful, as in the woodcut of a lady clambering up a telegraph pole to spy on her philandering boy friend ("What a jealous woman discovered in a tenement house by the aid of a clear head and a lineman's clamps"). Here the reader got not only the pole climber but what she saw.

To attract attention to the Gazette, Fox began printing it on pink paper. (It was quickly nicknamed The Pinky.) He added a page of theater notes and sold cabinet sketches of the petted favorites of the footlights. Perhaps because of some boyhood experiences on church papers, he instituted a column, "Crimes of the Clergy." Then, as if to demonstrate lack of bias, he added another, "Vice's Varieties," open to lay offenders. Tongue in cheek, Fox maintained the Gazette was against sin. Week after week, the paper warned susceptible country lasses against the snares of the metropolis, which it set down in juicy detail. "No illustration and not a line of printing of immoral tendency is suffered to appear in its columns," Fox said of the Gazette. "So far from pandering to vicious tastes, its object is to delineate vice in its proper odious character."

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