14 April 2010

Publick Occurrences: America's First Newspaper

Wilkommen am Wunderkammer! As an aficionado of dying media, I thought I would bring you, in this edition of the Cabinet, the tale of that first American penny dreadful, Publick Occurrences both Forreign and Domestick. Struck up in that late, great lazy newspaper town of Boston by an English expatriate named Benjamin Harris in 1690, Occurrences was the first printed news chronicle to circulate this side of the pond. Harris' day job was as the proprietor of the London Coffee-House in Boston, a place where Anglophiles could gather and gossip in affected British accents.

Plate 1.1: Harris poses with "printer'ſ beſt Friend" in an advertisement for Occurrences

Harris began his gazette with some semi-accurate and prophetic words:"The Countrey shall be furnished once a moneth...with an Account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our Notice." As you can see, spelling has not always been a priority in the news industry. Leaving his business open to expansion, Harris included the caveat that he would have no qualms about flooding his readership with news, as he could not keep a "Glut of Occurrences" from his loyal subscribers.

Harris' goal, he said, was to make sure that "Memorable Occurrents of Divine Providence may not be neglected or forgotten, as they too often are," referring to the infamously illiterate and forgetful lotus-eating Puritans of New England. Another of Harris' objectives was to use his printed organ as a kind of mind control, directing his readers to "better understand the Circumstances of Publique Affairs" in order to "direct their Thoughts at all times." To what ends Harris intended to use his power, be it for zombie revolution or personal vanity, is unknown.

The third goal of Occurrences was "that some thing may be done towards the Curing, or at least the Charming, of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us." Harris perhaps intended to cure, or at least address, the supposedly supernatural devilry most saliently expressed in the 1689 Braintree Liar Trials. (The lie? The town was actually called Quincy! The real truth? Braintree was controlled by a malevolent, sentient Liberty Tree.) Harris furthermore made his intentions known that he would "expose the Name of such person, as A malicious Raiser of a false Report," and would serve justice by personally pressing them to death in his workshop.

Plate 1.2: Illustration of the fate of "Malicious Raisers of False Reports" appearing in Occurrences

As no newspaper had ever been published in the British colonies of North America, Harris had the daunting task of condensing eighty-three years of news into three double-columned pages. Luckily, he hit upon an ingenious idea to remedy this problem -- make the back page of the second sheet blank. Then the reader could fill in, using their own printing press, what they deemed Harris had neglected. Who's the clever one now, Sulzberger and your "grey" lady?

True to his word, Harris included a diverse array of stories from north, east, west, and south. He reported that "Epidemical Fevers and Agues grow very common, in some parts of the Country," and "tho' many dye not" they were "sorely unfitted for their impolyments." New England society seems to have recovered quickly, though, from its temporary dearth of colored clothing.

Although it was probably apparent to most of his subscribers, Harris also reported that Boston had, “a few weeks ago…met with a Disaster by Fire, which consumed about twenty Houses.” More importantly, however, one of the “Calamities of this Fire” was that the “best furnished PRINTING-PRESS, of those few that we know of in America, was lost; a loss not presently to be repaired.” Any good investigative journalist today would regard this story with suspicion, and might ask: “Did Harris forcibly enter into the Shop of a rival printer, ABSCOND with his PRINTING-PRESS and then ſet the ſhop ablaze to cover up his crime?” Luckily for Harris, investigative reporters had not been invented yet. Unfortunately, Cotton Mathers had been invented, as we shall see presently…

After recounting that, while “barbarous Indians were lurking about” in Chelmsford, “Christianized Indians” had the “prospect of a very Comfortable Harvest," Harris ended the issue with another disclaimer: “'Tis possible, we have not so exactly related the Circumstances of this business, but this Account, is as near exactness, as any that could be had.” Harris needn't worry -- there was no challenge to the veracity of Harris' stories from the other newspaper publishers of Boston. AND THERE WOULD BE NO Publick Occurrences No. 2!

Plate 1.3: Cotton "3.0" Mather sternly reprimands a "barbarous Newsie" it encounters on the road to Salem trying to illegally sell Occurrences out of her handwoven basket.

As you might have expected the humorless and functionally-illiterate Puritan leaders of Massachusetts did not like Harris' unlicensed beige journalism. Foremost among them was Cotton Mather, a great tree-killer in his own right. The prototype Mather 3G,  was engineered to be the ultimate arbiter of Puritan law. The third incarnation was a great improvement on its predecessors, the Richard 1000 and the Increase-a-tron 2.0, cranking out wordy yet inexplicably popular sermons faster than he could inject parishioners with smallpox. The Mather did not stand for illegal printing, however, or upstart competition, and so Harris' two printing presses were smashed by enthusiastic Luddites.

Benjamin Harris, disgraced and bankrupt from his failed Berkshires coffee plantation, did what he knew he must do someday, activating the teleportation portal that linked the London Coffee-House back to its metropolitan namesake. Harris was never seen in Boston again, but, fourteen years later, a man named John Campbell purchased the now-decrepit building and discovered an old printing press inside, and the Boston News-Letter, the first continuouſly printed newspaper in North America, was born!

Well, readers fair, this edition of the Cabinet has drawn to a close. But ol' Prof. C has learned at least one lesson from his research into early American newspapers!

Please fill in below any witticisms, pseudofacts, or interesting woodcuts that you feel add to my tale. Printing only, please.


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