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November 10, 2005

Sex and violence in 1906: UW prof writes of ‘vigilante newspapers’

Saturation media coverage of strange rituals, weird attire and sexual eccentricities put the case in the public spotlight for weeks on end.

The accused was not Michael Jackson, but a young man named George Mitchell, on trial for murdering a religious cult leader on the streets of Seattle in 1906.

The strange preacher had lured Mitchell’s two sisters into the cult and supposedly seduced them. Which, according to the hyperventilating newspapers of the day — and eventually a Seattle jury — easily justified a brother’s cold blooded shooting of the charismatic cultist for having “ruined” defenseless female kin.

In Vigilante Newspapers: A Tale of Sex, Religion, & Murder in the Northwest, just out from the University of Washington Press, Communication Department Chair Gerald Baldasty recounts this 99-year-old bout of hysteria in a brisk, accessible fashion that links it to larger trends in journalism and society.

“We made a conscious decision that this was to be a ‘crossover’ book of regional history which would appeal to a broader audience,” Baldasty said, “but the academic part’s still there.”

Baldasty was researching early 20th century press competition when he first fell under the spell of Oregon “holy roller” Edmund Creffield and the story of his violent death at the hands of Mitchell, who unapologetically admitted the act and turned himself in. As Baldasty read accounts of the trial, he asked himself why newspapers — typically defenders of the social order — were making such a hero of a vigilante murderer.

One explanation arose from the values of the time that cast “weak” women as needing protection by husbands, fathers and brothers, especially against subversive influences such as Creffield that threatened to draw them away from their traditional household roles.

Meanwhile, a lurid case involving honor, revenge, religion and sex promised to pump up sales of Seattle’s three main daily newspapers — especially the afternoon rivals Seattle Star and Seattle Times — which were hell-bent on luring readers.

America’s newspapers, Baldasty explained, had yet to completely shake off their old role as agitators — often representing blatantly partisan sides — and to move toward the more reliable reporting practices and mass appeal that were to characterize later 20th century journalism.

And today? While the book does not draw the parallel, Baldasty said in an interview that he sees a 21st century return to the agitated 19th century style in cable TV networks such as Fox News that cater to niche viewpoints.

“From the 1920s to the ’80s, the mainstream media cleaned up its act and established ethical standards of reporting,” Baldasty said. “Now, with cable TV as a sort of carnival of different approaches, we’re coming back to an agitated representation of news, a return to partisanship and a breakdown of ethics.”

Meanwhile, lest anyone be concerned about the 1906 murderer going scot-free, there was to be a final act in the Creffield-Mitchell saga, bringing about a sort of rough justice. University Week does not intend to spoil the ending, but readers of Baldasty’s book will learn that Mitchell’s younger sister never did agree that she had needed her brother’s protection.