Newspaper Editor’s Second Act: Celebrity Status in Sing Sing

The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism , by James McGrath Morris. Fordham University Press, 435 pages, $30.

Jayson Blair? A small-timer. Stephen Glass? Penny-ante punk. If you want to talk about the malfeasance of American journalists, you can start in the early 20th century, when a writer and editor of national repute named Charles E. Chapin shot and killed his wife, then turned himself in and spent the rest of his days in Ossining’s notorious Sing Sing prison. Like Mr. Glass, Chapin transformed his ignominy into a morality tale and a second spin-cycle of fame. Convict Chapin was the subject of glowing magazine profiles; behind the prison walls, he entertained political dignitaries and celebrities such as Harry Houdini.

How Chapin went from newspaper potentate to gentleman killer is a fascinating story compellingly told in James McGrath Morris’ The Rose Man of Sing Sing. The book also provides a widescreen look at the dawn of modern journalism. Mr. Morris suggests that the fierce turf battles among the newspaper giants of the era fostered a perilous ambition in characters like Chapin, a man whose moral reductivism-his need to shrink the world down to a splashy headline-contributed to his own demise.

“Charles Chapin’s life story is so extraordinary that it could have been a novel,” Mr. Morris writes in his preface. Because his career dovetailed with the rise of first-wave media, Chapin chronicled, Zelig-like, some of the most sensational stories of the age in extravagantly descriptive prose. He provided the kind of ground-level eyewitness accounts that the E!-deprived newspaper readers of the time craved. But his personal life was a melodrama fit to print as well, with all the plot twists-spurned love, fortunes gained and lost, crime and punishment-of a James T. Farrell novel.

Charles Chapin was one of the prime movers on Park Row, that fabled cluster of downtown office buildings where Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, the two biggest papers of the day, spooled out grubby accounts of upper-class perfidy and under-class depravity. Born in Oneida, N.Y., in 1858, Charles moved with his family to Atchison, Kan. At 14-professional working age for boys of the era-he opted to “earn the means with which to acquire an education” and started delivering the local paper, The Daily Champion. He taught himself shorthand and Morse code and got caught up in the national printing-press craze, self-publishing his own monthly newsletter, Our Compliments.

After a brief career as a barnstorming actor, in which he met and married fellow performer Nellie Beebe, Chapin took his first newspaper job, on the Chicago Tribune. After a few years of doggedly pursuing murder stories and other tawdry business, he became a marine reporter just when some of the most sensational maritime stories of the day were about to unfold. His first big scoop was the case of William McGarigle, a convict who had escaped from jail and jumped on a schooner called The Marsh en route to Canada. Every Chicago paper was desperate to pick up McGarigle’s trail, but Chapin paid off the operator of a speedy tugboat to intercept McGarigle at sea and, using a series of tips from boat operators, found McGarigle just as he was about to touch Canadian soil. Call it Patrick O’Brian with a notepad, a beat reporter braving the elements to nail a scoop.

Such gonzo heroics were not uncommon among reporters at the time; readers came to expect newsprint drama. But Chapin, by dint of his relentless digging, managed to find himself in the vortex of many such stories. A few months after the McGarigle story, he managed to locate the sole survivor of a shipwrecked passenger boat called The Vernon aboard the tugboat that had rescued him. “His legs are swelled to three times their ordinary size, and are discolored to the hips,” Chapin wrote, “while his hands are as big as boxing gloves.” When Chapin returned to Chicago with his prized interview subject, the pair, according to the reporter, “were followed by reporters in cabs, who chased after the carriage in hopes of getting for nothing an interview that the Tribune had obtained by superior enterprise.”

These stories made Chapin a star in Chicago. At the age of 29, he was made the city editor of the Chicago Times, then the Chicago Herald, until Joseph Pulitzer brought him to New York to work at the World. Pulitzer had perfected the fine art of sideshow reporting, using “the techniques of mass entertainment made popular on Coney Island and Broadway,” writes Mr. Morris. Relative to the other papers in the city, the “front page of the World screamed.” Chapin’s vivid colloquial style suited perfectly, and he continued to cover human disasters and crimes of passion in graphic detail. Soon he became editor of the World’s evening edition, the Evening World, and proceeded to revolutionize the way papers gathered and organized news.

Taking full advantage of a new technology-the telephone-Chapin “took the city map, drew a checkerboard pattern on it, and stationed a reporter in each of the squares, much like a police beat.” A reporter could now phone in a story, and another reporter in the office would fashion it into an article. Thus, Chapin created the concept of “rewrite men.”

He put together an all-star team of reporters, including Irvin Cobb and future Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Zona Gale, and the Evening World under his watch became the biggest-selling paper in the city. Chapin was fêted by New York society, and his exorbitant salary allowed him to own a yacht, an apartment in a luxury high-rise and a stable of horses. But when a few speculative ventures failed miserably and a rich great-uncle failed to leave him anything in his will, Chapin found himself suddenly broke. Despondent, he planned to kill Nellie-to spare her the humiliation of poverty-and then turn the gun on himself. A classic murder-suicide: “When you get this letter, I will be dead,” he wrote by way of farewell. “My wife has been such a good pal. I cannot leave her alone in the world.”

But once he’d killed Nellie, his nerve failed. “When it came to personal matters,” Mr. Morris writes, “his inability to see the full complexity of life had led to the death of Nellie. He was powerless except to lash out.” Chapin was convicted of murder on Jan. 16, 1919, and given 20 years to life.

At Sing Sing, he was treated like a hotel guest: He had the full run of the grounds, spent hours in the library, edited the prison newspaper and wrote his memoirs. When the prison chaplain recommended that he get some outside activity, Chapin began to cultivate a small garden, which soon grew into a massive horticultural wonderland. By soliciting donations from some of the captains of industry he had befriended during his career as a journalist, Chapin amassed thousands of flowers. For one project, Sing Sing’s warden Lewis Lawes, another friend, assigned prisoners to “dig up and load … rubble into prison trucks that returned with topsoil and fertilizer from outside the walls.” Chapin’s garden was a cause célèbre, and he gave tours of the grounds to Houdini, author Booth Tarkington and countless reporters. It seemed a classic case of incarcerated rehabilitation, but no pardon ever came, and Chapin died a convict in 1930.

Although Chapin’s curious story was a sensation at the time, he’s been long forgotten. With this scrupulously researched book, Mr. Morris rescues an engaging character from historical oblivion and opens a window onto a raucous, roiling epoch that played itself out in 22-point type.

Marc Weingarten is writing a book about journalism in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Newspaper Editor’s Second Act: Celebrity Status in Sing Sing