|The 28-room Depot House hotel was on the second floor of he 1872 C.B.&Q. Depot.|
William H. Maple, editor of The Chariton Patriot, stuck his editorial foot in it during the spring of 1875 --- and it was entirely his own fault that this diverting drama played out on the pages of both The Patriot and its rival, The Democrat, owned and published by Dan Baker. Dan, who had the sense of humor that Maple lacked and seems to have placed more value on accuracy, most likely enjoyed his counterpart's discomfort immensely.
Both William and Dan were relatively young men at the time, in the neighborhood of 30, and lawyers turned journalists. Maple was a Civil War veteran, Baker was not. William appears to have taken himself very seriously indeed; Dan, not so much.
The debacle began with very serious news --- an outbreak of smallpox that appears to have been confined to the Depot House hotel and may have claimed four lives, although I've been unable to confirm that.
The Depot House was located on the second floor of the C.B.&Q. Depot, located about three blocks northwest of the square. It was under lease to John Tull and his wife, whose name I've not been able to discover, apparently middle-aged people with grown children. Their partner in the operation was Mrs. Sarah J. Williby, an unattached woman (perhaps because of divorce) of some means who lived in rooms at the hotel --- and owned its furniture.
Editor Shoots Self in Foot, Editorially
The editorial debacle began when Maple for some reason decided that prostitutes were plying their trade from the Depot House during the epidemic, signaling prospective clients from its windows, then sneaking out to deliver. Scandalized, but not bothering to investigate factually, he published the following in The Patriot of April 21, 1875:
"It is so --- We hear it said that notwithstanding the existence of several cases of small-pox in the old Depot House, a few creatures of the town, calling themselves men, are in the habit of going to the house during the darkness of the night and signaling out a couple of prostitutes that are said to be still making their headquarters there, and escorting them to some lone spot where the basest of human passions are gratified in the basest manner, and, when daylight comes, going out and mingling with decent humanity on the streets and in business houses.
"We do not know that this is so, and hope for the sake of our town that no such dogs in human form exist here, but the information comes from so reliable a source that we call the attention of our city council to the matter and hope that, if necessary, to prevent such things in the future, a guard may be stationed around said building.
"It would seem to be bad enough for such characters to grovel in the mud of criminal sensualism when it can be done without endangering the safety of others, but when it comes to running the risk of spreading a loathsome disease over the city, we think it is time that an indignant public should call a halt and devise some measure stern enough to effectually prohibit such conduct."
Editor Tries to Wriggle Away
Maple's report managed to infuriate nearly everyone. The mayor and city council had been aware of the smallpox outbreak, already had quarantined the hotel --- and had posted a guard to monitor access to it. Beyond that, none of the women then occupying rooms at the hotel --- including Mrs. Sarah J. Williby --- were prostitutes.
We don't know who took William to task after his newspaper hit the street, but it seems to have been done forcefully and he published the following, by way of a somewhat grudging apology, in The Patriot of April 28:
"An Explanation --- Thanks to the City Council &c --- We learn from the mayor that the probabilities are that the rumors in regard to certain parties in town meeting with women from the Depot House, referred to in last week's Patriot, were incorrect, in as much as a guard had, for some days before our paper came out, been stationed near the house to prevent any ingress or egress, except by the attending physician.
"We also learn from other sources that there has been for some time one of those women whose "ways take hold on hell" located in a building near the Depot House, who has frequent calls during the night from some of the rakes of the town, and we presume that the rumors referred to originated in part from that fact.
"We will add further that the article of last week was intended as a suggestion to the City Council, and as a blow at the recklessly mean scamps who were said to thus come into contact with some of the inmates of the house, and not by any means intended to wound the feelings of any of the patients or nurses, or to cast any opium upon the house, and we have our own suspicion of the motives of anyone who may have attempted to misconstrue the article into such a meaning.
"And now, lest all that has been said taken together may be interpreted to imply a criticism of the council, we will say that in our opinion the vigilance and care taken by the city government since the first case of small pox was reported in this house to prevent any spread of the disease is very praiseworthy; and that our mayor and councilmen deserve the thanks of the town for their action in this regard. They have done nobly and there is hardly a doubt but that the city owes its freedom from this terrible disease at the present time to their prompt and efficient action."
Mrs. Sarah J. Williby Takes Matters in Hand
Sarah J. Williby seems not to have been placated by the apology --- and perhaps had been disappointed the following week when a follow-up to it was not published in The Patriot. Whatever the case, she armed herself with a short cowhide whip on Thursday, May 13, and took matters into her own hands. The humiliated Mr. Maple --- after saying a few snarky things about Mrs. Williby --- published the following self-justification in his edition of Wednesday, May 19.
"Assaulted --- For the first time in our life we were on last Thursday the victim of an assault and battery, and as strange as it may sound it was by a woman, and a disgraceful, uncalled-for attack in the bargain. the perpetrator of the outrage was a female of low rank and bad character by the name of Sarah J. Williby, and the circumstances connected with the transaction are as follows:
"In our issue of the 21st of April last we felt it our duty as a journalist to refer in rather severe terms to a rumor that was quite current in town, that certain persons of the male persuasion were coming into contact in a clandestine manner, with some inmates of the Depot House, at a time when the smallpox was prevailing in that building and when it had been ordered closed by the City Council, and were in this way endangering the safety of the public by the possible spreading of this terrible disease.
"In that article we incidentally referred to "a couple of prostitutes" that were said to be stopping at that house, and who were, as we had been led to believe, two strange women, who had been shut up in the house by the order of the City Council closing the same, and who not being allowed to leave the premises, were plying their trade by temporarily going from the house in the night time in obedience to signals given by customers from without. We did not mention any names, and in fact did not know at the time the article was written, the name of a single female inmate of the house nor any thing in regard to the number of persons of either sex there.
"Shortly after this number of our paper came out, we learned that there were no "strange" women in the house, and that some of those who were there were feeling aggrieved at what they conceived to be a reflection upon them by the article, and also learned that there was, at that time, a lelwd woman occupying a building near the Depot House, and that there was a possibilty that the rumors referred to had originated from this fact, and took occasion in the issue of the 28th ultimo to make a statement to this effect, and expressly disclaimed any intention of reflecting on the character of any respectable person about the building.
"But notwithstanding the fact that no one was named in the former article, and the explanation the following week, the person above named, who it now seems was an inmate of the (Depot) house, having rooms there and an interest in the furniture, took it upon herself to punish us for, as she expressed it, 'printing a piece in the paper about her.'
"Accordingly on last Thursday she armed herself with a ten-cent rawhide, and lay in wait for us at the grocery store on the northwest corner of the square, and while we were on our way to dinner, and wholly unconscious of her belligerent intention, she came suddenly up behind us and inflicted a half dozen or more blows on our unfortunate head and shoulders, and then passed on swinging her weapon and ejactulating as she passed some by-standers on the street, 'how is that for high.'
"Of course we made no resistance as we did not care to engage in a street fight with any pugilist and especially a female of her character. Of course this very novel occurrence occasioned some excitement and was the absorbing topic for the rest of the day, and on the whole made a first class sensation for our usually very orderly little city. We presume that the woman was actuated by a desire to gain a little cheap notoriety, and with the possible belief that we would consider it a grave insult and feel very badly over the matter, but we wish to notify her, and any one (if such there be) who were base enough to have given her encouragement or sympathy concerning the shameful deed that we did not so regard it, by any means, for we confess to have been more sorry for the person than incensed toward her, believing that it was the result of a corrupt disposition for which we always feel, a certain degree of commiseration, however shameful may be the fruits that flow thereform.
"These are the facts in connection with our first experience in behing 'cowhided,' and this the light in which we feel constrained to view our assailant, but we confess that, as necessary a part of an editor's education as it may be, we are not prepared to state that we are particularly fond of the training or that we should receive a second lesson with the same charitable feelings that we did in this case.
"We will state that our assailant was promptly taken into custody by the city marshal and escorted before the mayor, where she paid $20 and costs, in lieu of standing 'committed at hard labor' (which was the other alternative) for a violation of the city ordinances, and in turn was required by Justice Branner to contribute $30 to the State School fund for assault and battery."
Dan Baker & The Democrat Enjoy the Show
Meanwhile, Dan Baker had been watching the show from his editorial offices elsewhere on the Chariton square, but remaining above the fray. But he did feel obligated to report in his edition of Saturday, May 15, on the spectacle of his Patriot counterpart being cowhided by the formidable Mrs. Williby, as follows:
"Quite a little excitement was created on the public square on Thursday last by Mrs. S.J. Williby attempting the feat of cowhiding Mr. Maple, the editor of the Patriot. It seems that she had taken serious exceptions to an article which he wrote some time ago concerning the inmates of the Depot Hotel during the time they were afflicted with the small pox.
"The article in question was very caustic and reflected severely upon the unfortunate women residing there, she being one of the number. To say the least, it was exceedingly ill-time and injudicious without regard to the truthfulness or falsity of it, but in the issue following he made the necessary apology for it, and there let the matter drop.
"On Thursday, however, as he was leaving his office going across the corner of the square, he was assaulted by Mrs. Williby with a small cowhide and received a few blows upon the head and face before he had time to discover his assailant.
"No injuries were inflicted, however. The marshal promptly escorted her before the mayor where she plead guilty of disturbing the peace, and paid a fine of $20 and costs. She was next arrested before Esq. Branner upon the charge of assault and battery and fined $30 and costs."
After that, the dust settled.
William Maple, during 1877, gave up his career in journalism and removed to Chicago to practice law. Dan Baker retired from the helm of The Democrat about 1880, authored the 1881 history of Lucas County, then moved west to California with his family to launch a career as a noted crusading editor in that state.
Mrs. Williby sold her interest in the Depot House to John Tull and in 1880 made an investment in Chariton that the editors of the day praised her for --- she purchased a derelict property a block northwest of the square, had it torn down and built a fine new rental property in its place. After that, she disappears from the scene.
As for the smallpox victims, we have only editor Maple's report --- also published on April 28 --- to fall back on and there seems to be no way to confirm its accuracy. He identified the four victims, all confined at the Depot House when death occurred, as: "Mrs. Tull, the landlord's wife, having been buried early Monday morning, ... a young woman by the name of Schotte, who died on Saturday night; a Mrs. Tull, recently married to a son of the landlord, who died a week ago last Sunday, and the Mr. Bardick who died two weeks ago on Sunday as before mentioned in the Patriot."