Editor’s Notebook: Newspapers and 1925

This is how the story broke in 1925.
This is how the story broke in 1925.

by Brian Clarey

I loved writing this week’s cover story, about an obscure police/booze/prostitution scandal that shook the Ardmore neighborhood of Winston-Salem for 12 days in 1925.

For research, I holed up in the North Carolina Room, looked at old newspapers and listened to a few tall tales from Fam Brownlee, who presides over the collection. I knocked the monster out — more than 4,500 words — over three days, and I probably could have written 10,000 if I had the time and space.

But I have a few loose odds and ends of insight that I need to put down.

For one: How crazy is it that women didn’t get their names in the paper in 1925? The woman running the party house was never referred to as anything but “Mrs. Charles Johnson” — a middle initial, making it “Mrs. Charles W. Johnson,” was added by the second day of coverage, but we never learn her given name.

Likewise, the interview with the wife of the first cop who got dismissed was only referred to as “Mrs. Cofer.” Weird.

Also shocking were some of the headlines: “Negro is Burned at Stake for Attacking Miss. Girl” leapt out of the front page of the morning Journal on Sept. 21, 1925. Gave me chills.

It seems, too, that “speedy trial” meant something different back then. Ogilvie, the groundskeeper of the golf course, was on trial within a day or so of his arrest.

I felt a real connection with Santford Martin, the prudish editor, could practically taste his adrenaline as he uncovered more pieces of the story. And I felt his angst as the story wound to a close.

Most amazing was the realization that this guy put out a 20-page paper every day — bigger on Sundays — using typewriters, pencils and an actual press. Newspapering was very much a blue-collar gig in 1925, a vocation for scoundrels and malcontents.

In some ways it still is.