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OLD NEWS: Little Rock mayor goes after gossips in final term

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From the distance of 100 years, Little Rock Mayor Charles Edward Taylor (1862-1932) looks like a popular guy. He held office from 1911-1919 -- four terms. You can't win four elections if most of the people despise you.

Concluding paragraphs of the Arkansas Democrat editorial “Reputation is a bubble,” published July 17, 1917

But pause to think about today's leaders: Even the shoo-in candidate will have a detractor or 20,000.

In July 1917, after a two-week trip to New York on city business, Taylor returned to City Hall to find his character had been worked over by gossip mongers.

The Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat reported his dramatic reaction. But to the everlasting credit of both city newspapers, despite my avid and deplorable interest I fail to find a report that repeats the slander, whatever it was.

Here's the Gazette on July 17:

Mayor Denounces Vicious Rumors

Incensed at stories which attack his moral character, which were circulated during his absence in New York, Mayor Charles E. Taylor tonight will call a conference of his friends with a view to tracing the stories to their sources and bringing the originators into court, if possible, as slanderers.

"It has not been my policy," the mayor said last night, "to expend any considerable effort in the denial of slander which is often one of the unpleasant incidents of public life, but these attacks on me at a time when even my absence was seized upon to give credence to them have reached a point where I must give them my public attention. I intend to make Little Rock a city where people may live protected from character attacks."

In a statement issued July 16, he declared himself astounded by the "vicious and malicious lies reflecting on my personal integrity and morals."

"I take this method of saying to the public, hoping that he or she who is guilty may read this statement that the author or authors of such rumors are guilty of uttering malicious lies. I have lived in this community a long time, and make this statement in order that my position may be made clear, and that I may be of some service to the community in stopping a practice of vicious gossip which has grown up here. During the last several years in Little Rock the public has been nauseated from time to time with vague stories affecting the morals and integrity of men and women prominent in this city and state. No one's reputation has been safe. The more useful an individual has been in the community, the more likely he has been to be chosen as a target for these vile emanations from mental degenerates and perverts.

"About two years ago nearly every family in the city of Little Rock was affected and disturbed by vicious rumors reflecting on the character of every girl and every boy who attended the Little Rock High school ..."

He added that an independent commission had traced those rumors (whatever they were) to idle gossip. And yet one still heard them repeated even though they were products of "diseased and wrong-thinking minds, belonging to people whose service in the world could be likened only to that of the loathsome cuttlefish, which has only one instinct and that is to muddy and pollute the waters surrounding it."

Before we leap to the defense of the cuttlefishes, know that the PBS science program Nova crowned them "Kings of Camouflage," and they have the largest brain-to-body size ratios of any invertebrate, perhaps even larger than that of the octopus.

Besides being an apt hand with metaphor, Taylor was a married man with four children. He'd been superintendent of the Second Baptist Church Sunday School since 1895.

As Martha Williamson Rimmer writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Taylor and his police chief, Fred Cogswell, "strictly enforced the laws against gambling (with Taylor leading two raids himself), more closely regulated saloons before state prohibition went into effect in 1916, and, on the recommendation of his Vice Commission, ended the policy of toleration toward houses of prostitution by eliminating the 'red light district' in Little Rock in 1913."

Denizens of today's River Market District would be astounded by that scene from 1911. As historian C. Fred Williams explains in Historic Little Rock: An Illustrated History (Historical Publishing Network, 2008), in an area between Rock and Main streets bounded by the Arkansas River on the north and Third Street on the south, there were 19 known houses of prostitution employing about 75 workers, with another 200 to 600 women working in hotels, parks and "assignation houses."

Women beckoned from the doorways of joints that also jacked up the price of liquor. We know this because in January 1912 Taylor appointed a biracial Vice Commission -- 23 white and 5 black citizens -- to investigate the flesh trade. The Gazette published their report in May 1913. Arousing considerable ire, it blamed "the perfidy of men" for driving women to prostitution and also pointed to exploitive wages being paid by specific businesses, including four laundries.

On Taylor's deadline -- noon Aug. 25, 1917 -- all the "bawdy houses" had to close. But it didn't stamp out vice. Five years later the City Council was still writing ordinances against it.

Closing the district also cost the city an estimated $800 per month in fines. And then in 1916, the elimination of all saloons (with their fines and their license fees) took a 30 percent bite from the city budget, Williams writes.

Meanwhile, Taylor was taking out loans to pay for progressive improvements: empowering a health department to inspect dairies and slaughterhouses; expanding the fire department and the sewer system; collecting household garbage. And so the city "sank progressively into debt," as Williams puts it.

Which is why Taylor had been in New York -- obtaining an extension on about $575,000 in city loans.

OUTRAGE

Led by former U.S. Congressman Charles Chester Reid, the rally to defend the mayor's honor July 17 drew 250 of his "personal friends" and produced some wonderful invective. Here's part of the Democrat's report:

Such terms as "he-gossips," "skunks," "cowards," "liar," "sniper," "skulks" and "assassins" were frequently heard during the speech making, and the Rev. Sam Campbell declared that if the author of the reports was discovered he "ought to be hanged as high as Haman."

Campbell was Taylor's pastor. Here's a bit of the Gazette's account:

Mayor Taylor also declared there were spies in the meeting "as cowardly as the spies employed by Germany," and without calling names, bade them report the result of the meeting to "headquarters." ...

A motion to offer $1,000 reward for evidence leading to the conviction of the slanderers was voted down upon the ground that it placed a premium on the work, but a motion authorizing the chairman to appoint five members as a committee to investigate all the sources of the rumors and to employ any means necessary to lead to the arrest of the slanderers, was adopted. Chairman Reid said that he would not make public the names of the committee, in order that its work might be unhampered. Tom Mills acted as secretary of the meeting and took the name, address and telephone number of every person present in order that he might be called on if necessary to assist the committee, and it was announced by the consent of those present that all of the mayor's friends should regard themselves as detectives to trace the slanders to their sources.

Lo and behold, soon one of the gossip mongers actually came forward ... with unfortunate results.

Next week: Mayor and Doctor in Fight on Street

ActiveStyle on 07/17/2017

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