mistaken attribution (Dreiser credited with early news story he didn’t write)






The excerpts posted above – as a downloadable PDF file — are from Theodore Dreiser, Journalism, Volume One: Newspaper Writings, 1892-1895, edited by T. D. Nostwich (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988).





In his laboriously compiled, invaluable book Theodore Dreiser, Journalism, Volume One: Newspaper Writings, 1892-1895, the editor, Professor T. D. Nostwich, attributes two stories about the hanging of the convicted murderer Sam Welsor, which appeared in the St. Louis Republic in January 1894, to Theodore Dreiser.

News stories were not bylined in those days.

Regarding the attribution to Dreiser of these stories, Nostwich observes:

In ND [Newspaper Days], chap. 54, describing events of some unspecified time during his Republic period, Dreiser says, “I remember witnessing a hanging … standing beside the murderer when the trap was sprung and seeing him die …” In the next sentence he mentions the lynching of a “negro in an outlying county” – that is, the event he described in Nos. 73 [“This Calls for Hemp”] and 74 [“Ten-Foot Drop”] – seeming to imply that this lynching occurred after the hanging. His short story “Nigger Jeff,” which is based largely on Nos. 73 and 74, lends support to this inference, for there the young reporter who covers the lynching is said to have once before “been compelled to witness a hanging, and that had made him sick — deathly so – even though carried out as part of the due process of law of his day and place” (Free and Other Stories, p. 77). Inasmuch as the execution of Sam Welsor did occur before the lynching of John Buckner and was, in fact, the only one to take place while Dreiser lived there, it must be the one referred to in ND. Since Nos. 70 and 71 form a unified narrative sequence culminating in the execution, they can be attributed to Dreiser with confidence.

There are two problems with this attribution.

First, in his posthumously published Notes on Life (The University of Alabama Press, 1974, pp. 241-42), Dreiser states: “In 1892, in the city of St. Louis, I witnessed the execution of a wife-murderer who had to be carried to the gallows and was limp and unconscious at the time the trap was sprung.”

Sam Welsor’s execution occurred in 1894. (It is possible, of course, that Dreiser, who was often imprecise with facts, could have gotten the date wrong.) Welsor was convicted of murdering his mistress, not his wife. More importantly as regards the attribution of this story to Dreiser (in view of Dreiser’s recollections in Notes on Life), Welsor did not have to be carried to the gallows, as is shown in the second of the two news stories which follow; he was fully conscious.

I made an attempt to find from newspaper archives on the Internet if there were any hangings in cities where Dreiser lived around this time that would match his description of the hanging he recalled and could find none.

There is a second consideration that leads me to regard this attribution as problematic. The writing in the two stories about Welsor’s execution is too polished as compared with Dreiser’s other journalism of this time. He was still learning his craft, and while he was a diligent reporter and good at achieving color in his stories, one could see him still struggling with his material, struggling to learn his craft. The two stories in the excerpt posted above (as a PDF file) seem to be the work of a more experienced reporter.


— Roger W. Smith

    February 2016

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