Read an ExcerptChapter 1
The Fighting Immigrant 1864-1869
17 to 22 years old
Seventeen-year-old Joseph Pulitzer couldn’t take it anymore. He adored his
mother, but got into so many fierce arguments with his stepfather that he
was desperate to leave home. A military career seemed a way of escape. He was
prepared, as it turned out, to fight for almost any country that would accept him.
Joseph was born in Mako, Hungary, on April 10, 1847, the eldest son of
Hungarian Jews. His father, Philip, a prosperous grain merchant, retired in
1853 and moved with his family to Budapest, where Joseph and his younger
brother, Albert, were educated in private schools and by a tutor who taught
them French and German. When Joseph was eleven his father died of heart
disease, and a few years later his beloved mother, Louise, married Max Blau, a
businessman—the man Joseph had grown to hate.
The scrawny, almost six-foot-three-inch tall, high-strung teenager looked as
martial as a beanpole. Yet he hoped to follow in the footsteps of two of his
maternal uncles, officers in the Austrian Army. But when the Austrian Army
rejected him for his weak eyesight and emaciated appearance, he was unde-terred.
He traveled to Paris to join the French Foreign Legion for service in
Mexico. When the French declined his offer, he crossed the Channel to En-gland,
where he volunteered to serve with the British forces in India. Again, fail-ure.
Bitterly disappointed, he reluctantly headed for home, stopping en route
in Hamburg, Germany. And there he met his destiny.
Shortly before, in America in the summer of 1863, U.S. President Abra-ham
Lincoln, his country torn by civil war, his army depleted by casualties, dis-ease,
and desertions, had planned to turn stalemate into checkmate by a mass
attack against the Confederacy. Lincoln intended to bolster his weakened army
by drafting three hundred thousand men from New York City alone. But many
of the eligible males there were recent Irish and German immigrants who lived
in squalor and didn’t give a damn who won the war.
In resisting the draft, they looted and torched draft-office buildings and
prevented firemen from dousing the flames. Motley groups of policemen and
convalescing soldiers were sent to quell the riot. They had orders to take no
prisoners and kill every man who had a club. But they were overwhelmed by
the mob: beaten, stabbed, kicked to death, or shot with their own muskets. Sur-vivors
retreated in panic from a barrage of bricks, stones, and dead animals.
Responding to anguished cries to save the city, the army hurried thousands
of battle-scarred Union troops with field guns and howitzers to take back con-trol
of Manhattan’s streets. For men who refused to join the army, the rioters
proved fierce fighters: some two thousand died, and about ten thousand were
wounded. After this tragic fiasco, Union Army agents looked for urgently
needed recruits in less dangerous territory, especially Europe, under the guise
of encouraging emigration.
Languishing in Hamburg after his failed missions to join any of three
armies, Pulitzer met one of the Union recruiting agents. Assured that he could
ride a horse and fire a gun, the agent put the unlikely recruit aboard a Boston-bound
The gangling, nearsighted youngster soon showed his spirit and audacity
by jumping ship in Boston Harbor, swimming ashore through almost freezing
water, and taking a train to New York. There he collected the three-hundred-dollar
bounty for enlisting—which otherwise would have gone to the agent
he’d outsmarted. But when Pulitzer arrived at Remount Camp, Pleasant Val-ley,
Maryland, on November 12, 1864, the captain in charge took one jaun-diced
glance at him and, according to biographer Don Carlos Seitz, who pre-sumably
got it from Pulitzer himself, yelled, “Take that . . . little . . . away from
here! I don’t want him in my company!”
He stayed, despite the frigid reception, and spent the rest of the war in
L Company of the First New York Lincoln Cavalry. Taking their cue from
the captain, fellow soldiers ridiculed his appearance, inadequate English, and
guttural accent, although many of them were of German origin. Some took
his name (pronounced Pull-it-sir) as an invitation to grab his large nose. When
a sergeant tried it, Pulitzer struck him hard—the only injury he inflicted in
Saved from a court-martial for striking a superior by an officer who admired
his prowess at chess, he took part in minor skirmishes on horseback against the
enemy at Antioch, Liberty Mills, Waynesborough, and Beaverdam Flat, ending
the war in the comparatively peaceful Shenandoah Valley as a Major Richard
After Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Pulitzer rode with his
regiment for the victory parade in Washington on May 23, 1865, his view of
General William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton
taking the salute completely blocked by the men riding their horses so close
beside him that they bruised his knees.
What now? Certainly not a military career.
Competition for jobs among Civil War veterans was desperate. In Manhat-tan,
a city of astonishing contrasts, about fifteen thousand panhandlers worked
the streets, some hiring deformed babies to raise their take. A district known as
Five Points on the Lower East Side, crammed with desperately poor immi-grants,
depraved criminals, and prostitutes, scared even the police away.
Nearby was another world, a booming, war-fueled Wall Street, mansions, flour-ishing
businesses, and affluent individuals window-shopping on Broadway.
Realizing he stood less chance of emulating them than of joining the Hell’s
Kitchen crowd, which welcomed army veterans, Pulitzer, a good sailor, fol-lowed
a tip and traveled to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to apply for a deck-hand’s
job on a whaler. But the whaling industry had not recovered from its
destruction by Confederate cruisers, and the only ship’s captain seeking a crew
turned him down.
Despite the odds against him, he returned to New York City, where Irish
immigrants had a lock on jobs for waiters, laborers, longshoremen, and other
employment requiring some English. Though—thanks to his successful grain-merchant
father, Philip—Pulitzer had been well educated by tutors and was
fluent in German, French, and Hungarian, his English was all but incoherent.
Unable to pay to rent a room, he was reduced to sleeping in the streets in his
frayed army uniform and scuffed shoes, some nights on a bench in City Hall
With his last few cents he walked into the luxurious French’s Hotel for a
morale-raising shoeshine. But a porter thought he might offend the snooty
clientele and told him to beat it. (Pulitzer’s life often resembled a fable.
Twenty-three years later he bought that same French’s Hotel, had it demol-ished,
and replaced it with the tallest building in the city—a two-million-dollar
golden-domed skyscraper to house his newspaper offices.)
Having his topcoat stolen was the last straw: he decided to check out and
head for St. Louis, Missouri. Some joker had advised him that unlike Manhat-tan,
crowded with German immigrants after the same nonexistent jobs, there
weren’t any Germans in St. Louis. Pulitzer also liked the idea that in a German-free
environment he would have to learn English fast—or starve.
Unaware that he’d been fooled—St. Louis had a huge German popula-tion—
he sold his only capital, a silk handkerchief, for seventy-five cents to buy
food for the long journey. Then he took a train west, as a stowaway, arriving on
the night of October 10, 1865, at East St. Louis, across the river from St. Louis.
(The railroad bridge to reach St. Louis was not completed until 1874.)
He got off the train, broke, tired, and shivering with cold. A downpour of
sleety rain soaked him to the skin. But he hardly noticed it. For him the shim-mering
lights in the distance, barely visible through the curtain of rain across
the Mississippi River, were not just the lights of a city but of a promised land.
Attracted by the voices of deckhands on a ferryboat and puzzled to hear them
speaking German, Pulitzer walked to the riverbank and asked how to get across
without paying. He was lucky. Their fireman had just quit. Could the young
man fire a boiler?
“In my condition I was willing to say anything and do anything,” he
recalled. One deckhand “put a shovel in my hand and told me to throw some
coal on the fire. I opened the fire box door and a blast of fiery hot air struck me
in the face. At the same time a blast of cold driven rain struck me in the back.
I was roasting in front and freezing in the back. But I stuck to the job and shov-eled
coal as hard as I could.”
The captain resented his limited and awkward English, bullied him, and
worked him to exhaustion. After a few days the harsh talk escalated into a vio-lent
quarrel, and Pulitzer walked off the boat for good—into St. Louis. He later
told his biographer Seitz, “I still have a painful recollection of firing that ferry-boat
with its blasts of hot air on my face, and the rain and snow beating down
on my back.”
After renting a room, he headed for the nearest library, where he read in
the want ads of a local German-language newspaper, Westliche Post, that an
army barracks needed a caretaker for sixteen mules, pay to include free meals.
Ex-cavalryman were preferred.
The weather turned unexpectedly hot as he walked the four miles to the
barracks, discovered he’d left his discharge papers behind, ran to get them from
his room, then ran back, panting and sweating. He was hired, but not for long.
The food was inedible and the mules impossible. He stood it for two days, then
Then he took almost anything he could get: as a deckhand, laborer, steve-dore,
hack driver—all poorly paid, dead-end jobs. The “promised land” was
becoming a mirage. However, he did learn enough English to work as a waiter
at Tony Faust’s restaurant, where at least he had bright surroundings, but all too
briefly. Apparently he couldn’t balance his tray and was fired for dropping a
juicy steak onto a good customer.
When, on his next job as a laborer, the foreman who paid his wages failed
to turn up with the cash, Pulitzer, now nineteen, struggled with a moral
dilemma: How could he face his landlady without the room rent? He knew no
one well enough to borrow the money, and had just ten cents in his pocket. He
solved the problem by sleeping under the stars after eating a dime’s worth of
apples. The next day the foreman had recovered from a brief illness and
appeared with Pulitzer’s wages. That evening, when he handed over the rent a
day late and explained his “disappearance” from bed and board, his landlady
teased him for being too sensitive. But he made sure there was no repeat per-formance
by saving money for rent from moonlighting.
Working sixteen-hour days at two jobs, he was still so anxious to master
English quickly that he also spent four hours in the local library—leaving fewer
than four hours for sleep. Between temporary jobs he almost lived in the
library. Each morning he waited impatiently on the library steps for librarian
Udo Bachvogel to open up, kept reading all through lunchtime while munch-ing
apples, and only left in the evening just as the doors were being locked.
Udo helped him with English conversation, and they became friends for life.
But a chance encounter with a scam artist—not his hard labor—put him
on the road to his remarkable career. With some forty others he paid five dol-lars
to this smooth talker, who promised good jobs on a Louisiana sugar planta-tion,
shipped them by steamboat to a desolate spot forty miles south of St.
Louis, and dumped them. Realizing they had been taken, they began to trudge
back to the city, resolved to murder the man. “Whether or not this reckless pro-gram
would have been carried out it is impossible to say,” according to biogra-pher
Alleyne Ireland, “for when, three days later, the ragged army arrived in
the city, worn out with fatigue and half dead from hunger, the agent had
By chance a reporter, who had heard something of the story, met Pulitzer
and persuaded him to write an account of the scam. It was published in the
Westliche Post, the German-language paper through which he had landed his
first civilian job.
Pulitzer’s energy, intelligence, and way with words appealed to its part
owner and coeditor, Dr. Emil Preetorius, who started to give him writing
assignments. Eventually other tenants in the Post building sensed something
worth cultivating in the intense, driven young man, especially attorneys William
Patrick and Charles Johnson, and physician Joseph McDowell.
Dr. McDowell asked him to help in the summer of 1866 when a cholera
epidemic terrorized St. Louis, killing 1,686 residents in two weeks. More than
a quarter of the population of 260,000 fled the city. Victims of the disease were
to be buried on dreaded Arsenal Island, and Dr. McDowell was appointed
health officer for the area. Piles of corpses awaited burial because officials in
charge of the job had panicked and left for the mainland. Though McDowell
had known Pulitzer for only a few months, he recommended him to be in
charge on Arsenal Island. Pulitzer found the place almost deserted, even by
the convicted murderers from prisons on the mainland who had been prom-ised
their freedom if they helped to bury the dead. Some had taken advan-tage
of the offer, only to escape to unknown parts. Pulitzer stayed, helped
to bury many of the cholera victims, and also kept the records. When the epi-demic
was over in October, having killed 3,527 in St. Louis, he was again in
need of a job.
The two attorneys in the newspaper building pointed him toward work in
wild Ozark country for a railroad company in the early stages of incorporation.
He rode there with a black aide. Both men were swept from their horses while
trying to cross the flooded Gasconade River. The aide and his horse sadly
drowned, but Pulitzer, a strong swimmer, and his horse survived.
He dragged himself up the bank, drenched to the skin and worried by the
prospect of having to catch his mount, which had started off on a cross-country
gallop. Then he saw an elderly farmer sitting on a tree stump, watching him
with intense interest.
“The first thing he did,” said Pulitzer, “was to take me to the farmhouse
and hand me a tumbler three parts full of whisky. When I refused this he
looked at me as though he thought I was mad. ‘Yer mean to tell me yer don’t
drink?’ he said. When I told him no, I didn’t, he said nothing, but brought me
food. After I had eaten he pulled out a plug of tobacco, bit off a large piece,
and offered the plug to me. I thanked him but declined. It took him some time
to get over that, but at last he said: ‘Yer mean to tell me yer don’t chew?’ I said
no, I didn’t. He dropped the subject, and for an hour or so we talked about the
war and the crops and the proposed railroad. That man was a gentleman. He
didn’t take another drink or another chew of tobacco all the time. Finally,
before he went to bed, he produced a pipe, filled it, and handed the tobacco to
me; but I failed him again, and he put his own pipe back in his pocket, firmly
“Well, my God! It was nearly half an hour before he spoke again, and I was
beginning to think that I had really wounded his feelings by declining his hos-pitable
offers, when he came over and stood in front of me with an expression
of profound pity. ‘Young feller,’ he said, ‘you seem to be right smart and able for
a furriner, but let me tell you, you’ll never make a successful American until
yer learn to drink, and chew, and smoke.’ ”
Next morning, having dried his clothes and caught his horse, Pulitzer
started to work for what would become the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. It
required him to master complicated articles of incorporation involving twelve
counties, which he later recorded from memory. This feat so amazed the
lawyers who had steered him to the job that they encouraged him to become a
lawyer, letting him study at a desk in their office and giving him a free run of
their law library.
He took time off on March 6, 1867, to visit St. Louis’s Court of Criminal
Correction, where he renounced his allegiance to the emperor of Austria and
became an American citizen.
Shortly after, his sixteen-year-old brother, Albert, left Hungary to join him
in St. Louis. Having already taught himself English, Albert soon got work
teaching German to local high school students.
Joseph was a remarkably quick study. The following year, in 1868, he was
admitted to the bar and became a notary public. But handicapped by his
youth—he was now twenty-one—odd appearance, scruffy clothes, and still im-perfect
English, he attracted few clients and none of consequence. One, a
ferryboat captain who wanted some documents sealed, immediately recog-nized
him as the youngster he had hired to stoke the boiler on his boat. “He
stopped short,” Pulitzer recalled, “as if he had seen a ghost and said, ‘Say, ain’t
you the damned cuss that I fired off my boat?’ I told him yes, I was. He was the
most surprised man I ever saw, but after he had sworn himself hoarse he faced
the facts and gave me his business.’ ”
Despite his apparent failure as a lawyer, Pulitzer caught the attention of
Carl Schurz, the high-principled other coeditor and co-owner of the influential
and prosperous Westliche Post. As a youth in Germany, Schurz had been
inspired to become a revolutionary by Gottfried Kinkel, his art history professor
at the University of Bonn. In 1848 Kinkel founded the newspaper Democratic
Union, which Schurz helped him to edit, and a year later they both joined an
uprising against the oppressive Prussian government.
Prussian troops captured Kinkel, who was sentenced to life in Spandau
Prison. Schurz escaped arrest by hiding in a sewer. Then he risked his life to
free Kinkel by traveling on a false passport to Berlin, where he persuaded a
sympathetic prison guard to lower Kinkel by rope to the ground. Waiting
nearby with a horse and carriage, Schurz eventually helped Kinkel reach Scot-land.
After escaping from Germany himself, Schurz landed in England, where
he married. He and his wife immigrated to the United States in 1856.
As a political activist, Schurz had enthusiastically campaigned for Lincoln,
who, in 1861, had appointed him minister to Spain. Schurz had hardly arrived
in Madrid when he turned back to fight in the Civil War as a Union major gen-eral.
He led his mostly German American troops at Bull Run, Chancellorsville,
Gettysburg, and Chattanooga, and fought alongside Sherman in North Caro-lina.
Idolized by his men, Schurz in turn idolized Lincoln.
After the war, although Schurz devoted more time to politics than to the
Westliche Post, he did discuss the paper’s need for a new reporter with his part-ner,
Preetorius, and the city editor, Louis Willich. They eventually agreed on a
short list: either Pulitzer, inexperienced but promising, or a veteran reporter
named Ahrenberg. Willich had his own agenda. Afraid that the experienced
man might covet his job and unseat him, he put in a strong plug for hiring the
“harmless” Pulitzer—and prevailed.
“I could not believe it,” Pulitzer recalled years later. “I, the unknown, the
luckless, almost a boy of the streets, selected for such responsibility—it all
seemed like a dream.”
But it was a nightmare for Willich. He had chosen the wrong man.
Pulitzer willingly worked nonstop all day and night and into the next morning,
turned in reams of good copy, covered breaking news and politics, showing
such a mastery of the job and tenacity in getting a story that he was promoted
over Willich to virtual partnership with the paper’s owners. He was also a threat
to rival St. Louis reporters, who tried to put down this newcomer who was
scooping them. They scoffed at his enthusiasm, shaky English, large nose,
small chin, and tall, gaunt figure. But “it was not long before the editors of the
English sheets were advising their young gentlemen to cease guying ‘Joey’ and
endeavor to imitate him if they expected to hold their jobs, as it was a little
monotonous to be compelled to secure the best stuff by translating from the
columns of the Westliche Post.
Among those “threatened” reporters were Henry Morton Stanley, later
famous for tracking down Livingstone in Africa, and William Fayel—who gave
this account of Pulitzer in action: “One sultry day nearly all of the reporters of
St. Louis were drawn to an alley behind the Old Post Office, at Second and
Olive Streets, by some incident. Suddenly there appeared among us the new
reporter, of whom we had all heard but whom we had not yet seen. He had
dashed out of the office without stopping to put on his coat or collar. In one
hand he had a pad of paper, and in the other a pencil. He announced that he
was the reporter for the Westliche Post, and began to ask questions of everybody
in sight. I remarked to my companions that for a beginner he was exasperat-ingly
inquisitive. The manner in which he went to work to dig out the facts,
however, showed that he was a born reporter.” In Fayel’s opinion, Pulitzer was
such a go-getter that “he became a positive annoyance to others who felt less
inclined to work, and as it was considered quite fitting and proper in those days
to guy the reporters of the German papers, the English reporters did not hesi-tate
to try to curb his eagerness for news. On more than one occasion he was
sent out from the Coroner’s office on a wild-goose chase. But it was soon ob-served
that, while taking this banter in good part, he never relaxed his efforts.”
His publishers were so dazzled by this talented workaholic and his knowl-edge
of the law that they sent Pulitzer to cover the state legislature in Missouri’s
capital, Jefferson City. There he continued to work sixteen-hour days, impress-ing
one colleague with his “unquenchable thirst for news,” and another by
what appeared to be his “chief ambition—to root out public abuses and expose
evildoers. In work of this kind he was particularly indefatigable and absolutely
fearless.” He was also full of surprises: a sort of intellectual Superman who dis-armed
the opposition. When, for example, a secret Democratic caucus was
held in Jefferson City, only reporters for Democratic papers were invited, and
the doors were locked. But early in the session, Pulitzer broke open the doors,
sending the doorkeepers sprawling on the floor, and calmly walked to the
reporters’ table, took a seat, and opened his notebook, while the members
watched in silent astonishment. No one objected or even questioned his pres-ence.
The next day his was the only Republican paper in the state with a report
of the meeting.
The cynical deal-making politicians and corrupt lobbyists he despised and
tried to expose ridiculed his efforts and appearance, mimicking his guttural
speech by calling him “Choe Bulitzer,” “Joey the German,” and “Joey the Jew.”
But he had equally influential admirers, especially Lieutenant Governor Henry
Brockmeyer, a philosopher and nephew of the German statesman Bismarck.
“They think,” said Brockmeyer, “because he trundles about with himself a big
cobnose and bullfrog eyes that he has no sense; but I tell you he possesses
greater dialectical ability than all of them put together. Mark me, he is now en-gaged
in the making of a greater man than Editor Preetorius, or even Schurz.”
In 1869, although he’d only recently moved to the state, Carl Schurz was
elected U.S. senator for Missouri, the first German-born American to enter the
Senate. It encouraged Pulitzer to dream of a political career for himself.