David Graham Phillips (1867 - 1911)

Madison native Phillips
changed history with his writing

The late journalist was murdered
for his muckraking stories

By Thomas Clark
Special to RoundAbout

(July 2011) – The young novelist, a bachelor, was pre-paring to meet acquaintances for lunch at New York City’s Princeton Club. Earlier that morning, he received a disturbing telegram. Terse and direct, it read “This is your last day.”
He had previously received several threatening letters, but never a telegram and never with this message of finality. Walking west on 21st Street, he warily negotiated his way through the busy mid-town crowds and found himself within a few yards of entering the building.

David Graham Phillips

One of his novels
became a movie
starring Clark Gable
and Greta Garbo.

Indiana-born author David Graham Phillips grew up in Madison, Ind., and resided at what is now the Leon and Gerry Michl’s home at 202 Shamrock Lane. His father (David Graham Phillips, same name) was born on May 11, 1829, “on the old home farm” near the village of Canaan in Jefferson County, Ind. Phillips came to Madison in 1854, was an “earnest Republican” and started as County Clerk for two terms before joining the National Branch Bank of Madison as cashier. In 1853 he married Margaret J. Lee (a member of the family that included Light-Horse Harry Lee of Revolutionary fame). The family were members of Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison.

“Safe at last” he thought. Suddenly, the brisk winter’s air was shattered when six distinct gunshots rang out. A pause followed and again another but more muted explosion. Then an odd, heavy silence fell over the Gramercy Park neighborhood. Pistol drawn, a nearby patrolman ran toward the commotion. But the calamity was already over, and once again death visited Manhattan.
The date was January 23, 1911.
David Graham Phillips was born in Madison, Ind., on Oct. 31, 1867. He was the son of a bank cashier who served the Madison community for 31 years. The Phillips family owned the best private library in southern Indiana, and it was there where the young Phillips became a voracious reader. By the time he was 12, he had read the complete works of both Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo.
As a teen he entered De Pauw University and then moved onto Princeton, where he graduated in 1887. He then joined the Cincinnati Times and later became the editorial writer for the New York World. His writing followed his passion to remedy the country’s social problems.
In his 30s, his career moved in a different direction – novel writing and investigative reporting. He explored an interest for writing fiction when 1901 he published his first novel, “The Great God Success.” It was well received. Most importantly, the royalty income garnered was significant enough for him to leave the newspaper business and strike out on his own.
Now a novelist and freelance journalist, he dressed the part. The tall and blue-eyed Phillips frequently was seen in a white suit, a chrysanthemum in the lapel, topped off with a black alpine hat.
At home, however, he was less the dandy and more a self driven focused writer, completing 6,000 words a day while standing before a high desk. Of his own productivity he once said, “If I die tomorrow, I will be six years ahead of the game.”
He produced a score of novels and many newspaper articles. But it was his scathing, investigative magazine articles as a muckraking journalist of his time that provided national fame and earned him a passing reference in a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt.
At his core, Phillips was a reformer and progressive, which eventually won him the title of “Muckraker.” This was the appellation pinned to a select few journalists who sought to expose the social ills and political corruption of the time. Phillips’ 1906 Cosmopolitan article, “The Treason of the Senate,” shed light on the widespread corruption in the U.S. Senate. The article created a political firestorm and led to the investigation and downfall of over a dozen senators.
He was creating a name for himself and simultaneously creating many enemies.
As Phillips made his way toward the Princeton Club entrance, a well dressed stranger approached and shouted, “I’ve been waiting six months to get you!”
A .32-caliber revolver was produced and six bullets were discharged into Phillips’ chest. The assassin shouted, “There you go!” He paused and turned the gun on himself and exclaimed, “And there I go!” He squeezed the trigger for the last time.
The dead gunman was Fitzhugh Goldsborough, a 32-year-old Harvard educated violinist who toured Europe and America. He hailed from the prominent Goldsborough family of Maryland.
The question remained: Who had put Goldsborough up to the attack? Was this retribution for Phillips unseating a once-powerful member of Congress? Or perhaps a maligned corporate executive?
When Goldsborough’s motive was later discovered, it bordered on the bizarre. As strange as it was, it was consistent with Goldsborough’s recent bouts of mental illness and lack of coherency. And Goldsborough’s diary bore out the reason.
Simply put, Goldsborough believed Phillip’s latest novel, “The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig,” was a personal attack on the Goldsborough family. More specifically, he believed one of the novel’s characters, Margaret Severance, portrayed his sister in a bad light. He sought to avenge his sister’s honor by killing the author at his next opportunity.
Phillips remained conscious for many of the next 30-plus hours. He denied knowing his assailant or ever hearing of the Goldsborough family. His last words were shared with his physician 20 minutes before his death on Jan. 24: “I could fight two wounds, but not six. I fear the odds are against me.”
Phillips wrote more than 20 novels, his most famous was “Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall,” published posthumously by his sister and later scripted into a film in 1931 staring Clark Gable and Greta Garbo.
However, his most important contribution is one faithful citizens invoke every few years. His investigative reporting led directly to the adoption of the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
During Phillips’ era, senators were chosen not by popular vote but by politicians within the individual state legislatures. This lack of transparency contributed to corruption at both the federal and state levels, when backroom politics ruled the day. Phillips’ great investigative work exposed the insider dealings, so now senators are elected at the polls rather than have them chosen for us.
Perhaps his life was best summed up by his close friend, Robert W. Chambers:
“He was one of the best of men. He was high minded and true; one of the finest of American writers. His best work seemed yet to come – he was just finding himself and had struck a vein that promised richly for the future.”

• Thomas Clark is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.

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