Graham Phillips (1867 - 1911)
changed history with his writing
late journalist was murdered
for his muckraking stories
Special to RoundAbout
(July 2011) The young novelist, a bachelor,
was pre-paring to meet acquaintances for lunch at New York Citys
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.
of his novels
became a movie
starring Clark Gable
and Greta Garbo.
author David Graham Phillips grew up in Madison, Ind., and resided
at what is now the Leon and Gerry Michls 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
winters 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 countrys 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
As Phillips made his way toward the Princeton Club entrance, a well
dressed stranger approached and shouted, Ive 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 Goldsboroughs motive was later discovered, it bordered on
the bizarre. As strange as it was, it was consistent with Goldsboroughs
recent bouts of mental illness and lack of coherency. And Goldsboroughs
diary bore out the reason.
Simply put, Goldsborough believed Phillips latest novel, The
Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig, was a personal attack
on the Goldsborough family. More specifically, he believed one of the
novels characters, Margaret Severance, portrayed his sister in
a bad light. He sought to avenge his sisters 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
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
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