June 27

The proof that a pugnacious Irishman named Joseph Charless was the first printer in the trans-Mississippi West is more or less taken from the records of a Dr. B.G. Farrar of St. Louis whose journal lists the printer as being dosed with calomel on this date in 1818. No doubt he needed it to rectify a malfunction brought about by a rapid and hazardous trip from Louisville, Kentucky at the insistence of the Governor of the Missouri Territory, Meriwether Lewis, whose administration was chafing at the lack of a press in the territory.

Charless had left Ireland for Philadelphia in 1796 and had worked in that town as a printer for several years prior to going West to Lexington, Kentucky, where he set up shop, becoming part owner in 1803 of the Independent Gazette. In 1807 he founded the Gazette in Lexington, Kentucky, selling out a year later in order to go to St. Louis.

Once settled, Charless issued a prospectus for a forthcoming newspaper to be called the Missouri Gazette and Louisiana Advertiser. In it he wrote in the richly colored terms expected of pioneer editors: “It is self evident that in every country where the rays of the press are not clouded by despotic power, that the people have arrived to the highest grade of civilization, there science holds her head erect, and bids her sons to call into action those talents which lie in a good soil inviting cultivation. The in violation of the Press is co-existent with the liberties of the people, they live or die together, it is the vestal fire upon the preservation of which, the fate of nations depends; and the most pure hands officiating for the whole community, should be incessantly employed in keeping it alive. For the reasons above stated, we conceive it unnecessary to offer any thing like professions to the public, but rather let the columns of the GAZETTE speak for themselves, and the print let to live or die by the character it may acquire, but its intended patrons have a right to be acquainted with the grounds upon which their approbation is solicited.”

During the following years Charless suffered all the vicissitudes of the newspaper publisher in an unsettled territory. From time to time mail service was so undependable that he waited for several weeks for news of the outside world, resorting to sending riders East to the Indiana Territory. Indian raids and inclement weather delayed the arrival of both news and supplies. Several times it was necessary to discontinue publishing when the supply of paper ran out. And of course there was the perennial problem of collecting from subscribers. In 1816 Charless penned an impassioned plea for payment that could serve as a classic of the genre:

“Could a printer strike sustenance from his head, as Vulcan struck Pallas from the head of Jove, then, indeed, it would be folly in him to complain; but such miracles are not to be worked now-a-days. Or could his look convert stones into flesh, as the head of Medusa did flesh into stone, he might do tolerably well. But printers unfortunately for themselves, are no magicians, altho’ they deal in an art which has charmed mankind. They have much headwork to perform; but their teeth require to be occupied also. Indeed, with some, the occupation with the teeth is the major subject. And, to confess the truth, it forms a part of our ambition also, otherwise we should not now be writing toil paragraph.”

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