Random Reading

A product of random reading:

On September 4, 1886, the Chicago Tribune critiqued a pamphlet on a now-forgotten political scandal by a now-forgotten writer: ""The pamphlet on the Paine Bribery Case and the United States Senate, by Albert H. Walker, is plainly the effusion of a crank."

Mr. Walker was an attorney, author of a textbook on patents, who apparently took himself very seriously. The Tribune’s choice of words prompted him to sue for libel. Walker filed a declaration in federal court in Chicago that said the Tribune had published the remark "to cause it to be suspected and believed that plaintiff was a man of crude, ill digested, ill considered, and wild ideas and aims, and to be supposed to be without skill, tact, adequate information, or common sense." Furthermore:

"… to publicly characterize the plaintiff as a "crank," and thus to publicly impute to him sundry qualities, aims, and methods highly inconsistent with usefulness and success as a lawyer and author, … plaintiff has been greatly prejudiced in his credit and reputation, and caused to be considered an unreliable and injudicious person, and destitute of those qualities on which the earnings of a lawyer or a serious author depend; and has been greatly vexed and mortified, and has been deprived of divers great earnings which would otherwise have accrued to him in his professional duties, and divers great royalties which otherwise would have been paid to him on sales of his books."

Walker also noted that since President James Garfield’s assassination in 1881 at the hands of Charles J. Guiteau — widely described as a crank — "the word … has obtained a definite meaning in this country, and is understood to mean a crack-brained and murderously inclined person, and is so used by the public press."

The court wasn’t moved by Walker’s entreaty to help him recover his reputation. It granted the Trib’s motion to dismiss Walker’s claims, resorting to Ogilvie’s Imperial Dictionary to support its finding that "the word would seem to have no necessarily defamatory sense." In fact, the court’s opinion (Walker v. Tribune, 1887) suggested Walker get a thicker skin: " It is no libel upon a man who has entered the field of authorship to underrate his talents."

Despite the trauma of being called a crank by no less an august organ than the Trib, Walker managed to make a living afterward. His patent textbook went through at least four editions. He lectured on patents at Cornell. And he wrote one of the first books on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, still circulating today.

One Reply to “Random Reading”

  1. I should be neither vexed nor mortified but rather would gladly suffer being labeled a crank or crack-brained and would even allow my skills to be underrated if it mean my book would see four printings. Sir.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *