In the early 1800s it was unusual for Americans to be interested in sporting matters on their own shores. News from Europe was the only sporting news of merit, and publishing an American sporting journal was considered a risky use of capital.
The first attempt along these lines may have been in 1829 Baltimore, where John S. Skinner published a monthly magazine which focused on race horse pedigrees called The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine. Another early attempt was published in New York by the recognized writer and horseman Cadwallader R. Colden, whose organ was called The New-York Sporting Magazine and Annals of the American and English Turf, first published in 1833.
Among the most notable of the sporting press arrived in 1831, when William T. Porter and James Haw published the first issue of The Spirit of the Times, focusing on horse literature and sporting subjects. They had chosen the name for their broadsheet from a quotation in Shakespeare’s King John, “The spirit of the times shall teach me speed.”
As 1832 dawned, The Spirit was a struggling fledgling operation, and its lack of advertising revenue forced the operators to join another Gotham publication, The Traveller. This required the first of several masthead changes away from the Bard’s notable quote, and the joined publication became The Traveller and The Spirit of the Times.
Porter was able to purchase the consolidated sheet in early 1835 and return its name and original purpose as a sporting newspaper under his sole control. By 1839 Mr. Porter found enough success to purchase The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine and operate both publications, until 1844 when he merged them under The Spirit of the Times moniker.
The Spirit by then had become a standard for the sporting public on a national scale, finding many subscribers in the southern states, and adopted the lofty sub-title, “the American gentleman’s newspaper.”
Poor business practices, and disreputable cohorts, forced Porter into bankruptcy. The paper was foreclosed upon by John Richards, the paper’s printer and largest creditor. He was a well-to-do New York business man who expressed his strong ideas on cricket and the politics leading up to the Civil War in The Spirit of the Times.
Porter got back on his feet, and began publishing again under the title Porter’s Spirit of the Times in 1856, when George Wilkes, a noted journalist, pitched in and then assumed control. On July 20, 1858, Porter died and his name faded from the title, and the new masthead read Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times until after the Civil War.
Wilkes had been described as “a clever writer, and could turn an epigrammatic phrase – especially when he wanted to hurt somebody’s feelings – with neatness and pungency. He lacked scruple and charity, at all events, and a large part of his life was not creditable to him.”
His votary nature resulted in being sued for libel while eking out a subsistence living on a flash paper known as The Whip. Wilkes had a rapid change of fortune when Senator David C. Broderick was killed in a duel, and Wilkes found himself his heir. This infusion of several hundreds of dollars placed the rekindled The Spirit of the Times solely under Wilkes’ control, and he made it a paying proposition.
Relishing being at the forefront of national politics, Wilkes wrote first-hand accounts from Civil War battlefields, which held great sway upon public affairs and public men. He espoused the cause of the United States, yet following the second battle of Bull Run he famously concluded by suggesting that the rebels had proved themselves worthy to be readmitted to the Union, which was widely quoted in other publications.
Wilkes’ paper had long been known for its splendid corps of contributors, some of whom wrote regular columns in various disciplines of sport, and guest pieces appeared from American and European writers.
The Spirit of the Times was popular during an era when bowling, billiards, curling, boxing, trout fishing, sailing, rifle sports, hunting and saddle riding attracted many participants, and introduced many to the particularities of baseball, football and golf. By the 1870’s The Spirit was the oldest, largest, and the foremost organ of the sportsmen in the country and had its own office and printing shop in Manhattan.
At the time when every village, town and city in the Empire State had a trotting track or driving park, The Spirit of the Times was the turf authority par excellence. In 1875 Wilkes took on a partner in Colonel Elisha A. Buck of Buffalo, who assumed the editorial and business management of the paper, allowing the senior partner a comfortable retirement, until he passed behind the impenetrable veil in 1885.
Buck reorganized the different departments of The Spirit and his two sons, Harry and John, joined the paper’s staff, and the results of the uniformity bolstered circulation. He had a regular column which answered reader’s questions on all sports, agriculture, breeding and veterinary subjects. The paper had always covered boxing, but Buck decided to discontinue reporting the sordid details of prize fights, making his anodyne publication welcome in the family living room.
A special Holiday issue was launched called The Christmas Spirit, and British novelist Willkie Collins contributed an annual story, with the title page lavishly illustrated by Joseph Keppler, well known for his Puck cartoons. Stephen Fiske, a widely known journalist, dramatist, yachtsmen and war correspondent, edited and wrote The Spirit of the Times theater page, while Genio Scott espoused on angling. Walter T. Chester was the trotting turf editor, and Josiah R. Hubbard the thoroughbred horse editor. Chester, an experienced journalist who during the war fought with the 94th New York Regiment, was the recognized authority upon the trotting turf. Major J. R. Hubbard, of Nashville, Tennessee was educated as a lawyer, and served in the Confederate Army, later writing under the nom de plume Albion. Racing industry insiders such as W.S. Vosburgh and William Fasig contributed expert insights.
The athletic editor was William B. Curtis, another Civil War veteran originally from Illinois. Familiarly known as “Father Bill,” he had a superb physique and developed his skills as a runner, rower or oarsman, weightlifter, boxer, swimmer and canoeist, a pioneer in bicycling, a member of many leading athletic clubs, an organizer, officer and referee of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), President of the National Skating Association, and organizer of the Fresh Air Club of enthusiastic walkers who took athletic hikes on weekends. Even though he conducted his day job at a desk, Curtis famously did so standing the entire time.
In the days prior to photographs appearing in a newspaper, Elisha Buck, on the recommendation of August Belmont, hired Henry Stull to make equine illustrations at various tracks around the country. Stull’s father operated a hack and cab concern in Hamilton, Ontario, and through necessity of the family business, became a skilled hands-on horseman. Henry Stull would become a thoroughbred owner, and an executive in the Saratoga Racing Association, eventually becoming one of the country’s premier and best known equine artists.
A competing publication, The Sportsman, was purchased by Buck in 1883, and merged into his paper, which in 1889 he incorporated as a publicly held entity. Among the Directors was Elihu Root. “Colonel Buck” was justifiably proud of his advertising pages and mentioned in print “the mouths of other newspaper proprietors water, and are themselves far from dull reading.”
One such interesting advert described the first Longines chronograph sold in America which was marketed to horse trainers in The Spirit in 1880. The watch featured the Lugrin Patent, where “the timer beats fifths of seconds, which is admitted to be the most accurate movement,” notably mentioned.
Misfortune struck in late August of 1893 from which The Spirit of the Times would never recover. Colonel Elisha Buck and his son Harry were returning on the last train from Sheepshead Bay Race Course on the Long Island Railroad. Near Maspeth signals were missed, and trains traveling in the same direction did not maintain proper spacing and violently collided. Colonel Buck was killed immediately and Harry Buck was flung from the train and seriously injured. Harry took days to regain consciousness, only then learning of his father’s demise. From that time, the rudderless paper steadily declined as a property.
“Father Bill” Curtis carried on for Colonel Buck as managing editor, but found he could not continue under the parsimonious administration of principal stockholder Judge Horace Russell. He decided to leave in the summer 1900, and in early July while on a hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, “Father Bill” perished in a snowstorm, and the July 3rd, 1900 New York Times reported his death from exposure on Mount Washington.
By the beginning of the twentieth century many daily newspapers expanded their reporting of sporting events, deeply eroding the advertising revenue of The Spirit of the Times, and the management had no solution. The failure of the soughing weekly forum came swiftly. The Brooklyn Daily Standard-Union reported September 24th, 1902, “a petition in involuntary bankruptcy has been filed against The Spirit of the Times Corporation.”
Harry Buck continued in the world of thoroughbred racing, and played a major role in ending the racing ban imposed by Governor Charles Evans Hughes, which had precluded racing in New York State in 1911 and 1912. He insisted on being arrested at Belmont Park Terminal Course, forcing a test case of anti-gambling laws, which were overturned, saving racing in the Empire State. Buck served as the secretary of the Turf and Field Club at Belmont Park, and several other important roles, until his death in 1944.
Photos, from above: title page of the September 1st, 1894 issue of The Spirit of the Times, featuring an illustration by Henry Stull; title page of the March 23, 1861 issue of The Spirit of the Times, displaying the Wilkes version of the masthead; New York Times illustration of Colonel Elisha A. Buck, published a few days after his unfortunate death; and The Spirit of the Times advertisement featuring a Longines chronograph.