This is a story of a kid who was scared of a graveyard. It’s also the story of the founder of a major American institution, a cultural leader who changed a whole profession, established a landmark, and introduced a new way of celebrating a holiday. It has elements of the rags-to-riches stories that made Horatio Alger famous, but it also throws a few curves, connecting post-Civil War Tennessee to the immigrant experience to booming, electric, 20th century New York.
It’s an American story, and like most American stories, it’s hard to tell while staying in America.
Our story begins more than 6,000 miles away. Most of Central Europe was ruled as it had been in the Middle Ages, ruled by princes and aristocrats. America was a democracy, Great Britain and France had evolved their own sorts of democracies, but Bavaria, in Germany, was still a cluster of kingdoms. The people there wanted democracy, too, or some sort of freedom, but when they stood up for it, things began to get bad. Idealism gave way to the series of violent events that became known as the Revolutions of 1848.
They did not work out well. All over Europe, the people rose up, from Italy to Austria to Germany, but in spite of some early gains that suggested optimism, the princes and kings in power brutally suppressed the populist revolts. Millions of Germans fled for their lives. The largest number came to America.
One was a Jewish woman from Bavaria named Bertha Levy.
She was just a teenager when she attended an exclusive school in Heidelberg, which was a continental hot spot for Revolutionary sentiment. Bertha was a passionate supporter of the populist uprisings, and there came stories of her as a teenager waving a bloody flag to inspire a mob. She was just a teenager when she was expelled from an exclusive school in Heidelberg due to her Revolutionary activities. Only 16, she went to America as a refugee.
Unlike most refugees, she had a prosperous uncle in the Deep South, in Natchez, Mississippi, and settled there, for a time.
Meanwhile, another Bavarian had already come to America. Julius Ochs was from the town of Furth, near Nuremberg, not far from Bertha’s home. But his family sent him north to the city of Dusseldorf to be educated. In 1845, with things uncertain at home, he took a ship to New York. He first went south, attempting to make his way as a merchant in the town of Natchez.
The two Bavarians probably met there, attracted by much they had in common. They were both thoroughly German, with their memories of separate youths in the same part of Bavaria. They both spoke German, of course, but also English and French. And they shared their Jewish faith.
Julius failed as a merchant, and got in some trouble with locals. He gravitated a bit to the north, to Tennessee. In Nashville, he and Bertha married in 1855. They lived in Knoxville soon after that, and Bertha helped with family finances by offering lessons in embroidery. Julius played a role in founding a German immigrants’ social and cultural organization called the Turn Verein.
Knoxville seemed a place with a future, an old town, by American standards, suddenly growing very rapidly thanks to railroad development. More than many Southern cities, it was a wide-open town. Its original status as a state capital was already half-forgotten, but the arrival of the railroad in 1855 suggested other destinies in regional iron, coal, marble, and lumber, and attracted hundreds of immigrants from Europe, not just refugees from the German political catastrophes, but survivors of the horrific Irish famine, as well as dozens of Swiss fleeing religious oppression at home.
War had compelled them to come to America, and war met them here. The slavery issue divided the country, and split Tennessee into several factions. Even the immigrant groups were divided on the issue. Knoxville no longer seemed a safe place to start a career, or a family.
The Ochses went to Cincinnati, famous for its large German community. There they had their first of several children.
Adolph was born in 1858. In the 1800s, Adolph was a perfectly respectable name for a German boy, even Jewish Germans. Julius especially was proud of his German heritage.
Despite their shared backgrounds as Jewish Bavarian refugees who were still just getting used to America, Julius and Bertha had opposite views on the war. Bertha’s uncle had done well in Mississippi, and her little brother joined the Confederate army. Bertha herself became a strong Confederate partisan, and during Union occupation of Memphis escaped arrest for her role in helping a Confederate spy.
Meanwhile, her husband Julius enlisted in the Union army, and worked in training recruits in Cincinnati. Living with her husband in Cincinnati, Bertha got in a bit of trouble attempting to smuggle medicinal quinine in a baby carriage across the Ohio River to Confederate forces in Kentucky.
But Somehow, with small children to raise, they stayed married. Their children grew up in a politically divided household, and learned the virtue of fairness.
They remembered Knoxville’s promise, and returned as soon as it seemed safe. The Union army under Burnside had decisively repelled a Confederate siege. With the war still underway, but his term in the army ended, Julius Ochs took his family South to Knoxville in early 1864. There, wartime shortages had become a way of life, and he thought the people in the war-crippled town, might be ready for a good store.
He rented a space right on the main street, Gay Street, just north of Cumberland, one of the city’s busiest blocks, and specialized as a clothier, selling “Citizens and Military Clothing.”
Sometimes advertising it as a “Bazaar,” he sold almost everything, including liquor and cigars, as he had in Cincinnati. But he also sold exotic groceries, some of them imported: Swiss and Limberger cheeses, smoked halibut, pickled herring, sardines, anchovies.
Amid the clutter of wartime Gay Street, his store was easy to spot, thanks to its green-painted columns. It was “a capacious house of the most elegant style.”
He prospered and built a home for his family on a steep hillside just north of town, on Sharps Ridge. He gave it the grandly German-sounding name of Ochsenburg.
Julius Ochs was an outspoken figure. At war’s end, he didn’t like a newspaper reporter’s assumptions about some allegedly pro-Confederate smuggling led by Memphis-based Jews, and wrote a strongly worded response, extolling Jewish loyalty and honesty. He became a leader of the small Jewish community, and helped to found the city’s first synagogue, Temple Beth-El. He would give public lectures on the subject of Judaism, even describing its advantages over Christianity, which he considered a partly polytheistic faith.
After three or four years of prosperity, though, Ochs’ business base was crumbling. He had set up a business based on wartime shortages, and by 1867, supplies were plenty, and prices were rapidly falling. Many shopkeepers went out of business. In early 1868, Julius Ochs, 41 years old and the father of six, declared bankruptcy.
He abandoned Ochsenburg, his hillside palace, probably before it was fully completed, and moved his big family into a shotgun shack downtown on Water Street. It was well named. It was near First Creek, which often flooded. Sometimes big boats could float up Water Street from the river.
When his father went broke, the firstborn Adolph was 10. He went to work to help pay the family bills, first as a newspaper carrier, working for papers associated with Parson Brownlow, the fierce Unionist editor who was then the governor of Tennessee, who had already forced the state back into the Union before any other Confederate state. Brownlow was on Adolph Ochs’s paper route.
People made fun of the kid’s last name, because it sounded like Ox, the beast of burden. They thought it funny to call him Muley. Muley Ox. He seems to have accepted it in good humor.
Meanwhile, despite his poverty, Julius Ochs became an important figure in postwar Knoxville. He joined the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization. He joined the prominent fraternity known as the Odd Fellows, and a Masonic lodge.
The same year he declared bankruptcy, he was elected a Justice of the Peace on Knox County Court, a role that conveyed both legislative and judicial duties.
Julius became associated with the Radical Republican Party, the pro-Civil Rights faction; he would eventually be chosen a delegate to its national convention.
And he was elected Justice of the Peace, a position that occasionally passed judgment in criminal cases. After the war, a Union military bridge was still the only public bridge ever built across the river. When it was damaged in the 1867 flood, Ochs led an effort to build a new one. He helped plan for a new county jail. He led a relief effort for victims of the Memphis yellow-fever epidemic.
He kept running a store, for a time specializing in fireproof safes. He diversified. He was a fire-insurance agent. He was a travel agent, offering package tours of the British Isles. During the early days of the Wild West, the same Julius Ochs was an agent for the Texas Land and Immigration Society. He taught French and German at a local night school.
He became a strong advocate for public education, at a time when taxpayer-funded schools, free to everybody, were new to Tennessee and somewhat controversial.
He was also one of the most creative people in postwar Knoxville, writing short operas with Jewish or European themes. One was a musical based on the Book of Ruth. Another, advertised to the public, was called “William and Napoleon: Duel Between the Sovereigns.” It was about Wilhelm I and Napoleon III and the Franco-Prussian War. Ochs was a public supporter of Prussia and an admirer of Wilhelm I, as a champion of Germany liberty and unity–even though the same Wilhelm had been one of the aristocrats who 25 years earlier had crushed the democratic revolutions in which Bertha had participated.
Even in Knoxville, the foreign news arriving by telegraph for printing in the newspapers was personal. As Julius gave speeches and wrote plays in favor of Prussia, some of Knoxville’s French-speaking Swiss community was traveling to Europe to fight for France.
Meanwhile, young Muley was trying different things, working for a time in a drugstore, serving as an usher in the new Staub’s Opera House. He attended local schools, including the university’s preparatory program, but ultimately found it frustrating. He was a quick study, and had already learned a lot. He wanted to work.
He gravitated back to newspapers, and at age 14 presented himself at the Chronicle office to ask the editor, Captain William Rule, how he might help.
Rule gave him a bottom-rung job as a “printer’s devil.” It was an ancient term for an apprentice printer, but the job entailed a lot of sweeping up at the shop, running errands to the telegraph office, and cleaning the ink off the press rollers. It was a morning paper, so they put it together at night.
His shift was over at 11:30 p.m., but despite his age, he often didn’t get to leave until later. There were no child labor laws in 1872, and the paper had to get out every day no matter what.
Captain William Rule, who had learned journalism working for Parson Brownlow before the war, was a progressive Republican, but one of the first Tennessee newspapermen to believe journalism should be unbiased. He wanted to create a great newspaper in Knoxville, and would spend the rest of his long life on that mission. He had already seen and done a lot in his life, in both war and peace, but he was genuinely surprised when the dark-eyed kid came to his office at 11:30, the end of his shift–and asked if he could work a bit longer.
Rule was puzzled, but impressed with the kid’s energy and obvious intelligence. He let Adolph help lay out advertising, proofing and rewriting copy. Printing technology was changing all the time, and it was good to have a teenage kid who learned fast and could work hard, at whatever hour. It was a tough business, and it was hard to turn down such competent help.
Ochs, no longer Muley, became known as Ochsie.
Eventually Rule noticed that Ochsie often left when an older friend got off his shift, at 2 a.m., and they’d walk out into the dark streets together. Sometimes he stayed all night, and left at dawn, hours after his own shift was over.
It took Captain Rule some time to figure out what was up.
The answer had to do with something the teenager had to deal with on the way home. For him, walking out of the newspaper office onto Market Square presented him with a dilemma Captain Rule didn’t know about.
On the hillside right in between Market Square and his family’s humble home on Water Street was Knoxville’s oldest graveyard. It had been closed to new burials since before Adolph was born. It was a melancholy, disorderly place, especially after the war, often overgrown, its limestone slabs broken or tilting askew. The church had been devasted during the war, closed down during martial law, used even as a stable, and by 1870, many of the stones marked graves of people whose families had died off, or no longer lived in Knoxville.
But the old churchyard was full of stories, the sorts of stories that boys tell. Tales of old William Blount, the scheming governor and senator impeached for treason, and Hugh Lawson White, the senator they called the Skeleton, who once ran for president, and whose minister had died on the way to deliver the graveside service. And there were stories of the dozens who had died of the fever back in 1838, the deadly epidemic the older people didn’t like to talk about. They were all buried close together there.
Most of all, and hardest to ignore, was the tallest monument in the old graveyard, and what was then its newest grave, a rare exception to the closure: the gray, broken obelisk right in the middle that was the gravestone of Abner Baker, the Confederate soldier who came home from the war, had a personal argument with a former Unionist on the courthouse lawn, and shot him to death. Abner Baker, who was arrested but pulled out of jail that night and lynched for the murder, hanged from a tree nearby. The tombstone was inscribed, “His death was an honor to himself and a disgrace to his enemies.”
Abner Baker was someone people talked about for years after the war. Some claimed he wasn’t quite dead. The poor people who lived down by the river claimed that on some nights they could still see him hanging from the tree.
When he started walking home from the Chronicle office at midnight, Ochsie was 14, and mature beyond his years in his work ethic and understanding of the world around him. In some ways, though, he was still a kid. He heard the stories all the other boys heard. And his midnight walk home took him near where Abner Baker still lay. And no matter which way he walked home, out of the corner of his eye, Ochsie could see his distinctive obelisk, broken at the top.
And the kids of his era claimed the dead emerged from their graves at midnight to roam the streets they once knew well.
In the wee hours, working hard at the newspaper shop on Market Square by lantern light and the hum of machinery among other men seemed cheerful, preferable to the silence of dark streets around an old graveyard.
Ochsie learned a lot in the wee hours–as he would tell well-dressed luncheon groups in later years.
He went to work as a reporter for another Knoxville paper, the Tribune. By the time he was 19, he thought he’d like to try running a paper himself.
Knoxville at the time had two thriving newspapers, and there didn’t seem to be any movement at the top, no obvious opportunities for rapid advancement.
However, a couple of his Knoxville friends heard about some newspapers in trouble downriver in Chattanooga. They had some money. Ochsie didn’t, but the investors knew he was a young man with potential, and brought him along for his sweat equity.
One plan didn’t work out. But he heard about a failing paper called the Chattanooga Times. He had earned enough to buy half-interest in it, in 1878. Using everything he’d learned in his nocturnal crash course in Knoxville, he set about to build it up.
He was such a success that he hired several members of his family from Knoxville to come down and help with the reborn Chattanooga Times. His 52-year-old father, Julius, who in 1878 had announced he would run for another term as justice of the peace. By 1880, when his brother graduated from UT, the whole Ochs family moved to Chattanooga. They would be leaders in the newspaper industry there for more than a century.
It might have been enough for a young man who grew up in poverty to run a newspaper in a respectable mid-sized city. But in 1896, when he was 38, Adolph Ochs heard of another failing newspaper, coincidentally called the Times. This one was in New York.
It was a big-city paper with a circulation of only 9,000, one of four daily papers in the city, and the least popular. Ochs went to Manhattan with a letter of introduction from his old boss, William Rule, the respected editor and former mayor, back in Knoxville. He bought the Times for $75,000 in 1896, and made it something great.
As rapidly as he had in Chattanooga, Ochs reinvented a newspaper, gave it a new look, a new emphasis, a new perspective. He added a book review section and a “magazine,” a new thing for a newspaper. He also gave it a new motto: All the News that’s Fit to Print. He said he borrowed it from his cousins, the Blaufelds, who had a cigar store in Knoxville. It became a flag in the days of sensationalist newspapers, an indication that the Times would have higher standards. He ran no gossip, no fiction: just the news.
And he established a headquarters in a big building at old Longacre Square on 42nd Street. He renamed it Times Square. To celebrate it, and to promote his newspaper, he started a New Year’s Day celebration there. First with fireworks, then with an electrical spectacle, the drop of an enormous sphere on a rooftop, Ochs started one of the most durable holiday traditions in American history.
He returned to Knoxville occasionally, to give a luncheon talk or two. When old William Rule died in 1928, at the age of 89, Ochs missed his funeral, but came by a few weeks later to visit his grave in Old Gray. Newspaper photographers met him to try to get his picture there. He declined, joking–or maybe he was joking–that it was bad luck to get your photograph taken in a cemetery.
For the second half of his long life, Adolph Ochs was the publisher of the New York Times. He was a hands-on publisher, at work every day, and liked to keep an eye on things. He was known to startle the rank and file workers in the press room, or the advertising department, or the circulation desk, with observations about how things might run more efficiently. Publishers aren’t supposed to know about these things.
When asked, he would explain that he learned how a newspaper runs, long ago in Knoxville. He would mention that he when he was a kid, working late in a newspaper office, he learned the whole business, top to bottom, because he dreaded walking by a particular graveyard at midnight.
By Jack Neely
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