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Yellow Journalsim: How Media Involvement Provokedthe Slave Revolt Panic of 1860


Submitted By Lynnie
Words 4102
Pages 17


Lynnie Smith

Texas History 597

May 6, 2011

July 8, 1860, in Dallas Texas, was one of the hottest recorded in the town’s short history. By noon, church was over and most of the sweltering residents had sought refuge from the sun and heat inside their homes or offices. Around 1:10 P.M. the scream of “Fire” reverberated through the streets of downtown followed by the rush of half-clothed citizens rushing to see smoke in a two-story building on Commerce Street. Fire swept north to consume a warehouse and then to the Dallas Herald office-quickly engulfing Dallas’ entire business section.[1]

Extensive media coverage of the July 1860 fires in Dallas potentially incited a heightened fear of slave revolts throughout Texas and promoted the formation of vigilante groups. Newspapers served as a medium to spread fear, rumors, and ultimately, panic and violence among white Texans. Yellow Journalism presented exaggerated headlines and stories that linked natural disasters and catastrophes to current fears of the day. The nation was undergoing a sectional split over the issue of slavery and white southerners were on the alert for potential slave plots and uprisings that were spurred by northern abolitionists and Unionists. The Dallas fires were just the sort of sensationalism that could garner increased support of anti-Union constituents and promote the Democratic Party agenda.

Letters about the fires written by the Dallas Herald’s editor, Charles R. Pryor, originally published in the Dallas Herald, Houston’s Weekly Telegraph, Marshall’s Texas Republican, and Austin’s Texas State Gazette, were reprinted with additional commentaries and spread widely in newspapers throughout the state. The articles used the media to incite the public by implying the Dallas fires were the work of abolitionists and agitated slaves, inferring that all communities were at risk for slave insurrections. In addition, printed media advised unsuspecting victims that “abolitionists meant to destroy slavery by poisoning wells and inciting slaves to kill their masters and other whites.”[2] Media sensation also contributed to the formation of vigilante groups whereby many fearful white Texans took the law into their own hands; torturing and killing suspected abolitionists and Blacks.

Some historians have written that the fires were not caused by arson, but were the result of the record heat that summer that could cause matches to spontaneously ignite and spread fire from building to building with alarming speed; thus negating the insurrection theory. The authors of the “prairie match” theory point out that Democrats were trying to spark anti-union sentiment by instilling fear and hatred within a community of vulnerable citizens; thus furthering the state toward sectional conflict.

The growing fear and panic of southerners was the result of sectional conflict and hostility between northerners and southerners. Dissenting views over slavery and state’s rights in the mid-nineteenth century promoted violence and conflict throughout the nation. Incidents such as the 1856 caning of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Congressman Preston Smith Brooks of South Carolina over the issues of expansion of slavery into Kansas, southern honor, and southern rights were indicative of the passions ignited over the controversies. Brooks beat Sumner into unconsciousness because he felt the northern senator had “libeled” his home state of South Carolina.[3] The incident is representative of a nation that was beginning to come to blows over ideals and sectional interests. The controversy over the annexation of Texas is another example of the ever widening chasm between political parties and sectional interests. The debate over annexing Texas centered around the issue of the expansion of slavery into a new territory. Southern planters in need of virgin soil viewed expansion as necessary to continue their ability to grow cash crops. Their way of life as gentlemen and their honor was based on the ability to use human labor for economic production. Northerners vehemently opposed a new slave territory for humane as well as political reasons.

In Texas, the sectional storm was brewing with more local issues such as the one created in 1844 by the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery. The church divided into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South, which took over existing congregations in Texas and also created new ones. The Methodist Episcopal Church was ultimately expelled from Texas in 1859. Methodist publications, which reached a wide audience, provided extensive coverage of the expulsion and ongoing events related to the affairs of the church and how church members viewed their new role in the South. The publications were not proponents of slavery and frequently provided discourse on the “evils” of the institution. Though the Methodist Episcopal Church claimed to have no intention of converting southern citizens into anti-slavery proponents, “the mere presence of the Methodist Episcopal Church in slave states was related to abolitionist enterprise.”[4] Opposition to the church continued to grow throughout Texas, even as church officials ceased to hold public service.

Hostility and suspicion were at the forefront in March 1859 when the church planned to host an Annual conference in Arkansas’ Timber Creek. In response, citizens from Collin and Kaufman counties in Northeast Texas convened and asked the Bonham Independent editor to publish the resolutions of their meeting:

The group expressed its “utter disapprobation and decided opposition” to

sentiments on slavery expressed by members of the “Northern Methodist Episcopal Church.” In order, therefore to maintain “the peace and harmony” of the neighborhood and, believing that the sentiments expressed were injurious to that end, the group resolved to prohibit the preaching of such doctrines.[5]

The conference proceeded as planned with meeting minutes and letters published in the Bonham newspapers and throughout the Methodist weekly press. As a result, it was reported that anti-slavery literature was circulated and that “Negroes” were provided information that made them “useless to their owners”.[6] Five months later, a pivotal event occurred that would increase Texans’ fear of slave-uprisings and the abolitionist movement; John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry.

John Brown’s raid became the first in a series of events that led the country into a civil war. Brown and eighteen of his followers seized the U.S. arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, with the intent to liberate slaves in the area and eventually throughout America. His plans, however, were dashed as he was captured by United States Army personnel, led by Robert E. Lee, and hung less than two months later. Though Brown did not successfully incite a slave revolt, the fear of slaves rising against their masters spread throughout the South.

On July 9, 1860, Charles Pryor, editor of the Dallas Herald, wrote a letter to John Marshall, editor of the Austin State Gazette, that announced, “A dreadful calamity has befallen us, our town is burned to ashes; every hotel, every business house, law office, physician’s office, Herald office with all its material-everything gone[…] It is not known whether it was the work of an incendiary or not.”[7] A fire broke out in Dallas on July 8, 1860, and destroyed most of the downtown area, including Pryor’s office at the Dallas Herald. Within twenty-four hours, twelve more fires in surrounding areas were reported. Headlines in San Antonio’s The Daily Ledger and Texan read “TERRIBLE DEVELOPMENTS-AN ABOLITION CONSPIRACY-THE SIXTH DAY OF AUGUST SET FOR A GENERAL SLAUGHTER OF THE WHITES-THE PEOPLE OF DALLAS SLEEPING WITH THEIR ARMS IN HAND-MAY CALL ON THE LOWER COUNTIES FOR ASSISTANCE.”[8]

More letters were written by Pryor and sent to newspapers across the state printed in “EXTRA” formats which were published in addition to the daily paper. Extra papers were published when something newsworthy took place so that the event was called to the attention of the public. While initially describing details of the fire’s destruction, letters and newspaper commentary reported that the Dallas fire and fires in nearby areas were the result of abolitionists inciting slaves in a slave uprising plot. Pryor’s July 15 letter to L.C. DeLisle, editor of the Bonham Era reported to readers that:

The arrest of some Negroes and white men. A most diabolical plan was then discovered to devastate this entire portion of Northern Texas. [ …] The whole plan is systematically conceived, and most ingeniously contrived. It makes the blood run cold to hear the details. This whole country was to be laid waste with fire. […] You and all Bonham are in as much danger as we are. Be on your guard, and make these facts known by issuing extras to be sent in every direction.[9]

The fear bred by the widespread distribution of editorials caused Texans to react to every instance of fire with paranoia and read suspicious behavior into blacks going about their daily business. Pryor fed into this fear with allegations that two preachers who had been expelled from Dallas the previous year for abolitionist activities were avenging transgressions. He wrote that an “exhaustive examination of black suspects elicited details of a far reaching abolitionist conspiracy.”[10]

A lengthy letter published on July 21, from Dallas, in the Houston Telegraph, reported “numerous and almost simultaneous burnings of towns, stores, mills, and farm houses, are evidently the work of incendiaries.”[11] The Pryor letter reported that “a hundred negroes have been arrested,” in relation to a revolt that was to occur on Election Day, August 6, with the help of northern abolitionists and “those in our midst.” The letter continued with the description of a new plot which read, “it has also been uncovered that entails the poisoning of the population and the females to be slaughtered along with the men, and the young and handsome women to be parceled out amongst these infamous scoundrels.”[12] Among the reports of slave secret meetings and planned uprisings in towns throughout Texas, the letter warned white Texans that “the negroes have been incited to these infernal proceedings by abolitionists, and the emissaries of certain preachers, who were expelled from this county last year. Their agents have been busy amongst us, and many of them have been in our midst. [ …] Nearly a hundred negroes have testified that a large reinforcement of abolitionists are expected on the 1st of August, and these to be aided by recruits from the Indian tribes.”[13]

These reports were spread not only throughout Texas, but also in most of the southern states. The increasing panic and fear experienced by those whose sensibilities were heightened by John Brown were now bordering on hysteria. Reports of stalkers in the night with intentions to burn homes and white arsonists with their black counterparts waiting for good citizens to fall asleep so murder and mayhem could take place were abundant, though most highly exaggerated. “Women and children have been so frightened by these burnings and threatened rebellion of the Negroes, that in several instances they have left their homes in their fright, and when found were almost confirmed maniacs!”[14] Specific evidence pointing to man-made fires was rarely found when fires were reported, yet newspapers and citizens blamed arson as the cause of fires that ignited for several weeks after Pryor’s articles appeared.[15]

“It behooves every true man to buckle on his armor, and fight the good fight for his country’s good.”[16] The notion that each town and person needed to fend for themselves against would-be assassins promoted a mob mentality that justified unwarranted violence and murder. The Marshall Texas Republican publishes a letter to Oxe Taylor, Marshall, from M.H. Bonner Rusk, August 4:

The coincidence of the fires at Dallas and other places, caused suspicion with us, and a number of our citizens a short time since, organized a watch and vigilance committee. Many, including myself, were disposed to consider the whole affair as a needless alarm, until within the last day or two, when authenticated statements came to us, that in several places, poison had been found with negroes, and confessions made, that on election day, this poison was to be administered in the food at breakfast, and deposited in the wells and springs; and that a general plot had been made, for an indiscriminate, wholesale destruction by poison and arms on that day. This caused us to search, and on last night and this morning, poison has been found with several Negroes, and they have made confessions substantially the same as the above rumors, and have implicated several other negroes.[17]

A few days later, the Marshall Texas Republican reported that in Carthage on August 7, citizens assembled to appoint patrols to ensure the safety of the people, to search and quarter every black person, and to guard “well and strictly, the conduct of slaves everywhere, and especially do we urge the importance of watching closely their associations with white men.”[18] The resolutions adopted from the public meeting were the recommendations that a “military company” be established; that all slaves were to be held at home; that if three or more slaves were found congregating, away from their place of residence, they would be punished as authorized by the law; and that all bushes or shrubs near the town square be “cut down immediately” so as not to obstruct the view to “the Town or any of the buildings.”[19] Precautions were taken so that white Texans would be protected against roaming black instigators. All places where slaves could hide were removed so that a clear view of potential crime sites could be monitored. White legal authorities were suspicious of any and all blacks that were in the public arena.

Within days of the call to arms, newspapers reported on juries deliberating for the necessity to hang offenders for potentially inciting agitation or violence against individuals. A letter from an unknown source in Clarksville, Texas, dated August 13, 1860, appeared in the Marshall Texas Republican, printed on August 18, indicating that three abolitionists were hung in Gainesville after implicating fifteen others who were part of an “Abolition Conspiracy.”[20] On the second page of that day’s paper it was reported that two white men were taken into custody in Tennessee Colony following an investigation of “some negroes”. The two were “implicated in the proposed insurrectionary movements of the negroes in our county”, and “were then taken to the woods and expiated their crimes on the gallows.”[21] This news was followed by a small story reporting “The Tyler Reporter very justly says: The celebrated John Brown raid was mere child’s play, in comparison with the state of things which now exist in Texas.”[22] Further down the page, headlines from the Quitman Herald read, “Alarming State of Affairs.-What Shall We Do”. The copy that follows reminded citizens of the need for prompt action and the establishment of vigilance committees:

Still the need of prompt and vigorous measures of repression, of vigilance, and an unflinching enforcement of summary justice is none the less a duty […] We deem the existing condition of affairs one which imperatively requires of the State Executive an immediate call for the Legislature to meet in special session to provide for a more speedy and energetic administration of justice than is afforded by the slow operation of our established jurisprudence.[23]

The August 18, 1860, Marshal Texas Republican cited information taken from the August 4th edition of the Austin State Gazette. The article described the decision on July 23, of “The committee of Vigilance” after having been in session all day, to hang three “ring leaders” of the insurrectionist plot that sparked the Dallas fires.[24] “These hardened scoundrels were amongst the most hardened and unscrupulous of the whole number. The decision seems to give general satisfaction,” reported the State Gazette.[25] The following day, detailed descriptions of Sam, Cato, and Patrick’s final death march and hangings were sent to newspapers throughout the state.[26]

Controversy surrounds the Texas summer fires of 1860. Vigilante committees, ensuring the safety of citizen -interviewed, cross-examined, convicted, and hanged insurrectionists and abolitionists so that Texas would not follow the path of other southern states who had encountered the wrath of slaves and the whites that incited them. Deliberate arson was the cause of the Dallas fire and at least twelve other fires that occurred on July 8 and 9, along with several fires within the latter part of July and early August. So it was widely believed.

Another theory suggests that the extreme heat was partially responsible for the ignition of the blazes that spread with rapid speed from building to building. The Marshall Texas Republican reported on July 14, 1860, that “the drouth [sic] still continues. For weeks the thermometer has stood at a hundred and over in the shade. Each day seems to excel its predecessor in intensity of heat and sultriness.”[27] Combining excessive heat with phosphorus matches could have been the cause of the quick ignition of fires.

Most of the fires were reported to have broken out during daylight hours, not under cover of darkness, as would seem more plausible if arson played a role. The “prairie matches” that were new to the market and as yet, not tested so that all properties could be understood, were stored without proper precautions. Spontaneous combustion, or the careless toss of a cigar or burning pipe tobacco, could have ignited an exposed match, resulting in a fast burning fire. The excessive heat likely helped flame the fire, which is why in Dallas, the buildings burned at alarming rate.[28] The white phosphorous match would eventually be banned due to it’s toxicity and propensity for spontaneous ignition.

Donald Reynolds writes that it was not until the last part of the twentieth century that historians began expressing doubt as to whether there was an abolitionist plot that caused the fires. The experts made a case that there were numerous false reports about poisonings and fires, insufficient evidence, and lack of reliable witnesses. They assert that highly combustible prairie matches are the “real culprits.”[29]

As discussed, media involvement played a central role in provoking the slave revolt panic of 1860. Through the extensive use of the printed media, newspapers spread fear and rumors to a public whose fears had been heighted by events occurring throughout the South. The concern that abolitionists were inciting slave revolts was uppermost in the minds of many who felt defenseless against such attacks. The media only played upon these fears and promoted the creation of vigilante groups that would ultimately hang and torture innocent victims.

However, as events are examined more closely throughout the years, historians have determined that the likely cause of the fires attributed to abolitionist and slave arsonists were simply a result of excessive heat and combustible matches. The numerous fires that occurred in the summer of 1860 were related only by an extremely hot Texas summer and the common practice of improper storage of phosphorous matches. There has been no evidence to relate the burning of several Texas towns with a potential slave revolt in 1860.

Although the question as to whether Democrats like Pryor were using the media to excite Texans into secession is beyond the scope of this paper, activities such as these did play an important role. It is likely that increased fear of slave insurrection, editorials and “extras” promoting arson theories, and highly publicized rhetoric from abolitionists pushed many Texans to side with southern politicians and see northerners as enemies and instigators of chaos. Wendell Addington asserts that “The difficulty in obtaining an accurate picture of the insurrectionary movement,” of 1860, “arises […] not from suppression by the Southern press, but rather from wild exaggeration.” [30] Reynolds writes that these “Texas Troubles” proved to be one of the most “powerful weapons” [31] in the upcoming battle against Lincoln and his Republican government. Pryor’s rhetoric and pervasive coverage of rumors and mayhem in local newspapers not only provoked the slave revolt panic of 1860 but may also have been a primary cause for Texas to join the confederacy.


Primary Sources

Galveston Weekly News, 28 August 1860; digital images.

New-York Daily Tribune, 09 August 1860; digital images.

State Gazette. 14 July-18 August 1860; digital images.

Texas Republican, 14 July-1 September: digital images.

The Daily Ledger and Texan. 23 July 1860; digital images.

Secondary Sources
Addington, Wendell G. “Slave Insurrection in Texas.” The Journal of Negro History 35, no.4 (Oct., 1950):408-434.

Bates, Ed F. History and Reminiscences of Denton County, 1976; digital images.

Buenger, Walter L. “Texas and the Riddle of Secession.” The Southwestern

Historical Quarterly 87, no. 2 (Oct., 1983):151-182.

Cameron, Christopher. Review of Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South, by Donald E. Reynolds, Journal of the Early Republic 29, no. 3 (2009): 558-560.

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. “Texas Troubles.”

Hoffer, Williamjames H. The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Jackson, George. SixtyYears in Texas, 1908; digital images.

Kilson, Marion D. “Towards Freedom: An analysis of Slave Revolts in the United States.” Phylon 25, no2 (2nd Qtr., 1964): 175-187.

Lack, Paul D. “Slavery and Vigilantism in Austin, Texas, 1840-1860.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 85, no. 1 (Jul., 1981):1-20.

Norton, Wesley. “The Methodist Episcopal Church and the Civil Disturbances in North Texas in 1859 and 1860.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 68, no. 3 (Jan., 1965): 317-341.

Reynolds, Donald E. “Reluctant Martyr: Anthony Bewley and the Texas Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 96, no. 3 (Jan., 1993): 345-361.

Reynolds, Donald E. Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.

White, William W. “The Texas Slave Insurrection of 1860.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 52, no. 3 (Jan., 1949): 259-285.

[1] Donald Reynolds, Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South, 2007, 35.

.[2] Christopher Cameron. Review of Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South, by Donald E. Reynolds, Journal of the Early Republic 29, no. 3 (2009): 560.

[3] Williamjames Hull Hoffer, The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War, 2010, 8.

[4] Wesley Norton. “The Methodist Episcopal Church and the Civil Disturbances in North Texas in 1859 and 1860,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 68, no. 3 (January 1965): 319.

[5] Norton, 323, with quotes from Charles Elliott, South-Western Methodism: A History of the M.E. Church in the South-West, from 1844 to 1864 (Cincinnati, 1868), 126.

[6] Norton, 328

[7] Charles R. Pryor, Dallas, to John Marshall, Austin, July 9, 1860, [Austin] State Gazette, July 14, 1860.

[8] The Daily Ledger and Texan. 23 July 1860.

[9] Pryor to L.C. DeLisle, July 15,1860, [ Bonham] ERA, July 17, 1860, reprinted in Texas Republican, July 28, 1860, 2.

[10] Reynolds, Texas Terror, 36.

[11] [Marshall] Texas Republican, August 11, 1860, 2.


[13][Marshall] Texas Republican, August 11, 1860, 2.

[14] “W.R.D.W,” August 1860, New York. Day Book, September 8, 1860, clipped in [Austin] Southern Intelligencer, October 10, 1860, in Reynolds, Texas Terror, 47.

[15] Reynolds, Texas Terror, 49.

[16] [Marshall] Texas Republican, August 11, 1860, 2.

[17] Letter from M.H. Bonner, Rusk, to Oxe Taylor, August 4, 1860, copied in [Marshall] Texas Republican, August 11, 1860, 2.

[18] Report on public meeting from Carthage, Texas, August 7, 1860, copied in [Marshall] Texas Republican, August 18, 1860, 1.

[19]Report on public meeting from Carthage, Texas, August 7, 1860, copied in [ Marshall] Texas Republican, August 18, 1860, 1.

[20] Letter from unknown source in Clarksville, Texas, August 13, 1860, copied in [ Marshall] Texas Republican, August, 18, 1860, 1.

[21] [Palestine] Advocate, August 8, 1860, copied in [Marshall] Texas Republican, August 18, 1860, 2.

[22] The [Tyler] Reporter, unknown date, copied in[ Marshall] Texas Republican, August 18, 1860, 2.

[23] [Quitman] Herald, July 26, 1860, copying the[ Bonham] ERA, unknown date, copied in[ Marshall] Texas Republican, August 18, 1860, 2.

[24] [Austin] State Gazette, August 4, 1860, copied in [Marshall] Texas Republican, August 18, 1860, 2.

[25][ Austin] State Gazette, August 4, 1860, 2.

[26] Ibid.

[27][ Marshall] Texas Republican, July 14, 1860, 2.

[28] Reynolds, Texas Terror, 32.

[29] Ibid., 202.

[30] Wendell G. Addington, “Slave Insurrections in Texas,” The Journal of Negro History 35, no.4 (Oct., 1950): 419.

[31] Reynolds, Texas Terror, 181.

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