Inside Harry Mighels: One lasting legacy
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles about the history of the Nevada Appeal. The Appeal first published on May 16, 1865. This article originally appeared during the Nevada Appeal’s 125th birthday celebration. To read the full article go to nevadaappeal.com.
Harry Mighels was a complex man with a variety of talents. The editors of Thompson & West’s “History of Nevada” were among the several historians who theorized that Mighels possessed an ability and a talent more worthy of a large metropolitan daily than a sagebrush-bound rural community like Carson City.
Recognized as the epitome of his profession, Harry’s opinions, logic and postulations were heard and heeded all across the nation.
He was not afraid to look inward and express his opinions on the way he looked at his editorial responsibly and the ethics of his profession. Neither was he hesitant to poke a little fun at himself and his journalism peers. His observations on the job of editor and the journalism profession in general offer advice and guidelines to newspaper people that are still valid today.
In his book “Sage Brush Leaves” he gives his candid definition of the job of editor:
“Just as the portrait-painter, whose professional tasks demand of him the doing of a certain routine work, while seeking for inspiration in the dull faces of listless sitters, so with the journalist of all work — the up-country editor. None but those of the guild know what this hard-driven drudge has to do and to suffer. Leaving out of consideration his poverty and his usefulness — both of which are proverbial — let us be reminded of what he is and what he does:
He does everything, and must, therefore, know everything. So he is many-sided and never-to-be-excused: judge, jury and bar; physician, apothecary and nurse; actor, scene-painter and property man; preacher and pew opener; critic and master of ceremonies; an almanac, a dictionary and an omnium gatherum.
In the morning, this man of many parts and stents must face his exchanges, scissors on thumb and paste pot within reach; in the midst of manifold distractions he must, professional pride compelling, compose the inevitable “Leader” and, as events pass, and the dull town is wakened and amused with the petty goings and comings of its dwellers and its guests, he must make much of little and meet his destiny, notebook in hand, as a “brief and abstract chronicle of the time.” Obituaries, reports of squabbles, great and small; sermons and circuses; essays and advertisements; puffs and critiques; disquisitions upon art, and prognostics of the weather; religion, politics and law; everything big and everything little, this is his world, world without end!”
The “editorial we’ is a centuries old topic of discussion and dissention among editors. Some editors castigate politicians for say “we” when they more precisely mean “me” and by the same token deny the use of the word to themselves. They feel it equally presumptuous for an editor to believe he’s speaking for an entire community or maybe event the entire country when he is in fact espousing his own personal opinion.
Other editors of opposite bent insist that crusading writers, commissioned by the powers of the First Amendment, are indeed speaking for the masses. Mighels took neither theory as a hard and fast rule.
He insisted that an editor should say “we” when was indeed representing the will of the masses. But at the same time he noted that it is a most useful tool an editor should not hesitate to use should the mood strike him. Mighels notes:
‘In the somewhat eruptive and pimply ‘reforms’ to which literature, and especially newspaper literature is periodically subject, we hear and see, every now and again some scoldings, entreaties, denunciations and sarcasms anent personalism in the use of the editorial ‘we.’ We, that is all of us, are often told that said editorial ‘we’ is not a personal pronoun at all, but rather a nondescript part of speech signifying something which never grew, which is lighted from within and without by a light that ‘never was on sea or land’ and which stands for a sort of usher or sponsor, or pew-opener, as it were, and altogether an irresponsible and intangible thing.
Also that this ‘we ‘ should never mean ‘I’ when dealing with broad principles, and the discussion of matters and things of a general and not an individual character.
Of course all this refers to the people whose business it is to write for newspapers and not for moral and educational and religious vehicles like the Morning Appeal.
An editor dealing with a ponderous subject like the French elections, the transit of Venus or the effects of the Reno Fair upon the Destinies of the Human Race has no right, under the laws of good taste, to make ‘we’ do duty as a procurator for his egotism and so take the place of the inconsequential pronoun ‘I.’
But, as everybody knows, these Notes and Queries, except as the whimsy asserts itself, are in nowise subject to any such regulations and arbitrary dicta as this. The fact is this Collector only lets ‘we’ into a place in this column as an informal guest — just as one receives her aunt or her sister-in-law in the kitchen — sort o’ one of the family.
But rights is rights! Here, in this space and place the pronoun does mean something. The times when it is a dummy are the exceptions. The beauty of your well considered Note or your categorical Query lies in its egotism. William Hazlit, speaking of the ‘Tattler’ and similar writings, tells us that ‘Montaigne, who was the father of this kind (the ‘Tattler’ kind) of personal authorship among the moderns, in which the reader is admitted behind the curtain and sits down with the writer in his gown and slippers, was a most magnanimous and undisguised egotist.’
Now here is high authority for taking the most righteous kind of liberties with the ‘editorial we’ even to laughing in its face, standing it on its head, or leading it out into the hall and showing it the door. But one may keep this convertible and adaptive bit of editorial costumery within reach, and use it as the humor takes him.”
In the same cavalier manner he used to defend the over-worked ‘editorial we’ he put in a kind word for the use of the editorial column to advance one’s own personal opinion:
“One may get over here, next to the comfortable, happy-go-lucky, easy local man’s columns and say what he likes, like any other careless truant. Talk of Great Subjects; look at Sir Plantagenet Goodequill, how he crushes Russia and wipes out Montenegro; how he smashes slates and purifies the political air; how he hurls the catapult of his opinions against the walls of heresy and ignorance; how he holds science in one hand and art in the other; how lightly he wields the ponderous monuments of the law, and with what a master touch disposes of the Human Race. Ah! But the editorial page is too often like John Calvin’s heaven — there is no ‘wanton dalliance’ there. All is grand; all is profundity; nothing is short of a Short Study on a Great Subject and the worst of it all is that the treadmill must do these things.”
Harry once considered titling his personal column Short Studies on Great Subjects but settled on the more dramatic title of Notes and Queries.
Mighels saw the use of the “puff” or the “free plug” as a useful tool to keep the editor fed, clothed and in cigars. He did insist, however, that the “puff” be kept separate and distinct from editorial sand essays. He also called upon those writers who would use the “puff” to pay social and financial debts to do it with style and flair.
‘There is a pleasure in the writing of puffs which must be foregone when one sits down to the less serious and sentimental task of composing the ponderous editorial, the exhaustive essay, the wide and windy advertisement, or the tell-tale poem. Your thorough-going puff is full of the real business of life — like the game of politics or the prosecution of war.
The puff-writer, whose soul is in his art, feels the grateful viands descending his throat as he mentions the large and generous cheer of an hotel, or the lush abundance of an eating house; his mind’s eye sees the glitter of the gems his pen portrays, the while he writes of amethysts and pears, and the lordly topaz, rubies and the imperial thing of things, the diamond; his heart glows amid the fancied fragrance of those floral wonders which make the milliner’s window look like a garden; his soul falls into something akin to revelry as his imagination wanders in wanton mood among the silks and laces and filmy things which lie upon the shelves and within the drawers of the dry goods man; and there is a study warmth in the mention of the grocer’s bags and firkins; a glow of heart, as at a winter’s fire, is felt in and over him at the thought of the cheery bar, the snug parlor of the village inn, the well warmed shop of the apothecary and eke the barber’s char! Smell the fragrance of that Havana as we puff it — a grateful imagination; let the sense of comfort grow and expand as the writer makes eloquent his thoughts of stout surtout and stouter shoe, of coat and vest, yea, and the trouser which graces his leg withal! And not without some fond emotions doth the puffish man sit him down to pen the virtues of the butcher shop; for there is a hearty companionship in the man of skewers and steel; and who shall flatly describe the gleeful glare of the smithy, and what had, however deft, doth not hesitate upon the threshold of the candle-lighted cordwainery?”
And while addressing himself to the generalities of the newspaper profession, he paused long enough to beg kindness and understanding for the Appeal news carriers. He pointed out the heartbreak of a young freelance businessman trying to pull pennies, nickels and dimes form recalcitrant customers.
“As the sun declined behind the shuddering Sierra Sunday night, and when the glad quiet of a weak-eyed twilight surrendered itself to the gloom of coming night, there arose upon the sobbing air a sound of bells, summoning the just and unjust, the devout and the skeptical, the spendthrift and the usurer, the wide and the narrow, the good, the bad and the indifferent to the better places where prayers go up and where the creditor forgives the man who owes. But in the midst of their supplications were there any who remembered how easy it is to accumulate, little by little, little be little, here a week and there a week, the small indebtedness which grows about the leaves of the carrier’s book?”
Harry was a meticulous person who paid close attention to minute details. Through 14 years of Carson City journalism, his grammar, usually archaic in keeping with the style of the day, was always popular. Punctuation and spelling were at all times correct.
In writing and editing, Mighels exhibited another trait important to newspapers — consistency. One style of spelling and punctuation was decided upon and adhered to through the years — not a highly visible practice but one noticed subconsciously by readers.
Meticulous is a good word for Mighels. Books from his personal library can be identified by his signature and date of receipt. Books were important to him and books were frequent gifts to him from friends and relatives. Marshall Robinson, one of the Appeal founders and a close personal friend of the Mighels family, was a generous contributor to Harry’s collection, giving presents of books on birthdays, holidays, anniversaries and special occasions.
As Harry would read his new acquisitions he would mark out any typographical errors he came across and write the correction in the margin. Books of a religious nature in his collection have paragraphs marked and referrals to notes jotted in the front or the back. Apparently these items were grist for religious or inspirational essays written for the editorial page each Sunday.
Family members have no recollection of him being a particularly active church person but the tone and thrust of some of the jottings and selected paragraphs indicate he may have been a Sunday school teacher or maybe even a lay preacher.
Some of his note-takings indicate nothing more than an interest in trivia. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s book “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” is written to rhyme and “fine” on page 15 and “divine” on page 85.
Trivial, yes. But it was important enough to Harry to warrant clarification to the book’s readers, present and future.
Comstock journalist Alf Doten visited the offices of the Appeal when it was just a few months old. Doten’s published journal notes:
“Sunday, Oct. 1, (1865). Introduced to Mighels the editor and McElwaine (McElwin) the proprietor last evening. Very neat and well regulated office.”
That is a short and casual comment on Doten’s part but when one considers the varying degree of unrelenting filth and abject squalor in which most country print shops chose to operate, Doten’s terse statement becomes an interesting comment upon the man an his newspaper operation.
Harry was a well-polished and well-practiced punster. A sample of his art appears in the June 6, 1865 Appeal:
“Our printer has a dog which is a setter. What kind of setter? A typesetter of course!”
A few weeks later he observed:
“We saw state printer John Church looking happy and virtuous. The union of Church and State agrees with him.”
On Dec. 19, 1866, he reported that Col. Abe Curry had been the victim of a caning. Lest people assume the venerable community leader and pioneer had been administered a beating, Harry added that Curry had been presented with a well-decorated walking cane.
Following is an example of Harry’s poetic ability. The poem, of heroic proportions, was printed in the July 6, 1866 Appeal. It was written to honor the country’s 90th birthday and Nevada’s part in preserving the Union. Harry was often a keynote speaker at patriotic and political functions and he mentioned in a letter to Nellie that he was in charge of Fourth of July ceremonies this particular year. This poem he wrote for that occasion. He then printed it in the paper, probably in response to requests of his Carson City readers who were already smitten with his talents and pro-Union thinking. Under Mighels’ byline, it reads:
Suddenly bursting through the gloom of night,
Tremulously and frail, but clear and pure.
A new born constellation strangely bright,
First beamed its morning light of liberty
Just ninety years ago!
And twinkling in the twilight of their dawn,
The fragrant dawn which ushers in the day
The thirteen glories of our country’s morn
Become fixed starts to guide the Pilgrim’s feet
To Freedom’s welcome home.
Again they go, high in their constellation blue,
Their light grows steadier and their beams more bright
Their genial luster inviting as it grew
New starts to join their radiance and their spheres
To their increasing glory.
Refulgent each, that all might brighter shine,
A common radiance enriching all,
A mutual glory and themselves a shrine
Whereat the prayers for all men’s liberty
Come to be offered up.
They beamed a beacon through the clouds of war
That drifted past our Jackson’s eagle sight,
The sons of Erin and the Rhine they saw,
As now they see the emblem written there,
And westward bent their steps.
And when the clouds had melted once again,
New starts burst forth and mingled with the old;
The heavens looked brighter, as when summer rain
Has purified the air and sky and left
Them balmy, still and pure.
And then their glory grander grown, they shown,
Far o’er the earth and from afar were seen;
And viewed from hamlet and from kingly throne,
Their rays significant and lustrous bore
Glad tidings to the world!
The rose triumphant o’er Azler’s halls
To gain the golden glories of the West.
Eurekas star rose proudly to their calls,
Uniting its effulgence unto theirs,
Taking and giving light.
Then stretched in one emblazoned belt athwart
The heavens which reach and land from East to West
Then lustre one, the glory jointly wrought.
Bound each to each in common cause and all
Their destinies alike.
Come shock and shudder o’er the hearts of men,
When one, “a threatening orb did fiercely blaze”;
‘Til, veiling all her face in blood she then
Refused her share of light, and darkling,
Left the bright galaxy!
Rending the azure which they floated in,
Maddened and blinded by the purple gloom craze
Which Carolina’s passion hurled them in,
Those stars which proudly gild the Southern
Grew dark with awful rage!
And Oh! How cold and sad the blue sky seemed
While solemn glowing in their steady light,
The stars which kept their places and which gleamed
In constancy of purpose and to keep
The constellation true.
Maintained their ever thankful watch, nor slept
Through night or storm or wildest tempest-blast;
But like o faithful guards, their vigils kept,
Holding the beacon up that they might see
Whose hope had centered there.
And, as the lurid fires of Mars lift up
The Welkie, threatening a coming chaos,
And while the groans of dying men went up
Coupling their tumult with the sights of woe,
Still beamed that quenchless light!
And now, firm fixed and faithful in their spheres,
To guide the wand’rers back their light yet glows
Hope sees deliverance from doubts and fears,
Scans the near future cheerfully and glad
And Hails returning peace!
And in its purity of virgin light,
Gleaming with radiance serenely pure,
Our SILVER STAR immaculate and bright,
Shines modestly but clear and true beside
The truest and the best.
And thence forever may its light be shed;
And thence may ALL their radiance freely give;
‘Til glittering from Pole to Gulf are spread
The coruscating lights of starry life —
Our nation’s sign in Heaven.
Harry considered it his editorial responsibility to keep the record straight on items both great and small. Lake Tahoe was the topic of one of his numerous trivia wars. Harry insisted that the correct title was Lake Bigler. The word “Tahoe” was the Anglican equivalent of a Washoe Indian word for “lake.” Harry argued that the Indian word applied to any body of water — not just Lake Bigler — and anyone who referred to the alpine boyd of water as “Lake Tahoe” was saying, literally, “Lake Lake.”
But editorial logic failed to prevail over local habit and the salute to an early California governor eventually died for lack of use. As far as the Appeal was concerned, for the length of Harry’s tenure, it was “Lake Bigler” even if no one else agreed. Despite his official stance on the topic in the Appeal, Harry frequently lapsed into the popular use in correspondence and conversation.
The shores of Lake Tahoe were a favorite place of his for holidays and vacations. He enjoyed camping there, fishing, sketching and painting. He would take his children with him. Upon returning to Carson City, they would step off the stagecoach and walk home dirty, tattered and unshaven. Their advanced stages of filth never failed to dismay their tidy and meticulous wife and mother.
Back home, Harry would take sketches to a tiny one-room building he called his den. In his spare hours he would retire there behind the main house and convert his sketches into oil, paintings. The little structure, as well as the Mighels house, still exist in Carson City today.
When stomach cancer began its unswervable march to cut short his career, Harry developed an urge to leave behind a durable mark.
His indomitable wife Nellie had proven herself capable of operating the Appeal but all things considered, it was a modest estate to leave a widow who had four children to raise and another on the way. The Appeal was not any larger or any more prosperous n 1879 than it was 14 years earlier.
His only hope for a little touch of immortality and for some type of windfall for his family was with his book, “Sage Brush Leaves.” The book was a compendium of his wit, wisdom and philosophy covering his tenure in Nevada right up to the last days. It was at the printers when he died.
The May 31, 1879 Morning Appeal which carried a report on Mighels’ funeral, had an article describing an organization meeting designed to map out methods of promoting the soon-to-be-printed book:
“A meeting of the friends of the late Henry R. Mighels was held in the governor’s office in the state capitol immediately after the funeral exercises on Thursday last. For the purpose of aiding in the sale of the forthcoming book of the deceased, entitled “Sage Brush Leaves,” for the benefit of his widow and children. The following gentlemen were appointed as executive committee, vis: Gov. J.H. Kinkead chairman, Saml. Davis secretary; Geo. A. King treasurer; Hon. F.A. Tritle; Judge T.H. Hawley; Hon. Geo. C. Gorham.
The committee will shortly issue an address to the friends of the deceased, appoint sub-agents, and arrange generally for giving each of his friends an opportunity to subscribe for this, his legacy to his wife and young children.
The book was apparently at least a moderate success when it saw print later that year because it went into a second printing. Copies can still be found in public and private libraries all over the West.
The book was a blueprint of his philosophies, attitudes, opinions and his sense of humor. Now, 100 years later, it remains an important insight into the man, his profession and the times in which he lived.