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Concord Cameo: Frederic Hudson, Father of American Journalism

By Leslie Perrin Wilson, Curator of Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library.

Frederic Hudson, Father of American JournalismAlthough Concordians tend to emphasize involvement in town affairs in assessing their fellow citizens, there have been -- and still are -- a number of residents with major influence beyond the town's boundaries but a relatively low profile locally. 19th century journalist Frederic Hudson, for example, earned a lasting place in the history of American newspaper publishing but for the better part of a decade lived an essentially private life in Concord.

Hudson was born in Quincy on April 25, 1819 to Barzillai and Rebecca (Eaton) Hudson. Raised and educated primarily in Boston, Hudson spent two years at school in Concord -- the culmination of his formal education -- before heading to New York to seek his fortune in 1836, at age seventeen. He worked first at Hudson's News Room, his brother Edward's news-gathering agency, where he came to the attention of James Gordon Bennett, who had begun publishing the New York Herald in 1835. Impressed by the competence and self-possession of the younger man, Bennett hired Hudson as a reporter for the Herald -- the paper's third employee (including Bennett himself).

Frederic Hudson had a talent for aggressively pursuing news. Early in his career, he made a name for himself in gathering shipping news. While working for his brother, he had spent time on the docks picking up information about incoming vessels. At the Herald, he went a step farther and sent boats out to meet ships on their way into port. Under his influence, the Herald used the pony express, the railroad, and the telegraph to transmit information from faraway places to the newspaper office. Hudson's success in scooping the competition during the Mexican War (1846-1848) caused rival papers also to adopt these practices.

Hudson Important to Rise of Modern Journalism
ice-trapped leaves In 1840, Bennett promoted Hudson to a position which was at the time novel in the newspaper business -- that of managing editor. In the early 19th century, the various tasks involved in putting out a newspaper -- reporting, setting type, printing, and circulation among them -- were frequently the responsibility of a single individual. Bennett had ambitious plans for his paper, and was willing to hire staff to help realize them. As the Herald grew, he shrewdly understood that appointing a manager to coordinate the increasingly diverse activities of his employees would enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of his operation. Bennett's trust was well placed in Hudson, who was completely loyal to his employer and shared his hopes for the Herald.

Hudson was a consummate professional. He threw himself heart and soul into his work. A hands-on manager, he let no detail slide. Although James Gordon Bennett was not above editorial promotion of particular political agendas, Hudson was dedicated to the ideal of accurate, timely, and complete reportage as the primary obligation of a newspaper. He mulled over strategies to improve and refine the gathering of news. He sent out correspondents to observe and send back information about events as they unfolded. He made himself accessible to everyone who asked to speak with him at his office.

Known as a gentleman, he was well-respected by those who worked for him and even by those who worked for competing dailies. As second in command, he was left in charge of putting out the Herald for extended periods while Bennett traveled. In Frederic Hudson's capable hands, the Herald became the most widely read newspaper in America, with a reported circulation of 77,000. Bennett paid his managing editor the princely salary of $10,000. Nobody disputed that Hudson earned every penny.

The Associated Press Was Born
Beginning in 1846, the Herald combined its financial resources with those of other New York newspapers to defray the expense of telegraphic transfer of information. In 1848, the Herald, Courier and Enquirer, Express, Journal of Commerce, Sun, and Tribune formally established the New York Associated Press. This syndicate leased its own telegraph line and chartered a steamer from Halifax (a major stopover for ships on their way to Boston and New York). Frederic Hudson was on the executive committee for this forerunner of the Associated Press.

Eliza (Woodward) Hudson During the Civil War, Bennett's and Hudson's mutual commitment to rapid dissemination of the news prompted the hiring of even more correspondents at the Herald. Hudson arranged for Herald correspondents to observe the war first-hand by traveling with the Union Army, and to send their graphic reports to New York by telegraph.

Hudson Returns to Concord
Throughout his years in New York, Frederic Hudson had visited Concord regularly. After the Civil War, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., took the Herald over from his father. In 1866, Hudson resigned and retired to Concord with his invalid wife Eliza (Woodward) Hudson (pictured above, right) and their son Woodward. The family lived on Main Street, in a house located where #252 stands today. He devoted his retirement to caring for Mrs. Hudson and to writing an exhaustive history of journalism in America (Journalism in the United States, from 1690-1872; published in 1873), which is still consulted today.

Hudson sought no public office in Concord, and never became a member of the Social Circle. Despite his good looks and obvious accomplishments, he was courteous, kindly, reluctant to call attention to himself, and consequently well-liked here. In 1873, he became a member of the town's Library Committee. He helped build the library collection by anonymously making donations of expensive and much-desired volumes. He also interested himself in local history. The May, 1875 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine included his lengthy article "The Concord Fight," his final piece of writing.

Ironically, Frederic Hudson is probably better remembered in Concord for the horrifying details of his accidental death than for the impact that he made in the field of journalism. On October 20, 1875, he called upon his friend John Shepard Keyes. They decided to go out in a carriage, with the Judge driving. The two were so deeply engaged in conversation that Keyes failed to realize that train cars were approaching at the Monument Street crossing of the Middlesex Central Railroad. The carriage was struck and dragged down the track. Detached from the vehicle, the horse made it to the other side. Although thrown from the carriage and hurt, Judge Keyes was able to seek help on foot. Entangled in the wreckage, Hudson suffered serious internal injuries. He died on October 21, 1875, at the age of fifty-six.

ice-trapped leaves Frederic Hudson's Concord funeral was a heavily attended, highly emotional affair. Many of the journalist's New York colleagues were present. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott were among the mourners. Because Woodward Hudson wished to be alone with the remains at the actual interment, before burial the coffin was set on the fallen autumn leaves in Sleepy Hollow and opened so that his father's friends and townsmen could say their final farewells.

In his New York Herald obituary, Frederic Hudson was remembered as "the father of American journalism, so far as enterprise, sagacity and boldness in gathering news are concerned." Hudson was not a native son of Concord, nor did he make his reputation while living here. But his presence at the end of his life was a credit to the town. Today, his place in journalism brings historians to Concord to research his life and work. His diaries from 1851 to 1875 -- including significant information about his management of the Herald -- form part of a rich collection of Hudson family papers presented by Marion Hudson Wilmot (Frederic's grand-daughter) to the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections.


Photos: Frederic Hudson and Eliza Woodward Hudson (Mrs. Frederic), both by "Brady's National Portrait Galleries", and courtesy of the Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library.
Backgrounds: Word of Mouth Graphics.
Other Art: Hometown Websmith and ArtToday.


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