Mike Jacobs, the Grand Forks Herald’s ninth publisher, kept a picture of George Winship, the paper’s first, on the wall of his office until it was ruined in the Flood of 1997.
After reading the Herald’s contemporary coverage of an 1882 lynching in Grand Forks while Winship was at the helm of the Herald, Jacobs said he’s thankful he lost the picture.
“So I don’t have to decide whether I will take it down,” he told the Herald on Friday, Sept. 4.
The Herald’s coverage of the lynching, in which a cheery mob of Grand Cities residents pulled a Black man named Charles Thurber from a courthouse jail cell and hanged him from a nearby railroad bridge, is littered with racial slurs. Thurber allegedly sexually assaulted a pair of women in nearby towns. The tone of the paper’s coverage presumes his guilt from the outset and celebrates his death after the fact.
Many of the words the Herald used in 1882 to describe Thurber are inappropriate to publish in 2020. The paper's more palatable descriptions of him called him a “lustful beast” and a “fiend” who “whets his hellish appetite by ravishing a little German girl.” Meanwhile, its descriptions of Thurber’s killers veered toward an almost affectionate tone. According to the Herald at the time, Thurber was lynched “with more hilarity than grace – bunglingly but thoroughly done” – and the paper’s top story the day after his burial was a rhyming poem about the killing and the lack of a proper investigation into it.
“While there were many things to be regretted, and the conduct of the lynchers was reprehensible in many particulars, the main fact that the foul outrager was hung, and well hung, was a cause for almost universal congratulation,” the paper wrote.
One headline declared: "A dead (derogatory term)." Another called Thurber a "jerked (derogatory term)."
Four full columns of details of the lynching were published in a single edition, representing thousands of words. The Herald declared "Thurber planted" and said that "everyone rejoices that the (derogatory term) was lifted."
The efforts to plant a present-day memorial for Thurber aim to draw attention to his death, but also to be the first figurative step in a larger racial healing process, according to Maura Ferguson, who’s culminating a yearslong effort to install a plaque remembering the killing with a memorial service on Saturday.
If it's meant, in part, to heal, did the Herald help open those wounds in the first place?
Jacobs and Korrie Wenzel, the Herald’s 10th and current publisher, both decried the way the paper wrote about the lynching. Wenzel, who took over as publisher in 2014 upon Jacobs' retirement, said he gasped when he saw the headlines for the first time.
“It really, honestly pained me to see that,” he said. “You wouldn’t imagine that kind of language would be used in print, post-Civil War, and especially this far north. .... We’re far removed from the Old South, and you imagine the people here are good people, and I just can’t imagine that somebody actually wrote that.”
Wenzel said he is sorry Thurber was killed and he wished the paper had covered the killing better, but he said reviewing that coverage didn’t make him reconsider how the paper covers modern-day issues.
“I don’t see us committing those journalistic sins,” he said.
Winship, the then-publisher, was a leading progressive figure in North Dakota politics and one of the state’s greatest journalists, Jacobs said, and Jacobs found it disappointing and disturbing to see that type of coverage in a newspaper edited by someone of Winship’s character.
“That doesn’t diminish his many accomplishments, I think,” Jacobs said. “But it does call into question his attitude toward Black people in particular and probably toward people of color in general."
Mike Maidenberg, the Herald's eighth publisher who now lives in California, did not return a request for comment.
Wenzel and Kim Wynn, managing editor of the Herald, decided against republishing copies of the Herald's 138-year-old coverage of Thurber’s lynching.