John Morrison was born on September 10, 1863, in the town of Tabor, Iowa, in the far southwestern corner of the state. Tabor had been founded eleven years earlier by settlers who had traveled from Oberlin, Ohio, with a dream of establishing a community on the frontier that resembled Oberlin. They were Congregationalists, abolitionists, and advocates of temperance. One of the first things they did upon arriving in the wilderness was to set aside land for a university. John Morrison’s father Joshua purchased his farm from one of the town’s founders in 1858.
During the early years of the town, Tabor’s proximity to the slave state of Kansas brought them some interesting visitors: the murderous abolitionist fighter John Brown and other guerrillas camped there on several occasions, resting up between attacks on slaveholders. With the Missouri-Kansas border being guarded by pro-slavery militias, free-state settlers often passed through Tabor on their way to Kansas. The town was also a station on the Underground Railroad, and the Morrison farm may have served as a safe house. An obituary for John Morrison’s mother, Martha, states that, “She and her husband…helped runaway slaves on the way to freedom before the Civil War.”
John was the eldest of three brothers and one sister: Duane, Ben, Bert, and the beloved Mattie, after whom John would one day name his daughter.
The Tabor Literary Institute was formed in 1857; it became Tabor College in 1866. John Morrison attended the college, but there is no evidence that he graduated. He moved west to Nebraska in 1884, at the age of 21, where he hoped to earn enough money to complete his studies. At various times in the next several years, he worked as a teacher, a school principal, a construction engineer for the railroad, a textbook salesman, and a newspaper reporter and publisher.
Even the smallest towns on the Nebraska frontier had two newspapers; some had three or four. Morrison worked for at least a half dozen papers around the state, many of them in Saline County. In 1888, he launched the DeWitt Rip-saw, the second paper in a town of 700 people along the Burlington and Missouri Railroad. With his first issue, Morrison angered many readers when (in the words of another paper) he “pitched into some of the citizens and without the least cause, sought to place them in an unpleasant light with the public.” Citizens expressed their appreciation by leaving a bucket of tar and feathers on Morrison’s office steps. Morrison later asserted that it was the publisher of a rival paper “and his drunken partner” who had left the bucket, not a member of the general public.
The DeWitt Rip-saw lasted about six months before going out of business. Morrison returned to working for other Nebraska papers before taking over as publisher of the Friend Free Press, the official paper of the Saline County Farmers Alliance, in 1890. Morrison renamed the paper The People’s Rip-saw and carried on in his own gentle style. In 1891, Morrison’s commentary on an election inspired certain townspeople to hang him in effigy in front of the Friend Hardware Store.
Zenith City Journalist
The People’s Rip-saw lasted about a year before folding, which signaled the end of Morrison’s time on the frontier. By 1893, the 30-year-old was living in Duluth, working as City Hall reporter for the Duluth Herald. He later worked for the Duluth News Tribune and taught night classes at Central High School. As a reporter, Morrison seemed to have his usual salutary effect on people. At one point, in 1895, Assistant City Attorney Ellsworth Benham attacked Morrison with a billy club, seemingly without provocation. When asked why he did it, Benham replied, “He glares at me in a manner greatly irritating.”
Morrison started his first Duluth paper, the Duluth Citizen, in 1896. In that year, he also campaigned for Henry Truelsen for mayor. Truelsen, Morrison later wrote, had “every daily paper, every corporation and nearly every lawyer in Duluth opposing him.” Morrison’s duty “was to tell the voters about the undesirability of [city detective Bob] Benson and such graft stories as [I] knew.” Apparently, he was so successful that both Truelsen and his opponent, S. D. Allen, began to promise they would fire Benson if elected. Truelsen won the election and made good on his promise. Benson later attacked Morrison in the street, whereupon Morrison (according to a front-page account in the Citizen) gave the former detective “a blackened eye and bloody face.”
The Duluth Citizen folded after only a few issues. There follows a nearly 20-year gap in this researcher’s knowledge of Morrison’s life. He was married to his first wife, Mary Miller of Duluth, in 1903; she died in 1905. Morrison wed again in 1910, to Nora (or Norah, or Honora, or Honore) O’Gorman of Duluth. They had two children, a boy and a girl. Morrison’s obituary in the Tabor Beacon mentions that Morrison “was engaged in newspaper work for several mining journals published in Duluth, and was publisher of a paper in Montana. His great interests in the Foley gold mine later took him to Canada.” This researcher has nothing to substantiate any of this.
In 1912, Morrison was excommunicated from the Congregational Church in Tabor. Two other members were dismissed on the same day. Church records offer no reason for the dismissals.
In 1916, Morrison published a handsomely illustrated book entitled The Booster Book: West Duluth in 1916. This book had none of Morrison’s usual fire-breathing rhetoric. It was an informative, well-written look at the history and current prospects of many Duluth companies.
In 1917, at the age of 53, Morrison started the Duluth Rip-saw. It was his first new Rip-saw in 25 years.
As a business, the Rip-saw relied on subscriptions and rack sales more than advertising for its income. At a time when the daily papers were selling for two and three cents apiece, the four-page Rip-saw, published every two weeks, sold for a nickel. The paper began its existence with a print run of 5,000 copies. By 1919, after successful campaigns against Chief McKercher and others, the “Great Family Journal,” as Morrison liked to call it, was selling as many as 15,000 copies per issue. The issue of March 8, 1919, sold 23,000 copies—about one for every four Duluth citizens.
Nevertheless, advertisers stayed away in droves. Undoubtedly, few businesses wanted to be associated with a newspaper that regularly published derogatory reports about leading businessmen. On top of that, Morrison had a poor sales ethic. In Issue 3, he explained that “it takes so much time and work to write the paper that I am unable to call on advertisers. Any who desire advertising space will have to come to the office to get it.” There is little evidence that he ever deviated from this policy. Often the paper had no ads at all.
The Rip-saw & Race
When it came to racial matters, Morrison’s record was mixed. He described black citizens as “negro” or “colored,” terms which were not considered offensive at the time (the mainstream News Tribune, by contrast, occasionally mentioned “pickaninnies” and “mammies”). Morrison described brothels run by blacks in similar terms as brothels run by whites—instead of “wicked dumps,” they were “wicked Negro dumps.” On one occasion, he referred to a black madam as a “Senegambian harpy [who] specializes in young girls of under age, ‘tid-bits,’ they call them in the big cities.”
In 1918, the Buhl high-school basketball team was beaten by the Duluth team, which had a black player. The Buhl newspaper editorialized against such an underhanded strategy, saying that “People should always bear in mind that no good has ever come from the intermingling of the white with the black, and that no good can possibly come from such intermingling.” In the Rip-saw, Morrison editorialized the opposite position:
“Under the law, the black boy has the same rights and privileges in the schools as the white boy…. The Negro was brought to America against his will…. The truly representative leaders of the Negro race in the United States expect and ask nothing but civil and industrial rights, such being their due, holding equal responsibility for the common weal.”
Morrison also gave an example of black soldiers “standing the draft and doing their bit side by side with their white brethern [sic]” and mentioned that “it was a colored regiment that saved Teddy [Roosevelt] and his Rough Riders from annihilation.”
Morrison then promptly undercut his progressive position by adding that “truly representative” black leaders dismissed “any idea of a common social footing for the two races. They look on the mixing of white and black blood as a disgrace to both.” A black athlete, Morrison opined, should have “enough sense of propriety not to seek a common footing in his social relations.”
On October 5, 1918, Morrison published an article entitled “Claude MacKay—Negro Poet,” which spoke of the achievements of black citizens in general and of Claude MacKay in particular. McKay, upon moving to the United States from Jamaica, was stunned to find such “intensely bitter” prejudice, where “strong white men, splendid types, of better physique than any I had ever seen, exhibit[ed] the most primitive animal hatred towards their weaker black brothers.”
These few examples constitute the only times the Rip-saw spoke about race in its first two years of existence. When Morrison received a measure of formal power beyond the informal power of his pen, however, his tone hardened.