When an editorial could get you killed Memorial: A monument to fallen journalists begins with a Marylander killed by the mob that gave Baltimore its 'Mobtown' moniker.

May 24, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Inside the Baltimore City jail in 1812, the "old and infirmed" Gen. James M. Lingan pleaded with the pro-war mob to spare his life. But this was anarchy. Bodies were being tortured, faces stabbed with pen-knives and "hot candle-grease" dropped into the eyes of the Federalists, who opposed the War of 1812.

Lingan was one of them. The general, who owned a newspaper that editorialized against the war, reminded the mob that he had fought for their liberties during the Revolutionary War and that he had a "large and helpless" family dependent on him. As he tried to speak, members of the mob attacked while reportedly crying out, The damned old rascal is hardest dying of them all!

Lingan's death marked the first documented time that an American journalist was killed in the pursuit of his profession. His is the first of 934 names of journalists worldwide engraved on a memorial dedicated this week in Rosslyn, Va.

"When James Lingan was killed defending his newspaper's printing press from a mob in 1812, America was a young nation. We were still learning how to be a true democracy," said First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who spoke at the dedication of the monument at the Freedom Forum, a foundation that studies news media issues.

In Baltimore, the young lesson in democracy was learned in an ugly episode that would give rise to the city's notoriety as a mob town. Lingan's name would be forever attached to this history.

Two days after Congress declared war against Great Britain in June 1812, a Baltimore newspaper called the Federal Republican urged Americans not to involve themselves in a "highly impolitic and destructive war." Modern readers, this was a time when U.S. newspapers were taken very seriously. Articles were received like gospels, and the Republican had published true fighting words. Firing off a nasty letter to the editorial page wouldn't do.

Gen. James Maccubbin Lingan, a Revolutionary War veteran from Maryland, probably didn't write the article, but he certainly endorsed and defended -- to his death -- the published prose. After its publication, the newspaper's office on Gay Street was overrun by Baltimore citizens "armed with axes, hooks and other instruments of destruction." The printing presses were destroyed; the building, floored. The newspaper continued publishing from Georgetown.

On July 26, 1812, the newspaper editor, Alexander Contee Hanson, and a group of armed friends, including Lingan, returned to Baltimore. They barricaded themselves in a brick building on South Charles Street.

By nightfall of the 27th, rioters had surrounded the building. Authorities persuaded the Federalist band to surrender. The men were marched to the Baltimore City jail. A day later, on July 28, the mob "no doubt made up of the immigrant laborers and unemployed" came for the "monarchists and aristocrats," reads Robert Brugger's "Maryland, A Middle Temperament." The mob sang "a weird chant whose words went, 'We'll feather and tar every damned British Tory/ And this for American glory."

The rioters spoke of castration, dissection and of throwing the bodies into the Jones Falls. What they didn't know was that all the Federalists would survive -- except one.

"Lingan so much mistook the character of the monsters as to suppose them capable of some feelings of humanity," according to partisan accounts in Thomas Scharf's 1874 "The Chronicles of Baltimore." "His name will be immortal as his soul."

Gen. James M. Lingan was buried in Georgetown in September 1812. The church, it was noted, proved too small to hold all the mourners, so a shady place in the neighborhood was used.

"A voice cries from the tomb of the brave," George W. Parke Custus eulogized. "It rises to the God of nature and humanity, and demands a vengeance on the murderer!"

Now his name is engraved on the 24-foot spiral of glass and steel called the Journalists Memorial.

"For Baltimore, it is a distinction, of sorts," says Cheryl Arvidson, a spokeswoman for Freedom Forum, a foundation studying media issues and the memorial's builder. "We were searching desperately for journalists killed in the line of duty, and 1812 is the earliest confirmed date."

But history, although often bloody, is rarely tidy. Was Lingan a journalist? A good friend of George Washington's, Lingan was known for his military service. Lingan, commissioned in the army, was at the battle of Long Island, where the Maryland Line suffered so much. After the war, Lingan returned home to Maryland, where he was considered a war hero and civic leader.

"Lingan was not known for his journalism, not to my knowledge," says state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse. "I frankly think his connection with the newspaper was remote, but his views were very much in line with those of Hanson and the newspaper."

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