OLD NEWS: Then there was the moment the Arkansas Gazette Cops reporter ran for Big Rock Constable
Digging through the newspaper archives last week, I came across a dusty box of exclamation marks!
Let me tell you, I was holding my breath! The explosion of exclamation points could level a city block!
But I paid attention! And so I’m alive today to report that – July 100 (in 1922) – Joe Bernard Wirges ran for Big Rock Township Constable.
After typing that sentence, I’m sitting there imagining readers reading it!
First Reader: “This will be a story about the curious perseverance of the Arkansas Mounties.”
Reader Two: “Joe Wirges didn’t. No way!”
Yes, reader two. Joe “Gazette” Wirges (1897-1972), an Arkansas Gazette police reporter known to be shrewd and resourceful through much of the 20th century, ran for Constable of Big Rock in 1922. It may have been to be a lark. Or maybe he did a little arithmetic and realized that in 1922 Big Rock’s agent was a sinecure who would pay him $50 to do things he could do anyhow. way.
First reader, you will want to know more about Joe Wirges. Conveniently, the Arkansas Encyclopedia provides a full page on him written by another famous Arkansas journalist, Ernest Dumas. See arkansasonline.com/711dumas. Also, colorful stories about Wirges have been canned like canned peaches by the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History (search pryorcenter.uark.edu for “Gazette project”).
Memoirists mention his bad typing and clever reliance on the Gazette’s rewrite office; his phenomenal memory and storytelling; his gruff voice and habit of smoking; the oxygen canister he dragged around late in his life.
Gazette Outdoors writer John Fleming wrote of him in 1972: “Outwardly he was hard as a rock. His skin was as thick as skin has to be if a police reporter is to succeed. But Joe’s skin was also porous. his personal dealings with the unfortunate of his world and the unrecorded favors he rendered to them will certainly be written in the ledger.”
Fleming witnessed Joe’s philanthropy: when he visited state prisons, he persuaded convicts to bequeath their corneas to the blind. During one visit, a murderer named Cubie Lee Johnson refused to pledge his corneas. But as the reporters left, James Hyde, another convict, stopped to offer his as well as a prediction that Cubie Lee would change his mind. Fleming wrote:
“A month later Joe went back to prison. Hyde called Joe and said, ‘I did my best. I took one for you.” An astonished Joe Wirges asked, “How?” Hyde replied, “I won it in a game of cards.”
Wirges was also once the Gazette’s only photographer, in charge of his first camera (obtained from a departing reporter who owed the newspaper for long-distance calls to his daughter). Having the camera meant that Wirges was sometimes called upon to take pictures for the company’s editor Nell Cotnam, and he didn’t want to. He assured her that no one cared to read her work.
According to Our Town Gazette columnist Richard Allin, Cotnam once wrote about a high-born couple who went on vacation and then while they were away a “society burglar” cleaned out their house. Wirges made sure to tell Cotnam he was wrong: she had a reader.
Another time he was staked out in the lobby of the Marion Hotel with his camera, waiting for a subject to appear. Camera equipment from years before flashes included a panoramic flash. As Wirges held his camera and flash, a drunk walked by, stopped, put a hand in his pocket, pulled out a penny, and dropped it in the tray.
Joe Wirges was also a musician with a real band in the 1920s.
But he was above all the reporter for the cops. In fact, we could call Joe Gazette the “dean” of Arkansas’ 20th-century cop reporters, except there was no university of one. Although he was only 25 in 1922, he had the mastery of law and order of a veteran earned by working 80 hours a week for around $20 – the same hours and pay as the cops he covered. He enjoyed their company but also had great acquaintance among the criminals, gossiping about them in prison and, his praise attests, conveying their stories fairly.
As fellow Gazette sports editor Heinie Loesch teasingly put it in 1922, he was a “demon police reporter”, the slang use of “demon” meaning extremely skilled. After Wirges ran for Constable as a Democrat and was listed among the culprits on the front page of the Gazette on July 6, 1922, Loesch began a series of ironic weekly articles about Wirges’ campaign – of which Loesch was director.
The sportswriter naturally presented this political adventure in terms familiar to bettors and gamblers.
Published July 7, the first article was accompanied by a photo ID of Wirges taken by the Little Rock Police Department, along with a booking ID: 43295.
After reporting that Wirges had wisely postponed announcing his candidacy until the close of the New York and Chicago stock exchanges, Loesch wrote: “Throwing his bright green sports cap into the ring, Mr. Wirges shows a true sporting blood. After some of the recent legislatures stopped pirating the work of the constable, $50 per biennium was all that was left of the emoluments. Despite the low comparative returns, Mr. Wirges boldly risks a dollar in cash, the entrance fee, betting that the county will only owe him $50 after two years.”
Wirges had risen early, eaten a modest breakfast, dusted off his clothes “and found that his gold teeth were still there, like the ‘ever-shining’ stars and stripes”. And then the candidate shared his platform:
“I stand,” said Mr. Wirges, “for nothing, otherwise I could not have been a successful police journalist all these years. I will say, however, that if elected I will serve without fear, more or less, and without favor, tempering justice with or without mercy according to the recipe. My opinion on the Volstead Act is irrelevant here, and besides the newspaper could not publish it.
“I am clean, able and brave and a good fiddler. As a constable, I will be found at all times at my duty post or in the nearest billiard hall. I was born in this county and was bred here and around many times, often knocked out of the game.
“I am a kind and loving husband and father in the order named, and as to my wife and children, I have one of each. As far as I will receive feedback as it comes will arrive at the courthouse, I am at least sure of the unofficial election.”
He continued, “By offering the constituents of Big Rock Township the services of a person bold with discretion, valiant without vainglory, industrious in energy conservation and capable with alibis, I will not be deterred. by false modesty in admitting that I will be an official curly wolf.
Everyone knows what curly wolf means, right? So it’s all fun.
But 1922 was the year a then-emerging, urban version of the Ku Klux Klan, with dues and uniforms, decided to back its own slate of candidates for all elective positions, including Constable of Big Rock.
That summer long ago, as Loesch humorously performed Joe Wirges’ amusing run to become a constable, an anti-Klan faction put Joe Gazette on their list of anti-Klan candidates.
How did it end? See you next week for round 2!