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Ghost Fry

Tall, thin, bespectacled, immaculately dressed, pistol in pocket, cigarette in hand, consumed by passions for books, liquor and women’s bodies and by the inexorable tuberculosis that would kill him before his 39th birthday; crisscrossing the continent editing newspapers, writing poems, short stories, news articles and bad checks; drawing, engraving, perpetrating hoaxes, exposing corruption and destroying reputations, coughing away his life in jail cells and furnished rooms; Orth Harper Stein seems like a character from one of the lurid novels of his day, an embodiment of the dying century’s aestheticism that charged its devotees with making their lives their greatest masterpieces of fiction.

Over the past three years, I have gone through thousands of old Georgia newspapers, following Orth Harper Stein’s career in Atlanta in the closing years of the last century in hopes that I would be the first to tell the full story of his life. As all researchers should before making their travel plans, I began a bibliographic search and found that Stein’s career had already caught the notice of another writer, Robert C. Kriebel of Lafayette, Ind., Stein’s hometown. In the upcoming series of articles I am deeply indebted to Mr. Kriebel for permission to use material from his Poets, Painters, Paupers, Fools: Indiana’s Stein Family (West Lafayette, Ind., 1990). Kriebel’s book deals with Stein’s parents and his sister Evaleen, a well-known poet in her day, as well as Stein himself. Most of the material on Stein’s early and final years is taken from Mr. Kriebel’s work; the details of his life in Georgia are based on my own research. Many of the illustrations for these articles are taken from Robert Kriebel’s book and reprinted here with his gracious permission.

Orth Harper Stein was born Jan. 27, 1862, in Lafayette, Ind. His mother, Virginia Tomlinson Stein, was the daughter of a respected family of old settlers. His father, John A. Stein, was a successful local attorney of Pennsylvania German ancestry who had come to Lafayette as a young man and was prominent in the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party and later in the Republican party. John Stein served three months in the Civil war as a lieutenant with a desk job, returning to Lafayette where a career as a state senator and founding trustee of Purdue University awaited him.


The 14-year-old Orth Stein’s woodcut of James Moon’s guillotine suicide, from the Lafayette Journal. (Illustration courtesy Robert C. Kriebel.)

John and Virginia Stein’s second child, Evaleen, was born October 1863. Orth and Evaleen grew up bright and sickly. From early childhood they were avid writers and artists. Orth was a voracious reader of the classics and the popular literature of the day, particularly the work of Jules Verne. He developed a reputation as an artist and at age 14 a local newspaper commissioned him to engrave three woodcuts depicting the gruesome suicide of James Moon, a local farmer who had checked into Lafayette’s best hotel and beheaded himself with an elaborate homemade guillotine.

this lurid episode was not only Orth Stein’s introduction to his life’s work in journalism, but to the bizarre and sensational end of the business, of which he was destined to become an unrivaled master. He soon mastered shorthand and at 15 became the court reporter for the Lafayette Courier. At 16 he quit school to study law in his father’s office, but his legal studies ended when he was made city editor of the Courier. He wandered day and night through Lafayette, gathering news and gossip and spending most of the rest of his time in the newspaper office writing news articles and poetry and drawing cartoons and maps. His fellow journalists noted the astonishing speed with which Stein could produce column after column of well-written copy with hardly any revision. At the same time that the tall scholarly-looking teenager was developing the skills that would carry him through life, he was developing the tastes that would help hasten him out of it, a fascination with the brothels, dance halls, saloons and gambling dens of Lafayette.

Continued next week

©1994 John Ryan Seawright


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