The crooked ways of Orth Stein’s life would eventually lead him to Georgia, but we must first devote a few columns to his career in the Midwest, West and Northeast.
In 1878, the 16-year old Orth Stein was city editor of the Lafayette, Ind., Courier. He was known as a brilliant artist, journeyman poet and first-rate newspaperman, But, to the concern of his respectable parents, Stein had become enthralled with his hometown’s twilight world of gamblers, prostitutes and saloonkeepers. His articles betrayed a fascination and a deep familiarity with the darker side of life in the Victorian Midwest. Stein’s news writing was sensationalistic even by the standards of the day; he was not above embellishing an already lurid story with his own scandalous additions, and on a few occasions published outright hoaxes. Stein’s writing attracted readers to the Courier, but they soon began complaining of his irresponsible if entertaining style.
In 1880 Stein left Indiana for a job as a writer and artist for the Leadville, Colo., Chronicle. Leadville was a gold rush boom town, barely two years old with over 40,000 inhabitants, 82 saloons, 21 gambling halls and 35 brothels. It was a place much to young Stein’s taste. He abandoned the flimsy journalistic scruples that had bound him back home and began writing news articles that owed much to Jules Verne’s science fiction. Stein’s “reporting” included the discovery of an enormous and quite imaginary cavern near Leadville. He drew detailed maps and pictures of this subterranean marvel and went so far as to name one of the chambers after himself. Another of his stories detailed the discovery of an ancient ship in another underground cavern. The ship conveniently crumbled to dust when touched. Stein also reported the miraculously preserved bodies of several miners buried 20 years under an avalanche.
But Orth Stein was not merely a fraud. On his first day in Leadville he investigated the dozens of phony physicians who plagued the town; his exposure of them prompted Colorado’s first medical licensing law. He weighed into corrupt local officials and scored a major national story when he discovered the former Mrs. Charles Guiteau, ex-wife of President Garfield’s assassin, living near Leadville. By 1882 Stein had grown restless in Leadville. He announced his intention of pursuing his future as a journalist in Denver. Stein left in March of 1882, going first to Pueblo, Colo., where he ran a “variety theater,” essentially a glorified strip bar, under the pseudonym “John Bell.” This venture only lasted a few weeks and Stein pressed on to Denver, but found no newspaper work there. Stein was walking the streets of Denver on the night of April 14 when a man stepped up and struck him in the right eye with some heavy metal object. Stein pulled his pistol and his attacker fled before Stein lost consciousness.
Colorado newspapers speculated on the causes of the attack. Some thought it was a botched robbery, while others concluded that Stein had been tracked down by the subject of one of his muckraking articles. Carlyle Davis, his old boss on the Leadville Chronicle, wrote “his greatest fault (if it be a fault) is his love of women. It was this that has got him in trouble… He will befriend a man personally and yet do him terrible harm professionally, simply from a false idea of the value of news. He knows no pity.”
Stein’s injury was grave and his recovery was slow. He found work with the Rocky Mountain News, but was plagued with severe headaches, blurred vision and growing fears over further attempts on his life. The not-yet-famous poet Eugene Field (author of “Little Boy Blue” and “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” but also of the wicked and hilarious “Primer for Infants”) befriended Stein at this time and was later to say that he thought Stein’s sanity had been permanently affected by the attack.
Stein remained in Denver for a few more months, during which time he accompanied the visiting Oscar Wilde on a drinking spree. In the fall of 1882 he moved to Kansas City, Mo., where he wrote for several papers under his old alias, “John Bell.” As always he haunted the bars and variety theaters with his .45 revolver in pocket. He was soon to demonstrate the truth of his old editor’s observation: “…his love of women…has got him in trouble.”
©1994 John Ryan Seawright
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.