In May 1898, Orth Harper Stein left Atlanta for New Orleans. He was 35 and dying of TB. He wanted to spend his remaining time writing short stories, but he appeared to have saved no money out of his income from The Looking Glass. He soon found work at the Camp Street offices of the New Orleans Times-Democrat, writing, drawing and engraving. After a year he was assigned the daily column “By the By,” an unsigned 2,000-word miscellany that appeared daily.
Stein filled “By the By” with detailed sketches of life in the city he quickly came to love. Despite his grave illness he roamed the city day and night and nothing missed his eye. He also wrote about medicine, science, literature and politics. Stein wrote six columns a week every week, exhibiting a encyclopedic knowledge, lethal wit and acute eye and ear in a clear, elegant prose style with nothing of his contemporaries’ late-Victorian grandiloquence to it. “By the By” was quoted and plagiarized by columnists wherever English was spoken and read, but Orth Stein’s name never appeared on a single column. In addition to his daily column, he contributed several long features to the paper every week.
Inevitably his lungs began to fail. On April 22, 1901, his friends telegraphed his mother and sister in Indiana to come quickly to New Orleans. They found Stein at his typewriter in his room at the Grunewald Hotel, his lungs hemorrhaging. Orth Stein died in his hotel room April 26, 1901. His body was returned to Lafayette, Ind., and buried next to his father’s in the city cemetery overlooking Purdue University. Some unknown person has paid for perpetual care for Orth Stein’s grave; it remains carefully tended today while those of his sister and parents grow up in weeds.
Stein’s work as both writer and artist was overwhelmingly anonymous or pseudonymous, both in his own publications and elsewhere. He used as many aliases as a short story writer as he had as a check forger. He was gifted and prolific but seemed to care nothing for fame. His work is available today only in bound volumes of old newspaper and stray reels of microfilm scattered across the continent. He made no lasting contribution to poetry, art or fiction, but he was one of the most talented of a breed of journalists that has disappeared from the earth. Stein was a unique creature of America in the late 19th century, the brilliant itinerant newspaperman who could toss off a Latin epigram, repair a steam press, bribe a jail guard for an interview, quote Oscar Wilde, Tesla, John Stuart Mill or Ecclesiastes as the situation demanded and roll into a strange town with nothing but a change of clothes and a few felony convictions and within months be publishing a newspaper backed by powerful local businessmen and politicians.
Stein railed against pretense, snobbery, the military, organized religion and authority in almost any form, but his was an aesthete’s rebellion. Stein mistrusted and ridiculed the reform and revolutionary movements of his day; the Populists, Socialists, anarchists and Fenians. Though he spoke out vehemently against lynching and racial exploitation he loathed African-Americans. He sympathized with the plight of prostitutes and delighted in the boldness of the “new women” of his day but did not support women’s suffrage. Stein was probably the only Georgia editor of his day who openly opposed capital punishment.
He delighted in ridiculing the Georgia militia and the military pretensions of the state’s ruling class. The Looking Glass and its political opposite number, the People’s Party Paper, stood alone among Georgia newspapers opposing the Spanish-American War. Stein sided with the victims of corrupt policemen and judges but was disgusted with beggars and worked ceaselessly for their forced removal from Atlanta.
Stein was a bourgeois bohemian who loved the wicked world that flourished in the shadow of Victorian capitalism, but needed that vast bulwark of respectability and property kept intact to cast the twilight where his beloved saloons and brothels and opium dens could flourish.
The Atlanta Journal wrote of him after his death:
His fondness for worldly things probably prevented him from attaining eminence in a journalistic way. His writings were at all times in the most polished English, facile, logical… Orth Stein was not a southern gentleman. But something in his nature did not permit any man to question his courage.
In concluding this series of articles I wish once again to thank Mr. Robert C. Kriebel of Lafayette, Ind., for generously sharing his files with me. His Poets, Painters, Paupers, Fools: Indiana’s Stein Family (Purdue University Press, 1990) provided me with most of my information about Stein’s life before 1890 and after 1898. The research on Stein’s Georgia career is my own.
The following are the final two verses of a poem of Orth Stein’s composed near the end of his life:
What delicate wraith of passion,
What ghost of the yesteryears—
‘Twas something as sweet as kisses,
Something as sad as tears.
Rising only to vanish,
As a pang of the flesh may tell us
Where a wound has long since healed
Next Week: The One-Eyed Socialist Preacher and The Killer Who Swapped Souls With a Dog: Atlanta’s Osborne Brothers.
© 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.