Yesterday's Crimes: Murdered by the Son of the Sugar King

Blackmail was part of the business model for Charles and Michael de Young in the early days of their San Francisco Chronicle.

Slinging mud at the city's well to do was commonplace for the Chron since its beginnings in 1865, but the paper's founders weren't above taking a payoff to squelch a story. And besides, they needed the extra cash to fend off the libel suits that were a regular cost of doing business for the brothers.

But not everyone decided to settle their differences with the de Youngs in court.

San Francisco Mayor I.S. Kalloch's son, I.M. Kalloch, stormed the paper's newsroom and shot Charles de Young dead on April 23, 1880 after several months of intense muckraking.

Michael, now going by the tonier M.H. de Young, took over the paper without changing the way it did business. It was only a matter of time before history repeated itself.

[jump] In 1881, de Young set his sites on the “Sugar King” Claus Spreckels, a hard man from Hanover, Germany who built a trans-Pacific empire with his Hawaiian cane fields and San Francisco refineries.

The Spreckels clan weathered the initial series of Chron exposés alleging the use of slave labor in the family's Hawaiian plantations. However, when the paper ran a story in November 1884 that accused Spreckels of swindling shareholders in his Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar company just days before a major board meeting, Spreckels' son Adolph went ballistic—literally.

On Nov. 19, 1884, Adolph Spreckels followed de Young into the paper's business office and fired his pistol at the editor. Fortunately for de Young, a stack of children's picture books he was carrying slowed down the first bullet, keeping it from hitting the subclavian artery “by about a sixteenth of an inch” according to the Chron.

When de Young couldn't find cover behind his desk, he turned and lunged at Spreckels, but slipped and “fell forward in a half-stooping posture.” Spreckels shot de Young again, hitting him in the upper left shoulder.

At nearly the same moment that Spreckles delivered his second shot, George W. Emerson, a clerk at the Chron, pulled a revolver out of a counter drawer and shot Spreckels, hitting him just above the elbow.

Spreckels was wounded, but still deadly when cashier J.P. Chesley ran from behind his desk and “thrust his hand over the hammer” of Spreckels' revolver. A split-second later, business manager J.C. Elliot and a clerk named J.M. Reuck tackled the heir-turned-assassin.

“Spreckels struggled desperately to get his pistol hand free,” the paper reported, “but the odds were against him.”

Spreckels was arrested, but was set free on bail soon afterwards when it was determined that de Young's wounds weren't fatal.

“Should there be any appearance of de Young getting worse, Spreckels will be immediately re-arrested and held in confinement until after all danger of de Young's life has passed,” a Deseret News story delivered “per Western Union Telegraph Line” assured its readers.

“This is the second time that the hand of an assassin has been raised to silence this journal,” a Chron editorial following the shooting declared. “Respect for the honored dead—sympathy with him who may yet escape from the shot of the assassin—forbids us at this time to say more.”

A piece in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was decidedly more snarky.

“The fact that editors, as a rule, are not shot but generally die in their beds like other men, is evidence that there has been a marked peculiarity in the editorial methods adopted by the de Young brothers,” an un-credited editor quipped.

Spreckels never saw the inside of a cell again, as he was acquitted on July 1, 1885 after a lengthy trial that the Chron, of course, called a “judicial farce.”

Relatives and employees of Spreckels greeted the not guilty verdict by howling and stamping their feet in the courtroom, according to the Chron. Even the New York Times correspondent implied that things weren't quite on the up-and-up.

“The result of the protracted trial was a genuine surprise to the community,” the Times reported. “The comment heard on all sides tonight is, 'Well, money can do anything in this city.'”

Ambrose Bierce held more sympathy for the jurors, however. “Hatred of de Young,” the author and satirist wrote, “is the first and best test of a gentleman.”

Despite the lack of consequences, no one in the Spreckels clan ever shot at de Young again, but the feud continued in newsprint. Claus Spreckels bought the San Francisco Call in 1895, and the competing paper's front pages exposed de Young's crooked dealings in a way that the Chron never would.

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