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June 2, 2013

Historical perspective: The death of newspaper publisher George M. Allen

TERRE HAUTE — The name of George Murdoch Allen, editor and publisher of the Terre Haute Express for 16 years, is rarely mentioned today.

During his administration, his Republican newspaper was influential beyond the state’s boundaries. As a result, President William McKinley asked Allen to serve as an assistant to the Postmaster General.

He was from a pioneer Vigo County family. Great-grandfather Peter Benton Allen, brevetted general during the War of 1812, settled here in 1817 and became a large landowner.

Paternal grandfather Ira Allen became a gentleman farmer in Clay County.  Edward B. Allen, George’s father, was a railroad freight agent who served as Vigo County Auditor. His mother was Lucinda Sibley, the product of another pioneer family.

George was born in Terre Haute on Aug. 2, 1853.  Soon after the Civil War, he went to work at the Prairie City Bank, incorporated here in 1852. Though still a teenager, George was lured west to serve as cashier for the First National Bank of Salt Lake City.

For a time, he headed the only bank in Careen, Utah. It was owned by Warren Hussy, the enterprising younger brother of esteemed Terre Haute banker Preston Hussy.

Allen returned to Indiana in 1872 to work at the First National Bank of Indianapolis.

He left that job in 1878 to become a paymaster in the U.S. Navy. In 1882, he resigned and returned home to buy the Terre Haute Express, in partnership with Harry G. Thompson, the son of Col. Richard W. Thompson.

Allen gradually acquired control over the Express and was sole proprietor in 1883 when the Express wrote two stories about a rumor circulating downtown that Charles Baur of Baur Pharmacy had assaulted 9-year old Marie Frederica Duenweg during May.

Baur sued Allen for libel. The case was tried before a jury in the Vigo Circuit Court beginning Friday, Dec. 28, 1883 and ending on Saturday, Jan. 5, 1884.

The courtroom was packed every day. Judge Harvey David Scott presided. Baur was represented by Sanford C. Davis and Cyrus McNutt. Allen was represented by William Mack, Ambrose Carlton, John E. Lamb and U.S. Sen. Daniel W. Voorhees.

The Express reported that the libel case was the "ruling topic of every conversation throughout the city."

Several defendant’s witnesses testified that there was a common rumor circulating about the city that Baur had "committed an outrage" on the Duenweg girl at work. One identifiable Express source was Eugene Duenweg, father of the victim.

Duenweg denied that he started the gossip. Even Edward Insley, a reporter for the Terre Haute Gazette and later a prize-winning journalist in Los Angeles, testified that he had heard the story before it was published May 16, 1883 in the Express.

The parties acknowledged that Charles Baur’s reputation was impeccable and that founder John Jacob Baur, referred to as "Dr. Baur," and Dr. Baur’s son Jacob were in the popular drug store at the southeast corner of Seventh and Wabash during the alleged assault.

Nothing in the transcript published in the newspaper asserted that any clothing was altered or removed.  If an assault occurred, it resulted from Baur pressing his body against the girl while she was seated on a box awaiting bottles of black varnish and turpentine she had ordered.

The jury deliberated for several hours Friday night, Jan. 4, without result. When asked Saturday morning after spending all night, foreman Samuel Conner reported: "We have not reached a verdict and there is no probability that we will."   

Shortly before 2 p.m., on Saturday afternoon, however, the jury reported that it had reached a verdict for the plaintiff Baur and "assessed damages at $100.00."

It was later learned that the jury had been equally split, six for Baur and six for Allen. Among those supporting Baur were those who felt he deserved several thousand dollars. Others were willing to give him a verdict for "One Cent."

As a result of the verdict, the costs of the action were assessed against Allen.

Though Allen rarely if ever complained about the unfairness of the verdict, some friends felt that it was a burden on his fragile constitution. He retained control of the newspaper until 1899 but did not do very much writing.

Upon relinquishing the newspaper to a stock company headed by William Riley McKeen, Allen accepted a position in Washington, D.C., as chief clerk to Perry Heath, first assistant postmaster general.  During Heath’s frequent absences to Europe, Allen was the acting assistant postmaster general.

Allen was very popular in Washington. He did not know how to refuse an assignment and was dispatched to represent Postmaster General Charles Emory Smith at many meetings in the west.

His health was compromised and, in 1900, he was hospitalized. Friends were concerned that he was near death but he recovered, though not sufficiently to continue to maintain his fast pace.

Allen was honored in Indiana by being elected delegate to the 1900 Republican National Convention. In 1901, he was assigned a position with the rural free delivery service in Denver.

He arrived in Denver on April 15 to start his new job but contracted  pneumonia and was confined to a room in the St. James Hotel. He died there April 23 at age 48.  

The Terre Haute Express halted publication on April 29, 1903 and was succeeded by the Terre Haute Morning Star.

 

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