Samuel S. McClure · 2005
By Ray E. Boomhower
At the turn of the twentieth century, the scandals and horrors of America’s business and government came under the watchful eye of a new kind of journalist. Labeled “muckrakers” by President Theodore Roosevelt, these journalists reported on the wrongs perpetuated on society by America’s growing industry. The writers who sought reform found an ally in editor and publisher, Samuel McClure, who published their work in his popular periodical McClure’s Magazine.
Born on February 17, 1857, in County Antrim, Ireland, McClure was the eldest of four sons raised by Thomas, a carpenter, farmer, and shipyard worker, and Elizabeth Gaston McClure. A year after Thomas McClure’s death in a shipyard accident, Elizabeth McClure moved the family to America, settling in Valparaiso, Indiana, where she had relatives living nearby.
Eventually, Elizabeth found work washing clothes for a physician’s family. In return for her work, she received housing for her family. The doctor who owned the home had a large library that became a favorite spot for Samuel. “I sometimes read two or three books a day,” he recalled in his autobiography. “I lay on the carpet, face down, and read for hours at a time.”
In 1867 Elizabeth McClure married Thomas Simpson, a farmer, and Samuel McClure worked on the farm. “We all worked hard,” he said, “but it seemed to me that my mother worked hardest of all.” Finally able to attend the local school, McClure discovered that his Irish accent “afforded the boys there a great deal of amusement.” Always keenly interested in bettering himself through education, but beset with financial difficulties, Samuel McClure had to work his way through Valparaiso High School. During the winter months, McClure, who could not afford a coat, found himself running to school to keep warm. “Speed was my overcoat,” he noted.
To fund his education, McClure worked as a teacher at a country school, clerked in a grocery store, and served as a printer’s devil for the Valparaiso Vidette. At the newspaper, McClure learned how set type and prepare an edition for circulation. What he remembered best, however, was learning how to swear. “Profanity was the accepted etiquette about a country newspaper,” he said. With a friend named Charley Griffith, McClure also raised funds for his education by buying old cows cheaply, butchering them, and selling the meat. The two boys also traveled to Anderson, Indiana, where they found jobs grading the track for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Upon his stepfather’s death in December 1873, McClure returned to help his brothers run the farm. One of his uncles, however, had studied for the ministry at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and McClure became determined to attend school there. He arrived at the school with only fifteen cents in his pocket, but with a determination to succeed. “I never had any difficulty in making a living,” McClure noted, “and I knew that I was well able to take care of myself.”
Over the next several years, McClure worked at a variety of jobs to support his education, including doing chores on neighboring farms, teaching, and peddling. He finally graduated in 1882. McClure had fond memories of his time at Knox, noting there were no organized athletics, fraternities, or dances. “A boy’s standing among the other boys depended entirely upon his scholarship,” he said, “and every one did his best.” While at the university, however, McClure did find time to edit the student newspaper and also founded the Western Collegiate Associated Press.
After graduation, McClure found employment with Boston bicycle manufacturer Colonel Albert Pope. His first job was to teach people how to ride a bicycle at a local rink. “Now, I have never been on a bicycle in my life,” McClure recalled, “nor even been very close to one; but I was in the predicament of the dog that had to climb a tree.” In only a few hours he had taught himself to ride and was able to teach others as well.
Later, Pope selected McClure to serve as editor of his monthly bicycling periodical the Wheelman. Successful in business, in 1883, McClure married Harriet Hurd; the couple raised five children. A year after his marriage, McClure launched what eventually became a successful publishing syndicate, selling articles to newspapers around the country. He owed part of his success to the assistance of his wife. “Between us, Mrs. McClure and I did every kind of office drudgery,” said McClure, “all the things that in an ordinary business there was a half dozen people to do.”
Early in 1892, McClure turned his attention to launching a new monthly periodical to be called McClure’s Magazine, using the articles and stories from his newspaper syndicate. McClure had little funds for his new venture and considered his “real capital was my wide acquaintance with writers and with what they could produce.” Launched in 1893 during a financial panic, the magazine experienced low sales. Of the 20,000 copies printed for the first issue, 12,000 were returned. McClure managed to keep the magazine in production thanks to financial support from figures such as Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.
As editor, McClure saw himself as an “open-minded” individual with a natural enthusiasm for his work and a willingness to hire staff with little experience. He soon drew to his periodical such distinguished writers as Booth Tarkington, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, and Jack London. Circulation also received a boost thanks to McClure discovering the talents of a writer named Ida M. Tarbell. Viewing some of Tarbell’s writing in the spring of 1893, McClure is supposed to have said: “That girl can write. I want to get her to do some work for the magazine. He traveled to Paris, France, to meet Tarbell and offered her a job with the magazine. In time, she produced for McClure popular serialized biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln.
From August to December 1895, the magazine’s circulation rose from 120,000 to 250,000. Hoping to increase his circulation even more, McClure turned his magazine into a home for a series of reform articles by such writers as Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, and Joseph Lincoln Steffens. These pieces on the history of the Standard Oil Company and corruption in city government contributed to the rise of muckraking journalism at the turn of the century and helped boost the magazine’s circulation to approximately a half-million readers.
According to McClure, the origin of the muckraking movement came about strictly by accident. He said he had no formal plan “to attack existing institutions, but was the result of merely taking up in the magazine some of the problems that were beginning to interest the people a little bit before the newspapers and other magazines took them up.” McClure helped the process along by paying his writers for their story and not for the amount of copy they produced. Doing so, he said, relieved his writers of financial worries and allowed them to master a particular subject and write about it with almost the same authority as a specialist in the field.
Overly ambitious expansion plans and a failing economy forced McClure to sell his magazine to outside interests and he lost his role as editor in 1912. Two years later, McClure, with the assistance of Willa Cather as ghostwriter, published his autobiography. McClure’s Magazine ceased publication that same year.
After losing control of his magazine, McClure continued to work in journalism, serving as editor of the New York Evening Mail. McClure also became associated with the peace movement, serving as a delegate on Henry Ford’s ill-fated 1915 peace ship mission that sought to stop the bloody trench warfare then raging in Europe. Two years later, McClure wrote a book about politicians’ failures regarding the war. McClure died on March 21, 1949, at a hospital in the Bronx.