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Name:  Benjamin Wood

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Born:  October 13, 1820
Died:  February 21, 1900
 
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Benjamin Wood was the long-time editor of the New York Daily News, which he built into the highest-circulating daily newspaper in America; a three-term Congressman; and a confidant to his older brother Fernando Wood, who was mayor of New York City and a major Democratic politician.

Benjamin Wood was born in Shelbyville, Kentucky, to Rebecca Lehmann Wood and Benjamin Wood, a merchant. In 1821 the family moved to New York City in hopes that his father's poor performance in the business world would improve; it did not. Young Wood attended public schools briefly in New York City, then started working and traveling extensively throughout the Caribbean and Central America as a sailor on merchant ships and throughout the United States as a common laborer. He returned to New York City to enter the shipping industry, and also became a partner, along with his brother Fernando and other New Yorkers, in several Southern lotteries. He gained substantial wealth from both enterprises. Around this time he married, but little is known about the union, except that his wife died in 1849, leaving two sons.

During the 1850s Fernando Wood became a major player in municipal politics, thrice winning the mayoral race and establishing Mozart Hall as a Democratic machine to challenge Tammany Hall. His closest advisor and the only person he truly trusted was his younger brother Benjamin. The two formed a political team that would last until Fernando's death in 1881. Like the later Tweed Ring, the Wood brothers and the "Forty Thieves" of the city council in the 1850s were accused of corruption, although none of the charges were ever proved.

With an eye on national office, perhaps the vice presidency, Fernando Wood purchased the New York Daily News in early 1860 and installed his brother Benjamin as its editor. Within a few months Benjamin Wood had purchased controlling interest in the newspaper from his brother. He breathed life into the nearly moribund paper, transforming it into the nation's highest-circulation daily with a large readership among the white, urban working-class. While thriving for most of the forty years of Wood's editorship, the paper survived his death for a mere six years before it ceased publication.

Wood's pro-Southern sympathies and racial prejudices were evident in his 1860 editorials in which he endorsed the expansion of slavery into the Western territories, lauded the slave-based Southern culture, and otherwise defended slavery and opposed civil rights for free blacks. He supported the right of secession and seconded Mayor Fernando Wood's threat to declare New York a free city. After the firing on Fort Sumter, Benjamin Wood's disapproval of the war provoked a mob to threaten the Daily News if it did not fly the American flag. He refused to give in to their demand and continued to condemn the Civil War as foolish "national fratricide." His stand for freedom of the press led to problems with the government.

In May 1861 the New York City Board of Aldermen voted to rescind the status of the Daily News as the city's official paper. Wood maintained the journal's position as a leading voice for the peace wing of the Democratic party, derisively known as "copperheads." In August 1861 the Daily News and four other New York City publications faced grand jury charges of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. While no formal charges were brought, the postmaster general prohibited their use of the U.S. mails. Wood employed the railroads to deliver his papers, but the government seized shipments in Philadelphia and Connecticut, compelling him to cease publication for eighteen months. During the hiatus he wrote an anti-war novel, Fort Lafayette; or, Love and Secession, but to his dismay the book was little noticed and its message went unheeded. In May 1863 he renewed publication of the Daily News.

Wood's two consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives coincided with the duration of the Civil War (1861-1865). He used his office to urge a peaceful resolution to the conflict and to oppose all attempts at emancipation. He was a vehement critic of the draft, especially the exemption fee that allowed the wealthy to avoid military service. During the bloody New York City draft riot in July 1863, however, he was credited with saving the New York Times building from the mob by standing in its doorway, armed with a revolver, and instructing the rioters on the fundamental right of property. Still, his name was linked with an alleged Confederate plot to foment the riots, although an investigation found no such evidence.

Wood's pro-Southern sympathies continued to be manifested in the Daily News during the Civil War. He reprinted news from Southern papers, and in January 1864 named Phineas C. Wright as a Daily News editor. Wright was one of the founders of the Order of American Knights, deemed by the Lincoln administration to be a pro-Confederate cabal hatching seditious plots against the Union. Wood's persistent anti-war rhetoric and policy proposals generated so much suspicion that the House Judiciary Committee investigated him on allegations of passing valuable information to the enemy. Its findings were not reported; so with the matter unsettled, doubt about him lingered.

Wood was a consistently harsh critic of Abraham Lincoln, whose policies violating civil liberties spurred the editor to label the president "a dictator." In the 1864 presidential election, however, Wood also refused to endorse the Democratic candidate, Union general George McClellan, after the nominee repudiated the peace plank of the Democratic platform. Wood, facing almost certain defeat at the polls, declined to run for reelection to his Congressional seat.

In early 1865 the War Department concluded that Confederate spies had been sending each other coded messages via the personal columns in the Daily News. Threatened with arrest and court martial, Wood was forced to suspend the column. His controversial editor, Phineas Wright, was arrested in May 1865. Wood was not charged, yet many Northerners considered the publisher to be a traitor and were dismayed that he had not been incarcerated during the war.

Wood expressed sincere abhorrence of the assassination of President Lincoln. Initially the editor considered the new chief executive, Andrew Johnson, to be a national embarrassment, but soon began calling for him to return to the Democratic party. When Johnson declined the offer, the Daily News curtailed coverage of the president and his travails. In general, space allocated for political news in the journal decreased over the post-war years, although Wood continued to wield some back-room political power. Poor and working-class immigrants formed his political base, electing him to the New York state senate in 1866 and to a final term in Congress in 1880. In 1869 he was part of an anti-Tweed coalition. It was not a reform group, but an alliance that hoped to replace the Tammany Hall boss with another boss.

During his long career as an editor and publisher, Wood was involved in several innovations in the field of publishing. From 1865 to 1867 he was a partner in an enterprise that served as a prototype for newspaper chains. In 1867 the Daily News became the city's only daily that sold for a penny, enabling it to reach a wider and more diverse audience. By the next year it had the highest circulation of any daily newspaper in America, and the figures continued to climb throughout the 1870s and 1880s. In 1870 he began publishing a German-language version of his paper, the penny New-Yorker Tages-Nachrichten, and in 1872 came out with a Sunday edition. In 1884 the Daily News published the first comic strip.

Scant documentation remains of Wood's private life in the post-war era. He married (date unknown) Ida Mayfield of Louisiana, and they had one daughter. The success of his paper brought more wealth, but gambling caused him to file for bankruptcy in 1879 and sell 43% of the Daily News stock to William J. Brown. The federal government twice put liens on his lottery profits for failure to pay back-taxes. In 1898 Wood sold the rest of his newspaper stock to his wife, although he continued as editor-in-chief until just before his death in February 1900.

Sources consulted: Dictionary of Literary Biography; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress; Jerome Mushkat, Fernando Wood: A Political Biography.

 

 


 

 
 

 

     
 

 
     
 

 
     
 

 

 

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