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Newspapers: Spoofing the Despots

3 minute read

One sweltering summer day in 1959, a pedestrian waited impatiently to cross a street in downtown Richmond, Va., while a car blocked the intersection. The driver, busily chatting with a friend out the window, would not move on. His patience exhausted, the pedestrian finally bolted across the hood of the auto. Unfortunately for him, the driver turned out to be an off-duty policeman who promptly haled him to court, where he was charged with malicious mischief and fined $25.

James Jackson Kilpatrick, the fiercely individualistic editor of the Richmond News Leader, got wind of the arrest, and he was outraged. As Kilpatrick sees it, part of a newspaper’s job is to do its community a “very real and special service by poking fun and spoofing the hell out of despots on the bench.” He ran an editorial asking for contributions to a Beadle Bumble Fund.* “The object of this fund,” he wrote, “is to deflate an occasional overblown bureaucrat, to unstuff a few stuffed shirts and to promote the repeal of foolish and needless laws. There is entirely too much law and order in the world.”

Readers, who had often felt the urge to march across an auto hood, responded generously. Before long, Kilpatrick was dispensing justice right and left. Beadle Bumble paid the fines for:

≫ A Richmond homeowner convicted of trapping animals inside the city limits. His crime: he had rounded up a few squirrels when they began to overrun his lawn, then deposited them unharmed in the countryside. ≫ A Charlottesville painter who had been found guilty of violating the Sabbath blue laws. He had been repainting the white lines of a grocery store’s parking lot on Sunday, the only day the lot was free of cars. ≫ A woman who had received a parking ticket for leaving her Volkswagen more than twelve inches from the curb. All the nearby larger cars, which were closer to the curb but extended much farther into the street, were not ticketed. ≫ A grocer who was found in contempt of court because he refused to raise the price of milk as ordered by the State Milk Commission. Wrote Kilpatrick: “We would happily award him $500 so that he could buy twice as much contempt for a law that has no place in a free enterprise society.”

Last week the Beadle Bumble Fund started defending books as well as people. A school board in suburban Richmond had ordered high school libraries to get rid of all copies of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a tender novel of race relations in the South. The board found the book “immoral.” “A more moral novel scarcely could be imagined,” replied Kilpatrick. In the name of the Beadle, he offered free copies to children who wrote in. By the week’s end he had given away 81.

“Off and on,” noted Kilpatrick in a News Leader editorial, “we have detected encouraging signs that Virginia was emerging from peckerwood provincialism and ingrown ‘morality’ “—phrases which the late H. L. Mencken used ceaselessly to describe rural America. But after the school board’s action, said Kilpatrick, “Mencken’s old indictment stands reconfirmed.”

* Named for the portly, garrulous parish beadle of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, who, upon being told by a judge that a woman is subservient to her husband, asserted: “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass—a idiot.”

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