Thursday, October 15, 2009

George W. Peck Biography- Peck's Bad Boy Author

George Wilbur Peck, writer, newspaper editor, politician and statesman was born in Henderson, Jefferson County, New York on September 28, 1840.

Pre War Years

Peck's family history has been well worked out going back to the early 1600's. His ancestors who settled in the Hartford, Connecticut area were originally from Essex, England. Later between 1803 and 1805 Peck's family moved to Jefferson County, New York where he was born. His parents, David B. Peck, a tavern keeper, and Alzenia Joslin Peck moved to Cold Spring, Wisconsin about 1843. It appears his paternal grandfather, Luman Peck also made the trip as he was buried in a Cold Spring cemetery in 1844. Peck had two siblings, Ann E. Peck and Chauncey E. Peck.

Details of his early years are poorly documented. The family moved to Whitewater in about 1843. George received his education in the Whitewater public schools in what was called the "Farmers' College the country school, located at the crossroads". His first job was at the Whitewater Register. The Register was established in March, 1857, thus Peck was 16. Later he was a foreman at the Watertown Republican where he worked for $3.50 per week.

In about 1860 he was a clerk in the Janesville hotel called the Hyatt House getting $25 per month. This elegant facility was completed in 1857 and burnt down in January, 1867. Although Peck notes in an autobiographical blurb that he left the employ of the hotel when it went broke in 1860, this is not in accord with the facts which reveals an ongoing business until 1867.

After leaving the hotel he married Francena Rowley of Delavan in 1860.

In early 1861 John W. Blake sold his interest in the Jefferson County Republican Newspaper to Peck and J.E. Atwater. Peck noted later that his half was "Putting my labor and influence against what my partner owed". Peck's partner was Robert Tompkins as of September 1861. In September 1863 Peck sold out and left for the war. At that point with new management the paper was renamed the Jefferson Banner.

Post War Years

Peck returned to Wisconsin in 1866 after service with the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry in the Civil War. During the war he rose to the rank of second lieutenant serving with both Company L and Company E.

Upon his return in 1866 he along with Jedediah Bowen as his editor began the weekly Ripon Representative. This newspaper was published in 1866 and 1867. The comic sketches of Terence McGrant were first published here. They were seen by Marcus "Brick" Pomeroy, a fellow Mason, who offered him a position to work at a new newspaper in New York-the Democrat as an editor/writer. The offer of $40 per week clearly difficult to turn down. Peck continued to write McGrant sketches in New York for the newspaper.

He worked with James H. Lambert at the New-York Democrat. James thereafter in 1871 published Peck's first book Adventures of One Terence McGrant. This book was a collation of the columns that Peck had written about McGrant. Interestingly there is an ad for the New-York Democrat newspaper within the book. It must have been very shortly thereafter that the paper's publication was stopped. Lambert went on to a career in the newspaper business becoming the managing editor of the Philadelphia Times. I can find no evidence that Lambert published any other books.

When the New-York Democrat failed, Peck returned to Wisconsin in August, 1871 to join the staff of Pomeroy's La Crosse newspaper- the La Crosse Democrat. The Pomeroy newspapers were conducted on "red-hot democratic principles". And despite their anti Republican leanings- Peck who voted for Lincoln in 1864 and Pomeroy worked well together.

Upon his return to La Crosse he worked as an editor for the Democrat with John Symes and Alfred E. Haven. Because of financial reverses Pomeroy sold out to Symes and Peck in 1872. The paper's name was changed then to the LaCrosse Liberal Democrat. They worked together until 1874 when Peck left to start his weekly newspaper "The Sun". Interestingly a number of years later in 1879 Swain published Peck's second book Peck's Fun under the Symes, Swain and Company, Milwaukee imprint. This publishing house was active from 1878 to 1892 at which time they were succeeded by Swain and Tate.

After four years in La Crosse the Sun was not doing well. A move to Milwaukee (the big city) for Peck's Sun was undertaken and the newspaper circulation boomed. Within a short time his weekly had attained a circulation of more than 100,000 by 1884. The popularity of his Weekly newspaper cannot be overstated. The population of Milwaukee was 138,000 at the time. The newspaper with the second highest circulation was the Germania at 50,000 weekly copies. He owned and edited Peck's Sun until 1890 when he handed over the reins to his son, George Peck, Jr. The newspaper was subsequently sold to the Dankolers who consolidated it with the Saturday Star and the South Milwaukee Star.

Peck operated his weekly Peck's Sun out of the five story Evening Wisconsin Building at the corner of Wisconsin and Michigan Streets. In the 1880's it was the youngest of the English language newspapers in Milwaukee but its popularity and growth was quite spectacular at the time. It had the latest perfecting press able to run at a capacity of 15,000 per hour.

During the 12 years that Peck ran the Sun in Milwaukee he wrote a series of stories about Hennery who subsequently became known as Peck's Bad Boy. These tales of the outlandish pranks and the various bits of insulting behavior toward all of society by the "Bad Boy" became immensely popular leading to the publication of a number of Peck's Bad Boy books beginning in 1883. Other books which were compilations of Peck's humorous columns also were published making George Peck a household name and his newspaper unbelievably popular.
Peck's Sun ad 1889

The inspiration for Hennery-the Bad Boy- came from E.J. Watson who was a telegraph messenger boy that Peck met in the early 1880's. Apparently Watson thought up many of the stories used by Peck. Mr Watson had in his possession a letter from Peck "To my friend E. J. Watson, who, as a boy, gave me the first idea that culminated in the Peck's Bad Boy Series". Interestingly, earlier in Peck's career he did not quite remember Watson and attributed the Bad Boy's earliest story to his son -- "Well, my son came in one day and told me a story about a boy.....That struck me as funny, and I wrote it up....".

By the 1890's comedy troupes (Mainly Atkinson's Comedy Company) were performing Peck's Bad Boy on stage all over the east and midwest. The Bad Boy went on to appear in three movies, was the subject of two board games, was featured in a number of comic books and was the the star of magic lantern slide shows at the theatre.

Although many found the exploits of Peck's Bad Boy humorous and generally good natured fun, this was by no means uniform. An editorial in February, 1884 New York Tribune stated "..are distressing examples of the crimes against good taste and decency that are committed in the name of American humor...." Certainly these stories were written at a time when a percentage of the population still clung dearly to Victorian mores, temperance, class distinctions and the like. All things that Peck made fun of in his stories.


Before Peck entered into significant public office, he had dabbled a bit with local politics. In 1867 he was the city treasurer in Ripon. While in La Crosse he was the Chief of Police in 1874. And in 1874-1875 he served as Chief Clerk of the Legislative Assembly as well as Assistant State Treasury Agent for Governor Taylor.

Peck ran for mayor in the Spring of 1890. With a majority of 6500 votes he won easily.

He resigned on November 11, 1890 to become the Governor of Wisconsin.

The Peck name had been a well known one in Milwaukee in the 1880's thanks to his newspaper's popularity. Even before the mayoral election of April, 1890 Peck had been a critic of the ideas behind the Bennett law which had been passed by the state legislature in 1889. This law had been promulgated by William Dempster Hoard who had been elected governor the year before . The key component of the bill required all schools that were recognized by the state of Wisconsin to teach the major subjects in English. This caused an uproar in those parochial schools that taught in German. This was profoundly opposed in Milwaukee, a city with a large German American population, many of whom were foreign born.

In addition to his opposition to the Bennett law, he was a vocal proponent for having Milwaukee be the site of the Grand Army Encampment in 1889. This event would bring a large sum of money into the city coffers by way of tourist dollars. His success with this in addition to his support for the repeal of the Bennett Law was crucial in securing the mayoral nomination for Peck in 1890.

The anti-Bennett Law contingent found a proponent in Mayor Peck and pushed through his nomination for Governor as the democratic candidate in August, 1891. A major plank of the democrats noted "The underlying principle of the Bennett Law is needless interference with parental rights and liberty of conscience..." He beat Governor Hoard by 28,000 votes garnering a total of 160,000. While governor in 1891 the Bennett Law was repealed.

He won a second term which ran from January 1893 to January 1895. He defeated John Spooner by less than 8000 votes out of the 348,000 cast. He lost to William Upham, a one term governor in 1895. His fate was similar to most Democratic candidates during that year's elections. He remained active in politics for awhile at least being elected Chairman of the State Central Committee by the Democrats in May, 1896.

A key accomplishment of his administration was the recovery of funds from previous state treasurers*. He instituted "Treasury Suits" against several former state treasurers to recover funds. It had been a common practice for the state treasurers to supplement their income with the interest from bank accounts which held state treasury money. Apparently the methodology was simple. "If there was a surplus above the daily needs of the state, it would be deposited in an interest bearing account. (Quite a change from nowadays-huh). At the end of the quarter a draft of the interest from these accounta would would be sent to treasurer in his or her name. The state prevailed in their lawsuits against the various treasurers.

* Wisconsin in Three Centuries by Henry Colin Campbell

A return effort as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee was a failure in 1905 when he lost to Robert M. LaFollette by 50,000 votes.

After leaving public office Peck campaigned to make cheese the national emblem. He asked, "What has the eagle ever done for America?"

And finally

After several years out of public service, in 1899 he reestablished Peck's Weekly Sun. He again took out office space in the Evening Wisconsin Building. This venture turned out to be short lived as he shuttered the paper on April 8, 1900. Peck stated "the cheapness and completeness of the modern daily newspaper and the low price of magazines have left no place for the weekly newspaper".

He continued to write books with Peck's Bad Boy in an Airship, Peck's Boy Boy Abroad, Peck's Bad Boy with the Cowboys and Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus being published in the twentieth century.

He also dabbled in real estate and business. In 1901 he was the President of the San Pedro Rubber Plantation Company of Milwaukee. This company which was incorporated in October, 1900 proposed to develop land in Mexico to produce rubber. In 1911 he became treasurer of a newly incorporated insurance company, Independence Life of America.

Peck was a life long Mason affiliated with Wisconsin Lodge No. 13.

He lived with his family in Milwaukee first at 1629 Prospect Avenue. In 1883 he resided a block over at 190 North Farwell Avenue (renumbered later to 1620-1629) in a rowhouse which he built.
Prospect Avenue

He died from Bright's disease on April 16, 1916.

The house below is where Peck lived in Milwaukee.

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