You could pass the small bronze Stead Memorial without noticing it, but the man it commemorates was much more aggressive about getting attention.
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Stead on the glories of the future …
Arriving in Chicago in 1893, the day after the Columbian Exposition closed, newspaper editor and journalist William Stead was deeply moved by the Exposition’s pristine white buildings. The following year, he published If Christ Came to Chicago, an expose that condemned Chicago’s corrupt politics and offered a shocking – positively shocking – inventory of the city’s brothels, saloons, and pawnbrokers.
In the book’s closing chapter, Stead offered his vision of the city’s redemption. With the building of a canal that would allow transatlantic steamships to reach Lake Michigan, Chicago would outstrip New York as a commercial center. The federal government would move there, taking up residence in buildings that imitated in marble the temporary buildings of the Columbian Exposition. Stead’s vision helped launch the City Beautiful movement that spread Beaux Arts architecture across the United States.
… and the vices of the present
But usually, Stead focused not on a perfect future but on the vices of the present. In 1880, 31-year-old Stead, who already had a decade of experience as an editor, took over the staid, conservative Pall Mall Gazette. In his hands it became a fearsome instrument. He proclaimed:
The editorial pen is a sceptre of power, compared with which the sceptre of many a monarch is but a gilded lath. In a democratic age, in the midst of a population which is able to read, no position is comparable for permanent influence and far-reaching power to that of an editor who understands his vocation. … [H]e better than any man is able to generate that steam, known as public opinion, which is the greatest force of politics.
Stead was among the first to recognize the power of the press, and he leveraged the force of his editorial scepter by introducing to Great Britain the techniques of America’s sensationalist press. Huge headlines. Abundant illustrations. Aggressive reporters interviewing exotic celebrities or going undercover to write stories that exposed the seamy side of life in Victorian England.
Stead was an ardent advocate of dozens of causes, among them Irish home rule, the expansion of the British empire, world peace, women’s rights, the use of Esperanto, more lifeboats for ocean liners, the dispatch of General Gordon to Khartoum, and spiritualism. His most famous (or infamous) crusade was unveiled in his 1885 article “The Maiden Tribute of Babylon.” In horrifying, titillating detail it described what Stead claimed was widespread child prostitution in London. Stead reported that he himself had purchased a 13-year-old girl in London, to prove that it could be done. Authorities responded by sending him to prison for 3 months on charges of abduction.
In 1912, at the invitation of President William Howard Taft, Stead was booked to speak at a conference on world peace in New York City. He set sail in April on the maiden voyage of the largest ship afloat. When the Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk, he and more than 1,500 others died … in large part because of a shortage of lifeboats.
But the world hadn’t heard the last of William T. Stead. Ten years later, his daughter published a volume that claimed to be Stead’s account of the life hereafter, conveyed by automatic writing through a medium.
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