Spectator History

The Saturday Spectator covers, 1976-79. photo by Daum C.
The Saturday Spectator covers, 1976-79. photo by Daum C.

The Spectator began as a weekly tabloid on April 4, 1904. Publishers Don M. Nixon and John Rutherford were critical of the city’s mayor and the first issue of their paper endorsed his Republican rival, Edward Bidaman, who was elected. However, the paper soon became critical of the way the mayor failed to enforce laws against gambling and prostitution.

The Spectator began
as a weekly tabloid on
April 4, 1904. Publishers
Don M. Nixon and
John Rutherford

Well, no wonder citizens turned against his administration when The Spectator published articles such as one on January 6, 1906 claiming “…lives of families are now cast in doom because the wage earners spend nearly all their funds for whiskey and gambling as long as the town is open. Away from Terre Haute the people think this town is the home of the devil. …We know of a number of instances where factory owners seeking a new location have absolutely refused to consider Terre Haute because of its reputation.”The mayor was impeached in 1906. Nixon, a Wiley High School graduate who had gone to New York at the tender age of 21 and gained experience as a ships reporter, bought out his partner in 1907. The name was changed to The Saturday Spectator, and the paper continued to actively investigate and report on political fraud in Terre Haute. A big story in 1913 involved the investigation of voter fraud in the mayoral election – apparently dead people had voted. The winning candidate retaliated by hiring “Bat” Masterson to make a hit on Nixon. Masterson, in a sworn confession printed by the Spectator, said he was hired to keep Nixon “quiet.” Whether he was the real gunslinger or a namesake is open to debate.

Among contributors to The Saturday Spectator were a couple of internationally famous names. Max Ehrmann, whose bronze likeness now sits at the corner of 7th and Wabash, wrote a guest column for the paper. Eugene V. Debs, four-time Socialist candidate for U. S. President, contributed essays.

In addition to local politics, The Saturday Spectator covered everyday life, local arts, and high school, college and professional sports – at the time Terre Haute was a venue for professional roller polo (who knew such a sport existed?), baseball and harness racing. A century later, we have the Clabber Girls and Rex, and noisier racing at the Terre Haute Action track.

“The belief that we reported the truth was important,” said Nation, “coupled with the “see no evil” policy of other local media.”

During the Watergate era, the Saturday Spectator again published frequent articles about corruption in local government. Fred Nation, editor and general manager from 1975 to 1979, said he “tried to focus on public policy issues with an independent viewpoint, and also covered areas, some serious, some trivial, ignored by dailies.”

“The belief that we reported the truth was important,” said Nation, “coupled with the “see no evil” policy of other local media.”

The Saturday Spectator, June 30, 1979. photo by Daum C.
The Saturday Spectator, June 30, 1979. photo by Daum C.

Nation admits local corruption stories were not the most popular articles the paper published. More interest was generated by stories on Larry Bird, on the history of local red light districts and special nostalgia issues featuring Martin photos and Salty Seamon art.

The Sardonic Spectator plans to use past issues of the Saturday Spectator, publishing excerpts and updates.

Ultimately, the demise of the publication was caused by the inflationary economy of the late 70s, fewer local businesses, and control of local chain store advertising moving from Terre Haute.

“There is always interest in good local reporting,” Nation said. “I think the local paper is seriously understaffed.”

Whether an on-line Spectator variation can be successful is something only time will tell.

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