Mark LaFlamme: working on the beat of the news in 1847


There’s mischief going on in bustling Lewistown and our hero Archibald GW Borden II is on the alert.

It’s PROBABLY the name of our hero, anyway. I am speculating here. Ever since all the hubbub around the Sun Journal’s 175th anniversary started, I’ve tried to imagine what the upstart newspaper’s very first crime reporter would have looked like.

He would have been a dashing young man, that’s for sure. All of us criminal reporters are. It’s practically a requirement for the position.

He would have been a striking guy, from the shine of his Derby shoes to the top of his Billycock hat, which he would have worn at a casual angle, a “Press” card slipped into the group.

Mutton chops? Heaven, no. Not my boy Archibald; it’s far too refined for that absurd old trend. Ol’ Archie would have sported a well-oiled handlebar hideout, adept at twirling in moments of deep thought.

He would have worn a bumpy overcoat in cool weather but in the heat of summer he would have worn a bumpy overcoat, because that’s how people rode back then. It didn’t matter if you cooked hot or freezing as long as you looked respectable, and if there’s one thing I know about Archibald GW Borden II, he was a respectable boy, the kind of boy you could take home to meet your dear old mother.

We are all like that. It’s practically a requirement.

Oh, but he would have had a debauched side, our Archibald. He probably spent more time in the taverns of Lisbon Street than he would like his editors to know, but can you blame him? Taverns were where all the good scuttlebuts were heard. All the movers and shakers in the city gathered there during the dark hours, and they talked in watery whispers about the great events of the day.

Archie could drink with the best of them, let me tell you, and yet not one of those whispers escaped him. He might not be able to walk in a straight line after midnight, but his mind was like a steel trap and he would return home after the night of debauchery full of tasty and fresh information.

No stopping the pretty local girls, Archibald. Go home, boy, and sleep.

He reportedly lived in a small room above a watch repair shop on muddy Ash Street, close to the action. It would have been a dark, shabby place, but it was convenient for the newspaper (and for the saloons) and he liked it.

If a bitter wife cut off her husband’s head with a garden hoe in the farmland, or if the sawmill near the falls caught fire again, Archibald could get out of bed and be on the scene in a flash.

But how would he get there, we wonder. Automobiles were still five decades away, and Archibald wouldn’t have had a place to park a horse outside of his tiny little Ash Street walk-up.

Maybe our young buck had one of those old bikes with comically oversized front tires and a raucous bell on the handlebars to alert slow-moving pedestrians that a reporter was on the move and they better get out of the way.

“Here’s old Ace Borden, off to his next scoop,” observed the admiring townspeople as Archie passed by. “Bullying! Look at that son of a bitch riding that two-wheeled boneshaker!”

And once off in pursuit of a story, Mr. AGW Borden II would have been on his own. There were no phones an editor could harass him on, after all. There were no such things as radios or anything even remotely resembling them.

When Archibald went to work for the fledgling Lewiston Falls Journal in the spring of 1847, the Morse telegraph had just emerged, and a young reporter like our boy wouldn’t have access to such a thing even if he wanted to.

He wouldn’t have wanted it. Archie had his trusty steel fountain pen, a few sheets of cotton rag paper to doodle on, and he had his own feet. It was all the technology this guy needed to do what he did so well.

Oh sure, there were some awesome gadgets at his disposal. Well, the office had just provided him with a new hook typewriter, a bulky, square contraption, invented just 20 years earlier, on which Archibald could type his burning stories.

And oh, he wrote these stories with the giddy flourish of the time, crafting long descriptive sentences without ever catching his breath.

“Widowed Matilda Dolores Gildersneed, 82 on her last birthday, is in a restless mood these days due to the unfortunate circumstances of a child’s birthday party in her pasture last Saturday which turned in a three-day scuffle with tools of farming, in which 17 local gentlemen were relieved of their fingers, toes and in four cases, hands and arms.Lewiston Falls Constable Nob Garland has stated that he was not inclined to throw any of the fighters into the tinkle since most of them were still roaming Mrs. Gildersneed’s pasture looking for their missing appendages…”

Archibald is said to have encountered considerable grief on a daily basis due to the overly cautious nature of his pedantic editor, a certain Malcom S. Vanderball IV, who would be reluctant to let Archie include the latest swear words of the day in his copy.

“I will not subject our esteemed readers to obscene terms like ‘darn’ and ‘gosh’ and ‘trumpet’, young man,” Vanderball advised poor Archibald, sniffling indignantly and polishing his monocle just like that. “Now go ahead, boy, and write us a clean, sane story about the time to come. That’s what the townspeople want to read, you know.

Poor Archibald was going, muttering and twirling his mustache, to the nearest tavern. Reporting news in the mid-19th century was not without its aggravations, I think, but our hardworking friend would have endured it well with few regrets. What a beautiful time it was, after all, to be a journalist!

I sincerely doubt that Archibald GW Borden II ever found himself thinking: My God. I wish there was a way to do 75% of my work typing messages back and forth with people in the air.

I suspect Archie never lamented that, my God. If only there was some kind of electronic gadget he could carry in his pocket so people could reach for him anytime, anywhere for any reason.

And I’m pretty sure Archibald George William Borden II never dreamed of advanced social media where he could interact with complete strangers by posting pictures of their dinner parties, their pets, and themselves- even making funny faces for no apparent reason.

What would be the goal?

No, I suspect our homie Archie liked things the way they were in 1847. With all those nice people from Quebec emigrating to Lewistown for jobs in textile manufacturing, the town had grown to 21,000 souls and, for Archibald GW Borden II, that meant more than 20,000 stories just waiting to be told.

There was even talk of digging up a canal system here in Lewistown and boy, how did that fire the imagination of this passionate young journalist. Can you imagine what could possibly end up at the bottom of a canal in such a noisy city?

I feel like I really got to know this Archibald character and consider him a long lost friend. He is one of the giants on whose shoulders I have had the luxury of standing.

What did he become ? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say he got married, divorced, then said hell and headed west, bringing his fountain pen and cotton rag paper to chronicle the trip. He would have spent the rest of his days writing about the many adventures of western expansion, hitting the rails whenever and wherever he could.

I think he would have died from a rattlesnake bite or a bullet from a jealous husband in a Wyoming saloon, which means Archie would have missed the era of automobiles, telephones and flying machines only a few years. I doubt he regrets that much.

Archibald GW Borden II may have perished somewhere in the Badlands, but his spirit will forever live on in Lewiston where he first discovered his zeal for writing and reporting.

Sometimes when I’m prowling the old building at 104 Park St., I feel his ghost walking with me.

“Bullying!” said my spectral friend. “We’ve had a full day, you and I. How about we stroll down to the tavern and have a pint and see what the night tells us?”

I’d be honored to go drinking with Archibald GW Borden II, of course, and with draft beer selling for 2 cents a pint, I imagine we’ll have a long, lively evening.

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