What happens when you print a former president of the United States "gets drunk not infrequently"? That's exactly what happened in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Marquette County in 1912. A local newspaper called the Iron Ore accused Theodore Roosevelt of public drunkenness in an editorial. The result was a libel trial that not only made history locally, but nationally as well.
Theodore Roosevelt made frequent trips to Marquette, Michigan. He was a likable character and was always entertaining. His campaign swings always included the city and his list of friends included George Shiras III, Peter White, and several other prominent members of the community. His social activities were well known and the subject of considerable gossip.
The Iron Ore was an unusual newspaper for its time. It was still partisan and made a conscious effort to advance the cause of conservative Republicanism. Opinion was constantly injected in its articles and the editorials were frequently malicious with unfounded accusations.
It was this practice that got George Newett, publisher and postmaster of Ishpeming in trouble. During a card party with some acquaintances of Roosevelt's, his drinking was discussed to the point where Newett went home and wrote a Roosevelt bashing editorial called "The Roosevelt Way".
It was a mean spirited piece and one paragraph in particular made accusations. "Roosevelt lies, and curses in a most disgusting way, he gets drunk too, and that not infrequently, and all of his intimates know about it."
It was exactly what Roosevelt had been waiting for. There had been rumors floating around the country for a long time concerning his drinking habits and had vowed to take the very next newspaper that printed such an accusation to court and make them prove it. Newett played right into his hands.
Roosevelt at the time was attempting to get re-elected again and had formed a third party called the Bull Moose party. Political opponents had been spreading the rumors of his drinking to sink his efforts. When he served as President, Roosevelt had run on the Republican ticket and when he failed to receive his party's nomination, he broke away to form his independent party.
There was no doubt some Republican sour grapes that motivated Newett as well. Virtually every newspaper in the country covered the case. Many devoted vast amounts of space to coverage.
Newitt's paper was a relic and all of the major papers criticized him severely for it. The New York Times referred to Newett as "wielding a malicious and wicked pen." The Detroit Free press compared him to Horace Greeley calling politicians villains and liars. One thing that the editorials did not do and that was criticize Roosevelt.
That seems to be the one thing lacking. Every one was either behind Roosevelt or quiet. He had silenced the accusations and the country was waiting for the outcome. Roosevelt knew it.
He rolled into the city on the eve of his trial with 25 well known "witnesses". The Secret Service was everywhere. Roosevelt was posing for photos and enjoying the publicity. The citizens of Marquette were thoroughly enjoying the circus atmosphere.
There couldn't have been a more perfect opportunity for Roosevelt. Right from the outset, the trial was hailed as "Famous Libel Suit" in headlines on its first day, May 26, 1913. Even the National Enquirer was covering the case. "Drunken Roosevelt trial begins!"
Huge crowds of spectators waited outside the Marquette County Courthouse trying to get a seat or just a glimpse of Teddy. It was reported that the crowds were overwhelmingly female. Everywhere he went, he attracted constant attention.
The papers reprinted full columns of dialog from the picking of the jurors. There were full transcripts of cross-examinations. It was remarkably graphic trial coverage nationwide. Everyone knew who the little publisher from Ishpeming was who was about to feel Roosevelt's "Big Stick".
Newett's attorney, who was actually employed by Cleveland Cliffs, tried during the case to have other editorials making similar accusations entered as evidence that Roosevelt's drinking was so widely reported, Newett couldn't help but think Roosevelt was a drunk. It wasn't allowed. The case rested on his editorial only.
In something of an irony, some of the witnesses, nearly a dozen, that were called in the defense of Roosevelt were members of the press that had been covering him over the years. They were asked to testify if they had ever seen him drunk or even suspicious of possible intoxication. None ever had.
It seemed Newett was being deluged from all sides. He didn't have a prayer and Roosevelt knew it. His sole intent was to prove once and for all that the press had it wrong and it was his way of throwing it back at them. The entire news community was covering him suing the news community for something they had perpetuated.
In court Roosevelt reiterated virtually every time he ever took a drink, which of course read like a travelogue and an adventurer's dream. There were tales of the days of the Rough Riders, recountings of a journey down the Nile, memories of the Presidency, tales of hunts and the campfire.
Roosevelt's testimony is like reading his biography. Consequently the news coverage reads like a novel with the overlay of courtroom intrigue, not news.
Roosevelt brought in former rough riders as well as statesmen who had served with him throughout the years. Individuals of character so indisputable, that even the
witnesses that Newett had to Roosevelt's drinking were completely diminished. It read like a who's who. Admiral George Dewey; Truman Newberry, ex-Secretary of the Navy; and Dr. Presley Rixley former Surgeon General.
Newett held out for five days before giving up. In a prepared statement on the stand in the court room, he gave up and admitted that he was wrong. Newett was impressed by the stature and character of those who testified. Roosevelt had never asked for a retraction in print.
Roosevelt stood up and said that this was all he had been waiting for and asked to be awarded the lowest sum possible which was six cents. He had only sought to restore his reputation publicly, legally, which he had done in fashion befitting the flamboyance of Teddy Roosevelt.
In a statement by the court, entitled Charge of the Court, it states that the law of libel had been served and no infringements on the rights of the press had occurred.
"The publisher of a newspaper may freely discuss the fitness of a person for public office, he may lawfully communicate to the public any fact within his knowledge respecting the official acts, character or conduct, so long as he states as facts only the truth."
Roosevelt had proved that he'd been libeled and done it in a very sensational way making sure that everyone took notice, particularly the press.
On his way out of the court room a reporter asked Roosevelt what he would do with his penny and a nickel. he is reported to have said. "That's about the price of a GOOD paper." The Ishpeming Iron Ore cost three cents.
The Iron Ore continued to publish for many years afterward, seemingly undaunted by the trail. Though it never again accused Roosevelt of drinking. Its fiery critical Republican stance never changed. Newett retired and passed the Iron Ore on to his son George Jr. who also became postmaster of Ishpeming as well.