REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
JAMES NISBET AND FRANKLIN TUTHILL
In the month of August, 1865, the San Francisco Evening Bulletin chronicled a loss which is quite remarkable in the history of journalism on the Pacific coast. Two of its proprietors and leading editors, who had done much to give the paper the high character it still maintains, were lost to it by death—the one by a dreadful marine disaster on the northern coast, the other by disease on the eastern side of the continent, and both within a few days of each other. James Nisbet who was long the news and literary editor of the paper, and who deserves a place in this work as the first historian of San Francisco, was lost at sea on the steamship Brother Jonathan, July 30th, 1865. This vessel was on the way from San Francisco to Victoria, V. I., with almost two hundred souls on board, when she struck a sunken rock off St. George’s Point, eight or ten miles north-west from Crescent City, and went down about forty-five minutes afterwards. All on board were lost except about a score of persons. Among the passengers who perished besides Mr. Nisbet, were Maj. Gen. George W. Wright, of the United States Army, and wife; Gen. A. C. Henry, of Washington Territory; Major E. W. Eddy, of the United States Army, several other army and navy officers, and a number of citizens of California prominent for worth and talent. Amid the terrible scene transpiring around him at the wreck, and with the horror of sudden death staring him in the face, with hardly a possibility that it would be averted, Mr. Nisbet was calm and thoughtful enough to write out a will in pencil, and to address notes of farewell to some of his friends, even remembering some children of whom he was fond by their pet names. The act was characteristic of his unselfish and courageous nature. His remains were recovered, brought to San Francisco, and interred in Lone Mountain Cemetery, where rest those of his former associates on the Bulletin—its founder, James King of Wm., C. J. Bartlett, and C. O. Gerberding, who preceded him a few years.
Mr. Nisbet was born in Glasgow, Scotland, about the year 1817. His parents were of high respectability and considerable fortune, and he enjoyed during youth every desirable opportunity for that intellectual training which developed his naturally vigorous mind to form a very useful character. On arriving at the proper age, he chose the profession of law, and after graduating, traveled over the principal countries of Europe. Subsequently he became a partner in a prominent Glasgow firm of lawyers. He was more inclined to seek literary pursuits than to contend for the rights of clients in the legal tribunals, and always abstained from appearing as an advocate. His strong tendency to literature is shown by the fact, known to only a few intimate friends, that he was the author of an elaborate and meritorious novel, published before leaving Scotland, under the title of The Seige of Palmyra. He always cherished the purpose of devoting himself to some literary work that might give him a permanent reputation. In about the year 1852, having previously lost a considerable property by an unfortunate investment in railroad stock, he decided to seek a reparation of his fortune in some remote portion of the world, where there might be better opportunities for profitable personal exertion than in his native land. With this view he first visited Australia, but was disappointed in the aspect of affairs there presented, and after spending a few weeks in inspecting the gold mines, returned to England. A few weeks later he set sail for California, where he arrived in November, 1852. In San Francisco he first found employment in writing a work historical and descriptive of this city—the well known Annals of San Francisco, in the authorship of which Frank Soulé, Esq., and Dr. J. H. Gihon were associated, though Mr. Nisbet did a large part of the work. The writing for this was very hasty, and he never attached any value to it, although time is giving it considerable interest. While engaged on the Annals his industry, discriminating judgment, and power thoroughly to perform great intellectual labor, at once surprised and delighted his employers and associates in the book, one of whom, Mr. Soulé, about the same time became part proprietor of a prominent daily newspaper, The California Chronicle, to which circumstance is due the fact that Mr. Nisbet, while still engaged on the Annals, were transferred to a desk in the editorial rooms of that paper. He continued in that position until March, 1856, when, at the solicitation of James King of Wm., he accepted a higher position on the Bulletin, and ultimately became one of its proprietors. For nine years afterward, until the date of his fatal voyage, he filled the position of supervising editor of the Bulletin, evincing great industry, taste, judgment and devotion. He was a purist in the matter of selections and language, a singularly independent critic in literature, music and the drama, and master of a terse, vigorous English style. His theory of journalism was above passion and personality, and conformed to the honorable rules which regulate the intercourse of gentlemen. Although he did not write the leading editorials, and never wrote on political topics at all, confining his labors almost exclusively to the news desk and the supervision of other departments, he used his influence to modify the asperities of contests that the paper could not avoid. Puffery in any degree found in him a stern foe, and he was almost morbidly sensitive lest the paper should be prostituted to unworthy uses, its reading columns made medium for personal or business matters, or its advertising columns opened to any kind of impurity. He elevated the paper into an ideal institution, with a strict code of morals to which all were made to conform. In his own character he possessed the best elements to maintain the peculiar authority he exercised in the office. He led a pure and chaste life, free from every vice, and was possessed of a singularly robust constitution. “His innate love of justice was so great that no personal friendship could tempt him to desert the right or excuse a wrong; and yet he loved his friends with a devotion that was not counterbalanced by hatred for enemies. No journalist of this country was ever so continuously reviled for the faults or pretended faults of others, and yet he would not deviate in the slightest degree from the straight line to seek redress for an injury. Those who made themselves his enemies he wished to forget and dismiss from recollections. If he had a weakness, it was extreme sensitiveness as to his personal honor. He freely confessed that he could never clothe himself in iron mail so as not to feel the effects of unjust criticism— indulgence in which he characterized as peculiarly American—and this sensitiveness becoming known to newspaper men generally, served to incite attacks from that class of them who, having no independent reasoning powers or ideas of justice, are ever seeking opportunities for notoriety by stinging whatever innocent and unresisting objects can be made to feel their spite.” Although, as stated above, he was not one of the leading writers of the paper, and was not responsible for its political course, he was yet held accountable, during several years, for whatever in its columns provoked animosity, and was made the victim of some of the cruelest slander. When he died, his surviving partners said of him: “It is due to justice that we now admit and chronicle the fact, that any excellencies which the Bulletin has heretofore possessed resulted from Mr. Nisbet’s labors more than from those of any other person, while he is perhaps responsible for fewer of its faults than any of the other writers that were immediately associated with him. It was his labor that made the Bulletin instructive and attractive in its news and literary departments; his finishing strokes were seen in almost every column, all of which he made consistent one with the other. The editorial upon local and national politics and upon the passing topics of the day, many of which have doubtless provoked a multitude of resentments, were none of them the production of Mr. Nisbet. He engaged in no strife, assailed no one, was offensive to no one, but was useful and serviceable to his partners, of value to the State and, country, and an honor to his kind. Such men as Mr. Nisbet, and particularly in the profession which he adorned on this coast, seldom gain appreciation or reward from the busy world, that knows so little how much it is their debtor. They devote their lives to constant labors which are the most exacting upon body and brain, and require a large amount of self-abnegation, and their quiet, modest usefulness is disregarded amid the selfish excitements and passions that whirl about them. Happy, indeed, are they if slander and abuse do not disturb their still lives, and follow them to the grave. But we believe that in spite of his own sensitive and retiring nature, our departed friend and co-worker was better appreciated in this community then he himself knew, and will be sincerely regretted by all whose natures sympathize with what is most pure and lofty in our common humanity.”
FRANKLIN TUTHILL, one of Mr. Nisbet’s partners and editorial associates in the Bulletin, died in New York on the 27th of August, 1865—the same day that the latter’s remains were conveyed to their final resting-place in San Francisco. He left this city in October, 1864, for a trip through Europe, hoping to recover from an organic disease which had long preyed upon his health. He returned to New York in July, 1865, after a rapid and pleasant journey through England, France, Spain, Italy, and some of the German States, apparently almost restored to health, and confident of his ability to return at an early day to his editorial post. But while engaged in correcting the proofs of his History of California, which was then being printed in New York, he was seized with a relapse and soon passed away. The Bulletin published the following sketch of his life:
Dr. Tuthill was born April 3d, 1822, in Suffolk county, on the east end of Long Island, of a highly respectable family, which was among the earliest settlers on the Island. He entered college when only fourteen years old, and graduated when eighteen. He subsequently studied medicine under such distinguished Professors as the late Valentine Mott, Sr., Doctors Draper, Revere, and their associates, and graduated at the New York University in 1844. He immediately began to practice his profession near his native place, and followed it with success for seven years, taking to it that conscientious devotion to duty, patience, kindness, and nicety of perception, which are essential to the character of a good physician, and which in his character were always leading traits. Without the least obtrusiveness or desire for publicity, Dr. Tuthill became, through his genial nature, his intelligence, and his zealous attention to the best interests of the community, a very popular man. Although a Whig in politics, he was for five successive years appointed Town Superintendent of Schools by a Democratic Board of Supervisors. In 1860, he was elected by a handsome majority to represent his district in the Assembly of New York, and was the first Whig, with a single exception, ever sent to the Legislature from that ancient stronghold of Democracy. While in the Legislature, he distinguished himself by his ability and tact in debate, by his industry, by his integrity amidst much corruption, and by his earnest labors in favor of the revised School Act, a measure of great benefit to the cause of popular education in the Empire State, the passage of which was largely the fruit of his exertions. He was also an earnest and eloquent advocate of the canal enlargement policy, the success of which, despite the strong opposition of the Democracy at a special legislature session, greatly increased the commerce and wealth of the State. He strove to get through a bill legalizing dissection of the human body, as a means to facilitate anatomical studies, in conformity with the practice in some foreign countries; but the measure was killed by amendments after it passed the preliminary stage in both Houses, though it became a law a year or two later. He made a lengthy report upon a penal offence, provoking thereby a spirited discussion in the profession at home and abroad, and a slashing review which extended through three numbers of the English Quarterly—an organ of the Chrono-Thermalists.
While a member of the Legislature, Dr. Tuthill removed to New York, intending to resume the practice of medicine in that city; but at the end of a year he followed his stronger bent to literary pursuits, and became one of the editors of the Daily Times, in which position he labored until 1859 with peculiar ability and success. Indeed, he developed the most admirable capacity for journalism, and gave to it the best energies of his life. He continued in his new sphere his interest in popular education, and was an active friend of medical science and of the various benevolent institutions of the city, showing the most liberal feeling in regard to the admission of women to all the advantages of a through medical education afforded by the clinics and colleges. He was credited with exercising a decided influence upon municipal affairs, and urged with great ability some of most important measures of public policy, including the new City Hall, the Central Park, and other public improvements. He probably did more by his articles in the Times than any other person to convince the people and the authorities of that city of the value and need of a great park, and to induce the action which resulted in creating what is destined to be one of the finest city parks in the world. His facts and arguments were so pertinent and well arranged, his style so pointed, yet graceful and attractive, that whatever he wrote on local topics was sure to be read attentively by all, and to secure though contemporary journals a wider circulation than even the vast edition of the Times could secure.
His public spirit and usefulness led to his being elected to the Legislature from New York city in 1858, when he again became conspicuous for his devotion to measures of vital importance to the State, and for the rare grace, tact and ability with which he advocated them in the debate. At this time, also, he was among the most earnest of the early Republicans. His instincts were always opposed to slavery, as to every other form of injustice, and he had watched with concern the retrogressive policy on this question of the Southern Democracy. His opposition to slavery extension was earnest and radical, without a trace of fanaticism. On this subject he agreed in opinion with that far-sighted and cool-headed statesman, Gov. Seward, whose personal friendship he enjoyed, and of whose policy the Times has always been an able defender. He lived long enough to be gladdened, as over a private joy, at the final and complete removal of the nation’s shame, without wrong-doing or rashness on the part of the Government which he loved.
Dr. tuthill came to San Francisco, and his connection with the Bulletin commenced, about November, 1859. In January, 1862, he purchased a proprietary interest in the establishment. While he remained in the State he was constantly engaged as a writer of editorials or general-information articles for the second and third pages of this journal, or as legislative correspondent from Sacramento. In whichever capacity he labored, his work was brilliantly executed. His mind sparkled with genius, and his brail physical system obed its demands by almost ceaseless labor, until alas ! the body wore out at the early age of forty-three. It seemed as though he could not sleep, for fear some valuable thought might be lost for the want of a ready hand to record it. Coming to California in response to an invitation from this office, he resolved to make his permanent home here, and at once absorbed the spirit of the country. He speedily made himself familiar with every institution and capability of the State, and within a year after his arrival possessed an amount of historical knowledge and local information concerning men and things that would have shamed most pioneers who might have ventured to compare knowledge with him. This intellectual achievement was accomplished by a vast amount of dry and uninviting “head work.” After each day’s newspaper labor had been finished, and after his evening entertainments were over, he devoted a large share of the night to poring over the bound files of old California newspapers, carefully noting each fact and circumstance that had historical value, or that could be made useful to him as a journalist. He followed up this practice until all the files in the Bulletin office, in the Mercantile Library, as well as the mass of bound volumes of newspapers in the State Library at Sacramento, were essentially read through, and their contents treasured in his mind. It was a work of years, mostly performed while others slept.
The fruits of this labor were largely enjoyed by the Bulletin; but since Dr. Tuthill left California, the fact has been ascertained that he had a higher ambition to gratify than could be gained as a newspaper writer, and which accounts for his persevering investigation. It seems that while he was performing an extraordinary amount of intellectual labor in connection with this journal—and while as an active church member, teacher in the Sunday schools, occasional lecturer before benevolent institutions and temperance societies, his leisure hours were apparently fully employed—he was engaged in still another labor, which absorbed the highest capacities of his mind. He was devoting a certain number of hours each day to collecting materials for and writing a history of California. What the scope and design of his history may have been we have no means of knowing, further than the title imports, for he seems to have admitted no one into his confidence on the subject, outside of his family and the publisher whom he consulted. We learn to-day, for the first time, that when Dr. Tuthill left California he took with him the manuscript copy of his history, embracing matter enough for a large volume, which was placed in the hands of the printer in New York before he left that city for Europe. While traveling in foreign countries, it appears that he visited the principal libraries where manuscripts concerning the early history of California are preserved, and it is presumable that his history is to be enriched and made authentic by much valuable data not hitherto published. After his return to New York from Europe, he was employing his time in superintending the printing of his book, when death terminated his earthly duties. We can assume with certainly, however, that his history is written with the same purity, clearness, compactness and grace which characterized his style as a writer for the press, and which lent a charm to everything that came from his pen.
It our invigorating climate, and surrounded by the fascinating circumstances of life in a new country, he seemed to develop in the course of his newspaper writing a different and higher capacity. The critical reader of the Bulletin’s columns while he was employed upon them, will remember the keen wit, the playful fancy, the original and apposite illustrations, the abundant flow of humor, the fund of information, the felicitous use of words, which gave beauty and influence to his daily productions. These traits were observable in all he did, either as editor, correspondent or reporter. His reports of public meetings, speeches and debates were peculiarly graphic, picturesque and entertaining, giving the very life and spirit of the scenes or utterances reproduced. His happy reports of the earliest lectures and sermons of Thomas Starr King first introduced and popularized on this coast that distinguished man, who acknowledged to Dr. Tuthill how much he esteemed this brilliant labor in his behalf, and who also expressed his admiration for the Doctor’s own rare merit as an extemporaneous speaker, in which capacity he was often called upon to serve some charitable, religious or literary institutions in this city. His gifts were fatal to him: for while he was entirely adverse to display, and never courted notice in any manner, he loved to do with all his might what his heart and intellect prompted, and thus sacrificed the physical vigor that could alone sustain him even at the single task of journalism.
It is impossible for those who recently labored with Dr. Tuthill in connection with his journal, to adequately express their high appreciation of his character, or the depth of their sorrow at his loss. None but those who knew his pure and guileless nature, his genial ways, his unvarying cheerfulness, his truthfulness, his benevolence, his utter lack of malicious or sinister traits, can understand how he was beloved and how keenly his loss is felt. But it is some consolation to reflect that a very large number of people in this State know him personally, many of them intimately—for he was accessible to all—and that they, as well as ourselves, recognized him as a friend, while they appreciated his great value to society. No man in his position could have enjoyed more of public esteem than he had earned. In the church where he regularly attended, and in the private circles drawn around him, he was sincerely beloved. Whatever antagonisms were provoked by the course of the Bulletin on public questions, never extended to him personally; and yet he made no concessions of principle or action to win the esteem that everywhere flowed to him, and which we are sure must have been peculiarly grateful to his feelings. His writings and his daily walks were guided by convictions of duty, and his life has been offered on its shrine.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 421-431.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.