Editor's note: This piece originally was published on Aug. 10, 2008, as part of David Harding's "Everyday History" column in The World-Herald.
There was a time in Omaha when two or three daily newspapers had to duke it out for readership, and the editors of these competing dailies regularly abused one another in print. Sometimes these verbal jabs even led to flying fists.
Most of the journalistic street fights involved Edward Rosewater, the small but pugnacious editor of the Bee, one of the city's three competing newspapers in the 1870s. He routinely railed against the Herald and the Republican, and they returned the favor.
The Bee often pursued local stories with more passion than sober facts. It was a style characteristic of the times, and Rosewater took to it naturally, pushing his opinions on every page.
Rosewater came to Omaha in 1863 as a telegraph operator. He had worked in telegraphy for the Union Army and at the War Department in Washington, D.C., where he happened to be the operator who first dispatched Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to the nation.
In Omaha, Rosewater quickly found his way into Republican political circles. While serving in the Nebraska Legislature, he helped impeach Gov. David Butler and fought for creation of a citywide school district in Omaha.
Rosewater established the Bee in 1871 as a way to drum up support for his legislative agenda. He almost immediately stirred up trouble. When a black man and a white woman applied for a marriage license in 1873, a local judge reluctantly refused because it violated Nebraska law. The judge then wrote an apology to the couple, which was printed in the Herald.
Rosewater criticized the judge for his apology, which prompted a personal attack on Rosewater from the third paper, the Republican. Rosewater demanded an apology, and the editor of the Republican told him, in so many words, "Come and get it."
Within hours, Rosewater stopped the offending editor on the street and began to work him over with a horsewhip. The other man was much larger and apparently landed a few blows of his own before tackling Rosewater and sitting on him until help arrived.
Rosewater was charged with disturbing the peace, but the incident seemed to invigorate him. The same year, he mixed it up with a police officer and with James Creighton, cousin of the founders of Creighton University. Creighton might have dismantled Rosewater if the Bee editor hadn't pulled a gun from his pocket.
Rosewater's combative style of journalism nearly caught up with him in 1876, when he badmouthed a gambling parlor, whose owner was a 250-pound former blacksmith named Dick Curry.
Like Rosewater, Curry liked to get right to the point. When he caught up with the newsman, he nearly beat Rosewater's brains out with a "lead-loaded slingshot." Rosewater spent the next few months in bed, and Curry went to the penitentiary for four years.
Rosewater tangled with another editor of the Republican more than 10 years later, calling O.H. Rothacker a "genteel rowdy who writes editorials between drinks." The Republican replied by referring to the Bee as "The Daily Disease" and saying Rosewater was "a coward physically, an infamous liar personally, a dirty inconsequence in appearance, and the contempt of the town generally."
Before the day was over, Rosewater got in Rothacker's face on a downtown street corner, and Rothacker reportedly bloodied him.
Whether his cause was noble or deeply misguided, Rosewater's position was always clear. His opposition to women's suffrage once landed him in a formal debate with Susan B. Anthony. Anthony could duel with words as well as anyone, so it must have been an entertaining debate. If the famous suffragist got under his skin, Rosewater didn't show it with a pistol or a horsewhip.
After all, he was a gentleman.
Want more of this? Check out Omaha.com/history for more stories from our city's fascinating past.