It’s a Mad, Mad World: Secrets from the Underground Railroad to the Madhouse on the Deadline Club’s Muckraking Journalism Walking Tour

A Walking Tour Through Journalism History...Well, Sort Of

Words and photos by Sarah Belle Lin

The Deadline Club is back in real life, baby. For the first time since last March after something wicked made its way to New York City, The Deadline Club pumped the brakes on in-person events. But on June 19—four days after Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state reached its vaccination goal—the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists convened face-to-face once again for a walking tour of Gotham journalism history featuring larger-than-life characters.

On a swampy Saturday, a motley crew of 15 journalists, editors, writers and at least one ex-journalist, linked up in Tribeca and pounded the pavement. Down cobbled streets and through granite alleys, tour guides Stan O’Connor and Chris Barron shared tidbits of iconic journalistic figures and the landmarks that played host to them.

We learned about the birth of legendary journalistic duos such as those between Nellie Bly and Joseph Pulitzer, publisher William Bradford and journalist John Peter Zenger and the Deadline Club and freelance photojournalist Douglas Higginbotham, left legacies woven in the fabric of journalism history.

Revisit The Deadline Club’s walking tour through lower Manhattan:

The Deadline Club met on Juneteenth at 36 Lispenard Street, the Underground Railroad station where abolitionist and journalist Frederick Douglass escaped to from slavery. Douglass would later found The North Star, a newspaper promoting African American rights, in 1847. The brick building at 36 Lispenard was where abolitionist David Ruggles maintained a printing press and published an anti-slavery newspaper known as Mirror of Liberty.

After visiting the iconic Five Points area at Worth and Centre Streets, a group of journalists corralled by the Deadline Club head towards the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse on Foley Square.

In the middle of Columbus Park’s plaza stands the statuesque Sun Yat-Sen, the former president of China and founder of modern China who once lived next to Mott Street. The revolutionary penned three principles on democracy, nationalism and livelihood in 25 articles cohesively titled The Fundamentals of National Reconstruction.

While the group cooled down at the halfway mark, we learned about renowned investigative journalist Nellie Bly (born as Elizabeth Jane Cochrane), who had herself committed to an insane asylum to write the society-changing expose “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” Seemingly eager to prove that life could indeed be stranger than fiction, Bly travelled around the world in 72 days to break the record set in Jules Verne’s novel, “Around the World in 80 Days.” The next time you find yourself on Roosevelt Island, you can pay tribute to Bly by visiting SPJ’s marker erected there in honor of one of the greats.

“Who was the first woman to anchor an evening network newscast?” What’s a journalism walking tour without trivia? The answer, by the way, is Marlene Sanders, a pioneering journalist and one of the first women to break into television journalism.

The group coalesced at 41 Park Row, near City Hall Park, between the Benjamin Franklin monument and Pace University. The statue of Franklin (1706-1790) was presented by Hudson River steamboat captain Albert De Groot to the press and printers of the City of New York on January 17, 1872. The kite-flying founding father published The Poor Richard’s Almanack, a beloved annual publication that regaled its readers in astronomy, astrology and aphorisms for 25 years.

The late, great and monumental form of Benjamin Franklin himself holding a copy of The Pennsylvania Gazette in his left hand.

The Deadline Club met as an organization for the first time in 1925 at 41 Park Row, which is now Pace University but formerly housed The New York Times then the offices of Editor and Publisher where the club met. Long before then, the campus was used as a prison and hospital during the American Revolution. (Here’s a fun challenge: The Deadline Club will buy a year-long digital subscription to a local weekly to the first person who confirms whether or not there is a Deadline Club plaque inside the building. Allegedly a commemorative plaque was installed there in 1975 in Editor & Publisher offices of James Wright Brown. You must present photo evidence!)

“It’s not libel if it’s true”: The last stop of the walking tour plopped the group next to Trinity Church Cemetery, where we learned about William Bradford, publisher of New York’s first newspaper, The New-York Gazette, and John Peter Zenger, journalist for The New York Weekly Journal. Both made a case for a free press in the early 18th century during a libel trial that paved the way for the concept of freedom of the press. The two freedom fighters were eventually buried at the cemetery (Bradford’s gravemarker is decorated with an hourglass, while Zenger’s memorial marker is located on Governors Island, where he arrived in 1710 with other German refugees).

The walking tour was effectively capped with libations—and reporter’s notebooks gifted for all the intrepid attendees—at Stone Street Tavern. The Deadline Club’s Tricia Couture, who masterminded the tour, club president Colin DeVries and events chair Jessica Seigel are given a round of applause for their planning prowess. Make sure you stick around; the next walking tour is just around the corner.

Sarah Belle Lin is an independent journalist based in New York City. She finds joy in hyperlocal news, jazz music and the everyday of life. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahBelleLin and peruse through her portfolio by clicking this link. Email her at sbellejourno@gmail.com

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