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On the last day of the year 1896 Joseph B. McCullagh jumped from the window of his third-floor bedroom in the Central West End and ended fifty-four years of a full and interesting life.
When he was just eleven years old, McCullagh got himself a job as cabin boy on a ship sailing from his home in Ireland, bound for the United States and presumably a better life for an ambitious boy. Arriving in New York, he apprenticed himself to a Catholic newspaper.
Five years later he moved on to St. Louis, where he went right back into the newspaper business and in due time got a chance to do actual reporting at the Missouri Democrat. On the local news beat, he filled a column and a half on his first day, two columns on his second; and by the third day, so the story goes, his news gathering was so prodigious that the printer had to use a smaller size type in order to fit all his copy in that edition.
With that impressive start, Joe McCullagh was on his way to becoming one of the great newspapermen of the era.
For most of his career McCullagh lived and worked in St. Louis, for over twenty years as editor and eventually an owner of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. With his incisive prose and terse, sometimes abrasive style, he watched, reported, and often provoked the city he favored with his talent.
The New York Times, in a New Year’s Day obituary, called him a “journalistic recluse” and claimed he worked harder as an executive than any reporter. For all his peculiarities, the obit writer concluded, “he was heartily esteemed by hosts of friends.”
None of those friends was present on the night, or early morning, when Joseph McCullagh decided to end his life. He left no note or other indication of his intention, but his physician, who knew him well, said he suffered from profound nervous exhaustion as well as asthma and kidney trouble. “Mr. McCullagh,” said the doctor, “was tired of living.”
Just as we cannot know the mind of Joe McCullagh as he gazed for the last time out his bedroom window, we cannot truly know the past nor any person who lives in it. Even so, the past can provide us with the stories of men and women and events that shaped our present. In exploring these stories, we are learning to explore ourselves.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society