When I was a kid, Walt Disney had a one-hour television program every Sunday night. Often, the shows were continuing, two part stories. One, I vaguely remember was about a newspaper copyboy who aspires to be a journalist and out investigates the seasoned reporters, and the local police, and solves crimes.
Recently, I found and bought a copy of the original source material for that series, a long short story published in 1891 called, “Gallegher: A Newspaper Story,” by Richard Harding Davis.
This 11,000-word yarn is narrated by a reporter on a Philadelphia daily newspaper. He recalls a scrappy, 12- or 13-year-old kid working in the city room and how the boy broke a murder case and helped scoop all the other papers in town.
Early one morning, a prominent attorney is found dead in his home, his safe open, and $200,000 missing from it. Also gone is the man’s secretary, a guy with a missing finger, and the only other person with a key to the safe.
Gallegher spots the secretary on the street and follows the man to an out-of-town inn where an illegal prize fight is set to take place in the barn. The boy figures his newspaper’s sports reporter will likely show up for the match. When he does, Gallegher lays out a plan to alert a detective to come and arrest the secretary, giving the sports reporter an exclusive for their paper—which Gallegher will slip away and carry back to town—as well as a claim to a $5,000 reward for the capture of the murderer.
“Gallegher” reads like a modern story. As a writer, Davis had one foot in the 19th century and one in the 20th century. A few times the dialogue had a formal, awkward, unnatural sound. But most of the story was sharp and punchy. The passages of Gallegher following the secretary, the descriptions of the fight, and the boy’s mad dash back to the city and the newspaper office with the sports writer’s copy in his pocket were fast paced and exciting.
Harding subtitled the yarn, A Newspaper Story. Readers today get a glimpse at how a daily paper operated in those days, 130 years ago, when they had to move fast to get the jump on all the other city papers.
In the 1890s, Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) had become a famous, globe-trotting journalist and author, writing for the top papers and magazines in the country and befriending people like Teddy Roosevelt.