The Yellow Press: a mini-biography of the Sugar King
The Yellow Press: part one
The Yellow Press was not a term the reading public applied to journalism; it was a term newspapers used to excoriate one another. The feuds erupted notably in the year 1898, when America entered its war with Spain over Cuba. That same year, the term emerged strongly in the British papers, on the cusp of Britain’s plunge into the Boer War. In this series, we look at some of the players.
A Mini-Biography of the Sugar King
Claus Spreckels was born in Lamstedt, Hanover, Germany, in the year 1828. To avoid mandatory military service, in 1846 he migrated to America, settling into the grocery business, in the city where he’d landed, Charleston, SC. He began his career as a clerk, earning four dollars a week. After eighteen months saving his wages, Spreckels was able to purchase his first store.
In 1856, he migrated again, west to San Francisco, launching at once into the trade he knew. His grocery was richly patronized by those California gold miners who’d arrived circa 1849; and after amassing 50,000 dollars, Spreckels moved on to bigger things: a brewery, then a sugar refinery.
When already a wealthy man, he returned to Germany to study the refining process from its best practitioners at Magdeburg, choosing to work through this apprenticeship at laborer’s wages.
By 1876, Spreckels was in Hawaii, negotiating with King Kalakaua, for land to plant in cane on a large scale; he also negotiated with Princess Ruth, half-sister of Kamehameha IV, buying up her claim against the crown lands for ten thousand dollars, pressing the suit himself, and winning rights to Wailuku. This acreage, he set about improving with an irrigation canal engineered by Hermann Schussler, a Zurich and Karlsruhe trained specialist in waterworks, famous in his day.
Spreckels, wanting control over immigration and labor on his plantations, opposed the annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory. The Sugar King gained influence on the islands to the extent of sharing power there as one of a triumvirate, governing with King Kalakaua, and Prime Minister Walter M. Gibson. (A character of the era, Gibson was a sometime Mormon, and adventurous promoter of dishonest enterprises and wild schemes.)
Spreckels fought the east coast sugar trust when it muscled in on his Pacific territory. Its strategy: to undersell him, offering its sugar on the west coast (after investing in a San Francisco refinery) at a loss, making this up by keeping prices and profits high in the east. Spreckels retaliated, carrying the battle to enemy territory (Philadelphia), building his own giant refinery, undercutting the trust’s prices in their home market. This led to capitulation and concession, and Spreckels sold his new refinery to his rivals. He was left in sole control of his west coast holdings.
In 1888, he expanded into beet sugar, building factories in Watsonville and Salinas (CA), and in this period returned for more research to Germany. His factories grew to process 3000 tons of beets per day. Spreckels, creating a monopoly, locked in local farmers’ beet harvests.
When it came to dealing with others, however, Spreckels’s habit was to have his way, circumventing outside control by buying whatever he needed. To thwart the California railroad monopoly, he built a line of his own, guaranteeing its success by making two of his sons subscribe to his company’s stock offering, to the tune of 100,000 dollars each. The Sugar King added to his empire, among other things, a gasworks, an electric utility, a steamship line, and a newspaper that touted his own philosophy.
His son Adolph fought a duel (1884) with the owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael de Young (wounded, Adolph acquitted), for editorializing against the sugar industry, printing the accusation that its labor amounted to slavery. According to his method, Claus then bought the SF Call—and, with the goal of dwarfing the Chronicle building, constructed an eighteen-story tower, featuring a restaurant “in the clouds”. Also innovative was its earthquake resistant design. (The building sustained fire damage, but did not collapse, during the 1906 quake.)
After his death on December 26, 1908, Spreckels’s will was contested by his older sons. Adolph and John D. had been disinherited on their father’s representation that his gifts to them were an advance on their legacy.
The estate, estimated at Claus’s death to have been worth 30 to 40 million dollars (formidable for the time…but Spreckels had not reached the Rockefeller class of magnate), was reduced by October 4th of 1910, the day of the court’s ruling, to five million, this to be divided evenly among offspring Adolph, John, Rudolph, Claus Augustus, and Emma.
Having his sugar interests in Cuba, Spreckels had opposed Cuban independence. William Randolph Hearst, proprietor of the SF Examiner, was enthusiastically pro-war. Below are samples of the Spreckels/Hearst feud, as reported by The Salt Lake Herald, and a yellow press reference from the Call.
“Doubtless exaggerated accounts of the disturbance last night will be sent out. The whole affair was a most harmless thing. There was no rising of popular sentiment as is sought to be represented by the yellow press. About one hundred hungry vagabonds, hired at a cheap price, at from one and a half to two pennies each, by Robiedo, Weyler & Company, were told where to go and what to do.”
Via Claus Spreckels obituary in The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Honolulu, HI, December 27, 1908; with additional information from an article for San Francisco city guides, by James R. Smith, (undated), The Hattiesburg News, May 20, 1909, “Spreckels Heirs to Fight for Millions”. Biographical information on Hermann Schussler and Walter M. Gibson, from Wikipedia.
Next Up: A mini-biography of William Randolph Hearst