Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Strange Life and Death of the "Broadway Journal" (Part Two)

"For indeed strange things shall happen, and secret things be known..."
-"Shadow--A Parable"
The means of blowing away at least some of the fog that shrouds the history of the "Broadway Journal" lies in the succession of very curious business contracts made amongst its proprietors, which reveal a series of maneuvers that would have embarrassed Bernie Madoff. Key to the whole strange story is the original contract between the founders of the "Broadway Journal," Briggs and a shadowy real estate dealer named John Bisco. If one believes their story, the planned publication lacked even a minimal amount of capital, utilizing instead a Rube Goldberg-like joint-stock improvisation, where all the partners worked for little or no hard cash. The paper originally had seven partners; later, its only way of staying afloat at all was supposedly by luring in additional "shareholders" (i.e. "suckers.")

Now, if Quinn saw the difficulty of believing that Poe could imagine that the magazine could survive without initial capital, surely Bisco and Briggs knew such an enterprise was untenable, as well. The two founders of the "Journal" liked to keep their personal business affairs shrouded in mystery, but they must have had a private source of funds from somewhere, or their magazine could not have been initiated at all.Charles F. Briggs and the Broadway Journal

Briggs and Bisco's original agreement had them sharing equally in both ownership and profits, with Briggs taking control of the magazine's editorial department and Bisco acting as publisher. Either partner's expenditures would be paid only in cash, and were to be partly reimbursed by the other partner. It was also agreed that "Neither partner shall dispose of his interest in the publication without the consent of the other." While all this protected the pair from any serious financial loss, it also eliminated any possibility for the "Journal" to be reorganized or recapitalized. Bizarrely, Briggs and Bisco seemed to be guaranteeing the ultimate collapse of their magazine.

Briggs had to hire professional writers for a publication that was incapable of paying them. In February 1845, he offered Poe, who was then, thanks to "The Raven" at the apex of his celebrity, a "work and share" contract. In return for providing the cachet of his name, and a certain amount of written contributions, Bisco promised Poe one-third of the profits. Briggs, as Poe himself later noted somewhat resentfully, kept sole editorial control of the paper until his departure that July.

How Bisco and Briggs actually defined and divided profits was and still is their own secret. Doubtless, that is exactly what Bisco intended. However, as the original contract between Bisco and Briggs was never annulled, it seems most likely that the pair each took half of the profits, and left subsequent so-called "partners" holding the bag.

Very soon, Poe realized he was putting in an enormous amount of work on the paper with little or no reward, either financial or artistic. By June, he was hoping to quit New York City altogether, "as the sole means of recruiting my health and spirits." He hoped to find someone willing to buy his "interest" in the "Journal," but, of course, he found it impossible to sell the unsaleable. He could not leave the "Journal" without buying out his partners, which was a practical impossibility. He was, in a word, trapped.

By this time, Briggs also claimed he wanted to be free of the essentially unworkable foundations of the "Journal." He told Lowell that without any capital on hand, his only option was to jettison both Poe and Bisco and start fresh with a different partner to act as publisher/financial angel. He claimed that a publisher and book dealer named J. Smith Homans had agreed to buy out Bisco and, for the first time, bring conventional capital to the increasingly shaky publication. Poe, whose personal relations with Briggs had by then hopelessly deteriorated, would be cast aside. Bisco, however, according to Briggs, derailed his plan (on the advice of unnamed "evil advisers,") by insisting on selling his share of the "Journal" for more than was called for in their original agreement.

This claim of Briggs', like practically everything he said about the "Journal," makes little sense. If the magazine was as badly off as he said, why wouldn't Bisco be eager to unload his worthless share of it for whatever he could get? And why would a successful, and presumably savvy, businessman like Homans want to invest his money in a failing literary weekly, particularly if Briggs truly aimed to rid it of Poe, the magazine's only real asset?

In September of that year, William Fairman, a traveling representative for the "Journal," wrote Bisco that "Mr. Poe has a great many friends and is held in the highest estimation both by those who know him as a man and as a writer. My only hopes is [sic] among his friends." Fairman also informed Bisco of the strange distribution problems plaguing the "Journal"--in many cities it either came too late or never came at all. Fairman thought the "Journal's" prospects were good, thanks to Poe, but that Bisco's method of individually canvassing for subscribers was outdated. "I do not think any person can make it for his interest to travel and solicit subscribers." Now, the person responsible for the "Journal's" distribution and subscription methods was Bisco himself, and he apparently ignored Fairman's warnings--which only gave advice that Bisco, who had acted as publisher for other periodicals, should have already known. It gives the impression that Bisco was strangely unconcerned with making the "Journal" a success.

In Part Three: The man that was used up.

(Image: NYPL Digital Gallery)