Marshall Murdock ‘stood for Wichita and Wichita stood for him’

Marshall Murdock, founder of The Wichita Eagle, sits in his office, known as “the sanctum.”
Marshall Murdock, founder of The Wichita Eagle, sits in his office, known as “the sanctum.” Courtesy photo

There was no one like Marshall Murdock.

As the founding publisher of The Wichita Eagle, he was a writer, promoter and Victorian gentleman.

He was a fan of starched white collars and mutton chop sideburns. He was a descendant of the Pierponts, for whom a Revolutionary War fort was named, and a relative of J.P. Morgan, the 19th-century financier.

In Wichita, he boldly took stands on issues. Murdock, who was mostly conservative in his politics, pushed for white settlement in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma; encouraged people to stop spending on speculated land during Wichita’s boom years in the 1880s; and disliked women who tried to buck Victorian values.

Women’s rights? He was no fan.

In January 1886, Mary Elizabeth Lease raised Murdock’s ire when she took out an ad in his newspaper that read: “We would most earnestly invite the intelligent women of Wichita, the artists, the musicians, teachers, actors, lecturers, and all women having the advancement of their sex in view, to meet Saturday, Jan. 23 at 3 o’clock at the residence of Mrs. Harry Hill, 321 Topeka Avenue.”

Murdock responded by writing an editorial urging husbands to keep their wives at home.

He opposed Prohibition and didn’t much care for Carry Nation.

One hundred and forty-five years after he arrived in Wichita and began printing a paper, Murdock still has an impact on Wichita.

“Wichita would not be the city it is today had it not been for Marsh Murdock,” said Jami Frazier Tracy, curator of collections at the Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum.

Murdock was part of a dream team of early Wichita founders who encouraged settlement, promoted business and had a vision to make Wichita the largest city in Kansas.

The Emporia Gazette’s William Allen White said of his friend when Murdock died in 1908: “Marsh Murdock kept sending into the world that ‘the Peerless Princess of the Plains’ (a term Murdock coined to describe Wichita) was on the map and was the center of the migratory gravitation of men for world’s end to world’s end.

“He stood for Wichita and Wichita stood for him.”

Birth of The Eagle

Wichita’s early days offered plenty of excitement for the city’s first newspapers to cover.

The Texas cattle drives were in full swing, and thousands of longhorns moved along a trail that incorporated what is now Douglas Avenue.

At night, hundreds of cowboys crowded the streets of both Wichita and the little community of Delano along Douglas off the west bank of the Arkansas River. Shootings, killings and trials were plentiful.

The first Wichita City Eagle – a weekly paper at the time – came out on April 12, 1872, not quite two years after Wichita was incorporated.

Wichita promoters lured Murdock, a 35-year-old up-and-coming newspaper publisher and state senator from Burlingame, to town. They wanted a strong paper for the community, and he wanted the clout to run a strong newspaper.

Murdock was born in Virginia in 1837. His family moved to Ohio when he was 12. In 1857, the Murdocks moved to Topeka during Kansas’ territorial period.

He was an apprentice printer to John Speer, editor of the Lawrence Republican and later the Lawrence Tribune.

On Aug. 21, 1863, Murdock was in Lawrence when William Quantrill and 400 Confederate guerrillas attacked the city, killing between 160 and 190 men. Murdock survived by hiding in the pit of an outhouse.

That same year, he married Victoria Mayberry and started the Burlingame Chronicle.

During the Civil War, Murdock served as a lieutenant colonel in Company A, Santa Fe Battalion, which fought in the battles of Westport and Little Blue River.

By 1872, he was ready for a change. That’s when he and Victoria moved to Wichita, which had a population of less than 1,000.

One of the first people Murdock met in Wichita was Capt. David Payne. In the early 1880s, Payne led groups called “Boomers” into Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. When the Cherokee Land Strip was opened in September 1893, trains from Wichita carried thousands into the territory – largely attracted to the area because of Murdock’s editorials.

The Wichita Victor

In April 1872, Murdock had a small dilemma on his hands.

He wanted to name his new paper The Wichita Victor in honor of his wife, Victoria. But she thought the name inappropriate and favored The Eagle because the bird was the symbol of American freedom and liberty.

They flipped a coin to settle the matter.

She won.

As the deadline for the first issue of Murdock’s newspaper neared, the whole town was eager to know what he had named it. He called the first few issues The Wichita Galoot. These were sent to Wichita’s leaders.

When a half-dozen citizens rushed to the office to protest such an undignified name, he handed them a “real” issue of The Wichita City Eagle.

“Nothing,” Murdock would write in the Eagle’s first issue, “speaks so well for a town and the enterprise of its citizens – its growth and prosperity – as the columns of the local paper filled with home advertisements of home trade and business.”

‘All is joy’

A little more than a month after The Eagle started printing, the first train arrived in Wichita. The tiny town was no longer just a stop along the Chisholm Trail.

“All is joy,” Murdock wrote on May 17, 1872, the day after the train arrived. “One can now take the cars at Wichita one morning and be in St. Louis the next morning and in Chicago the evening following. We are now within the bounds of civilization.”

He pushed for Wichita to become economically viable by promoting real estate and businesses.

Soon after arriving in Wichita, Murdock was elected a state senator to represent southwest Kansas. Later, he was appointed postmaster of Wichita.

He served as a regent for the Kansas Normal School and was one of the founding members of the Kansas State Historical Society.

And, in his own way, he embraced technology.

The Eagle became one of the first subscribers to a city telephone service in 1881. And, in 1883, it signed on for gas lights.

Boom and bust

Murdock believed cities were created from extraordinary things, and it was the newspaper’s job to write about extraordinary things in extraordinary ways.

In 1887, Wichita was booming. Only New York and Kansas City generated more real estate sales than Wichita.

Then, at the height of the boom, Murdock became concerned about “wild and reckless spending.” He wrote an editorial, “Call a Halt,” and was blamed for breaking the boom.

He feared people would lose money on land deals that had no realistic hope of being developed.

Published on Feb. 24, 1887, the column said: “We want again to say and if possible to impress our people with the fact that wild speculation is not business nor conducive of a healthy growth or of permanency. When men abandon legitimate trade to embark in a craze of any character the end is not far off. No work, however well directed, no brain, however powerful or far seeing, can avert the collapse which must follow an over-strained inflation.”

The end of the boom did not come immediately. Some of the crash occurred in 1888, but the total impact wasn’t felt until 1889. That year, businesses and schools began to fall by the wayside.

Final years

On Jan. 2, 1908, Murdock died of cancer. Flags were lowered to half-staff.

Large department stores closed during the hours of Murdock’s funeral service. The Wichita Railway and Light company stopped traffic for 10 minutes during the funeral as a mark of respect. Banks were closed, city and county buildings deserted.

Telegrams were delivered to the Murdock house from across the nation, and editorials were written.

“He was always for Wichita,” wrote E.P. Greer, editor of The Winfield Daily Courier. “His faith in its future was unbounded and courageous. His devotion to Wichita was as unbounded as his nature was generous and forgiving.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

Marshall Murdock’s principles for the Wichita City Eagle

▪ Favor no class or clan or caste.

▪ Elevate the standard of civilization along broad lines.

▪ Stand firmly for wide education.

▪ Avoid connections that would hamper its independence and its usefulness.