Murdock: Boomer and buster
The power of the press was used to make — and break — this city.
Regular readers of this column have no doubt noted repeated mention herein of Wichita's real estate boom and bust of the late 19th century. The short story: The naively optimistic mania of possibility bred by the Westward Expansion led to pockets of rampant real estate speculation in certain parts of the country, Wichita being at or near the top of the heap; subsequently, the bottom fell out and many fortunes were lost.
Curiously, one of the key figures in creating so much interest in Wichita was also a major factor in bursting the bubble. Colonel Marshall Marcellus Murdock, founder and editor of the Wichita Eagle, was famously responsible for advertising Wichita's charms with such memorable superlatives as "Peerless Princess on the Plains," "Magical Mascot of the Meridian," "Mecca of Men" and others. His unfettered, shameless boosterism was not only infectious — it worked.
The story of early Wichita is peopled by immigrants to the region, many of them Americans from the eastern states but also a surprising number of Europeans. Many were drawn to the area by Murdock's Barnumesque prose, seeking to build new lives on the wide-open promise of the prairie. When they arrived, they found a town buzzing with excitement; by the mid-1870s, real estate offices were opening on practically every block to handle the business as one new city addition after another was platted. People couldn't fork over their savings fast enough to get in on the ground floor.
All the accountrements of proper city life were planned in short order: opera houses, churches, universities, fine retail stores of all kinds, hotels, a city hall and on and on. No expense was to be spared. It was not uncommon to hear Wichita being compared to Chicago, and the average person on the street was a true believer. Murdock published on Dec. 5, 1886 an editorial titled "Born Booming," in which he proudly boasted, "bricks and mortar could not be piled up rapidly enough" to keep up with the city's growth.
By the beginning of 1887, the only places in the United States where more land was being traded were New York City and Kansas City. Ordinary dirt farmers were becoming millionaires overnight — on paper, anyway. And just when the fever peaked, Marsh Murdock, Wichita's number one cheerleader, dropped a bomb in the editorial pages of his Eagle.
Now famously known as "Call a Halt," Murdock's editorial of Feb. 24, 1887 warned of dire consequences unless speculators applied a serious ration of stark objectivity to their financial dealings. "Wild speculation," he wrote, "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."
Though later historians note that many factors led to the bust in Wichita, it is clear that the ripples set in motion by the turd Murdock dropped into the punchbowl spread quickly. By the end of 1889, many had lost their life savings, and numerous public and private projects had been abandoned. Countless foreclosures and legal judgments clogged the courts, and claims were settled for as little as $10.
One of the most sensational pieces of journalism to be found on the bust and Murdock's role in it has to be an article titled, "Ruined by an Editorial: Boom Town that Received a Black-eye from Journalism," which appeared in the Pittsburg (Pennsylvania) Press on May 14, 1899. Its authorship is credited to the Chicago Record's Wichita correspondent, and it may have appeared in that paper and others as well. It is worthy of reprinting in its entirety, and follows:
"Twelve years ago Wichita was the greatest boom town in the west. The collapse of the boom in Wichita was caused directly by an editorial written by Marsh Murdock and published in his newspaper, the Eagle. That editorial probably caused more commotion in this little western world than any other article that was ever published, because it knocked all the wind out of Wichita, and the rapid panic that followed became contagious and spread to every Kansas town. It is a question whether Mr. Murdock realized the possible results of his admonition. He was a pioneer in Kansas — a state builder. He started the first paper west or south of Topeka in 1863, and he came to Wichita before the railroad. He loved the town more than any other man in it. His ambition, his pride, his hopes were all involved in its interests, and he did more than any other man to create the fiction of a metropolis which he himself exposed, and to inspire the delusions that he destroyed. Nobody doubted his sincerity. Nobody ever questioned the honesty of his motive, but it is doubtful if wider or deeper or more vigorous imprecations were ever heaped upon any other man. Thousands of speculators who thought they were millionares were bankrupt the next morning. Every line of that editorial cost $1,000,000 to the town of Wichita, and without doubt it was the most costly article that ever appeared in type.
"But the boom would have broken sooner or later. The balloon had become so distended that it must have burst within a few months, and it was that knowledge which prompted Mr. Murdock to 'Call a Halt.' Under that title, in a few impressive words, he warned the people of Wichita that they had reached the limit of human folly, and in the name of honest citizenship and ordinary business sense he demanded that insane speculation in town lots should cease, and that the energies of the people should be employed in the fulfillment of the promises and the development of the resources upon which the boom had been based. He called the attention of the public to what was already painfully apparent to every one — that it would require half a century of patient toil to carry out the plans that had been made for the improvement of Wichita, and that there was not enough money in the state of Kansas to settle the obligations that had been assumed in that town. He urged his fellow-citizens to abandon speculation and settle down to business.
"The Wichita Eagle had a big circulation in those days, and it has always been one of the most influential papers in the state. Murdock was recognized as a man of great power with the pen and a strength of purpose that never faltered. Hence when the real estate speculators and the boomers read that editorial they realized that it was the honest exhortation of a man who could not be bullied or deceived. They knew that Marsh Murdock was actuated by conscientious motives, and that the publication which threatened their interests would be followed by others of the same sort. So everybody hurried down town to sell his property for the best price he could get, and found that everybody else was there ahead of him for the same purpose.
"What a day that was in Wichita! A stampede of wild beasts in a menagerie was nothing in comparison to the panic of frenzied men whose fortunes were vanishing before their eyes. Property that would have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars 12 hours previous could not be given away. Men who had loaned millions upon real estate mortgages realized within the next few hours that they were ruined, and consternation sat at every fireside in the town. Hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of half-finished houses upon which the workmen were busy that morning were left untouched for years after, and one-third of the residences and business blocks were tenantless for the next six years."