The Life and Rhymes of Poet Ben King.
Ben King's wedding fit his character--eccentric, comical, and spontaneous. On November 27,1883, King and Aseneth Belle Latham, both of St. Joseph, Michigan, arrived at the Chicago home of the Reverend David Swing to get married. A brief consultation revealed that the groom had neglected to secure the marriage license. King scurried away and soon returned with the necessary document.
As everyone prepared to adjourn to the parlor for the featured event, King plopped down at the piano and thumped out Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" with all the flourishes, then leaped to his feet, gave his arm to his bride, and marched into the room. The wide-eyed clergyman remarked that "he had married a good many men in the course of his career, but never before had he 'spliced' one who played his own wedding march."
The Makings of a Poet
Benjamin Franklin King Jr. was born in St. Joseph on St. Patrick's Day 1857, the eldest child of Helen and Benjamin King. His father was a native of Nassau, New York, who moved to Monroe, Michigan, in about 1840 and relocated to St. Joseph a few years later. There, he entered the drygoods business and became one of the village's leading merchants.
Ben King Sr. won the appointment of village postmaster in 1876. He served in that capacity for the next four years, occasionally bringing in his namesake to assist with the mail when business warranted an extra hand. Ben King Jr.'s romance with Belle Latham began when the young woman stopped by the post office and he asked her if he might walk her home.
King's literary and musical career began when the family fortunes took a downturn in the early 1880s and he needed to find a steady job. He knocked about for several years at a variety of occupations. Having become an accomplished pianist, he accepted a position as a musician for the Maxwell theatrical troupe in 1882. The Maxwells toured around Michigan that spring, playing in Rosedale, Traverse City, Charlevoix, Petoskey, Cadillac, and Detroit.
He next landed a job as bookkeeper for the Grain and Provision Review Company of Chicago and then became a piano salesman for Chicago's W.W. Kimball and Company. Though King took up residence in Chicago, he often returned to his hometown in Michigan to give musical performances and poetry readings.
King first piqued the interest of the literary world in the late 1880s. In about 1887, he popped into the office of the Chicago Herald's night editor and offered to sell a poem to the newspaper. The man replied that King had come to the wrong office and suggested that he see the managing editor when he arrived for work the next morning. King asked if he could recite his poem anyway. The night editor detested listening to authors reading their own works, but something about the manner of the applicant appealed to him, and he told the young man to proceed. King dropped into a chair, doubled himself up like a jackknife with his feet on the rungs, and launched in to a recitation of "Be Massa and de Sheepfol."
The night editor found the poem amusing. On his advice, King returned the next day to call on the Herald's managing editor, who recommended that he submit his work to New York City newspapers. King reappeared several weeks later with a copy of the New York Sun. The paper had printed his poem under the pen name of "Bow Hackley" and paid him $5 for it. King confessed that he had published under that assumed name when his courage faltered and he, afraid to use his real name, borrowed the nickname of an African-American friend from St. Joseph, Jerome "Bow" Hackley.
During the next few years, newspapers and magazines across America printed and reprinted King's poetry. His work appeared frequently in The Century magazine, one of the era's great literary journals. King often penned sentimental or humorous verses about St. Joseph, its neighboring city Benton Harbor, and the St. Joseph River that ran between the two towns. Readers in St. Joseph enjoyed pieces such as "The River St. Joe," in which King recalled dreamy days lazing on the riverbank, and "The Bung-Town Canal" that poked fun at Benton Harbor, its ship canal, and the barrel bung factory that gave it its nickname.
King recited his poetry at public performances that drew large crowds. Audiences roared with laughter at "If I Should Die Tonight" and "The Pessimist." The former, a parody of a maudlin story of a mourner grieving at the funeral of a friend, had the deceased springing back to life when the mourner offered to repay a $10 debt. "The Pessimist" began:
Nothing to do but work, Nothing to eat but food, Nothing to wear but clothes To keep one from going nude.
He interspersed his poems by playing the piano. Audiences especially loved his wild impression of the Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski, in which King tousled his hair; "fell on the piano tooth and nail, tore up the track, derailed the symphony"; and finally froze up stiff as a board and had to be carried off the stage.
Joining Chicago's Whitechapel Club
King got his big break through the auspices of Marcus "Brick" Pomeroy, the famed editor of the Wisconsin-based LaCrosse Democrat newspaper. The newspaperman was strolling through the Inter-State Industrial Exposition building in Chicago when he heard King pounding out "The Battle of Manassas" on a piano. Pomeroy had never heard anyone play with the brilliant improvisations King threw into the music. He hustled King off to meet with other newspapermen of the Chicago Press Club and thus gave the St. Joseph poet an entree into the rough-and-tumble newspaper world.
King fell in with those newspaper reporters and became a key member of the Chicago Press Club's most famous offshoot, the Whitechapel Club. The 1890s saw the beginning of investigative journalism that would become known as "muckraking," in which a growing number of journalists dug into the seamy side of life. Newspaper reporters who investigated crime and corruption developed a gallows sense of humor, spawning the outrageous Whitechapel Club in Chicago.
The Whitechapel Club had its headquarters in the back rooms of Henry Koster's saloon, a favorite haunt of Chicago reporters. Founded in 1889, the organization was named for London's Whitechapel district, where serial killer Jack the Ripper was then operating. The storied murderer was, in fact, the club's president--but since he never put in an appearance, the vice president fulfilled his duties.
The club's official purpose, as noted in its official certificate of incorporation, was "social reform," but that was jest. Its actual function was serving up dark humor, wit, and alcohol and acting as an outlet for the stress of reporting on crime, poverty, and corruption. Its ranks included Finley Peter Dunne, Brand Whitlock, Frederick Upham "Grizzly" Adams, and Charles Seymour. Many other members came from outside the ranks of journalists. They, like Ben King, won admission to the club's exclusive membership through its primary qualification of "wit and good fellowship."
A heavy oak door in the alley opened into the first-floor clubroom. Gaslight illuminated the room, but the lighting fixtures were real human skulls, the tops cut off and their eye sockets fitted with colored glass lenses. A table shaped like a mule shoe was set with smoking pipes and a tobacco bowl made from the top of another skull.
On the second floor, members sat around a coffin-shaped table decorated with brass nails. Various skulls and skeletons adorned the room, and members festooned the walls with blood-stained shirts and blankets, murder weapons donated by police officers, hangman's nooses, photographs of beheaded Chinese pirates, and other ghastly memorabilia. A life-size effigy of Jack the Ripper presided over the meetings.
Taking the Show on the Road
Ben King soon became one of the Whitechapel Club's "sharpshooters." Club members tested their speeches and literary works on club members at great risk, since speakers needed a thick hide to withstand the verbal arrows that flew across the room. The sharpshooters skewered anyone whose attempts fell short of their high standards--and their merciless heckling could sting. Opie Read, renowned humorist and editor of the Arkansas Traveler, had his feeling so hurt that he left the Whitechapel Club and never returned.
Nevertheless, Read never held a grudge against King. He considered the droll poet to be one of the "strangest creatures" he had ever met and agreed with a magazine editor who wrote to King, "If you were writing about a corpse you would make it giggle."
In the spring of 1894, King and Read teamed up for a series of public appearances throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. The bill of fare included King on the piano and recitations from both orators. They performed in Frankfort, Kentucky, on April 4 and played the Potter Opera House in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on April 6. Their audiences could not get enough. A Frankfort newspaper declared that "Mr. King is inimitable as a dialect speaker and his drolleries and gems of pathos and mirth under the pen name of 'Bow Hackley' are well-known to the readers of The Century."
Following the Potter Opera House show, King and Read retired in triumph to the Morehead House hotel in Bowling Green for a celebratory dinner, accompanied by a troupe of exuberant fans. The entourage demanded an encore recitation of "If I Should Die Tonight." Amid whoops of laughter, they refused to let King go to bed until they heard it one more time. King's head hit the pillow that night with applause still ringing in his ears.
That same night, back in St. Joseph, King's mother had an unsettling dream. Her son came to her as she slept and explained, "Mother, I just went out after a thought, and went too far."
That may, in fact, have been what happened. King and Read had asked the hotel staff to awaken them at 4 a.m. so that they could catch an early morning train to Owensboro, Kentucky, for another engagement. After King failed to answer repeated knocks on his door that morning, someone finally shinnied through the transom window and found him lifeless in his bed. He had apparently died peacefully in his sleep only a short time before.
Read, sleeping a couple of doors down the hallway, would never forget his shock at the sound of feet pounding down the corridor; a fist beating on his door; and the cry, "Ben King is dead!" He later wandered aimlessly through Bowling Green's streets while a coroner's jury convened. The jury found that the 37-year-old King had died of natural causes--probably heart failure.
A Tale of Two Funerals
King's body was returned north for two funerals, the first in the rooms of the Chicago Press Club and the second in St. Joseph. His friends in the Whitechapel Club fought off grief with their usual weapon: humor. The first speaker outraged outsiders with the traditional Whitechapel Club toast:
Then stand to your glasses steady, And drink to your comrade's eyes; Here's a health to the dead already, And hurrah for the next who dies.
The next mourner offered a few lines of doggerel with allusions to "If I Should Die Tonight":
Dear Ben, Come back again, And that there ten is yours. We miss you, Ben. I don't know when I've felt so bad in years. To leave us now, Just when, somehow, You had a show--It seems too bad. Good bye, old lad. If you've got to go.
The furious editor of the St. Joseph Herald declared that "The Press Club of Chicago ought to be dissolved in the name of common decency." Ironically enough, the Whitechapel Club disbanded around the same time as King's passing--largely because its impecunious members could not meet its expenses.
After a more conventional funeral in. St. Joseph, King was interred in the city cemetery, a pink granite boulder serving as his gravestone. His Literary reputation continued growing after his death. His friends collected his poems and published them in a single volume, Ben King's Verse, in 1894, in which Opie Read penned a biographical section on King.
In 1924, St. Joseph memorialized its hometown poet with a bronze bust mounted atop a granite pedestal in the city's Lakefront Park overlooking Lake Michigan. Henry Gustine, a boyhood friend, led a fund-raising drive and commissioned sculptor Leonard Crunelle to create the bust. The pedestal was engraved with a verse from King's poem "The River St. Joe." St. Joseph residents dedicated the memorial on June 30,1924.
A year later, Ben King's wife, Belle, married Gustine. An unlikely romance had developed between the 62-year-old widow and her late husband's 88-year-old admirer. The marriage, however, lasted less than two months. Belle sued for divorce when she discovered that her wealthy new husband was a miser who lived in a veritable hovel in Chicago. A judge quickly granted her request, opining that "a man of 88 has no business to get married."
Ben King's monument still stands in St. Joseph, preserving his memory for thousands of tourists and residents alike. In the city cemetery, a small green sign directs visitors to the King family plot and the pink granite boulder that marks his grave.
By Robert Myers
Robert Myers is the director of education at the Historical Society of Michigan and a former resident of St. Joseph. He now lives in Grand Ledge.
"If I Should Die Tonight" If I should die to-night And you should come to my cold corpse and say, Weeping and heartsick o 'er my lifeless clay--If I should die tonight, And you should come in deepest grief and woe--And say: "Here's that ten dollars that I owe." I might arise in my large white cravat And say "What's that?" If I should die to-night And you should come to my cold corpse and kneel, Clasping my bier to show the grief you feel, I say, if I should die to-night And you should come to me, and there and then Just even hint 'bout payin' me that ten, I might arise the while, But I'd drop dead again.
Caption: A collection of covers of The Century magazine from the 1890s and 1900s, in which many of Ben King's poems appeared. (Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Caption: A sketch of Ben King, a native of St. Joseph, Michigan, as seen in the 1894 poetry collection Ben King's Verse. (Photo courtesy of the Princeton University Library.)
Caption: Sketches of the Whitechapel Club as it appeared in the spring of 1892. (Photos courtesy of the Chicago Daily Tribune.)
Caption: The monument to Ben King in St. Joseph, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Publication:||Michigan History Magazine|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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