||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Wood, Benjamin (October 13, 1820 – February 21, 1900)
Benjamin Wood was the long–time editor of the New York Daily News,
which he built into the highest–circulating daily newspaper in the United
States; a three–term congressman; and a confidant to his older brother Fernando
Wood, who was mayor of New York City and a major Democratic politician.
Benjamin Wood was born on October 13, 1820, in Shelbyville, Kentucky, to
Rebecca Lehmann Wood and Benjamin Wood, a merchant. In 1821, the family moved
to New York City in hopes that his father’s poor performance in the business
world would improve; it did not. Young Wood attended public schools briefly in
New York City, then started working and traveling extensively throughout the
Caribbean and Central America as a sailor on merchant ships and throughout the
United States as a common laborer. He returned to New York City to enter the
shipping industry, and also became a partner, along with his brother Fernando
and other New Yorkers, in several Southern lotteries. He gained substantial
wealth from both enterprises. Around this time he married, but little is known
about the union, except that his wife died in 1849, leaving two sons.
During the 1850s, Benjamin Wood became the close, trusted advisor to his
older brother, Fernando, who established himself as a major player in municipal
politics, thrice winning the mayoral race and establishing Mozart Hall as a
Democratic machine to challenge Tammany Hall. The two brothers formed a
political team that would last until Fernando’s death in 1881. Like the later
Tweed Ring of Tammany Hall, the Wood brothers and the “Forty Thieves” of the
city council in the 1850s were accused of corruption, although none of the
charges were ever proved against the latter.
With an eye on national office, perhaps the vice presidency, Fernando Wood
purchased the New York Daily News in early 1860 and installed his brother
Benjamin as its editor. Within a few months Benjamin Wood had purchased
controlling interest in the newspaper from his brother. He breathed life into
the nearly moribund paper, transforming it into the nation’s highest–circulation
daily with a large readership among the white, urban working–class. While
thriving for most of the 40 years of Wood’s editorship, the paper survived his
death for a mere six years before it ceased publication.
Wood’s pro–Southern sympathies and racial prejudices were evident in his 1860
editorials in which he endorsed the expansion of slavery into the Western
territories, lauded the slave–based Southern culture, and otherwise defended
slavery and opposed civil rights for free blacks. He supported the right of
states to secede from the Union and seconded Mayor Fernando Wood’s threat to
declare New York a free city (over a dispute with the state legislature). After
the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Benjamin Wood’s disapproval of the
subsequent war provoked a mob to threaten the Daily News if it did not
fly the American flag. He refused to give in to their demand and continued to
condemn the Civil War as foolish “national fratricide.” His stand for freedom
of the press led to problems with the government.
In May 1861, the New York City Board of Aldermen voted to rescind the status
of the Daily News as the city’s official paper. Wood maintained the
journal’s position as a leading voice for the peace wing of the Democratic
Party, derisively known as “Copperheads.” In August 1861 the Daily News
and four other New York City publications faced grand jury charges of giving aid
and comfort to the enemy. While no formal charges were brought, the postmaster
general prohibited their use of the U.S. mails. Wood employed the railroads to
deliver his papers, but the government seized shipments in Philadelphia and
Connecticut, compelling him to cease publication for 18 months. During the
hiatus he wrote an anti–war novel, Fort Lafayette; or, Love and Secession,
but to his dismay the book was little noticed and its message went unheeded. In
May 1863, he renewed publication of the Daily News.
Wood’s two consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives coincided
with the duration of the Civil War (1861–1865). He used his office to urge a
peaceful resolution to the conflict and to oppose all attempts at emancipation.
He was a vehement critic of the draft, especially the exemption fee that allowed
the wealthy to avoid military service. During the bloody New York City draft
riot in July 1863, however, he was credited with saving the New York Times
building from a mob by standing in its doorway, armed with a revolver, and
instructing the rioters on the fundamental right of property. Still, his name
was linked with an alleged Confederate plot to foment the riots, although an
investigation found no such evidence.
Wood’s pro–Southern sympathies continued to be manifested in the Daily
News during the Civil War. He reprinted news from Southern papers, and in
January 1864 named Phineas C. Wright as a Daily News editor. Wright was
one of the founders of the Order of American Knights, deemed by the Lincoln
administration to be a pro–Confederate cabal hatching seditious plots against
the Union. Wood’s persistent anti–war rhetoric and policy proposals generated
so much suspicion that the House Judiciary Committee investigated him on
allegations of passing valuable information to the enemy. Its findings were not
reported; so with the matter unsettled, doubt about him lingered.
Wood was a consistently harsh critic of Abraham Lincoln, whose policies
violating civil liberties spurred the editor to label the president “a
dictator.” In the 1864 presidential election, however, Wood also refused to
endorse the Democratic candidate, Union General George B. McClellan, after the
nominee repudiated the peace plank of the Democratic platform. Wood, facing
almost certain defeat at the polls, declined to run for reelection to his
In early 1865, the War Department concluded that Confederate spies had been
sending each other coded messages via the personal column in the Daily News.
Threatened with arrest and court martial, Wood was forced to suspend the
column. His controversial editor, Phineas Wright, was arrested in May 1865.
Wood was not charged, yet many Northerners considered the publisher to be a
traitor and were dismayed that he had not been incarcerated during the war.
Wood expressed sincere abhorrence of the assassination of President Lincoln.
Initially the editor considered the new chief executive, Andrew Johnson, to be a
national embarrassment, but soon began calling for him to return to the
Democratic Party. When Johnson declined the offer, the Daily News
curtailed coverage of the president and his travails. In general, space
allocated for political news in the journal decreased over the post–war years,
although Wood continued to wield some back–room political power. Poor and
working–class immigrants formed his political base, electing him to the New York
state senate in 1866 and to a final term in Congress in 1880. In 1869, he was
part of an anti–Tweed coalition. It was not a reform group, but an alliance
that hoped to replace the Tammany Hall boss with another boss.
During his long career as an editor and publisher, Wood was involved in
several innovations in the field of publishing. From 1865 to 1867, he was a
partner in an enterprise that served as a prototype for newspaper chains. In
1867, the Daily News became the city’s only daily that sold for a penny,
enabling it to reach a wider and more diverse audience. By the next year it had
the highest circulation of any daily newspaper in America, and the figures
continued to climb throughout the 1870s and 1880s. In 1870, he began publishing
a German–language version of his paper, the penny New–Yorker
Tages–Nachrichten, and in 1872 came out with a Sunday edition. In 1884, the
Daily News published what was arguably the first comic strip.
Scant documentation remains of Wood’s private life in the post–war era. In
1867, he married Ida Mayfield, who passed herself off as the daughter of a
Louisiana planter, but had been born (Ellen Walsh) in England to Irish parents;
the couple later had one daughter. The success of his paper brought more
wealth, but gambling caused him to file for bankruptcy in 1879 and sell 43% of
the Daily News stock to William J. Brown. The federal government twice
put liens on his lottery profits for failure to pay back–taxes. In 1898, Wood
sold the rest of his newspaper stock to his wife, although he continued as
editor–in–chief until just before his death on February 21, 1900.
Sources consulted: Dictionary of Literary Biography; Biographical
Directory of the United States Congress; Jerome Mushkat, Fernando Wood:
A Political Biography.