Freeman Norvell and The Detroit Free Press

Freeman Norvell in the late 1870s.

Freeman Norvell in the late 1870s.

Although his time during the Civil War was marked by controversy, in the years after the war things seemed to settle down.  About 1866, my great-grandfather Colonel Freeman Norvell and his brother-in-law, Henry Nelson Walker assumed the ownership of the Detroit Free Press.  Freeman had been very close to his sister, Emily Virginia Norvell Walker and it can be assumed that this relationship facilitated the partnership at the Free Press.   Freeman came from an old newspaper family, several of his uncles, Joshua, Moses and Joseph, had published newspapers in Tennessee, and his father John Norvell was co-founder of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Printer’s ink, it seemed, flowed in his veins.

Things changed during the summer and fall  of 1872 when a crisis developed at the Free Press.

The paper did not support the Democratic candidate in the national election campaign.  The national Democratic party had nominated Horace Greeley.   This selection was seen by Norvell and Walker as a reversal of many long-standing Democratic policy positions.  In his outspoken editorials for the New York Tribune Greeley had supported Republican reconstruction policies, while viciously attacking the democrats.  For him to now be nominated as a democrat rubbed the Detroit publishers the wrong way.

Freeman Norvell and Walker refused to endorse Greeley. They felt this weakened long standing party and personal principles.   They along with William Quinby ran the Press, and Quinby was alarmed.  Norvell and Walker  published daily, strident attacks on Greeley.  Quinby feared the Press would lose readers if it failed to support the candidate of the national party.  This in turn would cause permanent harm to the paper.  There seemed to be a stalement with Norvell and Walker refusing to yield.    Finally, Quinby succeeded in raising  the money to buy out the interests of Norvell and Walker.

The Detroit Free Press announced their departure with the following:

“The proprietorship of the Free Press has passed into the control of those who believe It to be the duty of the democracy and of democratic organs to support the nominations made by the democratic convention in Baltimore.  Colonel Norvell voluntarily retires, rather than yield his convictions ….  The only hope of the country is the defeat of the republican party in the ensuing contest; that the convention of the democracy  having determined that Greeley and Brown should be the standard-bearers …will rescue the country from republicanism and Grantism, and bring back once more an era of honesty, purity and conservatism in public affairs.”

Grant’s adminsitration had become increasingly viewed as corrupt by his second term and it was hoped that Greeley’s win would put an end to this situation — at least in Detroit.  That did not happen for General Grant  the hero of the Civil War was easily re-elected.

It was reported that Freeman Norvell sold his interest for $25,000 which would have been  more than a half million dollars in today’s money.

Much of this money was later lost in bad iron mine investments in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but that is a story for another time.   And the Norvell family would face a major turn of events that took them from Detroit forever.


About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, Detroit Free Press, Detroit History, Family History, Michigan History, Norvell Family History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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