The Mayor Who Punched the Reporter

This was what a battle over free speech really looks like.

Adapted from Wicked Columbus, Indiana> by Paul J. Hoffman

One cold day, in the winter of 1877, Indiana’s youngest mayor and its oldest newspaper editor got in a nasty fistfight on a city street. 

It was an improbable battle—but the most improbable thing of all may have been that it happened in Columbus, a quiet and mid-sized Hoosier town best known today for its architecture and its status as Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown. Still, Columbus has a surprising and sometimes sensational history, and the brawl between George Cooper and Isaac Brown is only one example. 

George W. Cooper in 1879. 
Isaac M. Brown with his wife, Mary Francis Eddy Brown, in 1891. 

Brown was the editor of the city’s newspaper, the Daily Evening Republican. He’d been born in 1821, in Centerville, and worked at newspapers in Iowa City, in Iowa, and Terre Haute and Sullivan, in Indiana, before settling in Columbus. Brown’s long career earned him posthumous induction into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1966, and he wasn’t afraid to criticize Cooper.

Cooper was the city’s mayor. Born near Columbus in 1851, he eventually became a lawyer and then mayor in 1877, winning the election that spring by a count of 541 votes to 314. It didn’t take long for the newly elected head of Columbus government and the much-more-senior newspaper editor to start publicly squabbling.

In the Daily Evening Republican’s November 26 issue, Brown laid out several complaints against city government. Among the charges were: 

  • The streets were not kept clean, and the city ignored the sanitation department’s reports.
  • Few arrests were made where the city could not make money in the process.
  • Hogs roamed the streets free, rooting up sidewalks and yards.
  • Cattle were allowed to do the same.

Brown leveled some of his biggest complaints directly at the mayor. He stated that Cooper had made little effort to enforce city ordinances, telling citizens who complained about laws being broken to go into his office and sign an affidavit. Brown questioned this, wondering why the laws were not enforced until a citizen filed an affidavit. Brown answered his own question: “It is done for no other reason than that the responsibility may be shifted upon the shoulders of others.”

Drunk and Disorderly?

A few days after that article, Brown was called into the mayor’s office and fined two dollars for intoxication. Saloonkeeper Clark Pfeiffer had filed an affidavit against Brown, claiming he had seen him out on the city streets drunk in early November. But Brown said he was home and sober when the incident allegedly occurred. 

The tiff between Cooper and Brown finally escalated into a public physical confrontation on Sunday, December 2. It was alleged in reports in the Evening Republican that the mayor stood on a street corner in front of D.W. Adams drugstore, at 315 Washington Street in the Odd Fellows building, for two hours waiting for Brown with the intention of provoking a fight. Cooper was also accused of making sure the police and city marshal were kept away from the site. 

The city’s Democratic newspaper, the Bartholomew Democrat, alleged that Brown had expressed the belief that he could whip the mayor, indicating the newspaperman was the one who was looking for a fight. 

Witnesses interviewed by the Republican said that Cooper had told someone he was “looking for old man Brown and was going to give him hell.” Another witness allegedly said that he had seen the mayor talking with a policeman shortly before the mêlée and felt that something just was not right about the situation. 

Fighting Words

Brown left his office on the north side of Fourth Street between Washington and Franklin and headed north on Washington Street. Cooper unleashed a long string of insults at him. Brown said he held his tongue as long as he could, but when Cooper said that were Brown not an old man, he would whip the hell out of him, Brown responded. 

He put his hand on Cooper’s chest and said that the mayor of Columbus ought to be ashamed to have made such a remark. A fight finally commenced, with Cooper throwing the first punch. 

Brown complained that the mayor didn’t give him time to remove his King William–style overcoat, leaving him at a decided disadvantage—as if their thirty-year age difference and a decided weight advantage in Cooper’s favor wasn’t enough already. 

Cooper’s punch sent Brown reeling backward off the curb and onto the street, whereupon Cooper jumped on him and hit him again. The skirmish left Brown with a pair of black eyes, and Cooper lost some whiskers and part of a thumb or finger to Brown’s gnawing and scratching. 

The fight was ended when James Godfrey broke things up. In the end, both men were found guilty of assault and battery. 

“Author Paul J. Hoffman guides the reader on a wild ride through the city’s salacious side.” BUY NOW >