The Surprising Reason Joseph Pulitzer Shot Someone

Per the dying wish of its namesake, the Pulitzer Prize was made an official award given by Columbia University every year to those who distinguish themselves in a given literary, journalistic, or compositional field (via Pulitzer.org). The award is a point of distinction for those whose work is deemed deserving and stems from Joseph Pulitzer’s own career as the owner of two newspapers (one of which, New York World, infamously contributed to the rise of “Yellow Journalism“). Despite being rejected for a career by the Hungarian military (which in part prompted his immigration to the United States), he nevertheless climbed to lofty heights (via Notable Biographies).

Once he arrived in America in 1864 at 17, Pulitzer fought in the U.S. Civil War for the Union. However, afterward, he endured years of homelessness and infrequent employment (via Britannica). Once he reached his early 20s, he eventually managed to climb the social ladder and was even elected to the Missouri state government. In the latter position he clearly took his political positions seriously, as in 1870 he shot someone over them.

Pulitzer, a state representative, brought a gun to a potential fist fight

In January of 1870, Pulitzer was elected as a representative of St. Louis’ Fifth District. In this role, he had the chance to vote in favor of the 15th Amendment, which (in the letter of the law if not always the spirit) protects the right of citizens to vote regardless of who they are. This tied into his aims of rooting out local corruption, and he personally confronted many of the politicians he accused while in office (via Historic Missourians). These encounters came to a head when Superintendent of Registration Captain Edward Augustine figuratively and literally stepped into Pulitzer’s cross-hairs. 

Augustine was incensed by Pulitzer and his crusade, accusing the representative of slander (an accusation that, according to PBS, followed him into his journalistic career when Teddy Roosevelt sued his paper for libel). When he refused to retract his accompanying insults, Pulitzer briefly left to retrieve a pistol. Shortly thereafter, the superintendent lunged at the now-armed Pulitzer and punched him. Pulitzer retaliated by shooting Augustine in the leg (via Mental Floss). Pulitzer was arrested on the scene but managed to avoid jail time on the grounds of self-defense and only received a fine (via LinkedIn). Afterward, Pulitzer partially succeeded in his anti-corruption campaign by convincing his colleagues to abolish the nepotistic county court. Pulitzer was certain he could win reelection later that year, but lost and soon after left politics to run his first newspaper.

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