Dan Rattiner's Stories

Frothingham’s Herald: Sag Harbor Publisher of LI’s First Newspaper Vanished Without a Trace

David Frothingham's storied life was illustrious, storied and tragic.

Last summer, various authorities in this area gathered in front of the historic former home of David Frothingham on Main Street in Sag Harbor to dedicate a historic marker to him. At the age of 26, at the time that George Washington was still president, Frothingham started the first newspaper ever published on Long Island. He called it Frothingham’s Long-Island Herald.

He was not only the first publisher of a newspaper, according to Newsday, he also was its first editor, its first reporter, its first ad salesman and its first paper boy that year of 1791. He also was its printer. He had a hand-cranked flatbed press in his home where, once a week, having gathered up enough rags to stew and dry into a huge flat piece of paper, he created his product—which, when folded and printed, turned into four hefty pages, each 8 x 17 inches.

His goal, he wrote, was to provide a “useful repository of knowledge, humour and entertainment, while Vice, the bane of society…though cloaked with the garb of authority, will be branded with every mark of infamy.”

He and his wife, Nancy Pell, had two children, boys, who they began raising in that home on Main Street. But then, suddenly, seven years and nearly 400 issues later, Frothingham vanished. No one in Sag Harbor, not even his wife, knew what had become of him. Distraught as she was, she nevertheless continued the publication alone for six years, then sold it to some others who changed its name and proceeded along another 10 years, after which it ceased publication.

In 1814, when Nancy Pell was 46, word came down that a man named David Frothingham had died at sea off the coast of Africa. As a result, Ms. Pell ordered a gravestone with her husband’s name, birth and death years carved into it placed in a Sag Harbor cemetery to commemorate his passing. And then she married a local man and continued on with her life.

Here are some examples of items that appeared in Frothingham’s Long-Island Herald.

Humor:

Last week, a number of Gentlemen went on a party of PLEASURE, a fishing, and ALL got safe on LAND again. Their MIRACULOUS draught is as yet kept secret. The GREAT EXPERIENCE attending a business of this kind, we hope, will be considered by our Customers.

Poetry:

Eye nature’s walks, about folly as its flies
And catch the manners living as they rise.—Pope

News: 

We hear that on Thursday last, as two men were mowing on a meadow at the Wading River, one missing his stroke, his scythe took the other in the thick of the thigh, and almost severed the flesh from the bone clear round; the blood flowing in such a torrent from so large a wound, almost deprived the unhappy man of his life before relief could be obtained—but we are happy to add that by the assistance of an able physician, the wound was closed and patient is like to do well.

Such has been the rage for speculation, in the cities of New York and Philadelphia, that no less than twenty expresses passed through New Brunswick in one week, to and from Philadelphia.

Oddly, there was very little news of Sag Harbor in this publication. You might think Sag Harbor news would be on the front page. But the front page had more important national and regional stories. The little local news section was confined to half a column on page three entitled SAG HARBOR. Here are some examples of those items.

On Wednesday last the students of Clinton Academy went through their several examinations and with great pleasure, we add, that the proficiency they had made met with general approbation and redounded greatly to their honor. The exhibition in the after part of the day displayed great wit, genius, and humour and while it exerted a risibility, it improved and enlightened. Too great praise cannot be bestowed on the animated youth who spoke the concluding oration. His difficult and emphatic mode of delivery, and the delicacy of the subject, excited in the breasts of a crowded and respectable audience, emotions not easily described.

Phineas Duval has lost a dog with a white ring round his neck, white breast and feet, for which he offers a handsome reward.

The fast sailing sloop INDUSTRY, Luther Hildreth, Maker, will constantly ply between Sag Harbor and New York the ensuing season, every fortnight or oftener, wind and weather permitting.

This lack of local information from a busy whaling community provides a clue as to what happened to Frothingham. It turns out Frothingham never owned the paper. It was owned by a local man, Henry Packer Dering.   Herein hangs that tale.

Frothingham's Long-Island Herald newspaper, dated August 9, 1781
Frothingham’s Long-Island Herald, dated August 9, 1781, Courtesy East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection

After the Revolution, General Washington was elected president in 1788 by acclimation. Beneath him, the leaders of two political parties with very divergent ideas began to fight it out with exaggerations and lies delivered to the general public through the newspapers. On one side were the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They favored mercantilism and industry, with a future based on a money management system similar to the one in England.

On the other side were the anti-Federalists led by Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Jefferson advocated state’s rights, a confederation rather than a united nation, and a simpler monetary system that would create an agrarian society of farmers and fishermen far into the future. This country would not have become a world power if Jefferson had his way.

During this period, nearly all the income that came into government coffers was collected as customs fees charged for importing goods from overseas. One could get rich being a customs collector. Long Island’s customs house was in Sag Harbor.Seizing the moment, the scion of a wealthy Sag Harbor mercantile family, Henry Packer Dering got himself appointed collector largely through the efforts of Federalist Alexander Hamilton.

In exchange for this appointment, Dering was expected to support Hamilton and his friend James Madison in their drive to create the financial system for the future of the country. He should start a newspaper, and with it attack Jefferson.

Dering, however, needed help to start a newspaper. One day, he met David Frothingham, a printer’s assistant in Boston who would agree to work for him as the printer-publisher of a newspaper in Sag Harbor. Frothingham and his young wife, Nancy Pell, moved to Sag Harbor. Dering paid him not a lot, but pointed out that by barter from the town merchants for advertisements, he could get by. Dering also backed Frothingham in owning a store on the Landing, as Long Wharf was called back then.

The Long-Island Herald attacks on the anti-Federalists were subtle but front-page. In 1792, the second year of the Herald, a Federalist paper written by Thomas Paine appeared, as it did in other Federalist newspapers. On another occasion, Frothingham met Aaron Burr. Thus the weekly newspaper attacked for five years.

In 1796, however, Dering’s political position changed. He suddenly became an anti-Federalist. It was said he was very bitter about how the British had treated Sag Harbor during the Revolution. But he’d been a Federalist for the whole 10 years after the war. More likely, what gave him this change of heart was George Washington’s announcement that he would not run for re-election in 1796. Now it seemed that Thomas Jefferson might get elected president, and if that happened, Dering’s appointment as collector would end. Unless, ahead of time, he’d disassociate himself from the Long-Island Herald. And so he did, even though the Long-Island Herald was prospering. And then Frothingham vanished.

We know today, because of a court case, that young Frothingham suddenly left Sag Harbor to take a job in Brooklyn as the printer-publisher of The Argus, the largest anti-Federalist daily newspaper in that city. He had to know that his wife and children could continue to make a living publishing the Long-Island Herald. But he was tied now to Dering and the anti-Federalists.

On the national scene, however, Jefferson did not win the presidential election of 1796. John Adams, the Federalist, beat him. On the other hand, Adams was seen by many as a terrible president, hated by both parties. The newspapers constantly were on the attack.

Among his misadventures, Adams caused the creation of a new law banning any hate-filled and critical writing about any public official, even if true. It was called the Alien and Sedition Act, and its intent was to stop all the infighting and false charges claiming Hamilton was secretly urging British intervention in the presidential election. In fact, what it did was interfere with freedom of speech. It was a terrible law. And it seems to have led to disaster for the now-34-year-old Frothingham.

On December 6, 1799, the anti-Federalist Argus published a preposterous claim that Hamilton had been given money by the British monarchy to buy an anti-Federalist newspaper in Philadelphia, attacking him. As a result, Hamilton demanded that the printer-publisher of The Argus, one David Frothingham, be arrested for violating the Alien and Sedition Acts—even though Frothingham had not written this story and in fact had picked it up from another newspaper that published it first.

Frothingham was tried, convicted, sentenced to four months in prison and fined $100, and required to stay in jail until he could pay a bond of $2,500 additional—a huge sum of money—before being released.

Did Frothingham die in prison? Did he get sent out west to die there, as one historian has claimed? Did he get lost at sea? No one knows. It seems no one will ever know.

In the presidential election of 1800, one year after Frothingham’s conviction, anti-Federalists Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied with the number of votes in the Electoral College tally. To break the tie, it was agreed that Federalist Alexander Hamilton should cast the final vote. Hamilton cast his vote for Jefferson, saying that Burr did not have proper ethical standards for the job.

Burr never forgave Hamilton, and four years later, in a duel, shot and killed him.

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