MT's Pulitzer-winning editorials tackled corruption, violence
Reporters for The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle won Pulitzer Prizes in 1934. But when it came time to give the award for "meritorious public service," the judges selected the Medford Mail Tribune for "its campaign against unscrupulous politicians in Jackson County, Oregon."
The gold medal award recognizes the role Editor and Publisher Robert W. Ruhl played in what is now known as the Jackson County Rebellion of 1930-32.
The complex story has been recounted many times, but here it is in brief:
Llewellyn Banks came to public attention as publisher of the Medford Daily News. He had a charismatic personality and attracted a following. Also prominent was Earl Fehl, publisher of a local weekly newspaper who was later elected county judge. The two increasingly editorialized against those in power, calling them "The Gang." Early in 1933 they formed the Good Government Congress. Political rallies and conflicts followed.
Many believed the Good Government Congress was a justifiable, patriotic group. Others believed Banks wanted to become the "dictator" of Jackson County.
Ruhl wrote editorials urging people to uphold rationality and fairness.
Tensions mounted. Several of the principals involved felt it necessary to hire armed guards to protect themselves. The Mail Tribune was boycotted by some and threatened with sabotage. Ruhl had printers stand night guard at the press armed with shotguns.
On Feb. 20, 1933, men acting under orders from Banks and Fehl stole election ballots that had been stored for a recount of a contested election for sheriff at the county jail.
Several Good Government Congress leaders were implicated. Banks was not implicated directly at the outset but a state circuit court subsequently issued a warrant for his arrest.
Constable George Prescott was trying to serve that warrant shortly after 10:20 a.m. on March 16, 1933, when he was shot and killed. Banks had vowed to kill any officer who attempted to bring him into what he claimed was a biased judicial system.
Banks' wife answered the door that morning for Prescott, but started to close it when she heard Prescott was serving the warrant, according to 1933 Oregon State Police reports. Prescott put his foot on the threshold to stop the door. At that point, Llewellyn Banks came up behind his wife with a rifle and fired, the bullet going through Prescott's left hand and into his chest. He died seconds later.
The three other officers assisting Prescott survived and summoned help.
Banks was arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He died there Sept. 21, 1945, at the age of 73.
Fehl, sent to jail for his role in the ballot thefts, was later paroled and lived until 1962.
A year after the shooting, the Medford Mail Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize for Ruhl's series of editorials criticizing the Good Government Congress.
Most of those editorials appeared in February 1933. On Feb. 21, for example, Ruhl spoke out in favor of "a government of, for and by the people" as opposed to a "government of, for and by, one man in it — L.A. Banks!" And he called for "an aroused and enraged public opinion" to "stand by the courts, stand by our jury system, stand by those duly elected and honest 'public officials' who are doing everything in their power to put down the forces of violence and insurrection"¦"
The building at which the fatal shooting occurred, the Root-Banks House, still stands today on the northwest corner of Main and Peach streets.
The award winners for 1934 were announced on May 7 of that year by Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler at a formal ceremony in New York. The Mail Tribune's accomplishment merited a front page story in the New York Times.
The Pulitzer gold medal hangs in Publisher Grady Singletary's office at the Mail Tribune.
Now retired, Cleve Twitchell was a member of the Mail Tribune news staff from 1961 to 2002. Email him at email@example.com.