Arunah Abell

Arunah S. Abel (A.S. Abell) - Founding publisher of The Baltimore Sun (October 2, 2000)

A little more than 175 years ago, an ex-journeyman printer from New England boarded a carriage bound for America's southernmost big city. His hope was to start a newspaper there and run it himself.

His friends thought he was out of his mind.

Baltimore, they told Arunah S. Abell, already had six daily papers. It was rough-and-tumble, no cradle of literacy. And America was on the brink of a depression.

A decade later, Abell was at The Baltimore Sun, the business he'd built, when he learned that, 1,900 miles away, the Mexican army had surrendered in a battle and, in effect, the Mexican-American War. The Sun got word to James K. Polk a day before the War Department did.

"I am requested by the President to thank you for your obliging kindness in communicating this information," Polk's secretary, J. Knox Walker, wrote on April 10, 1847.

What happened in between was the tale of a shrewd entrepreneur who understood his adopted hometown and took risks to serve it.

No one living, of course, remembers Arunah Abell, who died in 1888, rich and well-regarded. It's historical accounts, a few photos and a smattering of his writings that bring his image to life.

So does the collective memory of his descendants.

"He wanted to get the word out to as many people as quickly as possible," says great-great-grandson Kevin Abell, a Baltimore businessman who displays an oil portrait of the patriarch in his living room. "His hallmark was innovating to achieve that. ... It's how you build something that lasts."

Ambition

Arunah Shepherdson Abell, scion of a line of Puritans, was born in East Providence, R.I., in 1806. His grandfather had been a captain in the Revolutionary War; his father, a farmer, had fought in the War of 1812.

He left school at 14, soon to work as an apprentice at the Providence Patriot, where he mastered the cast-iron hand press. He rode that skill to a job in Boston, where he quickly rose to foreman.

The "eminently reasonable" man of "less than medium height," as one historian put it, had an ambition to practice journalism. At 22, he moved to New York, hub of the trade as it was practiced in 1828.

American newspapers then served explicitly as bullhorns for political parties or commercial interests. "News" was whatever advanced those interests. The publishers of the nation's 400 newspapers targeted readers of means and set their price high, at five or six cents an issue.

"That was a significant portion of what a working person could earn," says Mitchell Stephens, a media historian and professor at New York University. "Newspapers were very specifically for society's elite."

A tradesman himself, Abell didn't merely have an "ambition that soared above his trade," as Gerald W. Johnson put it in The Sun's centennial history, The Baltimore Sunpapers 1837-1937; he was also an "alert student of the trend [in] the publishing business."

Abell and friends started gathering to share ideas.

Short-lived laughter

One image survives from Abell's young adulthood. There he is in a daguerreotype at age 31, standing between two taller business partners, Azariah Simmons and William Swain. He wears the boulevardier's look of the day — mutton-chop sideburns, beaver top hat, ascot — and a look of focus.