207 – Saloons and Yellow Journalism

It’s 1890. Josie Pensa has been staying at her sister Kate Gardella’s in Sedalia. She’s met William Riley, and they’re going to get married. We’ll meet Will and his family.

But we can’t leave St. Louis without a word about the Pensa saloons and the beginnings of “yellow journalism.”

Pensa Saloons

The Pensas still operated the fruit stand. John Pensa had also started working as a bartender in 1880. His brothers Andrew and Stephen followed. By 1893, the Pensas owned their first saloon.

Echo Saloon

In 1893, John Pensa opened the Echo Saloon at 2200 Washington, west of downtown. It was along a stretch that hosted several other eating and drinking establishments.

John’s brothers Andrew and Stephen were bartenders at the Echo.

Saloons were the domain of men. A woman’s presence was rare.

However, some saloons at the time also had a “wine room,” typically in the rear or next door and accessed through a separate entrance. Women were welcome. The wine room interior had enclosed rooms that were for rent by the hour. You could enjoy a glass of wine with your date or spouse in privacy.

Often, the saloons and wine rooms were the subject of gossip, scandals, and worse. That brings us to the beginnings of “yellow journalism.”

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer was born southeast of Budapest in 1847. He immigrated to New York in 1864 to collect the $200 bounty for enlisting in the Union Army. After the war, he ended up in St. Louis and hustled odd jobs. He studied English voraciously and developed contacts in the St. Louis German immigrant community.

In December 1878, Pulitzer bought the failing St. Louis Dispatch. It was a four-page newspaper with a circulation of 4,000. He merged it with another failing paper, The St. Louis Post, to become The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

This was the beginning of sensational journalism. The paper used eye-catching headlines, crime, disasters and scandal to attract readership.

The public loved it. Circulation increased to 8,000, then 12,000, then 23,000. The number of pages doubled, then tripled.

Even the simplest stories could be made sensational. The headlines “make you look.”

John Pensa’s Echo Saloon was often a target. There were lots of stories…

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – July 16, 1896

Lurid stories sold well, and the Echo Saloon and Wine Room provided those too…

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – July 8, 1896
St. Louis Post-Dispatch – August 12, 1897
St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters – 1899

Pulitzer hired the best reporters and paid them more than the competitive newspapers.

They were all over St. Louis, sticking their noses into everybody’s business.

In 1896, the paper launched an investigation into the wine rooms. Their reporting was salacious, and it was a big hit.

There are many wine rooms in St. Louis as disreputable as that run by Smith.

They flaunt their colored lights on busy thoroughfares on which crowded street cars whirl past with loads of respectability, affording passengers glimpses of degradation.

From within, ribald songs, vulgarity and oaths assail the ears of passers-by on foot. Depravity flourishes behind frosted doors that serve to hide from sight, but cannot conceal from the other senses, the disgraceful scenes enacted nightly.

The proprietor of the “toll-gate” at Twenty-Second Street, the “Echo” Saloon, is John P. Pensa.

A Peep Into the Wineroom – St. Louis Post-Dispatch – August 3, 1896

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – August 3, 1896

The Pensas opened other saloons.

Stephen Pensa Saloon

Stephen Pensa owned a saloon at 2100 Morgan (now Delmar Blvd) from 1902 to 1909. It included a cigar bar. Later, Steve moved the saloon to 394 Euclid and operated from 1911 to 1918.

Steve was busted a few times for operating a gambling game.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – August 1, 1909

The Berlin Saloon

After closing the Echo, John Pensa owned the Berlin Saloon downtown at 521 Pine Street from 1903 to 1916. His son Charles became the manager.

Fellhauer Brothers Saloon at 3315 Olive Street, 1907

Pensa and Solari Saloon

St. Louis saloon with Lemp Beer sign – 1890s

John Pensa and James Solari operated the Pensa & Solari Saloon downtown at 202 N 6th St from 1907 to 1919. Solari was John’s brother-in-law, brother of his wife Augusta Solari Pensa.

Later John owned the Mikado Saloon.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – October 29, 1908

Nibbles Extra Credit – Postscripts

New York papers

“Yellow journalism” cartoon about Spanish–American War of 1898. The newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst are both claiming ownership of the war.

In 1883, Pulitzer bought the failing New York World. He continued his sensationalism, now dubbed “yellow journalism.”

Under Pulitzer’s leadership, circulation grew from 15,000 to 600,000, making the World the largest newspaper in the country.

Wikipedia – Joseph Pulitzer

Pulitzer’s approach made an impression on William Randolph Hearst, who emulated the yellow journalism style. Pulitzer’s and Hearst’s newspapers battled it out for prominence.

Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize medal – 1928

Pulitzer left the Columbia University $2,000,000 in his will to found a school of journalism. In 1912, the school founded the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. This followed the Missouri School of Journalism, founded at the University of Missouri with Pulitzer’s urging. Both schools remain among the most prestigious in the world.

In 1917, Columbia organized the awards of the first Pulitzer Prizes in journalism. The awards have been expanded to recognize achievements in literature, poetry, history, music, and drama.

Wikipedia – Joseph Pulitzer

A classy bartender

As a girl in the 1930s, Kathleen Gallagher Teply remembers Steve Pensa as a classy bartender at the Chase Hotel in the West End of St. Louis. He dressed to the nines.

Missouri Retail Liquor Association

By 1900, John Pensa had become the president of the Missouri Retail Liquor Association. He was well known throughout the state, including Sedalia, where Josie’s husband Will Riley was a liquor salesman and saloon owner.

John Pensa remained president until the onset of Prohibition in 1919.


2 thoughts on “207 – Saloons and Yellow Journalism

  1. Brenda Teply March 24, 2022 / 2:53 pm

    Loved your offering of saloon, honky tonk, piano music. It set my toes atapping.


  2. Mark Jarvis March 24, 2022 / 5:10 pm

    You’re funny. Thanks. I think the music clips add a little “mood.” I’ll keep adding them.


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