Oddments: The Mostly-Forgotten Exploits of Ray Stannard Baker
Updated: Mar 5, 2019
Wooo, special collaborative post!
In this special holiday installment, I teamed up with Antonella Inserra in this companion post for her video on Christmas Island, to talk about one of my favorite subjects: long-forgotten and usually terrible white men of history.
So there we were, in a brauhaus in Philadelphia, surrounded by gamers. They’re all drinking and talking about something called Root. Me, I’m tired from the long drive and just want to eat my schnitzel. Then Nella (you probably know Nella, she explains things) starts talking about some place called Christmas Island and the super-romanticized book written about its discovery by a mysterious early twentieth century fellow with the improbable name of Sturgis B. Rand.
“I can’t find out anything about him!” she said mournfully over her beer.
I swallowed a mouthful of potato pancake and pulled out my phone.
Now, if there's one thing I’m very good at (besides writing odd fiction in search of an audience), it’s finding dead people.
That came out creepier than I meant it to. Let me rephrase:
One of my hobbies is genealogical research. I’ve spent the last ten years or so tracing a number of families through census records, immigration lists and newspaper articles. I’ve built family trees, tracked down biological parents, and gotten quite a few plot bunnies for myself. So I was confident that I could uncover Nella’s mystery author.
After ten minutes of interneting (half of that spent arguing with the brauhaus’s wifi signal), I found him.
Friends, meet the elusive Mr. Sturgis B. Rand, once better known as Ray Stannard Baker.
And I say ‘once better known’ because there was a time in the history of our nation where the name of Ray Stannard Baker, and of his more commonly-used pseudonym David Grayson, was actually kinda famous.
Now, this is not a proper biographical article, or a deep, critical exploration of Ray Stannard Baker’s career and politics. I’m not an investigative journalist, merely a fumbling novelist. This man still has family living and I’m not prepared to take any kind of hard stance without a looooot more research and evidence to back up whatever my position might be. This is just me trying to quickly and concisely summarize the information I did find in the short time that I was researching him.
And so, a brief look at the life of Ray Stannard Baker, aka David Grayson, aka Sturgis B. Rand, muckraker, biographer, good ol’ American writer.
Our boy Ray was born on April 17, 1870, in Lansing, Michigan, the eldest child of Civil War veteran Major Joseph Stannard Baker and his first wife, Alice Potter.
Major Baker had a really interesting early life as well as some equally interesting relatives, and went on to father ten children (six with his first wife and four with his second), all of whom grew up to become vastly educated and accomplished – including but not limited to Hugh Potter Baker, dean of the New York State College of Forestry and later president of the future University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Charles Fuller Baker, dean emeritus of the Philippine Agricultural college at Los Banos. In Charles’s obituary, it was said of the major, “[p]robably the resolute old father with his determined notions had a good deal to do with the success of his sons.” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sunday, Oct 09, 1927) So it’s really no surprise that the major’s oldest boy Ray ended up Making Something of Himself as well.
Ray grew up in the farming community of St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. He was a normal late nineteenth-century kid, healthy and active and very involved in sports. He worked for a while in his father’s land office, but eventually attended the Michigan Agricultural College (later to become Michigan State College) and studied law at the University of Michigan.
He began his career as journalist in Chicago in 1892, and two years later, went to Pennsylvania to cover a coal strike, where he was nearly bludgeoned to death by striking miners, who thought he was one of the sheriff’s men. He managed to avoid becoming a smear on the pavement, however, and marched with the coal miner’s army to Washington where they hoped to have their grievances heard, and even persuaded one of the strikers to keep a diary of the trip, to “get the view of the real participants”. (The Rome Daily Sentinel, Wednesday Evening, July 25, 1906) The Chicago paper is likely where his view of ‘progressive’ politics began to be formed, or at least when he began to be convinced that it made for good copy.
(Ed. Researching this man may have made me a tiiiiiiny bit cynical.)
In 1896, Ray married Jessie Irene Beal, daughter of This Important Guy in the History of Corn, which really just goes to prove that all influential people somehow know each other.
Now, remember what I said about Ray’s dad having some interesting relatives? In 1897, Ray authored an article detailing the pursuit and capture of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth in 1865, taking shameless advantage of the fact that he was (or claimed to be; I wasn’t able to verify this) a relative of Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, one of the Federal investigators charged with Booth’s capture and the disposal of his body.
Our boy Ray is clearly not a man to let an opportunity for a good story pass him by. Even if it’s one where all the participants are dead and there’s no longer any chance for first-person fact verification.
(Ed. And, y’know, cleverly leaving aside the fact that Lafayette Baker was fired from his position after President Andrew Johnson accused Baker of spying on him… which Baker totally admitted.)
He went to New York City and joined the staff of McClure’s Magazine in 1898, along with other pioneering reporters such as Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens. McClure’s was the OG investigative newspaper and all three of these reporters would eventually become well-known and even infamous muckrakers. But we only really ever hear about Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, possibly because Ida Tarbell was a novelty, as a woman reporter (oh, and because she wrote a series of articles about a little something called the Standard Oil Company), and Lincoln Steffens just had a cooler name than our boy Ray.
Okay, in the interests of fairness, I will say that Ray Stannard Baker also contributed to exposing the abusive and fraudulent conduct of corporations in the early part of the twentieth century, specifically by delving into the low-wage, anti-union practices of the United States Steel Corporation. But the Standard Oil Company has become instantly recognizable shorthand for illegal monopolies, where the US Steel Corporation doesn’t really do the same for unions.
However, in his own day, Ray was not only well-known, he was well-known enough for people to try and pretend to be him! At least twice! On two occasions that I was able to find, Ray Stannard Baker was impersonated by conmen in Montana, once in 1904 and again in 1906.
Along with his journalistic endeavors, Ray wrote homespun short fiction and essays under the name of David Grayson, preferring to keep these separate from his newspaper work. This was his most frequent pseudonym, and he actually seems to have used the Sturgis B. Rand alias only two or three times, including for 1901’s “The Romance of Christmas Island”, which bears the subtitle “True story of a recently-discovered Treasure Island”. This amuses me to no end, because McClure’s Magazine published literary as well as political content, and they also published some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s fiction.
Following the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, and after touring the South and working with the (white) co-founder of the NAACP, Mary White Ovington, in 1908 Baker published Following the Color Line: An Account of Negro Citizenship in the American Democracy (available at Gutenberg.org). It was lauded by white critics and historians well into the twentieth century, and it impressed black critics as well. However, those same black critics found his later articles about racism in the north… less than impressive.
“After reading his article, it clearly indicates to one who is capable of sizing it up from all sides, that he is bending his energies to create race prejudice and strife between the races in the North, instead of contending for harmony, and the disappearance of the color line in the civic and industrial avenues.” (Broad Ax, Chicago, Illinois, Saturday February 8, 1908.)
Outside of his reporting and his work as an essayist, Ray became most known for his long association with President Woodrow Wilson. He acted as director of American press arrangements during the Versailles peace talks in 1918 and 1919 and also served as Wilson’s personal press secretary during this time, wrote article after fulsome article praising Wilson’s perseverance and courage, and after Wilson’s death, was given near-unfettered access to the late president’s personal papers in order to write his biography.
To put it politely, Ray Baker was… invested in President Wilson’s life and career. ‘Invested,’ yes, that’s a nice safe term to use for a man who went on to write a total of fifteen books about Wilson’s life and presidency, including an eight-volume comprehensive biography of Wilson, the final two volumes of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1940.
He died at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts in on July 12, 1946, of a heart attack, at the age of 76, while working on the third collected volume of David Grayson works.
I have to say, after doing even this small amount of research, I’ve become truly fascinated by Ray Stannard Baker. He’s another on my unofficial list of Questionable White Men of History, and I wish I could devote more time to reading his published works and studying his life, because this short write-up is really only scratching the surface of all that this man did.
I think the thing that attracts me the most about him is, here is a man who was a certain level of famous in his own lifetime, in two separate personas: one of the hard-boiled investigative reporter, the other of the civilization-shunning philosopher, almost a twentieth-century Thoreau. And yet, outside of perhaps some local or niche research circles, he’s apparently been all but forgotten.
A friend of his wrote a remembrance of Ray in The Saratogian, about two weeks after his death. That happens to be one of my local papers, so it’s of extra-special interest to me. This man wrote of Ray, and of his alter-ego, David Grayson, “He was a lover of nature, and all that nature contributed. He wrote simply and with sincerity. America lost a great citizen, and the world a friend, in Ray Stannard Baker—but his death has left an afterglow of hope and faith that will increasingly embellish his fame. Such men do not really die.”
Ah well. Sic transit gloria mundi.