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OPINION | OLD NEWS: Then there was the time the Arkansas Gazette cops reporter ran for Big Rock constable

by Celia Storey | July 11, 2022 at 2:27 a.m.
A Little Rock police mugshot of Joe "Gazette" Wirges illustrated a comical story about the cop beat reporter's run for public office in the July 7, 1922, Arkansas Gazette. (Democrat-Gazette archives, illustration)

Poking around the newspaper archives last week, I came across a dusty box of exclamation points!

Let me tell you, I was holding my breath! Exploding exclamation points could level a city block!

But I was careful! And so I am alive today to report that — 100 Julys ago (in 1922) — Joe Bernard Wirges ran as a candidate for constable of Big Rock Township.

Having typed that sentence, I sit here imagining readers reading it!

Reader One: "This will be a story about the curious persistence of Arkansas constables."

Reader Two: "Joe Wirges did not. No way!"

Yes way, Reader Two. Joe "Gazette" Wirges (1897-1972), a famously astute and also resourceful Arkansas Gazette police reporter for most of the 20th century, did run for Big Rock constable in 1922. Perhaps it was a lark. Or perhaps he did some arithmetic and realized that, in 1922, Big Rock constable was a sinecure that would pay him $50 to do things he might do anyway.

Reader One, you'll want to know more about Joe Wirges. Conveniently, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas provides a whole page about him written by another famous Arkansas journalist, Ernest Dumas. See Also, colorful stories about Wirges have been canned like peach preserves by the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History (search for "Gazette project").

Memorists mention his bad typing and clever reliance on the Gazette rewrite desk; his phenomenal memory and storytelling; his gruff voice and smoking habit; the oxygen container he dragged around late in life.

Gazette Outdoors writer John Fleming wrote of him in 1972, "Outwardly he was hard as a rock. His skin was thick as skin must be if a police reporter is to be successful. But Joe's skin was also porous. He had a curious type of personal rapport with the unfortunates of his world and the unrecorded favors he did them will certainly be written in the big book."

Fleming witnessed Joe's philanthropy: When he visited state prisons, he persuaded condemned men to will their corneas to the blind. During one visit, a murderer named Cubie Lee Johnson refused to promise his corneas. But as the reporters were leaving, James Hyde, another condemned man, stopped to offer his as well as a prediction that Cubie Lee would change his mind. Fleming wrote:

"A month later Joe returned to the prison. Hyde called Joe over and said: 'I did the best I could. I got one of them for you.' An amazed Joe Wirges asked: 'How?' Hyde replied: "I won it in a card game.'"

Wirges also was once the Gazette's only photographer, entrusted with its first camera (obtained from a departing reporter who owed the paper for long-distance toll calls to his girl). Having the camera meant Wirges was sometimes called upon to take photos for society editor Nell Cotnam, and he didn't want to. He assured her nobody cared to read her work.

According to the Gazette's Our Town columnist Richard Allin, one time, Cotnam wrote about a high born couple who were heading out for vacation, and then while they were away, a "society burglar" cleaned out their house. Wirges made sure to tell Cotnam he was wrong: She did have one reader.

Another time he was staked out in the lobby of the Hotel Marion with his photo apparatus, waiting for a subject to appear. Camera gear in the years before flashbulbs included a flash pan. As Wirges held up his camera and flash pan, a drunk walked by, stopped, reached a hand into his pocket, extracted a dime and dropped it into the pan.

Joe Wirges also was a musician with a real band in the 1920s.

But mostly he was the cops reporter. In fact we might call Joe Gazette "dean" of Arkansas 20th-century cop beat reporters, except there was no college of them. Although only 25 years old in 1922, he had a veteran's grasp of law and order earned while working 80 hours a week for about $20 — the same hours and pay as the cops he covered. He liked their company but also had a wide acquaintance among criminals, chatting them up in jail and, his eulogists attest, passing along their stories fairly.

As his co-worker Gazette sporting editor Heinie Loesch teasingly put it in 1922, he was a "demon police reporter," with the slang use of "demon" meaning extremely skillful. After Wirges filed to run for constable as a Democrat and was listed among the guilty on the Gazette front page July 6, 1922, Loesch began a series of weekly, tongue-in-cheek features about the Wirges campaign — of which Loesch was manager.

The sportswriter naturally presented this venture into politics in terms familiar to bettors and gamblers.

Published that July 7, the first story was accompanied by a mug shot of Wirges taken by the Little Rock Police Department, complete with a booking ID number: 43295.

After reporting that Wirges wisely postponed announcing his candidacy until after the close of the New York and Chicago stock exchanges, Loesch wrote, "In casting his bright green sports cap into the ring, Mr. Wirges shows true sporting blood. After a few of the recent legislatures quit hacking on the constable's job, $50 a biennium was all that was left of the emoluments. Notwithstanding the comparative slight returns, Mr. Wirges boldly ventures one cash dollar, the entrance fee, on a bet that the county will owe him that $50 at the end of two years."

Wirges had arisen early, eaten a modest breakfast, dusted off his clothes "and ascertained that his golden teeth were still there, like the Star-Spangled Banner 'still gleaming.'" And then the candidate shared his platform:

"I stand," Mr. Wirges enunciated, "for darn near anything, otherwise I could not have been a successful police reporter all these years. I will say, however, that if I'm elected, I will serve fearlessly, more or less, and without favor, tempering justice with or without mercy as the recipe calls for. My opinion on the Volstead Act is not germane hereto, and besides the paper couldn't publish it.

"I am clean, capable and courageous and a good fiddler. As a constable, I shall at all times be found at my post of duty or the nearest poolroom. I was born in this county and have been raised here and hereabouts many times, frequently clear out of the game.

"I am a kind and affectionate husband and father in the order named, and as to my wife and children, I have one of each. Inasmuch as I shall receive the returns as they come in at the courthouse, I feel confident at least of the unofficial election."

He went on, "In offering the voters of Big Rock Township the services of one who is daring with discretion, valorous without vainglory, industrious with due regard to the conservation of energy and able with alibis, I shall not be deterred by false modesty in admitting that I shall be an official curly wolf."

Everybody knows what "curly wolf" means, right? So this is all fun stuff.

But 1922 was the year a then-emergent, citified version of the Ku Klux Klan, complete with dues and uniforms, decided to back its own slate of candidates for all elective offices, including Big Rock constable. 

That long ago summer, as Loesch spooled out witty takes on Joe Wirges' fun-run for constable, an anti-Klan faction listed Joe Gazette on their anti-Klan roster of candidates.

How did it end? Tune in next week for round 2!


Print Headline: Cop reporter had rapport with criminal element


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