Process of Newspaper Illustration Pioneered by Post-Dispatch

The Chalk-plate process of illustrating papers, discovered and perfected in 1885 by Joseph W. Hoke, a St. Louis engraver, revolutionized the picture printing part of the newspaper business. In his book of reminiscences published in 1922, Augustus Thomas describes the process and tells of the use he made of it in his newspaper work on the Missouri Republican in the [eighteen] eighties. In her “Notable Women of  St. Louis,” Mrs. Charles P. Johnson credits Miss Martha H. Hoke, Joseph’s daughter and a local artist, with having made the first chalk-plate drawing published in a newspaper. It was the first of many pictures printed with our newspaper reports of the crime known in local history as the Maxwell-Preller murder…

Miss Lillian M. Brown, daughter of one of Missouri’s great public men B. Gratz Brown, was a young artist connected with the Hoke Engraving Plate Company in 1885. One day she visited the Post-Dispatch office with the elder Hoke (J.W., the head of the engraving company) to show what could be done on and with chalk-plates. Miss Brown copied on a prepared plate, using a pointed stylus for a pencil, the picture of a “snake charmer,” a woman caressing a snake. A cast or cut from the engraved chalk-plate was made by placing the latter like a matrix in a stereotyping box and filling the latter with molten type metal. A proof taken of the cut showed that the test had been a success. The printed picture was like the original from which the drawing was made, and true, of course, to the sketch itself. The managing editor, city editor and reporters all seemed pleased with the result.

An opportunity for another more practical test came a few days later and was promptly accepted by the Post-Dispatch. At the Southern Hotel the body of one of the guests had been found in a trunk in his room, and the Hoke Engraving Company was asked to make for the paper, as soon as possible, a chalk-plate drawing of the open trunk, showing the body doubled up inside.

Miss Martha Hoke was the artist selected for the undertaking. She first made a pencil sketch of the horrible scene before her and then from that picture made a chalk-plate drawing with a pointed stylus, the pointed end being so curved as to meet the plate at right angles. The second drawing, however, was not made near the trunk, where the odor was something never to be forgotten, but at the Post-Dispatch office, then on Market street, not far away. The chalk-plate drawing was soon in the stereotyping box, the hot metal poured in and a few seconds later the cut with the picture was ready for the composing room. Mr. Hoke thinks his sister began work about one o’clock and the picture was printed in the regular afternoon edition of the Post-Dispatch a couple hours later – the first publication of a chalk-plate picture. Before the end of 1886 thousands of such pictures were printed every day. Probably no other newspaper picture was ever written about so much as the one made by Miss Hoke and published by the Post-Dispatch that day, Tuesday, April 14, 1885, with a five-column report of the crime, three of the columns being on the front page. Conspicuous at the top of the reading matter on that front page were the chalk-plate picture two columns wide and (alongside of it) the customary head, in this case a six-line head with the word “Horrible” (not very sensational) at the top and fifty or more words…in nine lines at the bottom, comprising the “sixth line” of the big head. To Miss Hoke’s first picture of the open trunk showing the body of Preller inside had been added an underlining: “The Trunk When Opened, Showing Portion of Body, Sketched by Post-Dispatch Artist,” and below that a reproduction of what Maxwell had written on a piece of paper and places at the side of Preller’s head in the trunk: “So Perish All Traitors to the Great Cause,” the words being divided so as to make three short lines. The underlining for this was: “Facsimile of the Inscription in the Trunk, from Tracing Made by Post-Dispatch Artist.”

Then, below the chalk-plate work, in what might now be called a two-column “box” was this explanatory statement, probably written by the city editor, John F. Magner: “The above cuts give the exact  appearance of the trunk when opened and its contents, and the facsimile of the sensational inscription upon the inside of the trunk. In the cut of the trunk the position of the inscription was shown to the left of the corpse’s head. The inscription is a perfect facsimile of the original, having been obtained by the Post-Dispatch Artist, who, in spite of the overpowering stench, copied it by means of a piece of tracing paper.”

Miss Hoke’s name is not given in the drawing or elsewhere in the paper, and if the Post-Dispatch did any boasting about that really great and memorable historic feat, it remains undiscovered.

By William Kelsoe

(Originally published in the St. Louis Reference Record 1927).