Charles L. Wheeler, of the same generation but seven years older than Sam Clemens, adopted the non de plume of “Stern Wheeler” as his journalistic byline, just as Clemens associated with Mark Twain for his writing identity.
A contributor to the preservation of living history inHannibal, Missouri, via the Hannibal Clipper for some 14 months in 1875-76, Wheeler was a veteran journalist who had made a name for himself in newspaper circles in Michigan, Illinois and Georgia before joining on as a writer at the Hannibal newspaper.
The first half of 1876 was significant in Hannibal for events on the local level and nationally as well.
During the spring, the Mississippi River rose to unusual levels, triggering a break in the Sny Levee, allowing water to inundate thousands of acres of prime Illinois agricultural land.
The previous day, the steamboat Dictator crashed into the western pier of the Hannibal railroad bridge, the crash throwing 8 to 10 crew members to a watery death.
In March 1876, a violent tornado or cyclone touched down at Withers Mill just to the west of Hannibal, lifting a small frame house and instantly killing a mother and her young child.
As a journalist for the Hannibal Clipper, Stern Wheeler reported on these tragedies, witnessing the devastation first hand, and reporting on the calamities for readers in Hannibal and beyond, via telegraph exchange.
His habits were eccentric, growing out of old bachelorhood, (Kalamazoo Gazette, July 22, 1876) but his journalistic skills were uncompromised. “He was a superior writer, and a man wholly without faults, except an inordinate love for liquor.”
While talented in his given profession to a fault, sadness enveloped his personal life, and while chronologically nearing his half century mark, he was prone to express to others that his life had little meaning. The frequency of that expression was reason for his friends to dismiss the claims without merit.
On July 4, 1876, Marion County hosted a large celebration at Hannibal in honor of the country’s Centennial. That date coincidentally marked Charley “Stern” Wheeler’s 50th birthday. The merriment of the day was highlighted by a trades procession on Broadway, representing the industries and institutions of the city. W. H. Hatch, famed congressman whose statue now stands in Hannibal’s Central Park, delivered an oration.
To a man suffering from morose, such a happy celebration could have contributed to further isolation. And such was the case for Stern Wheeler.
Twelve days later, on Sunday morning, July 16, 1876, Wheeler left his room at Grove House, 318 Broadway, and bid farewell to his landlord, Frank Volk, remarking that Volk would never see him again. Volk, having heard similar sentiments prior, paid little attention to this day’s salutation.
Two days later, Wheeler’s lifeless body was discovered among a patch of tall grass just west of the city’s limits, which at that time existed roughly at Maple Avenue.
Page 2 of 3 - Coroner Dick searched the pockets of the noted journalist and found a small bottle containing strychnine. By his side lay a bottle partly full of beer. The combination of the two was ruled to have culminated in the end of Stern Wheeler’s life.
“His habits were eccentric, growing out of old bachelorhood. Women he detested, while dogs and horses were his especial pets. In his death journalism loses a bright ornament and society an honest man.” (Kalamazoo Gazette, July 22, 1876)
Wheeler, during his life, was described as a roamer.
Around 1855, Wheeler arrived in Springfield, Ill, and began working as a job printer for the Register newspaper office. His stills soon gained the attention of the Springfield Journal management, which put him in charge of their job rooms. A few years later he partnered with A.M. Garland Esq., to establish the Daily Independent in Springfield. That venture failed just as tensions were mounting over the succession of the South over the slavery issue.
He enlisted on July 30, 1861, joining the Illinois Calvary, 1st Regiment, Company F, at Alton, Ill. The company attached to the Dept. of Missouri, and the Union soldiers moved to St. Charles, then to Jefferson City, Mexico, Hannibal, and on to Lexington, Mo.
At Lexington, located on the Missouri River in Lafayette County, grizzly fighting commenced, continuing five days. The Confederate Troops soundly trumped the Union soldiers, and on Sept. 20, 1861, Col. Mulligan surrendered on behalf of the Union forces.
Following the ceasefire, buildings throughout Lexington were converted into hospitals to treat the possibly thousands of soldiers who were injured. Among those injured was Charles L. “Stern” Wheeler.
The Confederate victory at Lexington was wildly celebrated, but short-lived. On Oct. 16, 1861, the 1st Missouri Scouts, under Major Wright, arrived at Lexington aboard the steamboat Sioux City, and surprised the Rebel garrison, and recapturing Lexington. The sick and wounded Union troops were boarded on the Sioux City, and taken to Jefferson City for medical treatment.
Wheeler’s wounds were such as to label him an invalid, and he never fully recovered from those wounds. He mustered out of the Union army on April 6 1862, qualifying for an $8 per month pension.
He returned to Springfield and took a job as editor with the State Register.
Further editorial pursuits took Wheeler to Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1869, then to Pontiac Muskegon and Mansistee, Mich. He moved to Georgia in 1873 and back to Grand Rapids in 1875. His arrival in Hannibal is estimated to be in May 1875, prior to his death 14 months later.
The Hannibal Free Public Library offers access to The Hannibal Clipper, including issues from 1874, 1875 and 1877, via their website. Historic newspapers from Quincy, Ill., are accessible through the Quincy library’s website. These newspapers offer researchers an unequalled perspective into the daily lives of ordinary citizens.
Page 3 of 3 - These word -searchable newspaper archives and others like them are, in my opinion, the second most valuable element in existence today to foster an understanding history in the making at the grassroots level.
The true credit behind these search engines, however, belongs to the lowly and humble journalists, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes in order to describe the events of the day so that others could comprehend the significance of history in the making.
Charles “Stern” Wheeler was just one of many journalistic heroes whose words live on so that we can understand.
Sources for this story: Archives of the Illinois State Register, Kalamazoo Gazette; The History of Marion County; City Directory 1879; Wikipedia; Fold3; Ancestry.com; GenealogyBank;