A Pennsylvania battle waged in ink

Thick skin may seem to be a requisite for elected officials. At the turn of the 20th century, however, Pennsylvania Gov. Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker found himself nearly crushed by a cartoon.

Born in Phoenixville, Pennypacker (1843-1916) taught himself several languages and served as a judge before winning the governor's office in 1903.

Many distinctions attach to his tenure: the passage of the 1905 Child Labor Act, the appointment of the state's first commissioner of forestry, and the establishment of the State Museum of Pennsylvania. He also oversaw the construction of the state Capitol, which was dedicated in 1906.

Despite these accomplishments, Pennypacker "garnered the most intense acrimony from the Philadelphia press of any governor in Pennsylvania's history," according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. His unpardonable sin? He was the distant cousin - and perceived puppet - of U.S. Sen. Matthew Quay, the boss of the state's Republican machine.

During the gubernatorial campaign, cartoonist Charles Nelan of Philadelphia's North American newspaper regularly depicted Pennypacker as a preening parrot, mimicking the words of Quay and obeying his every command. During the final two weeks of the campaign, an anti-Pennypacker cartoon by Nelan appeared on the front page almost daily.

Though Pennypacker handily won the election, he didn't forget about Nelan or the North American. His inaugural address included remarks about "sensational journals" that were a "terror to the household, a detriment to the public service, and an impediment to the courts of justice."

Pennypacker soon had his revenge with passage of the Salus-Grady libel law. Also known as the Anti-Cartooning law, it proposed a ban on "any cartoon or caricature or picture portraying, describing or representing any person, either by distortion, innuendo or otherwise, in the form or likeness of beast, bird, fish, insect, or other unhuman animal, thereby tending to expose such person to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule."

The cartoonists drew their swords. State officials began appearing as oak trees, beer steins, turnips, squash, chestnut burrs, and other inanimate objects. The editors of the North American suggested a new coat of arms for the state that "would include an impaled cartoonist's head, a 'gag,' a muzzle, a dwarf on a stool, a pussy cat, and a jackass in knee-high boots."

Such was the outrage across the state and country at what the Philadelphia Press called Pennypacker's "personal pique and public piracy" that the law was never enforced. For the rest of his time in office, the governor was pilloried in cartoon panels. The pen proved mightier than the Pennypacker, and the succeeding administration quickly struck the libel law from the books.

From 1900 until his death, Pennypacker also served as the president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He probably would not appreciate the irony of the cartoons he tried to criminalize being preserved in perpetuity by the library he once helmed.