Claus Spreckels Sweetens the News: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Buy ‘Em

Controlling the Press

If you don’t like what a newspaper says about you, how about buying it? One of the richest ten Americans in 1880 did that: Claus Spreckels (right image) bought The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, the predecessor of the The Honolulu Advertiser.

Why? He didn’t like what he read in his morning newspaper. Yes, Spreckels controlled the government, especially King Kalakaua, through bribes and loans. Yes, Spreckels obtained water rights for the Northeast Maui streams–He diverted its water via Spreckels Ditch to his plantation town, virtually killed taro farming, a native tradition for centuries, and indigenous wildlife to extinction. But wasn’t he sweetening the Kingdom of Hawaii anyways? So why not sweeten the news?

In principle, a credible news source does not have a conflict of interest in its reporting. Therefore, the PCA never publicly named Spreckels as its owner and publisher; rather, it named Walter Murray Gibson (left image).

Disguising the PCA as a government-owned entity, investors bought PCA shares for Spreckels from owner and editor James H. Black for $15,000 (he claimed the newspaper made about $3,000 per year during his ten-year ownership). However, his ownership became a well-known secret.

To finance the purchase, Gibson convinced the Minister of the Interior on August 28, 1880, to advance $5,000 of the government’s money. Minister John Edward Bush sweetened the deal by hiring the PCA for the government’s public printing and book binding for the next two years, so Gibson could earn the repayment. Two days later, Gibson purchased the PCA two days later.

As Spreckels bought the PCA to help his royal friend out, Spreckels transform it into an organ for the Hawaiian Monarchy. However, the editorial slant went against the views of the PCA’s target audience–American businessmen in Hawaii–because they were for U.S. annexation of Hawaii, not the monarchy.

PCA’s founder and editor, Henry Martyn Whitney, was against the monarchy as well. Thus, he refused to work with Spreckels and started PCA’s future competitor: The Hawaiian Star, an ancestor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

The First Issue

On September 4, 1880, newspaper boys were hawking the new management’s first issue (right image) on the dirt roads of Honolulu. Readers might have not noticed the management change. Why? Because the paper’s layout, design, frequency of once a week, and target audience–the Caucasian minority in Hawaii–remained the same. The front page still had seven columns of text and ads with no illustrations or pictures. However, a text-only ad was right-side up.

The newspaper’s masthead (the logo on top of the front page) still featured the newspaper’s illustration, which depicted whaling ships sailing offshore from Hawaii and mountain ranges in the background. The illustration dated back to 1856, when PCA informed whalemen stopping into Hawaii for rest and provisions during the whale industry’s peak.

Usually with the most important information, the issue’s second page (left image) featured news, opinions by the paper, classified ads, and legal ads. On new management’s first day, it already started criticizing government officials and criticized the Board of Health for failing to adequately care for Honolulu’s public health:

The health of Honolulu is not well provided for. There is a sad in efficiency in a Board of Health, and a great lack of charitable ministration in the community, … two-thirds of the [population] died without medical attendance [or] … nursing care. But alas, humanity is not usually interesting, unless it is respectable. A poor Dark body, perhaps loathsome with scabs, sinks down to die, and who cares?

This first issue announced the change in ownership, but did not mention Spreckels’ stake. In “valedictory,” outgoing editor Black thanked his readers for their patronage and expressed confidence in the new management: “the P. C. A. will not suffer in the new hands …” As for the PCA’s “salutatory,” the uncredited staff editorial saluted the founder Henry Martyn Whitney (“an editor of ability” and a “most indefatigable newsman”). The editorial also expressed loyalty to the Hawaiian Kingdom and justified the foreigners’ contributions to Hawaii:

Our objects are the development of the Hawaiian Archipelago, and the promotion of the welfare of the Hawaiian people of all races. … We are loyal to the King, devoted to the welfare of the people, and hope and aim to make this journal an instrument for the advancement and blessing of the Hawaiian nation. … And Hawaii is rightfully governed by Hawaiians, assisted by foreigners.


Spreckels may have regretted hiring his Tasmanian friend Charles “Chas” R. Buckland as editor in 1883 because he plagiarized Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a New York newspaper. On August 25, 1883, the story “The Dreamy Drug: A Raid by Night and … Day” appeared on the PCA’s front page. With no byline, the dramatic first-person account described a police raid in two local Chinese opium dens” (right image):

… we peered through … blue smoke and down into the … end of the den. There stood two Chinamen … [who] seemed …. under the spell of the intoxicating fumes; the eyes of one were closed and his flushed face wore a vacant dreamy smile as he felt his way across the room. One of us held and guarded the prisoners who made an effort to escape but after a short struggle were induced to … submit to the officer’s authority. … In the search we found an opium pipe, a lamp and the deadly dreamy drug notwithstanding the protestations of innocence from the prisoners who lied … A tiny speck of paper … behind the ear of the smaller man attracted the eagle eye of our representative and [contained] the … proof of guilt.

The word about the plagiarism apparently got out, because four months later, Buckland was out of the PCA and was editing its competitor, The Daily Bulletin. However, Spreckels continued his friendship with Buckland.

PCA’s New Building

After five years of denying his involvement in the PCA, Spreckels made his ownership clear In March 1885: he started building the newspaper’s new building on the ocean side of Merchant Street near Fort Street (right image).

The News Turns Sour

Throughout his reign, the “Merrie Monarch” drained government and personal money on lavish parties, ceremonies, gambling, his trip around the world, and Iolani Palace. Hence, people criticized Kalakaua (right image) for using public money for personal pleasure and for letting Spreckels bribe Kalakaua for years. To free himself from Spreckels’ demands, Kalakaua borrowed money from a London creditor and paid back Spreckels by 1888.

Sales decreased in the past eight years because the target audience, the Caucasian elites in Hawaii, didn’t approve the paper’s pro-Monarchy stance. And because Spreckels no longer wanted to promote the king through the PCA, he sold it to Hawaiian Gazette Co. in 1888. With Spreckels gone, founder Whitney returned to his editor role.

Sweetening San Francisco’s News

The PCA would not be Spreckels’ last newspaper–seven years later in 1895, the Spreckels’ family bought The San Francisco Call. As he did with the PCA, Claus Spreckels and his sons controlled the Call’s editorials, yet denied their involvement. Regardless, ten years before the purchase, the Spreckels was already involved in San Francisco’s news industry: in 1884, Adolph B. Spreckels, Claus Spreckels’ son, shot the San Francisco Chronicle’s editor because of a negative news article. The editor, Micheal Henry de Young, survived and continued to publish editorials that soured the Spreckels’ family.

– Alice Kim

Articles on Chronicling America

First Issue Under Claus Spreckels
Pacific commercial advertiser, Sept. 4, 1880, Image 1

“The Dreamy Drug: A Raid by Night and … Day”
Pacific commercial advertiser, August 25, 1883, Image 1