Tom Kacich: Howe Brown made his mark in C-U journalism

It was just another odd newspaper coincidence. Exactly 50 years before his obituary appeared in The News-Gazette, Howe Brown wrapped up his coverage of what may have been the trial of the century in Champaign County — or at least one of the trials of the century.

It was the case against Gust Penman, a wealthy Philo farm boy, accused of the murder of Harold Shaw, young son in a wealthy Urbana family. Eventually Penman was sentenced to life in prison, escaped from custody, took on a new identity and died after enlisting in the Army during World War I.

In 1913, at least at The Champaign Gazette, bylines did not appear on news stories. But The Gazette — this was six years before the somewhat forced marriage of The Gazette and The News — took the unusual step of praising Brown and a colleague in a separate news story on Dec. 15, the day after Penman was convicted.

"The Gazette stories were much fuller than those of any other paper," an anonymous writer boasted. "The big assignment was covered by Howe Brown, The Gazette's regular representative in Urbana, and H.E. Cottingham, employed specially for the occasion.

"Mr. Brown is known to almost every man, woman and child in Urbana and is intimately acquainted with most of the members of the Champaign bar and all the county officials."

Brown and The Gazette covered the Penman trial like no event before it, starting with three separate stories previewing the case on Dec. 8, the date set for jury selection. No detail was too small to document.

The next day there were five more stories, including a scene-setter.

"A court room, wherein a human life is at stake, is at best a gloomy scene, how depressing a murder trial just at dusk before the room is flooded with light from the chandeliers," someone, perhaps Brown, wrote.

After describing how the shadows of the setting sun "played on the features of those in the courtroom," the author wrote that a bailiff switched on the electric lights.

"Everything went brighter and even the jaded and tired jurors straightened in their seats," the writer concluded.

A day later The Gazette named the 12 jurors and included their age, hometown, occupation and marital status. Six were farmers; one was a blacksmith; one was a carriage maker; another was a streetcar conductor. In another account it was reported that two people had fainted in the hot courtroom. Another story said that "a camera fiend" tried to take Penman's picture as he was escorted from the jail to the courthouse. "Take that d—n thing away from here," Penman shouted, according to The Gazette.

Brown completed his coverage of the trial with a brief story reporting that Penman was on his way to the state prison at Chester.

And 50 years later, on Dec. 28, 1963, Howe Brown died.

His obituary in The News-Gazette said that most of his newspaper years were spent at the courthouse and as an Urbana news writer.

"At the old Urbana office of The News-Gazette on Elm Street, just west of the fire department, Howe Brown worked for years, covering the city building, courthouse and most everything that happened in the city and environs," said a News-Gazette editorial.

Brown was the Mary Schenk of his day, although he had only three courtrooms to cover instead of 11, and the county had about one-third the population — and probably an equal percentage of bad guys — in 1920 than it does today.

In a retrospective he wrote in 1952, on the occasion of this newspaper's centennial — and a few months before he retired — Brown said he had begun at The Gazette more than 50 years earlier, although he didn't offer a date. He did write, however, that he had begun working "at the old court house," which was replaced by the current structure in 1901.

"I was to receive $3 per week for covering Urbana. It was before the typewriter age and my writing was legible," he wrote. "The news was sent to Champaign by horse-drawn street cars and I was supposed to cover everything. When payday came the first Saturday I received $6 instead of $3. I felt like a millionaire. I was getting the wages of the average laborer although just a youngster."

In his recollection, Brown mentioned the Penman case, saying it was the biggest "scoop" he'd ever had, and giving all the credit to Clara Diggs, the secretary to State's Attorney Louis Busch.

"After I promised not to give away the source, she gave me the particulars," Brown wrote 39 years later. "I have always been faithful to the promise and as my good friend and her employer, Mr. Busch, has been dead many years, I feel it is alright to tell."

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Brown was an Urbana townie for all his 84 years. He was born in Urbana in 1879 during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes and died there weeks after Lyndon Johnson became president. In one memorable story during the summer of 1925, he told of the "old swimming holes" of his youth.

"Probably the best known place to swim was the old Devil's Hole up near the end of Market Street (now Broadway Avenue)," he wrote. "There was plenty of water there, plenty of large fallen trees to dive from and plenty of bushes to screen you from people passing by.

"Other places in the north end were old Lemon Hole, the Sycamore Hole, Sulphur Springs, about three miles up, and many of lesser note. Sulphur Springs was a great health resort. According to our imagination if you were not feeling well and would go there and take a bath you would soon be well again. It was real sulphur water but in such small quantities that no one ever thought of exploiting it."

Brown also recalled swimming at a spring, with a sand and gravel bottom, at the old Big Four Railroad yards in east Urbana. One youth, Pressley "Coon" Neville, was considered a heroic figure because he was always the first to go swimming in the spring, even as early as February.

"The day of the old swimming hole for this community will never be more than a memory for there are no natural bodies of water," he lamented. "Boys of late years have tried without success to establish one in the Saline dredge ditch. It did not meet with success because now bathing suits are a necessity and the water is rarely deep enough."

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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