Famed St. Louis Post-Dispatch cartoonist Daniel Fitzpatrick looks persecuted in his self-portrait at the Missouri History Museum.

The planes of his face are modeled boldly and expressionistically with mossy greens, yellow ochres, and dark maroons over pale blue tones. Forms are distorted to convey emotion, as the cartoonist shows himself with his knees up, shoulders hunched, and arms crossed protectively over his torso. He frowns, gazing vacantly to the left. Behind him a noose hangs from gallows, perhaps in wait for the artist himself.

As one of the nation’s leading editorial cartoonists, Fitzpatrick (1891–1969) had reason to feel hunted. During his lifetime, he was not shy about calling out hypocrisy, corruption, and vice among the rich and powerful. More than thirty national newspapers carried his cartoons, and he became known as the “dean” of American editorial cartoonists. From 1913 to 1958, he created more than fifteen thousand cartoons and won two Pulitzer Prizes (1926 and 1954). But with fame came enemies. Fitzpatrick’s acerbic images often exposed moral weakness, political dishonesty, and self-serving greed among public figures.

A frequent target of the cartoonist’s pen in the 1930s was Kansas City’s Tom Pendergast, the corrupt chair of the Jackson County Democratic Party. This corpulent political “boss” was said to have “bought” many of Missouri’s statewide officials. In one of Fitzpatrick’s 1935 cartoons, a smug Pendergast declares, “I’ve selected the next governor.”

Selected the Next Governor, October 17, 1935 (original drawing)

Closer to home, Fitzpatrick created “Rat Alley,” a fictional St. Louis slum full of shady businesses, crooked lawmakers, and corrupt officials. In every Rat Alley cartoon, a speech balloon emerges from beneath a manhole cover providing wry commentary on the action.

Readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looked forward to seeing these barbed attacks on local grifters and vice, but in 1940, a circuit judge claimed that one Rat Alley cartoon went too far. Burlesque House in Rat Alley criticized Judge Thomas Rowe’s dismissal of extortion charges against two crooked local officials: John Nick, former head of the St. Louis Motion Picture Operators’ Union and Democratic Missouri State Representative Edward “Putty Nose” Brady. These men were credibly accused of accepting ten thousand dollars in bribes to silence the members of the Motion Picture Operators’ Union’s demands for higher wages, but Judge Rowe decided not to hear the case.

After the dismissal, Fitzpatrick’s “Burlesque House in Rat Alley” showed customers lining up in Rat Alley for a show entitled 10 Grand Gone with the Wind. A chubby, shirtless man identified as a “bathing beauty” smiles in a poster in front of the theater. A patron in line informs his companion that “[John] Nick does th’ strip, an’ Putty Nose does th’ tease.” From inside the theater a barker announces, “Ladies an’ Gents, This Show Opens wit’ th’ blessings of th’ Law an’ th’ courts!” Meanwhile, from below the manhole cover, the Rat Alley commentator declares “It’s one show the movie managers don’t see for nothin’.”

This cartoon so outraged Judge Rowe that he declared Fitzpatrick and his editor Ralph Coghlan, who wrote similarly scathing editorial columns criticizing the judge, were guilty of contempt for casting aspersions on his court. On April 13, 1940, the cartoonist was sentenced to ten days in jail and Coghlan to twenty. The judge also demanded that the newspaper pay over two thousand dollars in damages. Two days later, Fitzpatrick published the cartoon A Threat as Old as Democracy in which the muscular forearm of Lady Liberty is menaced by snake-like shackles.

A Threat as Old as Democracy, April 15, 1940 (original drawing)

The case was covered by Time magazine and the national press. Lawyers representing Joseph Pulitzer II, the owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, immediately appealed Judge Rowe’s decision, asserting that the newspaper had a First Amendment right to criticize the courts. To the relief of supporters of a strong and independent media, on June 10, 1941, the Missouri Supreme Court decided in favor of the Post-Dispatch on the grounds that the paper had a constitutional right to publish material critical of the courts. Fitzpatrick celebrated the decision with a cartoon entitled Free Speech Upheld showing a judge’s robed hand writing the titular words.

Free Speech Upheld, June 11, 1941 (photograph)

While cartoons such as Burlesque House in Rat Alley presented the kind of biting satire we associate with a Saturday Night Live skit, other Fitzpatrick cartoons present images more reminiscent of the cartoonist’s dour self-portrait. In a 1960 interview, the artist declared, “An editorial cartoonist must put on a show every day. It may be a comedy, a drama, or a satire.” He might have gone further with the dramatic analogies—one can compare some Fitzpatrick cartoons with suspense thrillers or even horror movies.

Burlesque House in Rat Alley, March 6, 1940 (photograph)

For example, within a year of joining the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the artist was tasked with covering the First World War. Among his many cartoons on the topic, Fitzpatrick visualized the shocking twenty million death toll in a 1917 two-panel cartoon entitled Drive! Here the upper panel pictured the German Kaiser Wilhelm II commanding troops to “drive” forward, while in the lower panel, throngs of soldiers rush lemming-like over a cliff to their deaths.

Drive! February 25, 1918

By combining traditional pen and ink line work with volumetric grease crayon modeling, Fitzpatrick created a dramatic style that was suitable to comedic caricatures as well as to somber and distressing imagery. During the Great Depression, he visualized the failure of the Missouri legislature to address mass poverty with the 1939 image, What Missouri Did About Relief. Here hardship and hunger in the state are personified by an emaciated man dressed in rags sitting on the steps of the Missouri State Capitol.

What Missouri Did About Relief, July 15, 1939 (original drawing)

During World War II, Fitzpatrick’s ominous “swastika steamroller” appeared regularly in his cartoons, symbolizing the ruthless military power of Nazi Germany. In a cartoon entitled Next, he pictured a gigantic swastika poised to roll over a Polish city. The image foreshadowed the fall of Poland to Hitler on September 1.

Next, August 25, 1939 (original drawing)

Later in the war, Fitzpatrick represented the June 22, 1944, discovery of a Nazi death camp at Lublin, Poland, with a cartoon that pictured a soldier’s bayonet pulling aside a tarp to reveal a skeletal Nazi guarding a pile of skulls. Before the published version of this cartoon appeared, Fitzpatrick sent his editor a concept sketch for approval. This sketch survives to provide a window into the artist’s creative process. Its agitated pencil strokes reflecting the artist’s horrified ire. In the published cartoon, vigorous ink lines and expressive use of the crayon create a symbolic and memorable representation of the world’s introduction to a ghastly scene of genocide.

Lublin (original drawing)
Lublin, September 6, 1944 (original sketch)

After the war, Fitzpatrick continued to create both grave and wry images. His 1950 cartoon, Where Crime and Politics Meet, depicts ghostly figures embodying twenty-three unsolved murders in Kansas City, while the 1956 cartoon Lemme Outa Here Quick!, critiques Illinois’s Republican State Auditor Orville Hodge, who embezzled roughly six million dollars in state funds. Fitzpatrick comments on Hodge’s situation with a return to Rat Alley, where a Republican elephant flees an approaching police car.

Where Crime and Politics Meet, April 12, 1950

Today, Fitzpatrick’s cartoons allow us to vicariously experience all of these historic events, and the public can access this remarkable legacy in archived editions of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which are available online STLToday.com/archives and Newspapers.com. Digitized images of many of Fitzpatrick’s original cartoons can also be viewed at the websites of the Library of Congress and the State Historical Society of Missouri.

As the digital age makes these cartoons available to a worldwide audience, the lives of many of Fitzpatrick’s adversaries, such as Judge Rowe, are all but forgotten. Perhaps the artist might have painted a different kind of self-portrait had he known that his legacy would long outlive his persecutors.

Lemme Outa Here Quick! July 26, 1956 (original drawing)

Photos // The State Historical Society of Missouri