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The Rock Island News

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Whenever we peaceful types are reminded that the pen is mightier than the sword, we feel better. We often forget that bad guys have pens, too.

Take our very own outlaw John Looney, for example. Looney moved to Rock Island in 1895 as a telegraph operator, and over the next ten years, became a lawyer involved in several questionable practices. In 1905, he discovered his true vocation when he began publishing The Rock Island News, the "only paper in Rock Island County that dares to publish all the news." It was a moral newspaper, Looney claimed, standing for "Truth, Good Government, and the Protection of the People."

What Rock Island needed protection from, as it turned out, was The Rock Island News. Rather than news, the paper printed scandals. Prominent citizens were warned that unfavorable articles about them would appear unless they paid a kill fee. Civil leaders, bankers, and others who refused to pay were faced with headlines accusing them of having syphilis or affairs with prostitutes, complete with doctored photographs.

Farmers were favorite victims. A farmer walking down the street would suddenly be embraced and kissed by a strange woman and discover that he had been photographed. Pay up, or there goes his respectable name. At his height, Looney was even able to control the police. The pen, you remember, is mightier than the sword.

Did such bald-faced blackmail work? Of course. Thousands of copies of the News were sold by newsboys along factory assembly lines, enough money to give Looney a mansion overlooking the river and enough extra to branch out into prostitution, gambling, and bootlegging.

Looney's career ended when he was convicted of assassinating a rival, but his paper has become part of Rock Island folklore. Old newsprint from other area papers is currently worth $60 a ton, the fate of much good pen writing. But had you saved all of your bad pen issues of The Rock Island News, you would be worth a small fortune. A single page is a guaranteed draw at local estate sales.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.