DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 17: The Hard-Luck Writer

By Ray Schultz

Slightly hung over from drinking their way to Chicago, ad men filed into the hall for the opening of the first Direct Mail Advertising Conference in 1915. The keynote speech snapped them out of their torpor.

“We must emit and vomit out the nauseous masses that have been swallowed in our swift growth,” said the copywriter Louis Victor Eytinge. “There are too many specious shysters amongst us, who while they may be within the law are yet foul with filth in the morality of their business methods and we must remove this reek ourselves!”

Well said, but Eytinge didn’t deliver the remarks himself. He was serving a life sentence for murder, and had to speak from “behind the walls that encompass my body.”

It was a sad comentary that the beleaguered direct mail business. had to rely on a felon to speak for it.

Eytinge was a “wastrel” from a family of actors and musicians. Convicted twice of forgery, he drew a five-year sentence in the second case and emerged from that term in 1907 with tuberculosis. Hoping to cure him (and get him out of their sight), his family sent him to Arizona with an allowance of $100 per month.

But he got into trouble there, too. The body of his roommate, a tubercular barber named John Leicht, was found near a ranch after the pair had gone for a buggy ride one Sunday. There was no proof that Leicht was murdered, let alone that Eytinge had done it, but Eytinge fled after passing several bad checks, and that was enough to convince a jury that he had poisoned the barber. Convicted of first degree murder, Eytinge was sentenced to life imprisonment, the court deciding that there was no need to hang a man who was about to die of TB.

Near collapse, the 120-pound Eytinge was dumped in the outdoor ward at Yuma Prison. He hemorrhaged daily, and was too weak even to swat flies. There must have been times when he wished he had been put out of his misery. But as his parents hoped when they sent him west, the desert air did him good and he eventually regained his strength.

Then, as legend has it, he wrote to two Western curio dealers to offer the horsehair souvenirs made by inmates. And he got orders from both. So he wrote more, and the prison lifted its restriction of two letters per month, the belief then being that even killers could be rehabilitated by work.

In time, businessmen noticed that this lifer could write and started giving him freelance copywriting assignments. Granted, his “letters were sophomorically fervent” as the copywriter Henry Hoke described them. In one insinuating letter, Eytinge offered raincoats to Catholic priests:

Dear Father,

Just as I glanced at next month’s calendar my eye caught the warning, ‘Rainy Season Begins,’ and I thought of you and other faithful servants of the Church.

My mind’s eye pictured you thrashing your way thru wind and rain, to administer the Holy Oils to some dying one, going about your duty despite the dirty weather. Saw you standing beside the open grave, giving your benediction not seeming to mind the bluster that bespattered your beloved Breviary. I saw you, too, hurrying to some sadly stirred soul, with the rain soaking into your black clothes. And then, I began to really understand what is meant to take Holy Orders.

But Father, there’s little need spoiling your good black overcoat…

Not many raincoats were sold. “I made the thing too personal for a printed letter and talked more about weather than weatherproofs,” Eytinge admitted.

But he learned. By 1915, the Eytinge Service was pulling in $5,000 a year, and his ideas were taken seriously. In his Chicago speech, Eytinge called for the start of a direct mail magazine. Postage appeared six months later, and the jailbird Eytinge was soon named editor of it.

Chapter 18: Selling In America

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