You have no doubt heard of the National Enquirer tabloid. No, I understate that…you have NO DOUBT seen weekly editions of the Enquirer in a rack at the checkout counter of your local grocery store for over fifty years. In the 1980s, TV and radio ads for the publication gave “teaser” questions about the content of the latest edition (such as “Which stars will encounter new romances … and will our Shuttle encounter real space invaders?”) and added the catchy phrase “Enquiring minds want to know.” Nostalgic for those good old days? See a sample at the link below.
The Enquirer is the offspring of a newspaper called The New York Evening Enquirer that began publication in 1926. That publication was mostly famous for becoming “a voice for isolationism and pro-fascist propaganda” in the 1930s and 1940s. By 1952, it only had a circulation of 17,000 copies a week. But … in 1966, it had a circulation of one million. What happened in only 14 years?
A new owner changed it from a “broadsheet” (regular-sized newspaper) to a “tabloid” size, and began focusing almost exclusively on sensationalist stories of sex and violence in New York. In 1957 the name was changed to The National Enquirer, and its scope became nationwide.
In the late 1950s and through most of the 1960s, the Enquirer was known for its gory and unsettling headlines and stories such as: “I Cut Out Her Heart and Stomped on It” (Sept. 8, 1963) and “Mom Boiled Her Baby and Ate Her” (1962). At this time the paper was sold on newsstands and drugstores only. Pope [the editor] stated he got the idea for the format and these gory stories from seeing people congregate around auto accidents.
Here’s a sample of a 50s Enquirer cover.
But in 1967, the owner decided that circulation could be greatly increased with the clever new idea of getting grocery stores to sell it at the checkouts. In order to make this work, he (no doubt grudgingly) had to drop the gore and violence, changing the emphasis to celebrity gossip, the occult, and UFOs. Even the occult and UFO stories were eventually shifted off to “sister publications” owned by the same company, such as Weekly World News. So the cover stories on the Enquirer editions of the past 30 years or so have seldom included any stories not celebrity related.
By the time I was old enough to notice the Enquirer at the checkout lanes, it had changed to this new emphasis, so I never saw it when it was in its gory heyday. I’m sure if I had been an adult in the mid-50s, I would have assumed that the sex, violence, and gore emphasis was the result of “deterioration of society” in the Modern Age that fed such salacious interests!
I would have been wrong.
More than a century before the Enquirer pushed its stories about baby-eating mommas and violent spousal revenge, similar fare was available to the US reading public in the pages of the infamous National Police Gazette. Yes, American readers had “Enquiring Minds” long before the advent of the National Enquirer.
The National Police Gazette, commonly referred to as simply the Police Gazette, was an American magazine founded in 1845 …
Ostensibly devoted to matters of interest to the police, it is a tabloid-like publication, with lurid coverage of murders, Wild West outlaws, and sport. It is well known for its engravings and photographs of scantily clad strippers, burlesque dancers, and prostitutes, often skirting on the edge of what is legally considered obscenity.
The National Police Gazette enjoyed considerable popularity in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century; but its popularity decreased during the Great Depression. The National Police Gazette continued on after  …as a monthly publication [it had been a weekly] for many years before ceasing print publication in 1977.
And make no mistake, it was widely read. And recognized.
So if you thought your great-great grandparents and their friends were only interested in magazine articles about the many inventions of the era like the telephone and electric light, or important events going on in the world like the Civil War and World War 1, or heart-warming stories of the activities of worthy organizations like the Red Cross or Salvation Army… think again. Oh, maybe the Gazette was usually purchased by Great-Great Grandpa, and perhaps stashed under his long johns in the chest of drawers in the bedroom so as to not scandalize his wife. But I’ll bet Great-Great Granny took an occasional peek too, after he went off to work in the morning…and the kids went off to school.
Here are some samples of story illustrations from the publication’s Victorian heydays.