Mann, William D'Alton 1839-1920

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Mann, William D'Alton 1839-1920

PERSONAL: Born September 27, 1839 in Sandusky, OH; died of pneumonia May 17, 1920 in Morristown, NJ; son of William R. Mann and Eliza Ford Mann; married two times (marriages ended); married Sophie Hartong Mann; children (first marriage): Emma Mann-Vynne. Education: Studied engineering. Politics: Democrat.

CAREER: Inventor, civil servant, newspaper editor, and magazine publisher. Democratic candidate for Congress, Alabama First District, 1869. Military service: First Michigan Cavalry, 1861-64, organized first Mounted Rifles (became Fifth Michigan Calvary and Daniel's Horse Brigade), 1862; attained rank of colonel.

MEMBER: Democratic Club.


The Raiders: A Scheme for Improving the Mobility and Efficiency of Troops, Waterlow & Sons (London, England), 1876.

Fads and Fancies of Representative Americans at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, Town Topics Publishing (New York, NY), 1905.

SIDELIGHTS: While William D'Alton Mann is known for his involvement in a highly publicized libel suit against Collier's magazine, he was also a founding member of the literary publications Smart Set and Town Topics: The Journal of Society. In addition, with his inventions Mann contributed significantly to the railroad industry in America and Europe, and greatly improved the equipment of troops in the U.S. Army.

Mann was one of six children of Puritan lineage. After his family moved from Sandusky, Ohio to Adrian, Michigan while he was a teenager, he began studying engineering. While managing a run-down hotel he had inherited from a relative, he married his first of three wives and fathered a daughter.

In 1861 Mann was awarded a captain's commission in the First Michigan Calvary. Later that fall, the Calvary fought in Washington, D.C. to defend the capital during the U.S. Civil War. Mann organized the first Mounted Rifles in 1862. The Calvary later became the Fifth Michigan Cavalry and Daniel's Horse Battery, and was known in the Army of the Potomac as the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. Mann, as part of the Michigan Brigade under General George Armstrong Custer, was recognized for leading his regiment in the decisive battle on Rummel's Farm during the Battle of Gettysburg. His contributions to the army, with the knowledge he had gained studying engineering, extended to patenting several inventions that proved invaluable to the improvement of the troops' accouterments. Since the U.S. army adopted several of his patents, Mann had earned more than $50,000 dollars from his inventions when he retired in 1864 with the rank of colonel.

Mann invested money from his patents and from his hotel property in an oil-development scheme. He then sold stock considered questionable to army acquaintances, and, when he allegedly did not fulfill his promises, was sued. When the first major oil-swindle case was dismissed, Mann moved to Mobile, Alabama and worked as the federal assessor of internal revenue.

Money acquired through the oil scheme enabled Mann in 1868 to join with three newspaper editors and publish morning and evening editions of the Mobile Daily Register. Mann also wrote articles for the paper. Some sources report that he was also involved in the lumber business, erected a cottonseed-oil plant, and joined the Ku Klux Klan. In 1869 he was the Democratic party's first congressional candidate from Alabama's First District (Mobile area). He was elected but could not serve under reconstruction laws.

By 1871 Mann was a full-time inventor and railroad promoter, and received a patent for a "boudoir" or sleeper car. In 1873 he founded the Mann Railway Sleeping Carriage Company in a factory 200 miles north of London, and introduced his sleeper cars to Europe. Mann returned to the United States in 1888 when he began losing money after a few successful years.

In 1891, Mann assumed partial ownership of the magazine Town Topics: The Journal of Society, which his brother, publisher Eugene Mann, had purchased in 1885. He and Eugene immediately revised the magazine into a contemporary prototype. As Alf Pratte wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Eugene and William Mann developed the techniques that helped bring about a revolution in society journalism." When the magazine arrived in New York, readers enjoyed its glossy features, well-written fiction, book and music reviews, light verse, politics, and somewhat racy features. William took over the entire publication after Eugene wrote about the prevalence of abortion and was convicted of sending obscene material through the post. Under William's direction, circulation rose from 60,000 to 140,000. Critics cited William's editing and talented and, often controversial writers. Town Topics' most popular attraction, however, was the gossip column "Saunterings."

In 1900, with the increasing profits from Town Topics and the quarterly magazine Tales from Town Topics, which later became Transatlantic Tales, Mann launched Smart Set. This literary magazine was aimed at the same upper-middle class readership that subscribed to Town Topics: The first issue included a $1,000-prize novelette; a "true-story" scandal; a one-act play; a travel article; and poems, sketches, and witticisms. It cost twenty-five cents a copy, and just twenty of the 180 pages went to advertising. Writers such as O. Henry, Jack London, H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan contributed.

The success of Smart Set encouraged Mann to launch a London edition in 1901. The American edition peaked in circulation in 1908 at 160,000 copies, and slowly declined, as did popular opinion about Mann as an editor. In 1911, John Adams Thayer bought Smart Set from Mann.

Mann's decline as an editor began when, as Town Topics publisher, he emphasized gossip. His radical socialist experiment, the short-lived Tom Watson's Magazine, folded after only a year due to Mann's involvement in libel suits and public disclosure of his involvement in blackmail.

Mann also published Fads and Fancies of Representative Americans at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, intended as a yearly volume that intended to expose status-seeking financiers, industrialists, U.S. senators and prominent Wall Street men for their nefarious activities. As Pratte pointed out, the magazine was actually an instrument with which Mann and his associates could blackmail the "Top 400" whose dirty dealings they sought to expose: "but for a minimum of fifteen hundred dollars a copy one could buy the magazine and be left alone, unless one did something suspicious and got another visit from the colonel's book agents."

After Mann published negative comments about Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice, following a social event in Newport, Rhode Island, Norman Hapgood, the editor of Collier's magazine and an admirer of the U.S. president, fired back through Collier's at Mann and his Town Topics, resulting in a year's worth of "anonymous" insult-slinging between the two men. When Hapgood replaced the "anonymous person" in his commentaries by directly addressing Mann, Joseph M. Deuel, justice of the Court of Special Sessions of New York City, who had been working alongside Mann since the publisher took over Town Topics, filed a criminal libel suit against Hapgood. A maneuver to get Mann and Deuel to the witness stand, the plan backfired; Hapgood was acquitted in just seven minutes, and the case exposed Mann's extortion of money from the wealthy. He was convicted of perjury within twenty-four hours.

After the trial, Mann's financial situation changed dramatically. His attempt to expand Transatlantic Tales into a belles-lettres magazine failed. In 1908, he published Snappy Stories, a rather pulpy magazine about "good and bad" women that remained in publication until 1930.

According to Mark Caldwell in his A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America, Mann "proved a thorn in society's side because he claimed to understand its mores, to have found out just how his presumed betters were violating the code that should have governed them, and then rebuked them by wielding it not only more expertly than they did but more lethally."

Mann died from complications resulting from pneumonia in 1920. Long after his death, family members fought legal battles in an effort to uncover hidden financial wealth, but the final assessment of Mann's estate showed its debts far outweighing assets.



Caldwell, Mark, A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America, Picator (New York, NY), 1999.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 137: American Magazine Journalists, 1900-1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 150-157.

Lewisohn, Ludwig, Expression in America, Harper (New York, NY), 1932.

Logan, Andy, The Man Who Robbed the Robber Barons, Norton (New York, NY), 1965.

Towne, Charles Hanson, Adventures in Editing, Appleton (New York, NY), 1926.


American Mercury, July, 1926, pp. 272-274.

New York Times, August 1, 1905, p. 1.