Slason Thompson

Way Back When, Slason Thompson
Way Back When, Slason Thompson

Slason/Slauson Thompson (journalist, playwright, drama critic, railway advertising man) was born on 5 January 1849 in Fredericton, NB. His father, George Thompson, was born in Kingsclear, NB, and his mother, Charity, in Fredericton. George and Charity were married in 1843. Shortly after their son’s birth in 1849, they moved to an abandoned farm near Andover, NB, hoping to continue the Thompson family tradition of farming; however, Charity, a city girl, found the move and the lifestyle hard, so they returned to Fredericton in 1852 (Thompson, Way Back When 29).

Slason and his three sisters grew up in the capital in a lower middle-class household. His father tried numerous jobs, including owning a grocery store, but ended up in debt (Thompson, Way Back When 34). From Thompson’s descriptions of his childhood, it is clear that his parents struggled. By 1860 Thompson was enrolled in a local school, excelling in math and writing. In his autobiography, he recalls winning first prize in 1864 for an essay he wrote about the Civil War (Thompson, Way Back When 69). His precocious interest in world affairs and his parents’ encouragement of family discussions about current events no doubt contributed to his later career as a journalist.

Thompson’s father wanted him to study law, so at sixteen he took a matriculation exam, shortly after receiving his first job as a student in the law office of George Botsford. Botsford was involved in New Brunswick politics and was president of a local bank (Thompson, Way Back When 85). Thompson was especially taken with two books Botsford owned: one on health and the other William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Thompson read Hamlet until he memorized most of its passages, adding variety by doing the same with Botsford’s book on health. When he was not working, he kept in shape by playing sports, obsessions that were attributable, he said, to Botsford’s small library.

When local sports exhausted their appeal, he moved to California (1873), where he got a job at the Fox and Campbell law firm (Thompson, Way Back When 120). On his way there, he met Lewis Morrison who introduced him to theater. He developed such an interest that he got a part-time job with the Era newspaper, where he reviewed plays. He soon partnered with another stage enthusiast (Clay M. Greene) to write plays. Sharps and Flats (1880) and Chispa (1882) were co-authored by Thompson.

After Thompson’s apprenticeship at the Era, he worked at more prestigious west-coast papers, such as The Morning Call, The Chronicle, and The Argonaut. Those terms finished, he left California in 1878 for more prominent newspapers in New York, namely The New York Times. Thompson was a traveller, however, and could not stay in one place long; he soon left for Cincinnati, then Chicago, where he worked at the newly established Chicago Herald (Thompson, Way Back When 207-43). He worked there with four other journalists—James W. Scott, William D. Eaton, John F. Ballantyne, and David H. Henderson—calling their enterprise “the best four-page newspaper ever printed in America” (Thompson, Way Back When 248).

When the Herald split into two daily runs, Thompson went to the Morning News, working in close proximity with Eugene Field, a man who would become one of the most influential people in his life. Field was a writer of children’s poetry and humourous essays, and a leading journalist in his own right. Thompson would eventually write two books about Field: The Study of Eugene Field (1901) and The Life of Eugene Field (1926). Both books were modest contributions to the study of American letters.

It was also at this time that Thompson married Julia Watson from Chicago, who became the mother of his three daughters. The responsibilities of family life shifted his focus from journalism to something more secure, and he became a railway executive (a sort of early PR man), writing books on the railways: Cost Capitalization and Estimated Value of American Railways (1925), The Railway Library (1915), and Railway Statistics (1930). Critics considered these to be the best works of his career, noting their style and readability. One said that “Thompson gives full credit to all records which have been consulted in collecting the material for his book” (The Boston Transcript 2), another that “For both reference and good reading the book is well worth having” (Engineering News 2). One critic went as far as saying that “[Thompson’s work] deserves a place in every school library” (Historical Outlook 40). The observation that Thompson “has both critical judgment and good taste” (New York Times 12) seems the most accurate and balanced statement on his work.

When Thompson turned eighty, he wrote Way Back When: Recollections of an Octogenarian (1931), an autobiographical summation of his life. He died a few years later in 1935 in Chicago, a New Brunswick-born writer who was close to the centres of journalistic power in North America.

Britanny Douthwright, Winter 2010
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Thompson, Slason. Cost Capitalization and Estimated Value of American Railways: An Analysis of Current Fallacies. Chicago: Gunthrop-Warren, 1908.

---. Eugene Field: A Study in Heredity and Contradictions. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1901.

---, ed. The Humbler Poets: A Collection of Newspaper and Periodical Verse, 18701885. Chicago: Jansen McClurg, 1886.

---. Life of Eugene Field: The Poet of Childhood. New York: D. Appleton, 1927.

---. Passenger Fares on American Railways: Also on Those of Great Britain and Germany. Chicago: Gunthrop-Warren, 1906.

---. Railway Accidents in the United States and Europe and Prevention of Railway Accidents. Bureau of Railway News Bulletin 1. Chicago: The H.O. Shepherd Co., 1904.

---, ed. The Railway Library: Annual Collection of Railway Literature, and Railway Statistics: Annual Reports. Chicago: Gunthorp-Warren, 1911-16.

---. Railway Pamphlets and Leaflets 19041909. Chicago: Gunthrop-Warren, 1909.

---. A Short History of American Railways. Chicago: Bureau of Railway News and Statistics, 1925.

---. Way Back When: Recollections of an Octogenarian. Chicago: A. Kroch, 1931.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Gregory, Hilton. Rev. of Life of Eugene Field: The Poet of Childhood, by Slason Thompson. Bookman 65 (Mar. 1927): 89.

Mount, Nick. When Canadian Literature Moved to New York. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005.

“Mrs. Field and Slason Thompson’s Book,” The New York Times 8 Feb. 1902: BR6. 24 June 2020

“Newspaper Poets,” The New York Times 14 Mar. 1886: 12. 24 June 2020

Rev. of Short History of American Railways, Covering Ten Decades, by Slason Thompson. The Boston Transcript 25 July 1925: 2.

Rev. of Short History of American Railways, Covering Ten Decades, by Slason Thompson. Engineering News 15 Oct. 1925: 2.

Rev. of Short History of American Railways, Covering Ten Decades, by Slason Thompson. Historical Outlook 17 (Jan. 1926): 40.

Thompson, C.W. Rev. of Life of Eugene Field: The Poet of Childhood, by Slason Thompson. The New York Times 20 Feb. 1927: 2. 24 June 2020