Webb Miller was just trying to get a story when he became the news himself.
Born to a farm family near Dowagiac, Miller went to Chicago as a young man, determined to write for the newspapers. He had a remarkable career ahead of him as a foreign correspondent. He would cover the Pancho Villa Expedition, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War. His reports on the assault of peaceful protestors during the Indian independence movement might have been his most influential. Widely distributed worldwide, they contributed to the erosion of public support for British colonial control.
For about a quarter of a century, “You can kind of follow world history by following the footprints of Webb Miller,” Steve Arseneau, director of the Dowagiac Area History Museum, told WMUK, which first aired a story about Miller in June.
But in 1914, Arseneau said, Miller was still a low-ranking “leg man” in Chicago, reporting the details of events he covered to his newsroom but rarely seeing his own name in print. That began to change the day Miller encountered Mark Morton, cofounder of a company that’s still a household name: Morton Salt.
“Morton’s daughter eloped and got married and it was the big story out of Chicago at the time,” Arseneau said. “Every reporter in the city is trying to get this story about the elopement.”
Miller hired a car to take him to the Morton estate in a rural area near Wheaton. While Mark Morton had threatened violence against any reporters who came to his property, Miller didn’t think he was serious.
“When I regained consciousness, he was sitting on my stomach shouting a stream of profanity and ordering the farm hands to bring a rope,” he wrote.
Morton's employees tied Miller up but refused to tar and feather him, so Morton put Miller in his car. Still swearing, Morton drove “furiously” off the estate. He ended up crashing the car, which knocked Miller out a second time and left both men with cuts and bruises.
Morton was undeterred. Miller had been able to signal his driver to follow Morton as they left the estate. After the crash Morton put Miller in the journalist’s own car and ordered the driver to take them to the sheriff’s department. Morton successfully pressed for a warrant and Miller was accused of trespassing, though a judge dismissed the charge the next day. Miller sued Morton and eventually won a very small settlement.
(Morton, at least, apparently considered the incident to a bygone by January 1940, when he invited Miller to lunch and promised that no ropes would be involved. It’s not clear whether Miller responded. The invitation came just a few months before the journalist’s untimely death in London.)
The kidnapping frightened Miller, but it also boosted him professionally. He got a raise and his name “became known to everyone in the newspaper profession in the Chicago area.”
"This had the definite effect of giving me a greater measure of self-confidence," he added. A couple of years later he left the city to report abroad, first as a freelancer and then for the United Press.
Arseneau says Miller’s reporting, especially in India, is still drawing interest. We sat down at the Dowagiac Area History Museum to discuss how a self-described shy young man with an aversion to violence - whose favorite book was Thoreau’s Walden - ended up in journalism covering executions and then wars, with a cigarette case signed by both Gandhi and Hitler.
You can read Miller's autobiography for free at the Internet Archive.
The Dowagiac Area History Museum's "World Wide Webb Miller" virtual exhibit includes photos of the journalist at home and at work.