Joseph Bernard (Joe) Wirges (1897–1972)

Joe Wirges, whose long, colorful career with the state’s oldest newspaper earned him the sobriquet “Joe Gazette,” was a crime reporter of national repute who spent more than half a century writing about crooks and tragedies for the Arkansas Gazette. Wirges started delivering the Gazette to homes as a youngster a few years after John Netherland Heiskell and his brother Fred Heiskell bought the paper in 1902. He became a full-time reporter when he was nineteen and retired fifty years later. He was a natural detective and helped the police break down suspects and solve crimes. During the heyday of the national pulp detective magazines—the 1930s through the 1950s—Wirges was a frequent contributor to, and subject of, journals like True Detective that publicized crime mysteries.

Joseph Bernard Wirges was born on August 17, 1897, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in his parents’ apartment in the historic tower building in MacArthur Park, which was part of the old Little Rock Arsenal. His parents, Joseph Wirges and Mary Renz Wirges, had emigrated from Germany in 1881. His father was superintendent of the Little Rock park. The Wirgeses later moved to Des Arc (Prairie County), where in the 1920s Wirges’s father managed a park and his mother a hotel. Joe Wirges threw the morning Gazette to homes in Little Rock as a child and then graduated to copyboy in the newsroom, delivering news copy and proofs from desk to desk and the composing room. He left the job for a year and returned in 1916. When war in Europe loomed, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army but was rejected for a physical disability. He decided to go to St. Louis, Missouri, and see if he could enlist there and dropped by the Gazette to say goodbye to Heiskell and the staff. Clyde Dew, the managing editor, offered him the job of police reporter at twenty dollars for an eighty-hour week, and he took it. Wirges held the job for fifty years, minus a year off.

In 1921, he married Elizabeth Wollhower. They had four sons, two of whom worked at the Gazette.

The Gazette article about Joe Wirges’s death offered a lengthy description of his life and his work reporting crime, fires, tornadoes, and other disasters:

Those almost 49 years brought Mr. Wirges a wide reputation as a reporter, a friend of lawmen throughout the state, a confidante of criminals and prisoners, an observer of scores of executions, a photographer and a man who was reported to have a sixth sense about crime that often enabled authorities to solve crimes and to nip planned prison breaks in the bud.

One biographer wrote after his 1966 retirement from the Gazette that policemen and firemen were Mr. Wirges’s principal cronies. “Yet he’d spend hours on end visiting with prisoners, parolees and suspects. The information he got in these sessions never was relayed to authorities except through the columns of the Gazette. The information he obtained from the police never reached the criminals in the form of a tip or a warning.”

Mr. Wirges’s reliability led to enormous confidence in him by police and other law enforcement authorities, who seemed always to know where Mr. Wirges could be reached—even when his office did not. If anything on his beat “broke” during an absence, they never failed to notify him, and throughout his career executions were scheduled at times Mr. Wirges could attend; traffic and justice of the peace courts met at times when accounts of them could appear in the Gazette first, and grand jury reports, confessions and the like were held up for release on Gazette time.”

 

He was friends with prison officials and often spent his week of vacation at one of the prison units, fishing in the Arkansas River that ran by the Cummins Unit or the bayou that ran by the Tucker Unit. He sometimes slept in a Death Row cell and occasionally phoned a story to the Gazette about prison goings-on or a new prisoner, such as the account of the discovery during a physical examination that a new inmate from Sebastian County, David Reginald Van Rippy, who was sentenced for bigamy for having more than one wife, was actually a woman. One suspect in a manhunt surrendered to Wirges in the Gazette newsroom. He escorted the man to the police station.

Wirges was the star of several episodes of The Big Story, the NBC series that ran from 1947 until 1955. It dramatized the work of newspaper police reporters. The narrator, Bob Sloane, interviewed the reporters. The radio series was supposed to recognize reporters whose work had been ignored by the Pulitzer Prize committees. “The Hitchhike Killer” was one such episode; another was the “Jigsaw Crime,” which involved two drifters from Westchester County, New York, whose ramblings ended in Arkansas, where one of them, Walter Beale, killed the other, George Riolo. Wirges’s work helped lead police to the killer in Florida. For each appearance on The Big Story, Pall Mall, the cigarette maker that sponsored the show, paid Wirges $500, which equaled about ten weeks of salary at the Gazette.

Robert W. Pelton’s book Thieves, Con Men and Murderers (2012) relayed the unique role Wirges played in the case of Blanche Palmer, who was convicted of killing her common-law husband in Cross County in 1923. The sheriff brought her to Little Rock by train to be jailed in the state penitentiary in Little Rock. Wirges met them at the train station and drove them to the penitentiary, near the present Arkansas State Capitol, where the guard refused to take her because it was a prison for men only. She had to be taken to the prison farm at Jacksonville (Pulaski County). The sheriff said his obligation was finished and she was on her own. She asked Wirges if he would drive her back to the railroad station. “Of course,” he responded, “hop in.” She waved at Wirges from the train and was never heard from again.

The Gazette’s obituary observed another of Wirges’s skills:

Mr. Wirges was a musician of native if formally untrained talent. On off days (after the Gazette reduced his original seven-day, 80-hour week to six days of 60 hours) Mr. Wirges found himself with time on his hands and would bring his four sons to the Gazette, the Fire or Police Departments for informal concerts of ragtime, polka, waltz, Dixieland and country music. He also was the organizer, first cornet and occasional director of the Little Rock Fire Department Firemen’s Band of the mid-1920s that played at parades, patriotic events, county fairs and summer concerts throughout the state.

Mr. Wirges was a member of a group in the late 1920s called the Original Arkansas Hillbillies. It became popular throughout the Southwest and Midwest because of the exaggerated costumes, gag instruments and ribald humor. Mr. Wirges and his brother John were in the group, but he left it because it interfered with his Gazette work, and Clyde Dew, then the managing editor, gave Mr. Wirges his choice.

Both Wirges and Gazette editor J. N. Heiskell died on December 28, 1972. Adjoining articles about their deaths and interlocking careers appeared on the front page of the Gazette. Wirges is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Little Rock. One of his sons, Gene, became the publisher and editor of the Morrilton Democrat. Gene Wirges’s crusade against the Conway County political machine and election fraud in the 1960s and 1970s made national headlines.

For additional information:
Jones, Janie Nesbitt. The Arkansas Hitchhike Killer: James Waybern “Red” Hall. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2021.

McCord, Bob. Interview with Ken Parker, April 1, 2002. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas. Oral and Visual History. https://pryorcenter.uark.edu/project.php?thisProject=2 (accessed November 5, 2021).

Pelton, Robert W. Thieves, Con Men and Murderers. Knoxville, TN: Freedom & Liberty Foundation Press, 2012.

“Police Reporter Dies; Long Career Brought Honors.” Arkansas Gazette, December 29, 1972, p. 1A 3A.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 11/05/2021

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