Watson Heston was a renowned editorial cartoonist who peaked in popularity in the late 19th century, during the Populist political movement
and what Susan Jacoby, in her book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism called “the Golden Age of freethought.” Born in 1846 in Ohio, he lived most of his adult life in Carthage, Missouri, where he died in 1905, survived by his wife Lottie.
He published most of his work in D.M. Bennett’s The Truth Seeker as well as in many regional freethought papers, such as Etta Semple’s Free-Thought Ideal in Kansas.
Not much is known about him. Along with cartooning he also did painting and photography, but no samples of either seem to exist (at least
according to the diligent archivists at the Powers Museum in Carthage). He died in ill health, having to solicit money because of his poverty (readers of The Truth Seeker also took up a collection for him).
He seems also to have been a bit irascible in his temperament. In the obituary published in The Truth Seeker, the writer states that
he was “a genial and companionable man, an able writer as well as artist, and a poet of considerable merit” but also noted that he was not open to criticism about
his drawing style, it being “his misfortune not to be docile under instruction.” The editor even went so far as to take him to New York for art instruction,
“but the venture was not a gratifying success, and the ‘coarseness’ of his work, of which many readers complained, was not modified.” (More on his
style in a moment.)
But despite these “shortcomings” (apparently, Heston did not see them as such - as the obit writer said, “he was satisfied
with the degree of skill he possessed, and seemed to regard attempt at improvement a waste of strength and time”), the writer couldn’t help but acknowledge that
“his work was unique [and that] what he did was never so successfully attempted by any other man.” Unfortunately, swimming against the current of the country’s
obsessions with religion, empire, and capitalism may have brought him some fame, but it did not bring him fortune.
He published three books in his life, The Old Testament Comically Illustrated (1892) and The New Testament Comically Illustrated (1898) as well as The freethinkers' pictorial
text-book: showing the absurdity and untruthfulness of the Church's claim to be a divine and beneficent institution and revealing the abuses of a union of church and
state (1896), a critique of the involvement of religious clergy in politics, calling for strict separation of church and state. None of these had great sales, though it was estimated that The
Bible Comically Illustrated published in 1900 by Truth Seeker Company sold 10,000 copies (some of which pop-up occasionally on eBay and similar sites).
Watson did try to promote his work through advertisements in publications. In one, “the well known cartoonist and artist makes fine
portraits,” and in another, an advert for the Text-book states that the book “contains two-hundred full-page illustrations, any one of which would throw an orthodox clergyman or a Catholic priest into spasms…” But it seems that he never did have much luck in these ventures. Even The
Truth Seeker, after working with him for a dozen years, discontinued the cartoons “on account of the expense of producing them, and because, though praised, they
brought no returns corresponding with their cost.”
To be sure, he has a “rough” style, though, as with any of these aesthetic terms, the adjective says more about the speaker than
the object. He crams a lot into his frame, and it takes some time to parse what he lampoons (most of which will not be readily familiar since nothing dates quite as quickly as
political squabbles). But it’s not hard to get his overall attitude to his subject matter, especially when it came to religion. He was a Thomas Paine man through and
through, and he not only detested what he saw as the superstitions at the heart of every religion but also the way these religions, especially the Catholic Church, wanted to
impose their belief systems on others and get government subsidies as well. (Many of his illustrations concern the fight over Catholic parochial schools.) He bombarded what he
saw as hypocrisy and venality.
He also seemed to get a kick out of punching holes in the Bible’s claims of authority, primarily by doing nothing more illustrating
the literalness of the text. If 2 Kings 2:23, 24 says that Elisha sat and watched two female bears rip apart 42 children, then that’s what he drew. The absurdity of the
tales requires no more commentary than showing it fully drawn out.
I think it is time to bring Watson back. We could use his editorial irritability, his impatience with all forms of theological thought (be
they religious or political), his belief that reason has curative powers. This is why I’m working on a project to gather his work together and get it up on web. If any
reader has any leads on him and his work, please get in touch with me.
In the meantime, as a starter, look up his too-short entry in Wikipedia and you’ll see what I mean.