Penny Reader

Tom Hanks’s role in a new movie is based on a real-life historical figure of the 1800s.

by Vince Farinaccio

In the opening sequence of the new Paul Greengrass film News of the World, Tom Hanks’s character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, is readying himself for a public appearance before a waiting audience seated at a town hall in 1870 Texas. Kidd is neither an actor nor a musician. He travels from town to town earning a living as a reader of news.

In essence, Kidd is a storyteller. He knows how to deliver a good narrative plucked from the pages of various newspapers. Articles with just the right portions of drama, human interest and, on occasion, political button-pushing serve as his muse, and he knows where to insert a pause and how to elicit a laugh or gasp from his listeners by properly pacing the information he imparts. For a 10-cent fee, Texas listeners could thrill to news from the East or West coasts and places beyond and in between, including their own region. Kidd even uses the Philadelphia Inquirer as a source.

It’s an alluring opening to this Greengrass Western, but it’s also based on historical precedent. Author Paulette Jiles, whose novel News of the World is the basis for the movie, explained that Kidd’s character is based on a real-life figure. “A friend of mine’s great-great-grandfather whose name was Adolphus Caesar Kydd actually traveled around North Texas in the 1870s and read aloud from newspapers published in distant places,” she told the Lit Hub website in 2016 at the time of the book’s release. “Captain Kydd/Kidd is the only person I have ever heard about who did that.”

Jiles’s Kidd first appeared in her novel The Color of Lightning, but according to the author, he “was too good to let go, so I gave him a story all to himself.”

Whatever happened in the historical Kydd’s past isn’t known, but his fictional counterpart ran his own printing business prior to his time serving as a captain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After the South’s defeat, he had no prospects of reviving his trade and sought an alternative livelihood in bringing people the news through readings.

The idea may have been based on England’s 19th century tradition of penny reading, the origin of which can be traced to the 1850s. According to online sources, various individuals, including Charles Sulley, a newspaper editor in Sussex, and Reverend James Fleming of Bath, are credited with originating the penny reading.

But Kidd’s British counterpart might be Samuel Taylor, a manual laborer who, according to online sources, began publicly reading William Howard Russell’s dispatches about the Crimean War from The Times newspaper in 1854. His forum was a marketplace in Hanley that drew large crowds of listeners to his presentations.

Taylor’s readings were eventually moved indoors. Town halls began to serve as his venue of choice and, by 1856, he had developed a more elaborate and varied program for those who attended. In addition to the news, patriotic readings were added along with music to provide a variety of evening entertainment.

Initially, Taylor’s readings were free but, with the growing popularity of his performances, the admission fee of a penny was implemented to limit the amount of attendees.

The Times, which benefitted from such readings since its articles were featured by Taylor, promoted his appearances. It seems Taylor also reaped other benefits from his endeavor—online sources explain that he eventually was hired by the Staffordshire Sentinel newspaper.

The popularity of Taylor’s appearances resulted in a penny-reading boom during the late 1850s in England and the creation of “penny classes,” which provided educational presentations. But by the start of the 1870s, shortly after the fictional Kidd began his news readings, the British movement had become, in the words of one critic at the time, “frivolous.”

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