Cover art by Jonathan Canamar. Back cover art by Dominic DeVenuta damedeeso / Getty Images

History lesson time, motherforkers! In my continuing battle to educate the public on how print media works, today’s seminar is titled, “How the Mercury Got Its Stupid Name.” It was the early 2000s. Lizzie McGuire was in, JNCO jeans were out, and a brash upstart newspaper was preparing its Portland debut. A sister paper to Seattle’s the Stranger, this alternative weekly was intent on choosing a name that was equally memorable... so why the hell did we decide on a snoozy name like the Mercury? Here’s the real scoop!

For months, our young, small staff of inexperienced inebriants debated the merits of at least 30 names that would attempt to represent the fun, entertaining, and informative nature of our paper... some of which were more reasonable than others. Here are some of the more unfortunate ideas that actually made the list: The Holy Name of Jesus Newsletter, Read It and Weep, Teenage Booze Party Gazette, and Ross Island Gravel Pit Week. Frustrated with our inability to choose a name, we began researching old-timey Portland newspapers for inspiration—and stumbled upon the Sunday Mercury.

Born in 1869 when Portland was a young, burgeoning metropolis brimming with drunken sailors, corrupt cops, and a thriving sex industry, this old-timey Mercury chose a different route than its stale, pious competitor, the Oregonian, by focusing on the holy trinity of tabloid journalism: gossip, sex, and violence. Stories of leprosy epidemics among the hoodlum class, prisoners chewing off the nostrils of their cellmates, fishermen capturing sea serpents in jars, and insane tailors (?) were everyday entries in this free-spirited and successful journal—until an incident in 1893 when they pushed their pursuit of the truth too far.

When the paper accused wealthy local lawyer Col. C.E.S. Wood of engaging in a sordid extramarital affair (and thoughtfully providing lots of juicy details), the powerful, politically connected Wood had the editors, pressmen, and all 56 newsboys (!!) thrown in jail. While the employees were later released, the court sentenced each of the Mercury’s editors to a year in jail and a $1,500 fine—a move that helped force the paper out of business.

The Oregonian, always thrilled by the demise of a competitor, was quick to drive the final nail into the paper’s coffin, remembering the Mercury as “insidiously demoralizing” and “unspeakably offensive,” while adding, “it is not probable that the Mercury will ever resume publication.”

Well surprise, buttholes! While we may not be related to the original Mercury by blood, we know a good name and mission statement when we hear one, which is why we chose the name of this historical and wildly entertaining periodical as our own. And while we admit there’s a disturbing lack of stories about nostril-eating prisoners, captured sea serpents, and insane tailors in these pages, we’re sure you’ll find something in the Mercury that you’ll lovingly call “unspeakably offensive”—’cuz like our forefathers, that’s just how we roll! (At least until I’m eventually thrown in jail. Maybe I’ll see you there? If so, stay away from my nostrils.)

Yer pal ,

Wm. Steven Humphrey


Portland Mercury