MacGahan, Januarius Aloysius

MacGahan, Januarius Aloysius

MacGahan, Januarius Aloysius, 1844-78, American newspaper correspondent. He reported the Franco-Prussian War for the New York Herald and in 1873 penetrated central Asia to join the Russian army against Khiva. An account of the venture, Campaigning on the Oxus (1874), made him famous. He was sent by the London Daily News to investigate the Turkish massacres in Bulgaria, and his dispatches were collected in The Turkish Atrocities in Bulgaria (1876) and were an incitement to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

Januarius MacGahan (1844–1878) was an American journalist and war correspondent working for the New York Herald and the London Daily News. His articles describing the massacre of Bulgarian civilians by Turkish soldiers in 1876 created public outrage in Europe, and were a major factor in preventing Britain from supporting Turkey in the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78, which led to Bulgaria gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Youth and education

Januarius Aloysius MacGahan was born near New Lexington, Ohio on June 12, 1844. His father was an immigrant from Ireland who had served on the Northumberland, the ship which took Napoleon into exile on St. Helena. MacGahan moved to St. Louis, where he worked briefly as a teacher and as a journalist. There he met General Philip Sheridan, a civil war hero also of Irish parentage, who convinced him to study law in Europe. He sailed to Brussels in December, 1868.

MacGahan did not get a law degree, but he did discover that he had a gift for languages, learning French and German. He ran short of money and was about to return to America in 1870 when the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Sheridan happened to be an observer with the German Army, and he used his influence to persuade the European editor of the New York Herald to hire MacGahan as a war correspondent with the French Army.

MacGahan in France, Russia and Central Asia

MacGahan's vivid articles from the front lines describing the stunning defeat of the French Army won him a large following, and many of his dispatches to the Herald were reprinted by European newspapers. By the age of twenty-seven, he was a celebrity. When the war ended, he interviewed French leader Leon Gambetta and Victor Hugo, and, in March 1871, he hurried to Paris and was one of the first foreign correspondents to report on the uprising of the Paris Commune. He was arrested by the French military and nearly executed, and was only rescued through the intervention of the U.S. Minister to France.

In 1871 MacGahan was assigned as the Herald's correspondent to St. Petersburg. He learned Russian, mingled with the Russian military and nobility, covered the Russian tour of General William Tecumseh Sherman and met his future wife, Varvara Elgaina, whom he married in 1873.

He learned in 1873 that Russia was planning to invade the khanate of Khiva, in Central Asia. Defying a Russian ban of foreign correspondents, he crossed the Kyzyl-Kum desert on horseback and witnessed the surrender of the city of Khiva to the Russian Army. There he met a Russian Lieutenant Colonel, Mikhail Skobelev, who later became famous as Russian commander during the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78. MacGahan described his adventures in a popular book, Campaigning on the Oxus and the fall of Khiva. (1874).

In 1874 he spent ten months in Spain, covering the Third Carlist War. In 1875 he voyaged with British explorer Sir Allan William Young on his steam yacht the HMS Pandora on an expedition to try to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The expedition got as far as Peel Sound in the Canadian Arctic before it met pack ice and was forced to return.

MacGahan and his Investigation of Turkish Atrocities in Bulgaria (1876)

In 1876 MacGahan quarreled with James Gordon Bennett Jr., the publisher of the New York Herald, and left the newspaper. He was invited by his friend, Eugene Schuyler, the American Consul-General in Constantinople, to investigate reports of large-scale atrocities committed by the Turkish Army following the failure of an attempted uprising by Bulgarian nationalists in April 1876. (See April Uprising.) MacGahan obtained a commission from the London Daily News, then the leading liberal newspaper in England, and left for Bulgaria on July 23, 1876.

After visiting Philippolis on July 28, and Pestera and Pazardjik on August 1 and 2, MacGahan travelled to the village of Batak, and sent the paper a graphic report of what he saw:

"...We looked into the church which had been blackened by the burning of the woodwork, but not destroyed, nor even much injured. It was a low building with a low roof, supported by heavy irregular arches, that as we looked in seemed scarcely high enough for a tall man to stand under. What we saw there was too frightful for more than a hasty glance. An immense number of bodies had been partially burnt there and the charred and blackened remains seemed to fill it half way up to the low dark arches and make them lower and darker still, were lying in a state of putrefaction too frightful to look upon. It had never imagined anything so horrible. We all turned awaysick and faint, and staggered out of the fearful pest house glad to get into the street again. We waled about the place and saw the same thing repeated over and over a hundred times. Skeletons of men with the clothing and flesh still hanging to and rotting together; skulls of women, with thehair dragging in the dust. bones of children and infants everywhere. Here they show us a house where twenty people were burned alive; there another where a dozen girls had taken refuge, and been slaughtered to the last one, as their bones amply testified. Everywhere horrors upon horrors...

MacGahan reported that the Turkish soldiers had forced some of the villagers into the church, then the church was burned and survivors tortured to learn where they had hidden their treasures. MacGahan said that of a population of seven thousand, only two thousand survived. According to his account, fifty-eight villages in Bulgaria had been destroyed, five monasteries demolished, and fifteen thousand people in all massacred.

These reports, published first in the London Daily News, and then in other papers, caused widespread popular outrage against Turkey in Britain. The Government of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, a supporter of Turkey, tried to minimize the massacres and said that the Bulgarians were equally to blame, but his arguments were refuted by the newspaper accounts of MacGahan.

Following the publication of MacGahan's articles, William Gladstone wrote a pamphlet called Bulgarian Horrors: "I entreat my countrymen," he wrote, "upon whom far more than upon any other people in Europe it depends, to require and to insist that our government, which has been working in one direction, shall work in the other, and shall apply all its vigour to concur with the states of Europe in obtaining the extinction of the Turkish executive power in Bulgaria. Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves....

Russian-Turkish War (1877-78)

The Russian Government, stirred by anti-Turkish and Pan-Slavism sentiment, prepared to invade Bulgaria, and declared war on Turkey on April 24, 1877. The Turkish Government of Sultan Abdul Hamid II appealed for help to Britain, its traditional ally against Russia, but the British government responded that it could not intervene "because of the state of public feeling."

MacGahan was assigned as a war correspondent for the Daily News, and, thanks to his friendship with General Skobelev, the Russian commander, rode with the first units of the Russian Army as it crossed the Danube into Bulgaria. He covered all the major battles of the Russian-Turkish War, including the siege of Plevna and Shipka Pass. He reported on the final defeat of the Turkish armies, and was present at the signing of the treaty of San Stefano, which ended the war.

He was in Istanbul, preparing to travel to Berlin for the conference that determined the final borders of Bulgaria, when he caught typhoid fever. He died on June 9, 1878, and was buried in the Greek cemetery, in the presence of diplomats, war correspondents, and General Skobelev His body was five years later returned to the United States and reburied in New Lexington, and a statue was erected in his honor by a society of Bulgarian-Americans.

MacGahan is still remembered in Bulgaria for his role in winning Bulgarian independence. A street in the capital, Sofia, is named for MacGahan, as is a square in the city of Plovdiv, and streets and squares in several other towns.



  • The Turkish Atrocities in Bulgaria. Letters of the Special Commissioner of the Daily News, J.A. MacGahan, Esq. (London, 1876)
  • MacGahan, Campaigning on the Oxus, and the Fall of Khiva (New York, 1874.)
  • Pundeff, Marin V. Schuyler and MacGahan Before 1876. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Bulgarian Studies, Varna, June 1978.
  • Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 6, pp. 45-46.
  • Monroe, Will S. Bulgaria and Her People. Colonial Press, Boston, 1914.
  • Howe, Henry, Early History of Perry County, Ohio 1888
  • R. Furneaux, "The Siege of Plevna." London 1968
  • D. Walker, "Januarius MacGahan: The Life and Campaigns of an American War Correpsondent," 1988.

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