Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Harold Hering Knerr (1882 – 1949)

by Joe Lex

When the comic strip “The Katzenjammer Kids” debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s Sunday supplement for the “New York Journal” on 12 December 1897, it is unlikely that anyone could have predicted that it would still be syndicated in newspapers and magazines 124 years later in 2021.  If you don’t see it in your local newspaper, go to the Comics Kingdom website and, sure enough, there it is.  I checked it today ( 

Harold Hering Knerr, who is interred at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, was its artist for 35 years – from 1914 until his death in 1949.  When you look at his family history, his becoming a cartoonist is probably one of the last things you would expect.  Harold’s father, Dr. Calphenas Brobst “Calvin” Knerr, was a physician who at age 92 was the oldest graduate of Hahnemann Hospital Medical School when he died in 1940.  His uncle Levi Knerr was also a physician trained at Hahnemann.  His brother Bayard, six years his senior, was yet another a physician.  Another brother, Horace, became a metallurgist. 

His mother was Melitta H. Hering, whose father Constantine Hering (1800-1880) was an early proponent of homeopathic medicine in America and a founder of Hahnemann Hospital; in 1834, Constantine had caused quite a stir in his neighborhood when he brought a fir tree from New Jersey into his house at Christmas time and decorated it with fruits, candies, gifts, and candles, just as he had done growing up in Germany.  It is now acknowledged as the first Christmas tree in Pennsylvania.  You can hear more about him in “All Bones Considered: Laurel Hill Stories” podcast #017, “American Medical Fathers, Part 1 (HERE)”

Harold was born in Bryn Mawr in 1882.  After a brief time in public schools, his parents sent him to Episcopal Academy for two years and then to the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, where he discovered, as he said, “I was not Michelangelo.”  PMSIA, also referred to as the School of Applied Art opened in the Centennial year of 1876 as both a museum and teaching institution.  Classes began in a building at 312 North Broad Street, and soon expanded into the old Franklin Institute (now the closed Philadelphia History Museum), at 15 South 7th Street.  In 1893 PMSIA acquired a complex of buildings at Broad & Pine, vacated by the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.  In 1938, the two institutions split: the museum became the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the school stayed the PMSIA.  In 1964, it renamed itself the Philadelphia College of Art.  After further name changes the school is now the University of the Arts.

While growing up at the end of the 19th century, Harold decided that he wanted to be an aeronaut – in other words, he wanted to fly before there were airplanes.  When interviewed in 1922, he related “My first experience as an aerialist was on a roof, a hipped affair … the roof was next to my father’s home with a galvanized iron gutter at each of the eaves to catch the rain.  It was fun to sit at the peak of the hip and slide down the slate roof, catching with my heels on the gutter.  I really had two chances before falling the 30 feet to the ground.  If I missed with my heels, as I sometimes did, I could catch with my hands, which I always did.  I never fell.  But I was compelled to stop this childish prank by parental authority.  Grown persons are always interfering with the amusement of children.”

“Then I transferred my talents to the dumb waiter.  I would pull myself up to the top of the house and turn loose, thus getting a swift ride to the bottom of the shaft, accompanied by a terrific bump.  Again my parents became nervous and I was forced to desist.  Then I got a glider.  It was great.”

He talked about how he and his friends had some of the first gliders in the country which they would attach to automobiles by ropes and fly like kites when the autos speeded up.

“The gliders were followed by balloons.  Those were days of real sport.  Once the crew I trained with reached a height of 13,000 feet by the simple process of throwing overboard too much sand by mistake.”  He describes how they shot up from 2000 feet after inadvertently dumping a 40-pound sandbag ballast.  Then their descent was so rapid that they avoided a crash only by heaving everything else out of the basket as the balloon deflated, and then skidding through a herd of startled cows before they came to a safe stop.

He continued working on his drawings and sold several to Philadelphia newspapers, including realistic sketches of gravestones “from the city’s oldest graveyard” (Christ Church?) for $3 each.  By 1901, when he was 19 years old, he was drawing color comic strips for three of Philadelphia’s newspapers, many of them “one-shot” features. 

The art of cartooning was in its very early days, and many of the early strips featured artists who were fine illustrators.  The initial drawings were black on white, and the colors were added by the publishers. 

While the origins of comic strips can be traced to the 1820s, it was not until the great newspaper wars between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer during the 1890s that they started to flourish in America.  I talked about an earlier American cartoonist A.B. Frost in a video podcast on YouTube called “A.B. Frost and His Family.”  The first acknowledged newspaper comic strip was “The Yellow Kid,” which appeared in Pulitzer’s “New York World” and then Hearst’s “New York Journal” from 1895 to 1898.  The comic gave its name to the pejorative phrase “yellow journalism,” stories that were sensationalized for the sake of selling papers. 

In 1897, German immigrant Rudolph Dirks introduced a strip starring two German American boys, Hans and Fritz, and their Mamma.  He called it “The Katzenjammer Kids.”  It was based on an 1865 German strip called “Max and Moritz.”  Katzenjammer is a German term meaning “the yowling of cats,” but is also a euphemism for a hangover.  Dirks’ early illustrations were rather crude – even the word balloon had not yet evolved.  In 1902 Dirks introduced “Der Captain,” a boarder, or perhaps live-in companion, for Mamma.  In 1905, he introduced “The Inspector,” an officer of the school system.  It was wildly popular.  Some modern art scholars even claim that Pablo Picasso’s love of “The Katzenjammers” led to his early breakthroughs in cubism on “Portrait of Gertrude Stein” (1905-1906) and “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” (1907).

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Knerr was contributing comics to five different newspapers, including “Mr. George and Wifey.” “Scary Williams,” “Wooly Willie and Little Chief Rain-in-the-Face,” and “Zoo-Illogical Snapshots.”  One of his characters followed Scott Joplin’s introduction of ragtime at the 1904 St. Louis Fair.  The strip was called “The Irresistible Rag – They Must Dance” and featured a grossly caricatured African American musician who delighted in playing catchy ragtime music on his flute and forcing people to dance. 

His biggest success was “The Fineheimer Twins,” which was a blatant rip-off of the Katzenjammer Kids, bad German dialect and all, featuring the mischievous Johann and Jakey.  Knerr penned this one for more than ten years until 1914.

In 1914, Rudolph Dirks left William Randolph Hearst for the promise of a better salary under Joseph Pulitzer.  This was an unusual move, since cartoonists usually went the other way, leaving Pulitzer for Hearst.  Hearst sued and in a highly unusual court decision, he retained the rights to the name “Katzenjammer Kids,” while Dirks retained the rights to the characters.  Hearst promptly hired Philadelphian Harold Knerr to draw his own version of the strip.  Dirks initially renamed his version “Hans and Fritz.”  Anti-German sentiment during the Great War forced him to change his title to “The Captain and the Kids.”  And for the next six decades, two versions of effectively the same comic strip were distributed by rival syndicates in US newspapers.  Dirks version ran until 1979.  This would be the equivalent of two similar comic strips called “Doonesbury” and “B.D. and Boopsie” running in competing newspapers for more than half a century with exactly the same premise, the same characters, and similar artwork.

Harold Knerr, Chicago Examiner, July 4, 1915

Hans and Fritz – one blonde, one brunette – were not mischievous like Dennis the Menace or Calvin; they were downright malevolent, and their audience loved them that way.  Mamma, a plump Fräulein with her dark hair in a triple-bun, was constantly flustered.  The pipe smoking Der Captain, dressed in cartoon sea togs, had a full-face beard and a short temper.  He often had his foot propped on a stool to sooth his aching gout; naturally, his throbbing toe became the target of the boys.  Other characters were added through the years – Rollo Rhubarb, Lena, Miss Twiddle, and Der Captain’s shifty friends “The Herring Boys,” with a name echoing Harold’s own middle name.

The Katzenjammer Kids were such a cultural phenomenon that they became a traveling stage show for children, playing across the United States and Canada for many years; there were Katzenjammer animated cartoons, Katzenjammer dolls, and jigsaw puzzles and cereal box cut-outs and comic books.  They even made it onto US postage stamps and, as satire, into everything from Tijuana Bible eight-pagers to “National Lampoon.”  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, “Playboy” magazine published a satirical comic called “The Krautzenbummer Kids.”

Knerr took advantage of another feature of early cartoons.  Many Sunday comics were permitted to take up the entire page.  A number of artists produced what were called “toppers” – cartoons that would run on the top third of a page so the main feature could have the bottom two-thirds.  Staying with his German roots, Knerr started publishing “Dinglehoofer and His Dog” in 1926, showing the adventures of a kindly German American bachelor – much like Knerr, who never married – and his curious little pup, Adolph.  Eight years into the strip, an orphan boy named Tadpole Doogan joined them, calling the lead character “Mr. Dingy.”  In 1936, events in Germany again affected America’s comic pages and the name Adolph was no longer considered appropriate.  So dog Adolph got “adopted” by a farm family, and a new dachshund puppy named Schnappsy joined the cast.  There was also a family cook and maid named Lilly.  This strip also ran until Knerr’s death in 1949. 

Knerr’s private life was a quiet one.  He had moved to New York City and lived in a hotel apartment for the last few decades of his life.  His name was rarely, if ever, in the newspapers other than on his comic strips.  Now and then he answered fan mail including a letter from a woman reader who asked him to send one of the six fictional pups born to Schnappsy.  Along the way he developed some unnamed heart problems.  On 8 July 1949, a hotel maid using a pass key found him dead on the floor of his bedroom in his pajamas.  He was 66 years old and his only surviving relatives were his brother Horace and sister Mildred.  His remains were interred in the Hering family plot, West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Washington section, Lot 330.  Many artists later, his comic strip lives on, 72 years after his death.  It is the longest running comic in the history of the United States. 



“Katzenjammer Kids’ Secret Is That All Grownups Have,” The News-Democrat, Paducah, Ky.  Sunday, 5 November 1922, page 28

“Harold H. Knerr – of the “Katzenjammers” Tells Times-Dispatch Readers something About Himself,” The Times Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia.  Sunday, 2 Mar 1930, p. 74

“Dr. Calvin B. Knerr Dies at Age of 93,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Monday, 30 September 1940, page 5.

“Harold Knerr, Cartoonist, Dies,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Saturday, 9 July 1949, page 5.

“What Do You Want to Know?  Who originated the Katzenjammer Kids?” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Friday, 19 July 1968, page 21.

“H.H. Knerr” - - accessed 23 August 2021, ©1997 by James R. Lowe

“The Katzenjammer Kids” - - accessed 23 August 2021, ©1997 by James R. Lowe

A.B. Frost and His Family
A.B. Frost was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, where the narrator, Joe Lex, is a volunteer tour guide.

Notes From Nam HERE


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