The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins opens with a truly terrifying statement: “It was a slow afternoon for news.” After all, we all know what kind of gems pop up on the local and national news when there is no “real” news.
It wasn’t to remain slow for long.
The Murder of the Century has two distinct but certainly related focuses. First is to detail the horrific murder of a man, most likely William Guldensuppe. The year was 1897, and it was summer in New York City. Body parts—a torso, arms, legs, all from the same body—were found scattered across the New York landscape. The only thing missing: the head.
It was a brutal crime with “no witnesses, no motives, no suspects”. But that didn’t stop a trial from taking place: “an unprecedented capital case hinging on circumstantial evidence around a victim whom the police couldn’t identify with certainty, and who the defense claimed wasn’t even dead”.
Let’s face it—if made for TV movies and/or the Lifetime Network had been around in 1897, this crime would have quickly made its way to television. It had all the elements: romance, a love triangle, suspects who became celebrities, violence, a sensational trial, and a great cast of characters—cops, reporters, a college professor, and media moguls.
But the very best stories need an angle and that’s the book’s second focus: the media. Collins takes the stance, and does a good job proving, that this trial started the “tabloid wars that have dominated media to this day”.
Most likely, the reader is supposed to ponder which is more disturbing—the crime and the suspects or the media. The murder was gruesome. One report suggested “the leg stumps had been boiled” and “the body had been washed, and the blood removed before it was wrapped up”. During the trial, the prosecution maintained “that Guldensuppe ‘snored’ in the bathtub even after Thorn had begun to turn the knife”. Allegedly, Mrs. Augusta Nack, another of the suspects, performed illegal abortions and preserved the remains in jars to sell to medical students. Definitely some creepy stuff.
Is the actual crime more disturbing than what the papers were doing and saying about it? As Collins notes: “But where some saw horror, others sensed opportunity”. And clearly the tabloids saw opportunity.
Tabloid journalism was now happy. The slow news days had vanished: “It had been a splendid season for news. Along with this swell murder here in the north, Hearst also had a huge promotion to send a team of Journal cyclists eastward to Italy, an exciting gold rush out west, and from the south a bubbling Cuban rebellion again the dastardly Spanish.”
The tabloid journalism Collins describes ranges from the downright scary to the slightly ridiculous. “Newspaper readers worldwide [were] deputized into the dragnet”, and the “wanted” postings created by the papers not only gave the name, height, and weight of the suspected killer but also the extremely pertinent information the he was “an expert pinochle player and a first-class barber”.
At other times, the tabloids seemed to treat the crime as their own personal game of Clue or perhaps a 19th-century version of reality television. One announcement read:
The World will pay $500 in gold for the correct solution of the mystery concerning the fragments of a man’s body discovered Saturday and Sunday in the East River and in Harlem. All theories and suggestions must be sent to the City Editor of the World, in envelopes marked ‘Murder Mystery’, and must be exclusively for the World. Appearance of the solution in any other paper will cancel this offer of reward.
Naturally, the Evening Journal, not wanting to be outdone, then offered $1,000.
Of course, one has to wonder how many citizens were eager to be deputized, sent in their theories and suggestions, or searched for a 5’8’’ dark haired, pinochle playing suspect. Most likely an embarrassing number.
But the tabloids weren’t just after readership—they wanted power. One publisher commented: “the newspapers are becoming the only efficient police, the only efficient judges that we have”. Another believed “Why just cover the news when you could make it?” The prime minster of Spain scathingly stated: “The newspapers of your country seem to be more powerful than your government,” and Collins relates “[William Randolph] Hearst was inclined to agree. The Guldensuppe case had paved the way for his paper to take it upon itself to shove aside any government, local or national, that moved too slowly to satisfy a pressroom deadline.”
Either story—the crime or the rise of tabloid journalism—would make for a fine book. Combined, they make for an amazing story full of interesting small details. Two of my favorites are: when Collins discusses the use of pigeons to transport courtroom sketches of the trial and; when he relates that Mrs. Nack allowed “curiosity seekers” to come and look at her when she was in prison (provided they pay 25 cents apiece).
In the end, though, the book also reminds us that the craziness associated with today’s media (social and otherwise) isn’t really new. The craziness stays the same—only the mediums change.