The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars
by Paul Collins
Reviewed by Marc Mohan
A common complaint about journalism is that it focuses on the sordid, gruesome and melodramatic at the expense of "legitimate" reporting. Of course, this gripe is nothing new, as even a glance at the "yellow" journalism of more than a century ago reveals.
When William Randolph Hearst revolutionized the newspaper business in the 1890s, he did so by appealing to the same voyeuristic impulses that keep Nancy Grace on the air. He also left a colorful, detailed first draft of history, one Paul Collins draws upon to great effect in The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars.
Though less notorious these days than the gruesome exploits of Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes (as related in Erik Larson's bestseller The Devil in the White City) or the high-society 1906 murder of architect Stanford White, the killing of William Guldensuppe was the talk of the town during summer and fall 1897 in New York.
The tale begins with the discovery of a parcel containing a headless, legless, mutilated torso floating in the East River; soon another package holding the abdomen and upper legs was discovered in Harlem. Initial suspicion that the gory bits were the work of mischievous medical students gave way to the reality of murder.
It was the sort of sensational story Hearst's New York Journal thrived on, and, especially early in the case, reporters uncovered just as many, if not more, clues than an overworked, unsophisticated police force. (These were the early days of forensic science before fingerprinting was in use in America.) The intense rivalry between the Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World drove them to extremes of investigative journalism and blatant puffery. But it's arguable the crime may never have been solved without their efforts.
Collins, a Portland State University professor and the "literary detective" on NPR's "Weekend Edition," has skillfully utilized contemporary articles, as well as later memoirs by participants, to craft a dialogue-heavy, richly detailed book that reads like a novel and yet maintains a strict fidelity to the facts. (Of course, this is to assume that the quotes he lifts weren't simply invented by Hearst's or Pulitzer's ambitious scribes.) A grab-bag of colorful factoids leaps off the page -- you'll learn the origins of both the term "the third degree" and the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.
The Murder of the Century isn't a case of history with a moral. It won't alter your perception of the past or bring to light some long-buried social injustice. It's simply a fantastic, factual yarn, and a reminder that abhorrent violence is nothing new under the sun -- Guldensuppe's killer(s) hold their own against any of today's monsters. If there's a greater significance to the case, it's found in the rise of Hearst's tabloid empire. About the only thing that could shove this sensational murder trial off the Journal's front page were Hearst's efforts at prodding America into the Spanish-American War; it seems that, as Collins puts it, "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."