I picked this book up because of my muted knowledge from history class about the "tabloid wars" and "yellow journalism." I wanted to know more and I like narrative history books. I bought this book used off Amazon.
Title: The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age crime that scandalized a city and sparked the tabloid wars
Author: Paul Collins
Page Number: 324, paperback
Genre: nonfiction, history, true crime
Publisher: Broadway Books , an imprint of Crown Publishing Group which is part of Penguin Random House
On Long Island, a farmer finds a duck pond turned red with blood. On the Lower East Side, two boys playing at a pier discover a floating human torso wrapped tightly in oilcloth. Blueberry pickers near Harlem stumble upon neatly severed limbs in an overgrown ditch. Clues to a horrifying crime are turning up all over New York, but the police are baffled: There are no witnesses, no motives, no suspects.
The grisly finds that began on the afternoon of June 26, 1897, plunged detectives headlong into the era's most baffling murder mystery. Seized upon by battling media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the case became a publicity circus. Reenactments of the murder were staged in Times Square, armed reporters lurked in the streets of Hell's Kitchen in pursuit of suspects, and an unlikely trio — a hard-luck cop, a cub reporter, and an eccentric professor — all raced to solve the crime.
What emerged was a sensational love triangle and an even more sensational trial: 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. The Murder of the Century is a rollicking tale — a rich evocation of America during the Gilded Age and a colorful re-creation of the tabloid wars that have dominated media to this day.
Paul Collins has written other books, including one of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton's feud and duel. I think that looks great. This book was also an Edgar nominee which is an award that I tend to enjoy.
So the crime (and this book) begins in the summer of 1897 in New York City. It deals with a dismembered man, the murder trial that resulted and the two tycoon's (Hearst and Pulitzer) paper's wars. The two papers upped their sensationalism during the investigation and trial in order to pull readers.
The victim was identified as William Guldensuppe, who worked as an attendant at a Turkish Bath. Turkish Bath's were all the rage up until the 1930's I think (at least in the US) but annoyingly the closest one to me is about a ten hour drive. Guldensuppe was in a relationship with a woman named Augusta Nack (a local midwife who performed back street abortions). Nack was also involved with another man, named Martin Thorne. Thorne and Nack were later tried for Guldensuppe's murder. The New York Daily News (I'm not totally sure on the source tbh) has a write up of the case, titled "The Scattered Dutchman."
While parts of the book deal with the case, the culture in NYC during this time, the politics that shaped the city, it mostly studies the two newspapers who were in stiff competition during this time. One was called the New York (Evening) Journal, which was owned by William Randolph Hearst. The other was the New York (Evening) World, which was owned by Joseph Pulitzer.
The Journal (Hearst) employed Nellie Bly. Hearst is also recorded saying, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war," about the Spanish-American war. Hearst employed a "wrecking crew" which is a precursor to "team reporting" of today.
The World (Pulitzer) also employed Bly, exposed the KKK, published the first crossword puzzle and some of the first comics. The paper has been revived (in name only) by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Both the World and the Journal published the comic, The Yellow Kid, which gave rise to the term "yellow journalism". I love learning the origin of terms. The book records the Spanish Prime Minister saying, "The Newspapers of your country seem to be more powerful than your government."
In a way, because of the meddling and over-involvement of the two papers, the crime was solved. The journalists followed up on tips (re: the carpet pattern fibers) and visited the morgue with tips trying to get an identification on the victim. Forensic science at the time was starting in the modern way, a new method was being used in Europe (although considered suspicious in NYC) called fingerprinting.
I found the writing flowed and the plot well structured. Other people mentioned the overuse of idioms, so I suppose that's something to note but I breezed over them. Certain aspects are only touched on (the politics of the time) or what other newspapers were doing (The New York Times was refusing to join in the tabloid wars...and it's still active). I wanted to know much more (how popular were bath houses? what happened to the police force, when did they change? forensic science, etc?) but it's impossible to fit all these topics in one book and keep the length rational. This type of writing style is called "creative nonfiction narrative", so it reads like a novel.
I gave this book four stars as I enjoyed it but I found a few times the writing rushed and certain aspects were not thoroughly explored. The book is a great explanation of the tabloid wars (over a forgotten crime) and showing a city on the verge of change (forensically, politically, etc.) during the Gilded Age.
NPR (National Public Radio, the public radio of the USA...if you're unaware) did a segment with the author about the book, they also included an excerpt.