A terrifically overwrought buildup eventually leads to the turn-of-the-century murder trial and eventual acquittal of New Jersey chemist Roland Burnham Molineux.
Schechter (English/Queens College; The Tell-Tale Corpse, 2006, etc.) delights in setting the scene for this sensational American crime story, avidly and vulgarly publicized by the era’s yellow journalists. Molineux, profligate middle son of beloved Civil War hero General Edward Leslie Molineux, became superintendent and chief chemist in his father’s paint factory in Newark. Good-looking and athletic, Roland was a distinguished gymnast and insinuated himself as an officer at the gentlemanly Knickerbocker Athletic Club. There he ran afoul of club director Harry Cornish. Schechter suggests possible latent homosexual hostility between the two, a thesis supported by Molineux’s evident issues with impotency. He wanted to marry a young upstart singer, Blanche Chesebrough, but she preferred his more virile friend from the club, Henry Barnet. In a grisly turn of events, both Barnet and Cornish were poisoned in late 1898. Barnet died after taking a supposed hangover remedy mailed to him anonymously; Cornish escaped with his life after drinking from a bottle labeled Bromo-Seltzer, also sent by an unknown hand, that killed the cousin he boarded with. Clues gradually began to point to Molineux. The author excitedly notes the lurid coverage of lowbrow newspapers like Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner as a key factor in spreading mass hysteria about the case, which underscored America’s obsession with moral breakdown, sex and the vulnerability of the human body. Schechter describes such new crime-solving techniques as fingerprinting and forensics, and he takes a harrowing look inside Sing Sing’s Death House. Though he rehashes the evidence rather repetitively, crime buffs will relish the extra details.
Skillfully captures a colorful mishmash of New York characters caught up in a moment of extreme public anxiety.