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The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars

by Paul Collins

Pub Date: June 14th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-59220-0
Publisher: Crown

Collins (English/Portland State Univ.; The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Changed the World, 2010, etc.) unpacks a sensational 1897 murder case that fascinated the public as it played out across the front pages of the New York City’s leading newspapers: Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

The tabloids would go beyond mere coverage of the story; the white-hot rivalry between the papers led to an astoundingly proactive agenda that saw reporters actually outflanking the police investigation and effectively solving much of the case. After a group of children discovered the ghastly severed trunk of William Guldensuppe, a Turkish bath-house attendant, the rival news organs spared no expense to ferret out the culprits, eventually tracking the purchase of an oilcloth used to wrap the torso to Mrs. Augusta Nack, a German immigrant midwife and rumored back-room abortionist. Guldensuppe had been Nack’s lover before being replaced by Martin Thorn, a hotheaded barber. Things failed to progress smoothly. The manipulative, spider-like Nack and the handsome, violent Thorn are compelling villains, and other players, such as Thorn’s grandstanding lawyer William Howe (a vain, corpulent charlatan of oratory brilliance), the pathetic John Gotha, Thorn’s former friend and the prosecution’s chief witness and the maniacally ambitious Hearst round out a thoroughly engrossing cast of characters.  The narrative is wonderfully rich in period detail (readers may gag at the description of the rat-induced stench that filled the courtroom during the trial), salacious facts about the case (Guldensuppe’s killing and dismemberment was a truly heinous crime) and infectious wonder at the chutzpah and inventiveness displayed by Pulitzer’s and Hearst’s minions.

Both a gripping true-crime narrative and an astonishing portrait of fin de siècle yellow journalism.