True Crime, Journalism; Continent: North America

The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins

  • This year’s October True Crime features a grisly murder in an age when New York’s newspapers did anything for readership
  • 270 pages (324 including Sources, Notes and Index)

Dateline June 26, 1897, New York City – A few bored boys dove into the East River to retrieve a mysterious package wrapped in oilcloth. Their grim find brought forth a crime that would change journalism and build some of the stereotypes that stick with the mystery genre today. The newspapers of New York City had already sponsored Nellie Bly and the search for Dr. Livingstone, but now they were going to amplify public fascination with the murder of William Guldensuppe. Do you know who he was? Of course not. No one did. Even so, New Yorkers of the day watched the details of his murder appear every morning and evening on the front page, above the fold, of every major English-language newspaper available to them. In those days, Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, along with the venerable Herald and the still-unproven New York Times were making a grab at dominance in the United States’ biggest news market using the story no one could ignore.

At the risk of a few spoilers, what wasn’t to love about this story if you were spending one or two cents per day on your news and entertainment? The manner of death was brutal; the love triangle didn’t even involve the benighted husband; and red herrings showed up daily (in fact, the more famous the story, the more “clues” the good people of New York turned in to the police or newspapers). The only thing this tale was missing is poor Guldensuppe’s head. When the alleged murderers finally went to trial, admission to the courtroom gallery was the hottest ticket in New York City. Collins does a magnificent job of capturing mood and public sentiment in the tone of his narrative. That is, he maintains the excitement of spectacle – the tasteless kind you can’t quite look away from – and yet, you can still take seriously what he has to say because his research offers such a complete picture and plenty of food for thought.

“All the News…”

Although nearly every paper in town dedicated some space to the Guldensuppe case – for who among its readers could claim not to have at least a sneaking interest in this sensational crime? – for practical purposes, this case served as the battleground for New York’s two rival publishers of note. Joseph Pulitzer was a tough Hungarian immigrant who built his wealth and reputation on the New York World, the struggling paper he’d purchased from Jay Gould. He wasn’t afraid to spend money to make money (Nellie Bly’s trip around the world had happened on Pulitzer’s bankroll). Of the two publishers who figure prominently in Collins’ story, he is the elder statesman. The other, William Randolph Hearst, had money to burn from his family’s existing wealth, and thought running a newspaper sounded like fun. He bought the New York Journal, also known then as “the chambermaid’s delight”. Hearst turned it around with high-speed presses, salacious headlines, and color print if not solidly respectable journalism.

Part of the fallout from Pulitzer versus Hearst is that the New York newspapers had better budgets and manpower than the city’s police department. When body parts turned up in the East River, the harbor police spent considerable resources dragging the river to no avail. However, Pulitzer’s men upstaged police efforts by hiring the deep sea diver Charles Olsen to look around the river’s bottom. Olsen had no better success than did the police, but the World had a stratospheric boost in circulation during his search.

As another effect of the deep newspaper pockets, legions of reporters turned up everywhere, including Hearst’s “Murder Squad”, tying up access to public telephones and running interference to keep their rivals away from the scoop. The shenanigans used by the two leading papers, Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s, would invent what we know today as “tabloid journalism”. Their questionable ethics inspired New York Times staff to take the high road, adopting the now famous slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

Yes, there’s a murder, and it’s a pretty sick one. But Guldensuppe’s death figures into author Paul Collins’ book mainly so he can talk about journalism on the threshold on the twentieth century. Am I losing you with the whole “condition of journalism” theme? If so, than you’re underestimating Collins’ ability to create a stunning narrative from his many hours of research. Don’t worry, Collins will tell you who killed Guldensuppe. He’ll even put forth a theory that fits the evidence better than what the district attorney’s office eventually used as their story. After all, you can’t resist this grim crime drama any more than could the people of New York City.

Image: William Randolph Hearst, 1906. Source: Library of Congress, public domain.

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2 thoughts on “True Crime, Journalism; Continent: North America

  1. Pingback: Better Together? Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr; Continent: North America | History Reading Challenge

  2. Pingback: Art, Landmarks; Continent: North America, Europe | History Reading Challenge

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