On a scorching summer day in 1897, four New York City boys hanging around the East River piers pulled a tightly wrapped bundle from the water. They hoped it contained clothing or something of value. Instead its contents turned out to be a headless human torso belonging to a freshly murdered man.
The crime, whose grisliness increased with the later discovery of limbs at another spot, baffled detectives, electrified the press and captivated New Yorkers. Paul Collins engagingly recounts the press’s obsessive pursuit of the story, the unlikely alliances that eventually led to the apprehension of the suspects and the trial in which the missing head allowed defense attorney William “Big Bill” Howe (the Johnnie Cochran of his day) to claim that the alleged victim was not dead. “You cannot prove a corpus delicti by patchwork,” Howe said, challenging the prosecutor’s circumstantial evidence.
Collins, a professor of English and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, brings considerable talent to the project. He has an eye for wacky relics of the era such as Dr. Worme’s Gesundheit Bitters, Telephone Headache Tablets and naphtha boats. His scenes set in New York City’s morgue and a visit to the new Loomis Laboratory, featuring the latest tools of pathology and detection, will delight readers familiar with the modern, antiseptic crime labs seen on television. Only an unfortunate fondness for italicized phrases, the purpose of which is never made clear to the reader, distracts from an otherwise fascinating account.
The tale Collins offers up is not a new find. A story this good lived on among old Park Row tales, served as the basis of dime novels and provided fodder for articles and chapters of books. A 1955 retelling by A.J. Liebling, for instance, was dubbed with an archetypal New Yorker headline: “The Case of the Scattered Dutchman.” But Collins, whose interest was piqued by a chance encounter with an 1897 article about faked murder relics, is the first to make it a book.
Collins’s instinct was right. The murder of William Guldensuppe, a Turkish-bath attendant caught up in a love triangle, played an important role in the hurly-burly world of late-19th-century New York journalism, the birthplace of the modern mass media. Enterprising reporting of the case and the attendant sensationalism were precursors of the more famous circulation war in 1898 between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.
But it’s puzzling that Collins fails to tell the larger story of the tabloid war, as promised in the subtitle. One of the main warring parties is absent.
When it came to crime, the legendary journalistic street brawl of the era was fought almost entirely between Hearst’s New York Evening Journal and Pulitzer’s Evening World. Yet Pulitzer’s sheet, which led the pack with 360,000 readers, is nowhere to be found in Collins’s book. Not only is the Evening World missing from the narrative, but according to the author’s notes, he did not even consult it. Instead he pits the morning and evening editions of the Journal against the morning World.
This is not a trivial omission but rather reflects a fundamental misunderstanding. In 1897 the battle between the two newspaper titans was waged in the afternoon, not the morning. The evening newspapers were not warmed-over incarnations of the morning papers. Written and edited by different staffs, they began rolling off the presses at 9 in the morning. When events merited it, editions were published almost hourly and sometimes even late into the night. On any street corner, a New Yorker with a penny could buy a newspaper with news as fresh as the ink.
Collins’s lopsided account of the press war does not hurt his recounting of the murder. And he correctly relates that Hearst’s role in the newspaper skirmish of 1897 made possible his victory in the 1898 circulation battle during the Spanish-American War. In the end, Collins has crafted a work that won’t disappoint readers in search of a book like Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City.” “The Murder of the Century” is entertaining but flawed as a work of history.