Paul Collins’ book The Murder of the Century:the Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars has a pretty self-explanatory title. It recounts a murder that took place in 1897, and the newspapers that covered the crime for a public that went crazy for every detail. The murder itself was a bit grisly but fairly straight-forward, the result of a love triangle of sorts, with middling participants all-around. The who-done-it aspect of the case was short-lived, as police were able to quickly gather evidence and round up the suspects, and the trial proceeded with just a couple hiccups and a little grandstanding. All along the way, reporters were there watching and meticulously recording everything, and it all went to the presses daily (sometimes several times a day), and a ready public consumed it. Surprisingly little was left to the imagination or went undiscovered. So where’s the story, you might ask? That IS the story!
There is a similarity here to Eric Larson’s Devil In the White City, which told of the murders of Herman Mudgett against a backdrop of the city of Chicago and its architectural flourishing. Murder of the Century is also telling two stories that intertwine: that of the murder of William Guldensuppe, and that of the world of journalism and the amazing changes it was undergoing. In addition to the dead guy and the murderers, Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst are players here, and their actions and one-upmanship create and fuel the ultra-competitive world of big city daily papers. They go well beyond the typical ‘yellow journalism’ that most of us are familiar with. Indeed, Hearst came to believe that it was the duty of the news industry to not only record and publicize the events of the day, but to become involved with them, even to create them. Police aren’t locating the right evidence or questioning the right people? No problem, just create a group of investigative reporters that go and do it themselves! Is there a sympathetic revolutionary being held prisoner in Cuba that would make for a great story? Send a reporter down there to break her out! A bit over-zealous, perhaps, but Hearst was also a genius, backed by loads of money and energy, and he tried a lot of things that helped to shape the news world into what we know today. While the murder, and the stories of those involved in it, are interesting, Hearst’s story and his antics are often the real momentum.
This is an entertaining and quick read, suitable for bedside, breakfast table and beach, in my experience.
Tags: True Crime