How A New York 'Murder' Sparked The Tabloid Wars
Originally published on Thu July 14, 2011 5:16 pm
In summer of 1897, a group of New York kids found a headless torso floating in the East River. At first, the police thought it was a prank being played by medical students, who were known to leave cadaver fingers and limbs lying around just for laughs. But the next day, the lower torso and hips of that beheaded half-corpse washed up along the Harlem River, and it became clear that the wounds were the work of a malicious amateur.
Who cracked the case? Who scrambled facts, myth and suspicion through that boiling New York summer?
According to Weekend Edition's literary detective Paul Collins, it was Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, two newspapers that took a summer murder and turned it into one of the first great newspaper wars.
Collins tracks the progress of that war in a new book, The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that the papers were actually quite helpful in solving the case.
He says New York World reporter Ned Brown provided one of the case's big breaks when he noticed an anomaly: The recovered body was very muscular, but the hands were smooth.
"It didn't seem like someone who was doing what one would usually associate with manual labor and [Brown] eventually realized that where he had seen that was actually in the bathhouses in New York, with the masseurs who really had to put a lot of physical effort in but they kept their skin quite soft," Collins says. "And he started asking around at some of the bathhouses if any of their employees were missing."
In fact, one employee was missing. His name was William Guldensuppe and his death was eventually attributed to his lover, Augusta Nack, and Martin Thorn, a rival for Nack's affections.
And while the World managed to provide the first big break, the Journal aided in its first big arrest.
"The first arrest in the case was basically attempted by two Hearst reporters who jumped onto a moving carriage on Ninth Avenue," Collins says. "As it turned out, they actually needed a policeman to back them up ... they weren't really that good at arresting people."
What A Murder Mystery Did For Journalism
The struggle to beat the other paper to the story also led to new journalistic practices, many of which are still used today. Take, for example, Hearst's "wrecking crew" or what we think of today as team reporting.
"What Hearst figured out was if you sent 10 [or] 20 people onto the scene; if you had artists there; if you had people interviewing members of the crowd — families, any expert that they could grab — you could not only generate one big story, you could generate five or six and spread them across the entire front page," Collins says. "So he really pioneered this approach of blitzing a story."
Meanwhile, Pulitzer was pushing the idea that news could also be entertaining.
"Instead of running lots of stories on the latest tariff bill," Collins says, "[Pulitzer] would run things about celebrities, about sports, about crime, and he put in things like a comic section."
Collins says that because of the innovations and changes of that era, it was in some ways a golden age for journalism. But considering the popularity of yellow — or questionable — journalism, that designation should be taken with a grain of salt.
"Yellow journalism actually brought an extraordinary amount of energy and liveliness to reporting," he says. "They took the news and they made it compelling. They actually made it entertaining. By the same token, I think the tragedy of yellow journalism is they took news and they made it an entertainment — and we've had to live with that, too."
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
In summer of 1897, long before Whitey Bulger pulled off his first heist, a group of New York kids found a headless torso - not the topless bar - but wrapped in a package afloat in the East River. The cops said it must be a prank by medical students, who often left fingers and limbs just for laughs in doorways and cigar boxes. But the next day, the lower torso and hips of that beheaded half-corpse washed up along the Harlem River, and the amputation wounds were clearly the work of an amateur driven by malicious, not youthful mischief.
Who cracked the case and who scrambled facts, myths and suspicion about it all through a boiling summer? The World, The Herald and the Evening Journal.
Paul Collins, our literary detective on Weekend Edition who teaches at Portland State University, has written a book about what turned a summer murder into one of the first great newspaper wars - "The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars."
Paul Collins joins us from Portland. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. PAUL COLLINS (Author, "The Murder of the Century"): Oh, it's good to be here.
SIMON: So what are all the elements that - in addition to a ghastly crime, what fueled this great newspaper war?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, it was a crime that came along just at the point really when William Randolph Hearst was actually launching an evening edition of his newspaper and really trying to go head-to-head with the other great news baron of New York, which was Joseph Pulitzer and his New York World.
And so in a way when this case came along Hearst decided if the other newspapers weren't going to solve it and if the police weren't going to solve it, he would.
SIMON: Now, in fact, it was a reporter at the World, Ned Brown, who saw something on the headless torso that got him thinking. He noticed an anomaly.
Mr. COLLINS: Yeah, he noticed that this was a very muscular body. But the hands seemed very smooth. So it didn't seem like someone who was doing what one would usually associate with manual labor.
He eventually realized that where he had seen that was actually in the bathhouses in New York, with the masseurs who really, you know, had to put a lot of physical effort in but they kept their skin quite soft. And he started asking around at some of the bathhouses if any of their employees were missing.
SIMON: Let's throw some names into it. Willie Guldensuppe turned out to be the headless masseur. Arrested and charged with contributing to his demise were Augusta Nack, who was a midwife who happened to be his lover, and Martin Thorn, a rival for Augusta's affections.
What was driving the investigation - the police or the newspaper war?
Mr. COLLINS: It was very much the newspaper war, because initially, the police, they really didn't want to have to deal with it because it didn't look like a case that could be solved very readily for one thing. And also the police had just come off really a whole series of scandals. And they didn't need another headache.
So Hearst was really the prime mover on this. Pretty much the day after the first part of the body was found he had grapplers out on the East River dragging the river. He created what he called the murder squad. It was a group of reporters he not only charged with finding clues, but if necessary arresting people.
And, in fact, the first arrest in the case was basically attempted by two Hearst reporters who jumped onto a moving carriage on Ninth Avenue.
SIMON: Tell us about Hearst's wrecking crew, as they were called.
Mr. COLLINS: It had kind of, I think, been the practice for a lot of papers to send a reporter or two over when a story was breaking. And what Hearst figured out was if you sent 10, 20 people onto the scene - if you had artists there, if you had people interviewing members of the crowd, families, any expert that they could grab - you could not only generate one big story, you could generate five or six and spread them across the entire front page. And so he really pioneered this approach of blitzing a story.
And that's what the wrecking crew was. It was this mob of reporters that would pour out anytime they got word that something big was happening.
SIMON: It's now what respectable news organizations call team reporting.
Mr. COLLINS: That's right.
SIMON: You know, William Randolph Hearst, who owned the Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer, who ran the World, are often considered to be just about as different as Bill O'Reilly and Arianna Huffington. But were they really?
Mr. COLLINS: You know, it's funny. In a way, Hearst really didn't invent much in terms of his approach to reporting, because really what Pulitzer figured out was that news could be entertaining.
Instead of running lots of stories on the latest tariff bill or the doings of local worthies, he would run things about celebrities, about sports, about crime, and he'd put in things like a comic section.
I think the reason we view them a bit differently today is that Pulitzer came to regret somewhat what he had helped create.
SIMON: Was there a lot the newspapers got wrong?
Mr. COLLINS: What surprised me in looking through it was how much they got right. That said, they were not above doing things like manufacturing evidence. At one point in the late summer around August of 1897 when the case started to drag a little bit, people in Woodside, basically the neighborhood of Queens where a lot of this unfolded, started finding things like derby hats with bullet holes in them and daggers, things that appeared to be clues to the crime, except they were finding them in areas that people had combed over hundreds of times already.
And it emerged that somebody had paying employees of the local water company $1 a clue to plant clues around. Most people had just two guesses as to who that was. It was probably either the World or the Journal.
SIMON: Was this really some kind of golden age of journalism or something else?
Mr. COLLINS: I think it was a bit of both. Because on the one hand, yellow journalism actually brought an extraordinary amount of energy and liveliness to reporting - visuals, interviewing people at the scene, interviewing family, experts, neighbors, even getting that kind of first-person narration by the reporters themselves.
Those were all things that were really kind of pioneered in this era in a lot of ways. They took the news and they made it compelling. They actually made it entertaining. By the same token, I think the tragedy of yellow journalism is they took news and they made it an entertainment and we've had to live with that too.
SIMON: Paul Collins, our literary detective on WEEKEND EDITION, and his new book, "The Murder of a Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars." Paul, thanks so much.
Mr. COLLINS: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.