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How A New York 'Murder' Sparked The Tabloid Wars

In 1897, New York was a town of many newspapers in which the<em> <em>New York </em>World,</em> the <em>New York Journal,</em> the <em>New York </em><em>Herald,</em> the <em>New York </em><em>Post</em> and more competed for the public eye.
Library of Congress
In 1897, New York was a town of many newspapers in which the New York World, the New York Journal, the New York Herald, the New York Post and more competed for the public eye.

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.

Paul Collins is an assistant professor of English at Portland State University and the "literary detective" for NPR's <em>Weekend Edition</em>.
/ Crown Publishing
Crown Publishing
Paul Collins is an assistant professor of English at Portland State University and the "literary detective" for NPR's Weekend Edition.

"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."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.