If you’re looking for a grisly tale of murder set in turn of the century New York City starring the forefathers of the people that bring you today’s splashy New York Post headlines, The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars is definitely for you. Well-written history often sounds less believable than fiction, and when a severed, headless torso washes up on the East River shore, we know we’re in for quite a tale.
The Murder of the Century is part murder mystery, though the whodunnit part of the story has fewer twists and turns than one might expect. With the exception of one delightfully devious female character, most of the cops and criminals in the tale are pretty mundane.
The people that really take center stage are the carnival barkers who turn the murder trial into the biggest thing happening in New York: the yellow journalists, led by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Even this plot thread doesn’t quite live up to the promised “all-out newspaper war,” as Hearst just runs the table.
Though Hearst is considered the loose basis for Citizen Kane, the name is more likely to ring a bell for this generation of Deadwood watchers recalling his father, George Hearst, who pursued life with a similarly unrelenting ruthlessness. The Journal reinvents the game by sending packs of seriously smart journalists to dig up clues that elude the hapless police, and then feeding the salacious details New Yorkers’ base appetites.
But Hearst’s dynamism went beyond sniffing out the public appetite for lurid stories and beating his opponents to the punch. There he goes introducing revolutionary color print. There he goes posting lucrative rewards that unleash public frenzies. There he goes rescuing a hostage at sea. He doesn’t just beat his biggest rival, Joseph Pulitzer’s World, he punishes it, humiliates, runs stories on its incompetence.
As if the story needed another larger than life star, about halfway through the story we are treated to one of the most legendary lawyers in New York City history, William Howe, the walrus-shaped, diamond-studded co-star of Howe & Hummel. Howe & Hummel were a feared, respected, and ethically questionable law firm that from the 1860s until the turn of the century defended gangsters, murderers, and the rest of New York’s most notorious. Given a total loser hand, Howe’s legal gymnastics are a pleasure to watch unfold.
Of the alleged killers and suspects, by far the most interesting is Augusta Nack, an abortionist at a time when that was very illegal and quite frowned upon. Ever conniving, she is one of the savvier characters in the drama, especially compared to the bumbling men in her life, and a refreshing alternative to the portrayal of most women in the story, who have to clear the courtroom, in one instance, because the details of the court testimony were supposedly too scandalous for them to hear. (They actually were pretty scandalous.)
The very notion that a murder trial involving otherwise ordinary people could so captivate the public’s attention for weeks on end reminds us that in the era before recorded entertainment, grisly murder trials, especially when spurned lovers are involved, was as good as it got, and the newspaper was really the only way to find out what was going on. This was the age when journos would send breaking news by passenger pigeon, and you got to Queens from Manhattan by boat. As a portrait of New York, it’s the beginning of one era and the end of another.
If you’re not interested in New York City history, journalism, detective stories or the law, this book is not for you, as these central themes drown out all else, but if these topics do interest you, you are in for a treat. Props to my friend Steve, a fellow born and raised New Yorker, and the host of our weekly pick-up basketball game since the late 90s, for recommending this one.