The Murder of the Century
is a 2011 narrative nonfiction work by prolific author Paul Collins. It covers the simultaneous phenomena of the grisly 1897 murder of William Guldensuppe and the questionable “yellow journalism” practices that were born in the process of solving the crime. Collins uses dialogue from newspaper clippings as well as interviews and recordings to drive the drama in this fast-paced, convoluted story.
The book starts with an ominous declaration: “It was a slow afternoon for news.” It is 1897, and a group of boys discovers a package in New York’s East River containing a male human torso. At the morgue, doctors determine that a medical student did not dissect the torso, which appears to be hacked by a saw.
Another man is out picking berries with his sons when one of them finds a package containing human legs and arms. Detective Arthur Carey is assigned the case. He thinks the key to solving what now appears to be a murder is to track down the cloth that wrapped the body parts. When he visits a few shops to look for clues, he finds that reporters have already been snooping around.
At the time of the discovery of the body parts, two big papers dominate the news cycle in New York City: The New York Journal
, run by William Randolph Hearst, and The New York World
, run by Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer has already earned his fame by turning news into entertainment, and runs his paper from the comforts of his home. Hearst, who is still getting started, prefers to put himself in the heart of the action. A war begins between the two papers. The Monday after the body parts are discovered, the World
publishes a story with gruesome details and photos of the crime.
Ned Brown, a reporter at the World
, notices that the hands of the body are smooth, while the torso is muscular, and is reminded of the masseurs who have massaged him after work in the Murray Hill Baths. He visits the baths and learns that one masseur, William Guldensuppe, has not shown up in a few days. Disguised as a soap salesman, Brown is able to enter the apartment of Mrs. Augusta Nack, a tenacious German immigrant who is Guldensuppe’s alleged ex-lover. While at the apartment he steals a photo of Guldensuppe.
In a mistake by the World
, Brown’s scoop is buried on the second page and fails to gain attention. Hearst, however, sees Brown’s story and immediately flees to Nack’s apartment on bicycle. He proceeds to rent and occupy her apartment so that no rival reporters can access it. He floods the surrounding area with what he calls a “Wrecking Crew”; a mass of reporters, artists, and bystanders who supply him with constant information. In competition, the World
runs an ad offering $500.00 to whoever can solve the mystery of the murdered man. Unfazed, Hearst’s reporters scour the city to find the cloth in which Guldensuppe’s body parts were wrapped. They eventually find a shop in Astoria that claims to have sold the cloth to Mrs. Augusta Nack.
Nack is taken into custody. The police interrogate her by throwing the sack containing Guldensuppe’s legs in front of her. Gossip surrounding the case spreads through the media circuit. Allegedly, Nack and Guldensuppe were lovers, but she is now dating a new man named Martin Thorn. Unable to accept Nack’s new lover, Guldensuppe beat Thorn on several occasions, spurring the motive for his murder.
Although they now have a lead, detectives need the head of the butchered body or a crime scene to make certain that Nack and Thorn are the killers. A man in Woodside finds ducks tinged with blood after swimming in a ditch near a vacant home. The home is rented to a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Braun. In the fireplace of the apartment investigators find a man’s shoe. When neighbors are questioned and shown a picture of Nack, they identify her as “Mrs. Braun.”
Finally, the story comes out. The couple had lured Guldensuppe to the vacant rental and shot and dismembered him there. After that they encased the head in plaster and threw the remaining body parts in the river, where they washed ashore. The head is never found, despite efforts by both the World
and the Journal
to locate it.
The news coverage and antics surrounding the case become even more sensational after this discovery. A local wax museum performs reenactments of the crime. A local publisher writes a book about the crime before the trial is even over. Nack starts charging 25 cents admission to gawkers and reporters at her prison cell.
The case goes to trial that same year and feels more like a theater production than a murder trial. Seventy-two extra benches are made to accommodate reporters. The court arranges carrier pigeons to deliver courtroom sketches to reporters so that the papers can stay up to date.
At the trial, the once united Nack and Thorn turn on each other and start hurling accusations. Thorn claims that Nack uses her midwifery services as a front for illegal abortions. In the end, Thorn’s infamous lawyer, William Howe, is unable to win the case for Thorn. He is sentenced to death by electric chair in Sing Sing prison. Nack, who confesses to the crime, is sentenced to twelve years in Auburn Prison, and serves ten.
Ultimately, doubt remains over whether Nack and Thorn are Guldensuppe’s actual killers. Collins asserts that yellow journalism still permeates our culture, and that reportage is meant to sell stories and is not always factual. In the words of the Willamette Week
, Collins reminds us that “we have often been just as we are: fools for spectacle, short of memory, cheered by the invigorating shock of the immoral.”