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Lurid headlines and the crime that fueled them

Created date

November 22nd, 2011

One of the biggest news stories of 2011 was the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. To feed the public s voracious appetite for news, editors put ethics aside and hacked into the phone messages of a missing British teen, adding another layer of heartache and drama to an already gut-wrenching story. It was big news because it involved one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, media mogel Rupert Murdoch. While the details are very different, the story is oddly reminiscent of a crime committed over a century ago. Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars (Crown, 2011), a nonfiction book by Paul Collins, vividly illustrates that using lurid headlines and misplaced ethics to sell newspapers is nothing new. The book begins in 1897 with a grisly discovery. Two young boys find a human torso wrapped in oilcloth floating in New York s East River. Days later, other body parts wrapped in the same distinctive red oilcloth are found. Without witnesses or the benefit of modern forensic science, detectives quickly classify it as the work of medical school pranksters. When newspapers get hold of the story, however, the public becomes captivated. They want a better answer than students dumping cadavers into the river. While detectives struggle to even identify the victim, newspapers follow their every move.

Competing for readership

As hungry readers clamor for more information, the tabloids deliver with little regard for the truth behind the headlines they print. Soon,The New York Worldoffers a $500 reward to any reader who could deduce a solution. Not to be outdone,The New York Journalups the ante and offers its readers $1,000. Pulling the strings at the World is none other than Joseph Pulitzer. His counterpart at theJournalis William Randolph Hearst. This murder mystery quickly becomes a battleground as two of the richest and most powerful newspaper publishers of all time fight for dominance of the Big Apple. Action that is the distinguishing mark of the new journalism, said Hearst in a written editorial at the time. When the East River murder seemed an insoluble mystery to the police, the journal organized a detective force of its own. A newspaper s duty is not confined to exhortation, but that when things are going wrong, it should set them right if possible. Beyond the newspaper wars,Murder of the Centuryis an engaging read for anyone with an interest in true crime and history. Collins roots the story in the sordid love triangle that led to the murder of the tall, handsome masseur William Guldensuppe, while skillfully leading readers through the police investigation and the media circus surrounding the trial. michele.harris@