The Murder Of The Century: The Guilded Age Crime That Scandalized A City & Sparked The Tabloid Wars, by Paul Collins
Is the crime detailed here the crime of any century? No. Can it be be said that this crime sparked the tabloid wars? No, although they certainly were a part of the tabloid wars, given the interest the press had in writing about the crime and in imagining themselves to be detectives involved in solving it in their various speculations and shenanigans. Indeed, the title of this book reveals, perhaps not entirely intentionally, the sensationalism that is involved in the press. While the author subtly tries to position the New York Times as being above this tabloid craze, the contemporary reader will know all too well that no New York journalism is immune from lying and exaggeration and other woes. This is a book which owes its evidence to the self-aggrandizement of reporters for New York’s tabloid rags, and the author both wittingly and unwittingly allows himself to get caught up in the exaggeration of his sources and the result is a book that reveals the corrupting influence of the press on law and order in New York and how it is that ordinary people get caught up in the fascination with crime and in the biased views of crime and punishment.
This book is between 250 and 300 pages long and it is divided into five parts and twenty-five chapters as well as other material. The author begins with a note on the text, then discusses the victim (I), looking at the mystery of body parts fished from the river (1), a detective reading the paper (2), the jigsaw man and how most of his body was found (3), the wrecking crew (4), and a look at “Jill the ripper” (5), the deceased’s estranged partner. This is followed by a series of chapters on the suspects (II), starting with a baker in Hell’s Kitchen (6), and then moving to the undertaker’s neighbor (7), he widow’s friend (8), a disappearing shoemaker (9), and a silent customer (10). After this follows a discussion of the indictment (III), including chapters on the seriousness of the case (11), and the machinations involving jury selection and dealing with the accused and the media circus around the case. After that there are some chapters on the trial itself (IV), which actually was two trials because the first trial was interrupted by a juryman who happened to fall perilously ill, which led to a drastic change on the part of the prosecution and the defense in dealing with the trial. Finally, the book ends with a discussion of the verdict and the aftermath of the case, as well as notes about sources.
Even if this book is exaggerated and there is lot not to like about it, that does not mean that it is without value. If you are fond of true crime stories, this book gives plenty of evidence of how it is that the press has subtly corrupted the investigation and prosecution of crime for a long time, as newspapers purchased properties and sent reporters out to look for clues and touted their own theories about what had happened and why and sought scoops to increase their circulation numbers. It is not so much that this book can be taken at face value, because the author is dependent on newspaper archives for his sources, and the book itself reveals how unreliable such sources are, but rather that the book reveals the problematic nature of the New York press in such a way that it encourages the reader to be suspicious of journos to the present-day, which is striking given the author’s own background in journalism. It is lamentable, and seemingly unforeseen by the author that a celebration of tabloid journalism could very easily lead to less fondness of the tabloid rags of the contemporary yellow press, but there you have it.