The Murder of the Century – Paul Collins

The Murder of the Century – Paul Collings

the murder of the centurySynopsis

On Long Island, a farmer finds a duck pond turned red with blood. On the Lower East Side, two boys playing at a pier discover a floating human torso wrapped tightly in oilcloth. Blueberry pickers near Harlem stumble upon neatly severed limbs in an overgrown ditch. Clues to a horrifying crime are turning up all over New York, but the police are baffled: There are no witnesses, no motives, no suspects.

The grisly finds that began on the afternoon of June 26, 1897, plunged detectives headlong into the era’s most baffling murder mystery. Seized upon by battling media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the case became a publicity circus. Reenactments of the murder were staged in Times Square, armed reporters lurked in the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in pursuit of suspects, and an unlikely trio — a hard-luck cop, a cub reporter, and an eccentric professor — all raced to solve the crime.

What emerged was a sensational love triangle and an even more sensational trial: an unprecedented capital case hinging on circumstantial evidence around a victim whom the police couldn’t identify with certainty, and who the defense claimed wasn’t even dead. The Murder of the Century is a rollicking tale — a rich evocation of America during the Gilded Age and a colorful re-creation of the tabloid wars that have dominated media to this day.

My Thoughts

What I loved most about this book was that it reads as a quintessential murder mystery. Through the use of newspaper archives, and old headlines, Paul Collins sends us on a journey akin to a Sherlock Holmes tale. However, there’s a twist. This tale is told from the perspective of the competing newspaper conglomerates that were vying over New York’s readership. In essence, this is a battle for profit for the newspapers.

What is most baffling – and a bit hilarious – is the fact that, essentially, it was the journalists that put the pieces together and solved this crime. To be fair, policing was not as orderly and militaristic then as it is today. Many officers were hired for the sole purpose of their size – can you break up a bar fight and not get hurt? You’re hired! Police departments didn’t need thinkers, they needed brawlers.

While the journalists put all the pieces together, and effectively solved the mystery of the butchered body found across New York, they did so in order to sensationalize the story. They picked up on every whisper, and every little fragment they could to sell headlines and make a dollar. While this part of journalism may not have changed much (as far as I can tell, in my limited knowledge of the process), what has changed is the extent to which they can – legally – discuss ongoing cases, and investigate on their own.

While the case itself is fascinating, and exquisitely gruesome for the time, the journalistic perspective that spurred it on is even more complex. The system may not function quite like it used to, but if it had not been for their extreme liberties and tabloid-like behaviour, we would not have tales of murder and slander upon which to reminisce of times long passed. It’s almost a shame we don’t have tales of the like anymore.


~ by Aubrey Smith on February 16, 2014.

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