Campaign Outsider Book Review Review

Paul Collins’s new book, The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, looks like a media-watcher’s dream.

From the Wall Street Journal review:

In “The Murder of the Century,” Paul Collins focuses our attention on a New York murder that created a sensation in the summer of 1897. One afternoon a group of boys playing by the East 11th Street Pier found a flashy red-and-gold parcel in the water. They excitedly unwrapped it, but instead of finding something to eat or sell, they discovered a man’s torso. The next day another part of the body was found in an isolated rural area of the Bronx, near 170th Street along the Harlem River.

The inept, corrupt Manhattan police of the time wanted to write the discovery off as a medical-student prank. But the newspapers had put themselves on the trail, in particular Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Pulitzer, whose populist crusading had once put him in the vanguard of journalistic innovation, was fast being overtaken by the rich and rambunctious Hearst, their struggle propelling the era of yellow journalism ever faster toward sensationalism.

What follows is a classic newspaper war: Dueling big-money rewards “to any reader ‘who could deduce a solution'”; a facsimile of the oilcloth wrapping which represented the first time color had been used in a news story; and a “brilliant leap of intuition” by a New York World reporter that led to the identity of the victim.

WSJ review:

Indeed, neither the perpetrators nor the result are in doubt from the early pages of “The Murder of the Century.” It is therefore greatly to Mr. Collins’s credit that he keeps the narrative interesting, moving from investigation, to trial, to sentencing and after. The pace is admirable—he ensures that the reader is up to speed on details of current court procedure, or the politics of fin-de-siècle New York, yet he never becomes bogged down in unnecessary side-issues. His exploration of the newspaper world, at the very moment when tabloid values were being born, is revealing but also enormously entertaining.

Reviewer Judith Flanders does have some quibbles (“One wishes, therefore, that the writing itself rose above the pedestrian. The book too frequently reads as though Mr. Collins was writing hurriedly”).

Overall, though, sounds like a corker.

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