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The Murder of the Century

The Murder of the Century is about, as you might guess, a murder. But more than that, it is the story of how journalism became sensationalism and truth learned to play second fiddle to headlines that sell. Long before CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were betting their fortunes on creating a new kind of media.

Ironically, Pulitzer is now remembered for the likes of iconic Pulitzer Prize winning authors, Harper Lee and William Faulkner. But in 1897, he and Hearst all but invented yellow journalism. Pulitzer would spend the end of his life trying to build a different legacy, and Hearst was later immortalized in the movie Citizen Kane.

Behind this is a story of a headless body found in the East River, a new-fangled execution device called the electric chair, and a police department that needs to be whipped into shape by a young man by the name of Teddy Roosevelt. Like so many news stories today, the media becomes the star and the actual players in the murder mystery take a back seat.

In fairness to those players, The Murder of the Century involves a twisted love affair. The principle suspects in the murder are Augusta Nack and Martin Thorn. Mrs. Nack was a mid-wife rumored to have performed hundreds of abortions. Thorn was a barber who had a fling with Mrs. Nack and killed her husband with her help. Or so the story went. Thorn ultimately died in the electric chair, and Mrs. Nack lived like a celebrity in prison for a few years before living out the rest of her life in New York City where she had grown famous.

How the papers covered the story and millions followed it is all but incredible. The papers invented color pictures just for the trial. They even created their own version of Twitter in a telegraph age. Champion homing pigeons were brought from Europe to relay courtroom artists’ sketches back to the newsrooms for mid-day extras.

Author Paul Collins masterfully immerses the reader in a New York City both foreign and amazingly similar to today. Instant news punctuated by sound bites for the masses hungry to be told what to think abounded. In the end, it is likely the real mastermind of the murder walked the streets of New York free for years to come. Mr. Thorn was not so lucky.

“Newspaper may be the first draft of history, but most of what they cover never gets a second draft.” – Author Paul Collins

The previous quote from the book’s afterward should cause all to pause a moment. In this age of instant news offered up in a 24/7 format, there is much to learn from The Murder of the Century. We are each responsible for filtering what passes for news through a reasoned mind. It is our responsibility to determine as best we can what should be accepted as fact and what should not.

Competition between the papers of Hearst and Pulitzer was intense and a bit cut throat. Neither was above inventing facts when none were to be found. Hearst even went so far as to use his own reporters as a kind of mercenary army to aid the rebellion in Cuba. “Remember the Maine” became the battle cry of America in 1898. Unfortunately, the war with Spain that ensued was more manufactured by the media than reality.

The author invokes powerful images of legions of reporters fanning out on their bicycles to either find or make the news. While Mr. Thorn languished in squalid conditions and ultimately died in Sing Sing prison, Mrs. Nack became a reporter’s dream celebrity. Though imprisoned for nine years, she lived much of that time in relative ease. The reason: she posed a sympathetic picture and granted reporters unlimited access. She had a story and loved to tell it. They craved a story and were willing to pay for it.

Turn of the century New York City was inhabited by hundreds of language groups. Living conditions were meager and near illiteracy was rampant. As a result, the average man turned to dime novels and sensational “yellow” papers for entertainment and news. Parallels between that gilded age and ours are not hard to find.

Perhaps author Paul Collins and Crown Publishers could have come up with a shorter title, but they couldn’t have given us a more rousing story. Collins manages to offer hard history in a story telling style that reads as good as any detective novel.

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