On June 26th, 1897, some boys out to escape the summer heat found a strange object floating in the
Newspaper barons William Randolph Hearst and the aging Joseph Pulitzer turned the mysterious affair into a media circus, driving up the circulation of their respective papers as they competed to solve the case first. This was the era of the detective journalist, so reporters from both camps schemed, tricked, and stole in order to get names and locate evidence. They were so tenacious that the press arguably deserves the credit for identifying the victim as bathhouse masseur William Guldensuppe and his suspected killers as barber Martin Thorn and midwife Augusta Nack.
Murder of the Century reads more like a detective novel than a work of history, but the author is constantly faithful to the facts and has the endnotes to prove it. Paul Collins, who moonlights as the literary detective on the NPR show “Weekend Edition”, recreates the investigation, trial, and aftermath in a way that keeps the pages turning.
As the author of three historical True Crime books, I can tell you that his task wasn’t an easy one: the ‘Case of the Scattered Dutchman’ was not widely written about after the trial concluded, so the hunt for non-newspaper sources must have been taxing. His persistence uncovered a surprising amount of forgotten details, which he uses to present his own version of how William Guldensuppe was killed, and by whom.
This is not just the story of a love triangle that ended in bloodshed: Collins has evoked Gilded Age America and its merciless tabloid wars, the echoes of which can still be felt today.