Sunday, April 7, 2013

Recollecting the Scattered Dutchman

The murder of William Guldensuppe hasn’t received the same level of recognition as other gruesome killings that took place during the closing years of the nineteenth century. But throughout the latter half of 1897, the people of New York talked about little else.

On June 26th, 1897, some boys out to escape the summer heat found a strange object floating in the East River and retrieved it. It turned out to be a headless and limbless male torso wrapped in oilcloth. The repulsive discovery was initially passed off as a medical student prank, but the conclusion changed to murder after doctors said that the dismemberment lacked the skill of a medical professional. The announcement sparked public interest, but when the missing limbs were found in Harlem soon afterward, intrigue morphed into hysteria. Who was the victim? Where was his head? And who had killed him?

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.

No comments: