In the summer of 1897 the story of a dismembered body and a sordid love triangle wasn't likely to dominate the papers. But William Randolph Hearst saw the story as an opportunity for his newly launched New York Evening Journal to beat out its major competition, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, and a tabloid war ensued. Bob spoke with Paul Collins, author of The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. He says that in their quest to cover the story, the papers employed tactics reminiscent of today's News of the World phone hacking scandal.
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BOB GARFIELD: Rupert Murdoch's News of the World certainly didn't pioneer the use of illegal or distasteful reporting practices. In the summer of 1897, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World did far worse. It started when the pieces of the body of New York masseuse William Guldensuppe began turning up all over the city, except his head. Eventually the grisly crime was blamed on Guldensuppe’s lover, Augusta Nack and her lover, a man by the name of Martin Thorne.
And that particular summer, Hearst had launched a new evening edition of The Journal, and he was determined to trounce Pulitzer, his main competition, by owning the Guldensuppe murder. A tabloid war ensued.
Paul Collins is associate professor of English at Portland State University and author of The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Paul, welcome to On the Media.
PAUL COLLINS: It's good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in this case, it had all the elements you could ever look for. If you wanted to write lurid headlines, you had your love triangle. You had your body found in pieces incrementally over the great metropolis of New York. And you had a missing head.
PAUL COLLINS: And that was why initially the police were actually not inclined to pursue the case. They tried to ascribe it to medical students fooling around with cadavers at the medical school. They – they basically -- they didn't want to deal with it because they thought that they wouldn't be able to solve it. There was no crime scene, there was no clear identity on the body.
And it was really the newspapers that solved it. They were the ones that started throwing reporters into it, having them scour the city, to try to find who might be missing.
The body parts has actually been wrapped in a fairly distinct type of oilcloth, so they also sent people around to check out every possible dry goods store that might have sold the oilcloth. So the papers really very actively inserted themselves in the case, in such a way that it, it almost certainly wouldn't have been solved without them.
BOB GARFIELD: But along the way – broke the law, violated any sense of –
PAUL COLLINS: [LAUGHS] Oh yeah [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: - professional ethics.
PAUL COLLINS: All the papers were covering the story, but the two that really went head to head and kind of defined it were Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
Pulitzer had his people offer a reward to readers for any clues. They stole evidence from one of the crime scenes. When they'd found a likely murder scene, they actually gouged out a piece of the floor board to have it tested for blood.
One of their cub reporters, when he found the likely identity of the victim out, actually visited the house before the police did, talked to Mrs. Nack, one of the people in this love triangle.
He was actually posing as a soap salesman and gave her a sample to try out in her kitchen, and while she was in the kitchen, he stole a photo off of her mantle that he figured was probably William Guldensuppe.
BOB GARFIELD:[LAUGHING] Oh my goodness. You know, I’m sorry. I apologize. I left subterfuge and theft out of the list –
PAUL COLLINS: Yes [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: - of criminality that I, I gave you before.
PAUL COLLINS: The World was pretty impressive in what it was willing to do, but Hearst, actually, managed to top the, almost every step of the way. When they first got word of Mrs. Nack’s apartment as being this likely crime scene, Hearst personally went over to the apartment. Her lease on the place had just run out. And He went to the landlord of the building and offered him an immense sum of money to lease out the crime scene, to lease out the apartment and then proceeded to only allow Hearst reporters and police into the apartment.
He actually stationed reporters at the entrances of the building to keep out the other newspapers. And he also had other staff go to all the local pay phones to cut the cords, so that then when they got the scene, found they couldn’t go in and went to a pay phone to try to call their newsroom. They would just pick these receivers and the cord would just be hanging.
The Journal certainly didn’t stop there. There was a rumor that the missing head had been encased in plaster and thrown into the East River. So they sorted grappling the river for it. And to try to one up them, The New York World actually hired a deep sea diver to go walk around on the bottom of the river, looking for it.
They were seen to be dragging something aboard their boat by The New York Herald, who also had reporters out there. And The Herald accused them of hiding the head in their newsroom.
And The World's newsroom actually got raided at 1 in the morning by the police.
It turned out to be a large chunk of barnacles and not a head. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: But, of course, Augusta Nack and Martin Thorne were arrested for conspiring to murder William Guldensuppe. And, naturally, both Pulitzer and Hearst decided to let justice take its course, right?
PAUL COLLINS: No, it got worse. [LAUGHS]
At, at that point they were sending reporters constantly into the - into the jail. They found out from one of the other prisoners that Mrs. Nack was trying to send a letter to Martin Thorne. It was in the same jail. She was using what was known as a trusty, which was a, a – actually, another prisoner that the warden gave special privileges to,
‘cause he was non-violent and, and trusted, basically.
Mrs. Nack gave him a letter hidden inside a sandwich and told him to take it to Martin Thorne. Instead, he waited ‘til the warden sent him out on an errand outside the jail. He went straight to The Journal's newsroom and gave them this letter. They then copied the letter and allowed them to go onwards to Martin Thorne, who destroyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, hacked voicemails, 1897 style.
PAUL COLLINS: Yes. [LAUGHS] The attorney general was not amused.
BOB GARFIELD: So when did the yellow press actually turn into physical tabloids?
PAUL COLLINS: Most newspaper histories would place that in the 1920s, with things like The New York Daily News, for example.
But it actually - the movement towards that started much earlier. One thing I noticed when I was looking at The New York Journal was that by the turn of the century it started to actually look different. And I actually sat down and measured the newspapers and realized that the ratio of the paper had gone from 1.4 to 1.25 in just a few years. It actually was getting more and more square, basically. It was starting to look more like a tabloid.
And Hearst started using giant headlines for everything. At first he would have six-inch tall headlines for a war starting, but by the turn of the century, Hearst was using them every day. You know, the building collapse, someone gets murdered in Union Square – anything like that would have these giant screaming headlines.
So although tabloids sort of proper really got fully underway in the 20s, even by the turn of the century you could already see things moving in that direction.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it clearly has evolved differently in the United States than it has in the U.K. You could argue that The New York Post and The Daily News are kind of low brow and - and populistic. And they don't shy away from a big colorful crime. But they're also not News of the World or The Daily Mail.
What happened historically that the U.K. versions of tabloid sensationalism and the more muted U.S. version diverged?
PAUL COLLINS: I think that there was a great deal of worry over Hearst’s influence after the Spanish-American War. He actually fought in a battle in Cuba. He also offered to pay for a regiment. So you now have a news organization offering to arm people. Clearly, he was taking on a pretty disturbing role.
One of the people, strangely enough, who seemed to be especially [LAUGHS] disturbed by this was Pulitzer, who after trying to keep up with Hearst, actually started to back away from what he had helped create and helped fund the journalism school at Columbia, funded the Pulitzer Awards, of course, and so, left a very different legacy.
Hearst’s influence really manifested itself much more with Lord Northcliffe in, in Britain who was sort of a, an intermediary figure between Rupert Murdoch and Hearst. That influence has become much more manifest, I think in, in Britain and in Murdoch's empire.
BOB GARFIELD: So you think that Rupert Murdoch is the kind of moral successor to William Randolph Hearst?
PAUL COLLINS: I think that they are very similar in many ways, one of which is that most biographers of Hearst didn't seem to regard him as immoral, so much as amoral. He was just interested in selling newspapers and in extending his influence, and didn't really seem to be guided by a particular political philosophy. He was guided by expediency. So I think that there's perhaps similarity in that regard.
And a lot of the strategies that Hearst did of turning news into a narrative, picking some stories and covering them nonstop, bringing in lots of talking heads to keep a story rolling, even when there's no new developments, is completely recognizable today.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, it’s the FOX News Channel.
PAUL COLLINS: Yeah. They very much have inherited that Hearst tradition.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul, thank you very, very much.
PAUL COLLINS: Oh, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Collins is associate professor of English at Portland State University and author of The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars.