The Murder of the Century

I just finished reading Paul Collins’ book, “The Murder of the Century.”

I heard about the author on a podcast, and when I looked him up at the local library, the synopsis on the dust jacket of this one seemed interesting. So it inadvertently became my first read of 2019.

I enjoy history of almost any kind — and I’ve recently been particularly interested in the “Gilded Age” of American Industry, around the turn of the 20th Century.

The book centered around a murder mystery that gripped New York City in the summer and fall of 1897. The crime itself was not all that remarkable, in terms of the people involved (poor immigrants from the slums) or the circumstances leading up to the crime (jealous lovers, caught up in a love triangle). But the case took on historical significance because of the way that the newspapers of the day covered the story and competed against each other (and the law enforcement agencies) for angles and information on the murder.

The story of the obvious drama between William Guldensuppe (the victim),
Agusta Nack, and Martin Thorn (the perpetrators) was interesting enough to keep me engaged. It felt like the narrative was drawn out further than necessary, to help the reader “get to the bottom of the case.” But I never felt bored or bothered to the point of skipping or skimming.

The real story, to me, was the behind-the-scenes drama between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. They captained rival newspapers — The New York World and the New York Journal, respectively — and the dynamics between these media moguls was shockingly similar to the battles that have been waged in the last couple of decades between cable news networks and social media platforms.

The power dynamics… the cut-throat strategies to dominate one’s opponent… the financial implications of the competition… and the ego-maniacal tendencies of the lead figures involved… These dynamics are all exactly the same as they were a century ago! Truly, there is “nothing new under the sun,” and I always appreciate the way that reading history helps me to understand the present.

I don’t know if I would necessarily put this book in the “strongly recommended” category, but I’m not sad I read it either.

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