Under The Radar: Raphael Reviews "The Murder of the Century"

May 25, 2012

Our book reviewer Lev Raphael is especially fond of the Gilded Age, and he has a review of Paul Collins' book, "The Murder of the Century." It's about a sensational murder in New York City in 1897.

LEV RAPHAEL: Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s set in the Gilded Age, because it could not be more contemporary. We like to think that we invented that we have invented the 24-hour news cycle, but we’ve done nothing of the sort. Back in 1897, this amazing murder case was on everyone’s lips, on everyone’s breakfast table, in every single newspaper in New York, morning, noon and night.

MELISSA BENMARK: How can this be? There were technological constraints of when papers came out, and that kind of thing.

RAPHAEL: Well, papers came out three times a day, which they don’t do in the way that they used to. They were hawked on the streets. New technology made it possible for court transcripts go right to the newspaper and be set up instantly. So, people were almost as surrounded by news as we are today. And this case was sensational because it started with body parts being found in various parts of the city, and endless people trying to solve the case, endless people claiming to know who the murder victim was. And the involvement of the press in ways that we cannot possibly conceive of.

BENMARK: Did the press involvement break any of what we would think of as the modern tenets of journalism?

RAPHAEL: Absolutely, as in, surrounding people’s houses, keeping other press away. Part of what was at the core of this was rivalry between (Joseph) Pulitzer and William Randolph Hurst, two big media titans fighting it out. And their reporters were almost like gangs—out for blood, out for the story, and out to outdo each other.

BENMARK: I was reading a little bit about it, and early on, apparently, it was thought that it was just some medical students playing a joke with a cadaver. Is that right?

RAPHAEL: Oh yeah, that was what they thought, and then they discovered who the body parts had belonged to, and who the body parts were married to. And once they got to the wife, everything opened up in a sensational sex scandal. So it had sex, murder, it was gruesome, it involved foreigners, it was as juicy as possible. And you read this book, and, aside from the technology, you might think that you were watching CNN, or MSNBC, or even FOX.

BENMARK: That’s interesting to me, though, that the first conclusion was that it was a harmless prank. Whereas, generally, you know, we saw, for instance in the Oklahoma City bombing, one of the networks described the alleged two dark-skinned people running away from the scene of the bombing. Which of course later turned out to be wrong. So, I mean, it’s interesting to me that, in that time period, they thought “Oh, no one could possibly have dismembered this person and put his body parts in a bag.”

RAPHAEL: And today, we think no American could possibly blow up an American building. So, once again, general assumptions are proved to be wrong and the real story lies somewhere else. Paul Collins, who’s written this book, is an amazing storyteller, and I would not be surprised if this turned into a miniseries or a movie.

BENMARK: I think the ultimate irony, though, if it’s largely about the rivalry between Pulitzer and Hurst, would be if this book got the Pulitzer (Prize).

RAPHAEL: That would be delicious!