It is a common thing, beneath the deafening noise of America's Lohans and Kardashians, to hear tell that our culture—as a result of reality television, willful illiteracy, celebrity worship, the decline of marriage, you name it—has reached a new and sordid nadir. Local author Paul Collins' nonfiction The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars (Crown, 336 pages, $26) is a wonderful reminder that we have often been just as we are: fools for spectacle, short of memory, cheered by the invigorating shock of the immoral.
Murder of the Century is on one hand a lurid murder mystery set at the turn of the 20th century in New York. It begins like any episode of Dexter or CSI: Four scampish boys, paragons of innocence, discover an oilcloth-wrapped severed torso just off a city pier. The legs turn up in a Harlem ditch (and promptly disappear from the morgue). The head carries a bounty.
More than a crime procedural, though, it is a chronicle of the culture that surrounds the grisly murders, and of the city's fascination with the case. The murder sets off a newspaper battle between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's Evening Journal, with rewards offered, leads stolen, stories stepped on or lost and then regretted, with Pulitzer hung by a rope he wound himself. As for the trial—and the popular libidinous obsessions with the murderers and near-total neglect of the victim—its hysteria trumped that of any O.J. or Kennedy, if not quite Manson.
A curious side effect of Collins' choice of subject—the center of a newspaper war—is that Collins has access to a near-unprecedented amount of material. Does the policeman light a cigar, Hearst crack a joke, a woman clutch a bouquet meant for the sociopathic killer? There it is, footnoted and cited to a century-old article. Reading the book's notes section is an uncanny experience. What seems too interior and simply invented, isn't; it has been found in some forgotten archive and trundled anew back into the popular memory.
Because, of course, all of this murder and betrayal and backbiting, despite the manic frenzy it inspired in its time, was lost to the world within the passing of a single generation. Collins seems to have a particular affinity for the back channels and dead ends of history, for resurrections of the once-famous and now obscure, and this book in particular is a testament to what, among the dross, can endure. Much, apparently, can.
SEE IT: Paul Collins reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, June 16. Free.