in conversation with Alex Shephard

In the summer of 1897, everyone in New York was talking about the murder of William Guldensuppe: it was the Casey Anthony trial of their time. And in fact, the media furor surrounding Casey Anthony had its roots in the Guldensuppe murder. For that matter, so did the phone hacking scandal in Britain.

When we think of William Randolph Hearst, we think of the bombing of the Maine and Citizen Kane — but Hearst became Hearst through the Guldensuppe trial, when he did everything in his power to help his paper, The Journal, defeat his former mentor Joseph Pulitzer’s rival paper The World.

In The Murder of the Century, Paul Collins tells both stories — the story of the gruesome murder of William Guldensuppe (and the love triangle behind it) and that of the birth of modern tabloid journalism. The author of five previous books, Collins also frequently contributes to NPR’s Weekend Edition as the “literary detective.” It’s an apt title for all of Collins’ work — he specializes in following bizarre leads to surprising conclusions — and the word “detective” seems particularly appropriate for his latest effort: The Murder of the Century has all of the narrative immediacy of a true crime book, but is also written with the historical skill, the empathy, and the unique voice of the greatest creative nonfiction. Fully attuned to the eccentrics who shaped and defined our time and fascinated by those who failed to do so, Collins is, to my mind, one of the most inventive and consistently dazzling writers of nonfiction working today. (In a way, this can only be personal: after reading Collins’ The Trouble With Tom, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.)

I corresponded with Collins via email about bibliographies, 24 hour cable news, and giant refrigeration systems that could freeze all of Spain to death.

Despite the fact that the Guldensuppe murder was a huge story just over a century ago, it seems largely forgotten now – it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page! How did you first hear about the murder and why did you decide to write a book about it? How did the project evolve?

The way it started is a bit of a shaggy dog story.

I first came across the Guldensuppe case while researching a Believer piece on plaster death masks. That itself was an offshoot of something I’d come across while writing The Trouble With Tom—namely, the death mask of Thomas Paine, which had been abandoned among the contents of the trunk of a car. It was being sold by a Ferrari paraphernalia dealer who didn’t know what to do with it—I think he literally listed it under “miscellaneous” in the back of a catalogue full of car stuff.

Anyway, that had got me started on a larger piece about these masks. Searching the NY Times Historical Database happened to pull up this very strange 1897 story about a girl in Queens finding a block of plaster in a pond. It was theorized that this block had perhaps contained the actual decapitated head of one William Guldensuppe.

I thought, “Who’s Guldensuppe?”…

Doing a search on him pulled up hundreds of hits in the database—it was obvious that he’d been a huge Times story that year, and I’d never even heard of him. So I sat there and started plowing through them in chronological order. This started at maybe 10 at night, and by 4 I’d printed out a stack of articles, and decided on the spot—”This has to be a book.” But I’d just landed the contract for The Book of William a week earlier, so then it had to wait a few years.

Murder was by far the most tightly plotted of my books, so it evolved much less between conception and execution. What did change, though, was that my editor (John Glusman) was worried that there was really no central figure or continuous conflict running through the book proposal. The Pulitzer and Hearst rivalry was in there, but John suggested that I push it to the front of the mix—and I’m very glad that he did.

Because of the rise of 24 hour cable news, The Murder of the Century would perhaps inevitably seem timely but the recent phone hacking scandals in Britain make the book seem especially relevant. How did the Guldensuppe murder change journalism?

The central insight that Hearst drew out of this case—and that everyone from Lord Northcliffe to Rupert Murdoch has picked up ever since—was that not only could news could be treated as entertainment, but that the right kind of news story could be parlayed into a narrative.

Before Hearst, most murder cases netted just a few stories: maybe one from the initial crime, another from the arrest, and maybe one from the trial or sentencing. There would be these long gaps in between where the public attention would then turn to something else.  What Hearst did was run multiple stories on the same day—not just one story, but half a dozen—even cover the entire page.  And then, on the days in between… more stories. Every little development would be covered, and when there weren’t any developments, it would still be kept going by actively contriving new interviews or angles. When you see a cable network idiotically perseverating on a story, even when there’s nothing new to report, it’s because they know that making a story a “monster” is all about narrative momentum. And Hearst absolutely was the one who figured out how to make monsters.

Hearst famously learned the newspaper business from working at Pulitzer’s World. How would you describe the similarities and differences between Pulitzer’s and Hearst’s papers?

Hearst stole Pulitzer’s best ideas and took them joyriding.  Someone once commented that his Journal never really innovated anything all—that everything it did was pioneered by the World.  It’s not an unfair characterization. Hearst was not innovative: he was a ruthless guy who knew good ideas when he saw them, and he recognized talent.  That’s why the Journal staff was raided from the World… the Journal was their doppelganger.  It was willing to push comics, over-the-top artwork, sensational crime, and political grandstanding harder… but these were all Pulitzer’s own ideas coming back to haunt him.

Hearst and Pulitzer knew they were competing for the same audience—women, immigrants, and newer readers in the cheap seats—people who didn’t want commodities futures or reports of tea with the vicar, but who would read about celebrities, murders, train wrecks, and bribery scandals. But it was Pulitzer who discovered that audience in the first place.

Speaking of Hearst, how important was the murder to his career?

I think it was the turning point.  It was where he learned to become a storyteller— how he learned to give a story legs.  He’d already been clearly developing that talent in his first paper, the San Francisco Examiner, but with the Guldensuppe case he gained mastery of a Rove-like talent for figuring out how to work the controls of public narrative.

The actual victim and the defendants were, of course, expendable.  I suspect Hearst couldn’t have cared less about them.  You could open his paper just about every day to see stories about people getting murdered.  But he intuited that this one had a story arc.  And shaping the case’s public narrative—along with his willingness to do para-governmental stuff like seizing evidence and having journalists “arrest” people—was a dry run for the following year, when Hearst became a major force in pushing the Spanish American War.

Writing about your attraction to the 19th century in Sixpence House, you wrote:

“Their hopes and rhetoric are our own, but their tools are hilariously unequal to the task: they are future thinkers armed with nothing but leather, steel, stone, and porcelain. The friction between their dreams, which are recognizably ours, and their means, which are so quaint, is what makes the Victorians sympathetic and yet also absurd.”

How does the story you tell in The Murder of the Century apply to that quote?

I’m glad you picked out that quote; it might be the closest thing to a key to much of my historical writing. Initially, it was purely the case itself that intrigued me—the early forensics and detective work that it exemplified. Professor Witthaus and Detective Carey, who are really just a passing presence in the final book, loomed much larger in the proposal. But as I went along, the parallels between Hearst and Murdoch started becoming overwhelming. Hearst’s guys were wearing handlebar moustaches and charging around the city on bicycles, but the kind of journalism they practiced is utterly recognizable.

The “yellow journalism” in your book is somewhat different than what I was taught in school (which wasn’t much, just Maine=bad). The Murder of the Century very subtly and effectively lays out the pros and cons of turning news into entertainment. Did researching and writing the book affect the way you think about entertainment news/news as entertainment?

There’s no question in my mind that Hearst and Pulitzer made daily newspapers far more vivid and expressive than they used to be.  The Before and After with yellow journalism is like that moment in The Wizard of Oz where the film turns from black and white to color.  Every time you see a comic, a sports section, or even just a feature with a vividly written lede and dialogue… well, you can pretty much thank those bad old yellow journalists.

But it’s also been a deal with the devil. New is entertaining now, and that’s the problem.  There’s not much of a place for news that isn’t entertaining—of stories that don’t have a vivid character or easily explained narrative behind them. In particular, broadcast media have developed this demand for easily understandable narrative, and I’d say that it’s had a particularly baleful influence on the coverage of science and politics.

What conclusions did you come to while researching the case and the trial that were perhaps different from those of the court?

Detective Arthur Carey’s judgment on the case four decades later was probably right. Namely, that they got their man… but perhaps not their woman.

Unlike a number (perhaps all?) of your previous books, The Murder of the Century has a fairly traditional bibliography at the end, rather than a “Further Readings.” Why? Was there a kind of narrative to your research, or was it more haphazard?

My earlier books were heavily researched, but I wanted them to have a light touch as well. I really enjoyed coming up with the odd bibliographic essays at the end of Banvard’s Folly, and I’d done that ever since. In fact, in The Book of William I wanted to write the book’s notes as a narrative travelogue chapter—a “bibliogue,” I was going to call it—it would be set in Padua, a trip I’d wound up not using in the main text.  It’d be the literary equivalent of a hidden track.  But by the time I finished the main text, I was so far past my deadline that I just didn’t have time. You can still see the one page of that bibliogue’s false start, hidden in the notes on page 239-240.

But there’s been a kind of exponential growth in my research from one book to the next, and I’m now at the point—with The Murder of the Century, and my upcoming Duel With the Devil—where that exponential curve is turning vertical. Murder involved thousands of newspaper articles alone; many of the NYC papers from 1897-8 were still undigitized, so that I literally flew back from the NYPL with about four or five reams worth of microfilm printouts filling my carry-on — I just about wrenched my shoulder, and there must have been $500 or 600 in photocopying in there. And then on top of that, massive amounts of database mining, memoirs, court transcripts, etc.

This book involved such an overwhelming volume of information that it had to be a very disciplined operation. The notes apparatus of the book reflects that. Day by day, I now focus on one scene at a time; I actually create production notes for each day, breaking down the exact chunks of research and locations I need for that day’s work. Logistically, I’m crossing over into the kind of planning normally used for film production.

There’s a simpler motive, too—because I was working with sometimes a dozen newspaper accounts for a single scene, as well as court testimony and memoirs, I was able to draw on a novelistic level detail right down to what people were thinking, where they were looking, what they were wearing, and so forth. Without detailed notes to show where all that stuff came from, a casual reader would probably just assume that I make that stuff up—and I don’t.

Aside from the main narratives, your books often go down some pretty fantastic alleys – in The Murder of the Century I was pretty fond of your discussion of the cadaver trade and midwife diploma mills, as well as shorter digressions like the bizarre public viewing of Guldensuppe’s headless corpse and the fact that the vents of the courtroom were filled with a hundred dead rats. Was there anything that you encountered while researching the book that you had hoped to include, but couldn’t?

Much of my writing—especially something like The Trouble With Tom—is deliberately digressive in nature. But I’ve never had the desire to do the same book twice, and I’ve done that now. So I decided to write Murder as tight as possibly—to see of I could fuse a highly digressive and branching research approach with a very tight surface plot.

I didn’t lose as much as I might have feared, but ratcheting the text down meant losing some of the crazy stuff in the newspapers back then. My favorite was an utterly mad NY Journal article that proposed building a giant refrigeration system to freeze all of Spain to death. But since I’ve already written a Village Voice piece on crazy old schemes for global weather modification, I just let it drop.

How has New York City changed in the past 110 years? How has it stayed the same?

Well, one thing that struck me in visiting the locations was that nearly every building in the book has been knocked down. So that’s changed. I guess once you have elevators, two and three story buildings just don’t make sense in a city with land that valuable. Anyone from back then would be utterly lost in New York today—some of the old landmarks are gone for blocks at a stretch.

But that’s also what has stayed the same. I’m now writing a book set in 1799, and anyone from then visiting the New York of 1897 would have been dumbfounded. New York has always been dynamic, far more than any other American city I can think of. Other cities get a decade or two in the spotlight, but New York’s the one place that has always been the destination for the young and ambitious.

My own wild guess is that you can attribute that to the immensely democratizing influence of the 1811 grid system (which more or less steamrolled over wealthy enclaves and fiefdoms), and to an amazing public transit system.

You’ve written a lot about your love for old books. How has the internet affected that passion? What do you think about the rise of digital books and ereaders?

It’s the writing and the circumstances around the book that I find interesting. I love the old volumes themselves as physical and crafted objects, but as an actual reader I’m pretty ruthless. I use Google Books and archival databases constantly; I rather like having the old text itself than onscreen, but I’m fine with not having paper. There’s a lot you can do digitally that you just can’t on paper, and I use digital resources all the time—a lot of the research I do wouldn’t have been possible in an earlier era.

The Collins Library, your imprint of McSweeney’s that publishes out-of-print books,  will be publishing The Rector and the Rogue this month. What drew you to that book?

It’s one I stumbled across in Hay on Wye, as part of a big shipment of books dumped across the floor of an outbuilding of Booth Books. I’ve idly picked up and reread that book every year or two ever since.  The Rector and the Rogue is a charmingly strange little story, and quite forgotten—about a Victorian hoaxster named Gentleman Joe, who tormented a powerful Manhattan clergyman with an unhinged campaign of forged postcards. It’s the 1880s equivalent of ordering 100 pizzas for someone, but on a much grander and weirder scale.

Swansburg’s ever so slightly bemused and indulgent tone, and his very skilled use of old newspaper files, was something that I found myself thinking upon quite a bit while writing The Murder of the Century.  The same’s true of Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, which influenced the macguffin-chase structure of The Trouble With Tom.  They’re both fun old titles to bring back into print, but they’re also what I had on my desk and found myself wishing that others could read too.