June 26, 1897 was a hot summer day in New York, and a neatly-wrapped package was found bobbing in the East River, holding nothing but two arms, each severed at the shoulder. A gruesome discovery, to be sure, but dismembered, desecrated, or otherwise maltreated corpses were not altogether uncommon at the time, given a shortage of bodies donated to science and a surplus of unscrupulous medical schools seeking anatomical grist for their diploma mills. The ragged, undoctorly cuts on the arms, though, suggested something more sinister—a suspicion confirmed the next day when a matching sack was found in the woods of Harlem, this one holding a limbless and headless torso.
What followed—detailed in Murder of the Century—is a byzantine and bizarre story of yellow journalism, sensationalism, unbridled reportorial enthusiasm, dismemberment, hate, jealousy, love triangles, and Kafkaesque trials.
• • •
With only arms, a torso, and a fledgling knowledge of forensic science, identifying the body—presumably all those parts were from one unfortunate soul—presented a significant challenge. Fueled by the macabre crime and newspaper publisher William Hearst’s promise of rewards for information, the identification became a public, city-wide mania. Day after day, lines snaked out the door at the coroner’s office, everyone angling to catch a glimpse of the remains. And day after day, people saw those few remains and claimed to identify the body—some were con men and attention seekers, others devastated potential loved ones, while others described the foulest of foul play. But none were right.
In the end, it was a reporter who spotted the critical clue: the suppleness of the disembodied hands reminded him of masseurs at the Turkish baths he’d occasioned. His investigation quickly uncovered that one such “rubber,” William Guldensuppe, hadn’t been to work in more than a week. Following the lead to Guldensuppe’s apartment, the reporter found Augusta Nack, the missing masseur’s landlady and lover.
Nack, though, was married to and estranged from another man. Herman Nack, her erstwhile husband, was arrested based only on the presumption that he was a jealous cuckold. But in reality Herman was a slow-witted drunkard who’d long been separated from his wife, and he wasn’t jealous of her, he was completely terrified of her. Augusta, meanwhile, had a ticket on the next steamer out of the country and, it was discovered, an apartment full of weapons (including a boiling tub, which just sounds unwholesome). The police had gone after the wrong Nack.
They arrested Augusta. By this time a pair of disembodied legs washed ashore in Brooklyn and the pieces began falling into place—literally and figuratively. Guldensuppe, the dead masseur, had been vying for Nack’s affections with another man, Martin Thorn. Their love triangle turned violent, and circumstantial evidence all pointed to Thorn and Nack conspiring to kill, dismember, and discard piecemeal the unfortunate Kraut.
Thorn and Nack made a terrifying duo. Thorn’s was a purely physical menace—the guy who led police to him asked to be arrested as well, so that the ill-tempered Thorn wouldn’t beat him to death for being a snitch. Nack, in contrast, was Mask of Sanity-level scary, like kids should have been wearing her as a Halloween mask: amoral, intelligent, narcissistic, manipulative…am I describing her or just reading the DSM-IV psychopathy checklist? So ensorceled were Nack’s cellmates that they waited on her and performed daily chores she set out for them. She lied so audaciously and routinely as to beggar belief, presenting to the press and public a series of ever-changing but always self-exonerating fictions (at least one interviewer saw through that charade, remarking that “…Nack knows nothing whatsoever about love. That is to say, of the love which means self-abnegation. She loves herself.”). Nack once tried to convince Thorn—ostensibly her lover—to enter a suicide pact, in the hopes he’d kill himself first and thereby remove the only potential obstacle to her acquittal. Demonstrating just how meant for each other they were, Thorn begged off, but only out of spite: he didn’t want to save the state the expense of killing him.
• • •
Thorn’s trial was first, and his lawyer was the publicity-mad and gloriously vainglorious William F. Howe, a 300-pound English-born foppish dandy given to grandiloquent oration, checked pants, loud ties, and diamond rings…on every finger. Renowned for keeping an office inside the prison, Howe was either so corrupt or so distrusting that on multiple occasions his office was searched by police who found that he kept no papers or records of any sort. A lover of technicalities, Howe once got 80% of Blackwell’s Island prisoners released in a single day; once objected that a witness’s name was hearsay, because they heard it from their parents; once got a client acquitted of murder by successfully arguing that her trigger finger had accidentally slipped…four times, and surely would have employed the Wookiee defense if given the chance.
Howe’s flamboyant defense of Thorn centered on the circumspect identification of the headless corpse and the circumstantial evidence linking Thorn to the crime. In what was truly a signal moment in the history of manufacturing doubt, before the trial Howe claimed that two German merchants were New York-bound, where they’d testify to having seen their old friend Guldensuppe before they left—thereby proving the so-called “scattered Dutchman” was, in fact, still alive. The boat arrived sans exculpating merchants, at which time Howe claimed they’d actually be on the next boat. It was little matter to him; he’d simply made them up.
The newspapers, meanwhile, were working to make the case themselves. The movement towards “rational” and “scientific” thinking in the latter half of the 19th century often meant overlaying the trappings and terminology of “science” on whatever pseudoscientific gallimaufry could be most profitably peddled to the public. Phrenologists, for example, divined personalities and peccadilloes from bumps on the skull, while offshoots did the same based on other physical features, all with the implied or explicit imprimatur of “science” (and, ergo, truth). The former head of the secret service, for example, suggested that only “a Sicilian, or possibly a Spaniard or Cuban”—someone from a warm climate—could commit such an atrocity as the Guldensuppe murder/mayhem, a claim not actually backed by empirical evidence.
The face, though, was the most fertile ground for this movement: Nack, Thorn, and even the bifurcated Guldensuppe were subject to such facial profiling. Thorn got the worst of it, though: “Cheap Don Juans, third-rate actors in melodramas, and Martin Thorns are frequently found with these highly attractive chins” and “Thorn is a very average specimen of the type known as degenerate…A pair of deceitful, grayish eyes—the ears of epileptics and mental incompetents…”
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Headlines, epileptic ears, and the court of public opinion aside, the lack of direct evidence seemed to ensure Thorn’s acquittal in actual court. And that’s how things looked, right up until Augusta Nack showed up to testify—to everyone’ surprise. No one, least of all Thorn, had any idea what she’d say. Her testimony named Thorn as the plot’s mastermind; she’d acquiesced only under threat of violence. Since her past stories had all claimed Guldensuppe was alive but simply missing, this new version was less than believable. After a lifetime of manipulation, one imagines she was taken rather aback when Howe gleefully laid bare the myriad contradictions and false claims in her new story. The case was all but over—and then a juror fell ill and the whole thing was canceled. Apparently they didn’t believe in alternate jurors back then.
Thorn’s second trial started much the same. The identity of the remains (what was left of them, anyways—the legs had disappeared) was in such question that numerous witnesses were asked to describe Guldensuppe’s apparently anomalous foreskin. Nack, burned by her last attempt, wasn’t going to testify, so this time Thorn took the stand himself, implicating Augusta as the masterminding murderess. Basically, your classic he said/she said about the dismemberment of a third party.
Apparently Thorn’s story wasn’t believable, and circumstantial evidence or not, he was sent to the electric chair. Nack got a manslaughter charge and was imprisoned until 1907.
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The Gilded Age tabloid wars pitted William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal and Evening Journal) and Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) in a race to the highest circulation and lowest common denominator. The Nack/Thorn/Guldensuppe affair was perhaps its defining moment, checking off all the boxes that yellow journalism is known for: ludicrous headlines (Nack’s midwife college called ‘A SCHOOL FOR BARBARITY’), eye-catching front pages (the first full-color newspaper photo was of the sack the body parts were found in), reader contests (identify the killer/corpse), and the quest for scoops (World’s exclusive interview with Nack, which was exactly as self-serving as you’d expect; see also Hearst making a big show of hiring a boat to trawl the river in search of Guldensuppe’s head, supposedly encased in plaster and tossed overboard by Thorn).
Hearst and Pulitzer also held a more personal contest for one-upsmanship. Hearst, for example, bought Nack’s entire apartment building, for no reason other than to prevent Pulitzer’s reporters from entering. He trained carrier pigeons to bring back reports from the courtroom, so as to get them to press first. He even twice hired away Pulitzer’s entire staff in one fell swoop.
Hearst and Pulitzer are usually thought of as nakedly ambitious profit chasers, and while there’s truth to that, it understates their differences. Long before Hearst owned a paper, Pulitzer had been the first really “sell” papers with comics, scare headlines, contests, and sensationalized stories. But he was also a political animal who viewed the paper, at least somewhat, as a mechanism for social change (to wit, he hired Nellie Bly for her investigative chops and secured funding for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty). Political corruption sold, but yellow journalism for Pulitzer was sometimes a means to an end: more readers meant bigger profits but also a bigger pulpit.
For Hearst, though, sensationalism was the end itself. Profits and the annihilation of his rival almost assuredly outweighed any political concerns he might have had, unless they were directly related to his own wealth and power. If “winning” weren’t so important, he probably wouldn’t have spent millions of dollars trying to bankrupt Pulitzer. And while his reporters rooted out political corruption or vital clues for police, it’s hard to think that it was because Hearst cared about corruption per se and more because sex and scandals sell.
And then even when Hearst acted, ostensibly, in service of political beliefs, he was bombastic and flamboyant. Among his acts of extralegal brazenness was the “rescue” of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old Cuban woman imprisoned for either a) seducing a Spanish military officer and/or b) fomenting revolution. When attempts to free her through diplomatic channels failed, the revolution-supporting Hearst sent a “man of action” to Cuba with an unlimited budget, where an Ocean’s Eleven-level caper freed Cisneros from prison, whence she boarded a US-bound steamer disguised as a man. The events were lauded as “journalism that acts” by Hearst, which leaves off the end of that sentence “…to create the very stories it can report on.”
The Cisneros episode was prelude to the Spanish-American war, which was either the acme or nadir of the tabloid war, depending on your vantage point. To some, Hearst included, the tabloid coverage and propagandizing of the sinking of the USS Maine stirred such outrage that the US was pushed into war—in effect, the papers had forced the action. Hearst and Pulitzer did blame the Spanish for the disaster at every turn, either by twisting information or simply making it up. In the week after the event, an average of 8.5 pages of each Hearst paper was devoted to Maine coverage, which makes CNN look like rank amateurs at saturation coverage. The propagandizing and shameless jingoism can’t be denied, but most historians doubt it played much role in the war—especially because the New York tabloids, intent on one-upping each other, were unique in this level of sensationalism. Most national coverage was more…pragmatic.
The war, in any case, provided Hearst a large canvas on which to pour out his outsized and histrionic personality. He first tried to directly fund an army regiment, but was turned down. Unbowed, he went rogue and chartered a fleet of yachts that roamed the waters around Cuba while the war was happening. He led paramilitary squads in charges and battles against the Spanish, sometimes fighting directly alongside US soldiers and even taking Spanish POWs, which is like…I don’t know exactly, but it’s like something. He went on to build his San Simeon estate/pleasure palace/ode to unsubtlety and possibly even murder a major movie star, only to cover it up. His work in empirically testing the boundaries of exactly what money can buy is unrivalled; at this point I would believe any story you told me about Hearst: He employs a live sasquatch as a manservant? Subsists on a diet of carrion and bone dust from the ground-up skeletons of entombed knights? Is personal friends with Captain Nemo? Yes.
The war seemed to dim Hearst’s pleasure in battling Pulitzer, possibly because once you’ve been in a real war a newspaper one doesn’t hold up. He moved on to unsuccessful runs for public office and a lifetime of unrestrained id. Pulitzer returned to a focus on more substantive political issues. He died in 1911; Hearst in 1951. William F. Howe died—extravagantly, one imagines—in 1902, and Augusta Nack faded into obscurity after her release from prison.