Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Spaked The Tabloid Wars | By Paul Collins | Crown | 313 pages, $26

The body parts began popping up all over New York during the scorching summer of 1897. A man’s chest and arms in the East River, a lower torso and hips up in East Harlem, and soon it was clear that murder was afoot.

At least, it was clear to the city’s ravenous newspapers. The police, more interested in beating strikers and bullying prostitutes than scrutinizing unstuck limbs, attributed the appearance of these remains to the regular pranks played by medical students of the time, one of the many terrific tidbits to be found in Paul Collins’s immensely entertaining history: “The city had five schools that were allowed to use cadavers, and parts of them showed up in the unlikeliest places: You’d find legs in doorways, fingers in cigar boxes, that kind of nonsense.”

The city’s morgue attendants, who could be suborned for as little as a “cigar or a pouch of shag tobacco,” were also inclined to put these grisly finds down to those rascally doctors-to-be, but the next thing they knew, reporters from the World, the Herald, and the Evening Telegram were at their door, with New York’s medical examiner and the superintendent of Bellevue Hospital in tow.

These worthies, with the help of the assistant coroner, noted several striking details over the next few days: the man had been dead for less than twenty-four hours; his head had been sawed off the torso in a manner too crude for any medical student; a patch of his chest had been carved away as if to remove some identifying mark; and the stumps of his legs had been boiled.

The press took it from there. The summer of 1897 marked the red-hot climax of the city’s newspaper wars, waged primarily between New York’s presiding circulation king, Joseph Pulitzer’s World, and the usurper, William Randolph Hearst’s Evening Journal, with the other dozen English-language dailies trying to hang on.

Their competition was—both figuratively and literally—the most colorful period in American journalism. Hearst, the young interloper from California, was willing to use as much of his vast inherited mining fortune as necessary. Churning through one fragile, state-of-the-art color press after another—“Smash as many as you have to, George,” he would tell his printer—the Journal produced funny pages that were, if it said so itself, “eight pages of iridescent polychromous effervescence, that makes the rainbow look like lead pipe.”

Pulitzer responded with his own brilliant Sunday supplements, which were also printed in fantastic colors and which, as Nicholson Baker would put it, “weighed as much as a small roast beef.” The two papers slashed their ad rates, cut their newsstand price down to a penny, turned out endless extra editions, and raided each other’s leading editors, writers, and cartoonists.

Yet most of their battles were still decided by good old-fashioned reportorial leg work. In this, no subject was below scrutiny—“race riots in Key West, idiots stealing electricity off high-voltage streetcar lines in Ohio, and two millionaires fighting over a $15 dog.” But best of all remained what Pete Hamill would label “murder at a good address”—not a sad, tawdry “economic” killing, but one, as the song goes, full of passion, jealousy, and hate.

The segmented corpse in the New York morgue had all the markings of such a crime, and the newspapers mustered every resource at their disposal. In the case of the Journal, this meant turning out the “Wrecking Crew,” “a mob of mustachioed, derby-hatted men [who] would come tumbling out” of its building on Newspaper Row every day in pursuit of the latest scoop, while their editor yelled, “Get excited. God damn it, get excited!”

Whatever their Keystone Kops appearance, the reporters worked with incredible verve and ingenuity. Within three days, the World, Journal, and Herald all had essentially cracked the case. For the first time in newspaper history, the Journal put color on the front page, to vividly depict the oilcloth in which the body parts had been wrapped.

While the police let thousands of rubberneckers parade through the morgue, and listened as everyone from palmists to pathologists attributed the murder to “a female Jack the Ripper,” “some secret society,” a cannibal, or “fiendish” Spaniards who “hacked him to pieces with their machetes,” one Ned Brown, a nineteen-year-old cub reporter for the World, took a good look at the corpse’s powerful hands and arms. They reminded him of those of the masseurs at the Murray Hill Baths, “The House of a Thousand Hangovers,” where reporters were known to sweat out woozy nights on the town.

Kevin Baker is working on a social history of New York City baseball.