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.
Brown discovered that a womanizing masseur there named Willie Guldensuppe hadn’t been to work for days. Before the day was out, he had disguised himself as a soap salesman; gained access to the apartment of Guldensuppe’s alleged lover, a licensed midwife named Augusta Nack, who was tidying up before taking the next steamer back to her native Germany; purloined a photograph of Willie from her shelves—and even sold her two bars of soap.
All of Brown’s hard work would be squandered. The World suffered from the absence of its blind, neurasthenic leader, who bombarded his staff with unhelpful anti-Hearst wires from his soundproofed mansions and yachts, ordering, “We must smash the interloper.” Hearst, on the other hand, was on site and as vigorous as his reporters. When the World foolishly buried Brown’s scoop on page two, Hearst himself jumped on a bicycle and raced the fifty blocks from Printer’s Square to the Nack tenement at Thirty-Fifth Street and Ninth Avenue—the Wrecking Crew huffing behind him, in one of the many indelible scenes with which Collins delights us. There he immediately rented Mrs. Nack’s apartment (her lease had just ended), posted a guard of Journal reporters around the building to keep out competitors, and proclaimed in a headline that evening: MURDER MYSTERY SOLVED BY THE JOURNAL. MRS NACK, MURDERESS!
It would not be quite that simple—which was just fine by the city’s newspapers, the Journal included. Was it really Mrs. Nack who had killed poor Willie? Was it her brutish ex-husband, Herman? Or was it another lover, a brooding German barber called Martin Thorn, whom Guldensuppe had recently pummeled for the sake of the mysteriously irresistible Augusta? And was it really Willie in the morgue? There was the matter of that missing head, which inspired both the Journal and the World to drag the East River, while gleeful crowds watched from the piers and called out things like “Three cheers for Guldensuppe!” and “Try a fine-tooth comb!”
Was there ever a gaudier era in New York history? Was there ever a better time to be a newspaperman?
Mrs. Nack and Thorn were soon arrested, but the case continued for months. Reporters for the World discovered the lonely, rented house out in rural Woodside, Queens, where Guldensuppe was murdered; reporters for the Journal bribed a trusty in the Queens County Jail to give them a note he was carrying from Nack to Thorn encouraging him to kill himself. Journalists visited freely with the suspects in their cells and elicited their life stories.
The trial itself provided still more revelations and attractions. Herman Nack told police that Augusta, like many midwives, was part of the vast network that ran New York’s illicit abortion business. She burned in the family stove two to three fetuses a month for eight to ten years, gave others to a local undertaker to bury, and kept still more in specimen jars to sell to those irrepressible med students. (He claimed at least two young women also failed to survive his ex-wife’s operations.)
Then there was Martin Thorn’s attorney, the legendary William Howe. The diamond-studded, three-hundred-pound Howe, the son of an English brothel keeper, had done hard time in that country for impersonating a lawyer. Reinventing himself as one of the top defense attorneys in America, he had handled 650 murder and manslaughter cases, and was famous for disrupting trials. Everyone complained that the air in the Queens courthouse was so foul they could barely proceed; afterwards, workmen discovered one hundred dead rats in the courtroom’s vents. Howe had no comment.