The yellow press had a field day. The Journal plugged the newsroom in via telephone cables—court to printing press in one minute—and purchased champion racing pigeons named Aeolus, Flyaway, and Electra to rush sketches to Newspaper Row. New Yorkers were entranced, lining up to view a museum waxworks of the killing or to get tickets for the fetid courtroom.

“Events seem to indicate that men, like dogs, go mad at certain seasons,” Hearst had observed at the start of the whole episode, and by the next season he would be back to drumming up war with Spain over Cuba, and making a truce with the World toward their common goal of cutting losses and crushing a newsboys’ strike. He would always look back fondly on the Guldensuppe case: “Ah well, we were young. It was an adventure.”

Paul Collins makes it a splendid one, although his book is not without flaws, starting with its dubious title. Murder of the Century? Hello! Lincoln? More locally, there was that sitting US vice president, Aaron Burr, shooting a Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton. Ultimately, the Guldensuppe murder had no more significance than an especially clever episode of Law & Order. Old New York, red in tooth and claw, produced similar, press-fanned sensations every couple of years.

The title is indicative, rather, of the latest creeping fungus in publishing, the invention of an entire genre known as “narrative history.” Its ideal is Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, and it is based on the condescending premise that people will not read history unless it is wrapped around a good, gory murder, and preferably a serial killer.

To get a better overall history of the yellow journalism wars, one might turn to other sources, such as James McGrath Morris’s outstanding new biography of Pulitzer. But Collins, the author of seven books, an assistant professor of English, and Weekend Edition’s “literary detective,” compensates for such industry manipulations. He has done prodigious research, has an eye for the telling detail, and manages to send frissons of Gothic horror running up the spine just with his descriptions of the spooky house out in Woodside where Guldensuppe met his end. He has attained the old newspaperman’s highest standard, which is to root out a good story and tell it well.

 

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