How To Get Ahead in Tabloid Journalism
Murdoch's minions have nothing on the journalists of 1897.
It was 1 a.m. on a hot July night when detectives marched into the offices of the New York World. "Where's the head?"they demanded.
In the summer of 1897, that question meant just one thing in Manhattan newsrooms, and it wasn't a request to meet the managing editor. The head everyone sought was of William Guldensuppe, a masseur who had disappeared in late June from his Hell's Kitchen apartment. He'd reappeared scattered in pieces along the Lower East Side, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. What was still missing, though, was his head—which, rumor had it, a jealous lover had hidden inside a block of plaster.
To William Randolph Hearst, the crime was perfect opportunity to trumpet his newly launched New York Evening Journal. Hearst offered a whopping $1,000 reward to solve the crime, and even formed a "Murder Squad" of reporters who were ready to resort to flashing badges and pistols to make citizen's arrests. Yet his stunts were merely improvements on the carnivalesque populism of rival publisher Joseph Pulitzer. Featuring celebrity news and scandal, Pulitzer's New York World had also created the world's first color comic section, and the popularity of strips like "The Yellow Kid" inspired competitors to scoff that the World and Journal were selling comic-strip journalism—"Yellow Journalism," they called it.
Not to be upstaged by Hearst's Journal, the World stole evidence from the Guldensuppe murder scene by shaving off a piece of a floorboard, testing it, and proclaiming BLOOD IN THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY. They also hired divers to search the East River for Guldensuppe's head. But after a World diving crew was spotted surreptitiously drawing a slimy white mass out of the river, the delicate matter of legality arose. The New York Herald believed the World had the scoop of the day—literally scooping William Guldensuppe's head off the bottom of the East River—and that Pulitzer's henchmen were now concealing the ghastly thing in their editorial offices. In a burst of righteous indignation, the Herald called in the police.
It wasn't the first such call the police had received. Children proved especially fond of claiming severed-head sightings, as when a boy found a plaster-caked head in Branchport, N.J., panicked, and threw it into a local stream. Despite a welter of yellow-press stories about "little Tommy Cooper" and his ghastly find, the police couldn't turn it up again. It took a more sober-minded Herald reporter to discover why. "The main fault with the Branchport discovery," he ventured, "is that there is no such person as Tommy Cooper."
Though such corrections were often necessary, the yellow papers were punishing their competitors so badly that for one precarious night, until it got its finances in order, the Evening Telegram ceased publication altogether. The New York Times, barely recovered from near-bankruptcy itself, tried beating back at the tide of Yellow Journalism by running a pointed new motto on its front page: "All The News That's Fit To Print." But other papers inexorably drifted with Hearst's powerful current. On the same day that the Evening Journal boasted such edifying stories as "Cocaine Phantoms Haunt Him" and "Hypnotism Nearly Kills," one could also find all these headlines on a single page of the more respectable New York Herald:
ABSINTHE HIS BANE
ITALIAN FATALLY STABBED
INQUIRY ABOUT POISON GAS
FEROCIOUS DOG MANGLES A BOY
SINGER ENDS LIFE
THEY TRIED TO DIE TOGETHER
New York papers now ran far more column inches on crime and accidents than other cities, and the Journal ran so much crime copy in combination with sports and comics that the traditional staples of business, labor, and religion stories were nearly crowded out altogether. But Hearst knew his readers, and he knew what they liked." The public," he reminded his staff, "likes entertainment better than it likes information."
And so Guldensuppe's head would reappear whenever the news got slow. Three more boys spotted a head floating by the 117th Street Boathouse, but to no avail. Yet another "decomposed mass" frightened passing ferry passengers and was indeed found to be a head—but of "a large fish." But when a 7-year-old girl from Queens found an actual chunk of plaster with hair still stuck to it from a local ditch, matters began to look more promising. Closer examination revealed it might have contained a head—of cabbage.
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.
Historical images courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.