News of the World scandal: Murdoch's tabloid minions have nothing on the journalists of 1897.

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July 19 2011 3:26 PM

How To Get Ahead in Tabloid Journalism

Murdoch's minions have nothing on the journalists of 1897.

William Randolph Hearst. Click image to expand.
William Randolph Hearst

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.

Staff.
From the Nov. 28, 1897, edition of the New York Herald 

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.

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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.

Hearst and Pulitzer's men both immediately fell under suspicion of manufacturing the relics. "Woodside is undergoing a boom in the agricultural line," the New York Sun jeered of one crime scene. "They plant plaster casts with cabbage in them, blood-stained clothing, and bullet-perforated hats, and within a day or two they raise a crop of fakes. There is more money grubbing for plaster in Woodside than for gold in the Klondike nowadays."

Allegations emerged that someone—and only two good guesses were needed as to who—had paid a couple of local utility workers a dollar an hour to salt the neighborhood with bogus evidence. If so, it was a brilliantly unscrupulous investment. By the end of August, the case helped vault Hearst's Evening Journal to over half a million in circulation—nearly doubling since William Guldensuppe's disappearance. And the case showed his paper could take it upon itself to shove aside any government, local or national, that moved too slow to satisfy a pressroom deadline.

"It is epochal," Hearst announced. "It represents the final stage in the evolution of the modern newspaper. Action—that is the distinguishing mark of the new journalism. When the East River murder seemed an insoluble mystery to the police, the Journal organized a detective force of its own. A newspaper's duty is not confined to exhortation, but that when things are going wrong it should set them right if possible."

It was indeed a new epoch. Hearst's saturation coverage of sensational local crime—creating a suspenseful narrative out of endless news updates from every angle, whether there was anything substantive to cover or not—clearly anticipated the round-the-clock cycle of broadcast news. And while most newspaper histories cite the 1920s as the beginning of the tabloid, Hearst's paper was already becoming more squat and squarish years earlier. It grew coarser and more self-righteous, its front page headlines a klaxon call of massive type, sometimes in crude lettering 7 inches tall. In the Journal's early days, only the beginning of a war could summon up crude and gargantuan typesetting: Soon, all it took was "Woman Kills Man in Union Square." By the new century, every day was a conflict—every day a panic.

But what, then, of poor Guldensuppe's head? The diver had indeed brought up a white chunk of stone the size of a human head, the World patiently explained; but rather than the plaster-encrusted remains of William Guldensuppe, it had proven to be nothing more than clump of barnacles. "To reassure the gentlemen in charge of the Herald," a night reporter replied piously, "The World has not the head of Guldensuppe and would not keep it if it had."

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.

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