The Murder Of The Century. 9/10

The gilded age crime that scandalized a city and sparked the tabloid wars. By Paul Collins, 2011. Crown Publishing.

Well-written true crime story from 1897 New York City. The author takes a very careful look at the murder of a certain William Guldensuppe, a German immigrant and masseuse. Collins builds suspense by letting the story unfold as it might have appeared to a contemporary well-informed, semi-omniscient narrator. A parallel story is probably more surprising than the gruesome murder–the very invasive role played by the well-stocked ranks of the print media. Another sidelight, which also bears directly on the story, is the German immigrant community in general. We’re more used to hearing about Irish and Italian immigrants than Germans. But there were more German immigrants than any other European nationality.

Actually, the murder story itself is rather simple. It’s the result of a love triangle gone wrong–nothing strange about that. What is unusual, though, is that the woman, Augusta Nack, was juggling two boyfriends– Guldensuppe, and his eventual accused murderer, Martin Thorn. She’d been abandoned by her husband, Herman. Ironically, she led both Guldensuppe and Thorn on with the allure of a better life on Long Island. The mid-wife establishment she intended to run there indeed meant more or less easy living for her guy.

Apparently, though, her real motive in getting both guys up there was to have one kill the other, thus solving Augusta’s relationship issue. At the same time, she probably did intend to start such a business; one more lucrative, not to mention more humane, as well as less illegal, than the abortion machine she was allegedly involved in at her Manhattan boarding house. Collins takes us on that path by way of the Mary Rogers murder of 1841 (see Daniel Stashower’s The Beautiful Cigar Girl…2006) of New York City notoriety. That woman had apparently died as the result of a botched abortion by a New Jersey ‘midwife’.

We get the picture that late-Victorian New York City–and, by extension, The U.S. generally–was both more brutal and more casual, live-and-let-live. Most of the German characters in this narrative, not to mention others, are living on the edge. There’s hardly a sympathetic person to be seen. We could feel bad for Guldensuppe himself. After all, he was murdered. Yet he had beaten up Thorn, treated Augusta badly, and, of course, all of this happened as the result of his affair with her.

Thorn hardly comes off well either; sort of the mirror image of Guldensuppe. He admitted as much by saying that he had no hard feelings towards his rival (p. 194) “He was not a bad man either. I always liked him” and would’ve done the same had the roles been reversed. Augusta, of course, literally stood in the middle; basics playing one off against the other to see which lover could be more useful and entertaining. There’s certainly reason to feel bad for Herman Nack, but he, too, was an abusive jerk.

One way to look at this long-ago world and its contradictory mores would be to focus on the gender issue. On the one hand, women weren’t exactly full citizens (not yet having the vote, jury duty, marital rights, property rights, civil rights (at home that is), etc). The strange flip-side of this quasi-status was a lot of unwritten rules. All of which figured famously in the murder of Paris publisher Gaston Calmette in 1914, by the wife and former mistress of ex-Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux, Henriette.

Calmette had wronged her by printing letters from another of Caillaux’s mistresses. He also threatened to publish Henriette’s secret love letters (he and Henriette were carrying on before his first wife died). Henriette was obviously guilty, but was nonetheless exonerated. Avenging dishonor was judged a ‘crime of passion,’ somewhat in the nature of a duel. The very weaknesses that society, that is, male-dominated culture, ascribed to women, which so limited their roles in that society, could sometimes become privileges not accorded to men.

It seems that Augusta had a slight amount of the unwritten rules that tended to make the male, in a male/female conspiracy, the instigator as well as the agent of death. It’s interesting to note (p.265) that even “the detectives in the case remained insistent on Mrs. Nack’s equal guilt (compared to Thorn). Neither Thorn’s explanation nor hers fits the evidence.” As a matter of logic, then, Collins figures that each had to finger the other “only the other had been upstairs (in the Long Island house) to commit the murder. If they’d acted in concert, neither one could breathe a word of the actual plot.” (p. 266). So, it was all or nothing; both of them gambled, Thorn lost.

Once William Howe got involved in Thorn’s defense, it looked as though anything could happen. When we marvel at the flamboyant larger-than-life criminal defense attorney, and assume that it’s is a modern phenomena, it’s because guys like Howe started that tradition–the perfect combination of salesman and legal scholar. He ingeniously destroyed Augusta’s testimony at Thorn’s first trial. But fate pretty much nullified that victory; the sudden death of a juror necessitating a retrial. The DA wisely didn’t put her on the stand. There was enough circumstantial evidence for the jury to convict Thorn anyway.

A final shocker–literally–is the horrific workings of the electric chair. There’s no getting around the fact that killing, whether legally authorized or not, is a nasty business. Indeed, at the requisite post mortem autopsy Thorn was “mutilated…to complete the killing” (p.245) according to Dr. O’Neill, the attending physician at the execution.

The macabre gears were still turning, as copycat murders occurred, Herman Back killed himself, and the Long Island house where Guldensuppe’s murder took place seemed to curse or haunt subsequent tenants.

My only disappointment with this reading experience has nothing really to do with the book itself–I just wish that Gudensuppe’s head had been found, that he’d been found alive, or that Thorn had not been the murderer. Highly recommended for readers of Victorian-era true crime. 9/10

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