In popular daily journalism, what goes around tends to come around.

Nearly 120 years ago, newspapers redefined themselves, and huge fortunes were amassed reporting petty neighborhood crime, presenting it larger than life through exaggeration and outright fabrication, and finally turning the newspapers into the story by assuming the roles of police, prosecutor and jury.

Every editor knows the public loves gossipy domestic crime, especially if a celeb of sorts is involved. If there's no celeb, you create one. But eventually the public tires of the same story with different names, so the penny-papers graduated to lurid political scandals.

They finally hit their peak when they precipitated a war with hapless Spain, staged just 90 miles off the Florida Keys, in easy reach of reporters on yachts.

Today's successful local TV news formula means chasing police to neighborhood shootings, with the occasional traffic accident caught on video or the pet rescued in a house fire tossed in. Cable has advanced the art one level by joining the police on raids of mostly underclass suspects who can't afford a good lawyer to protect their rights.

But alas, the public tires. So the 24-hour cable beast and amateur Web reporter graduate to lurid political scandals, which as despicable as they might be, often have little to do with the political figure's carrying out of his sworn duties. And of course, the stories are as old as politics itself. Only the names have changed.

Some would go as far as to say that the need to feed the cable beast precipitated the second war in Iraq.

Each infant invention or innovation in mass communications, it seems, starts off slowly, often inconspicuously, and then suddenly on the wings of an event that captures the public imagination, it bursts forth to the head of the class.

Just such a defining event is the subject of Paul Collins' latest book, an exciting whodunit, aptly titled "The Murder of the Century."

Even in 1897, New York City had a murder a day. The killing of a little-known immigrant worker involved in a love tryst might have been a two-day story at best if not for the blossoming of the penny-papers and the fight between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer for dominance of the lucrative New York market.

The basic story is intriguing in its simplicity: Two men vie for a woman. One man winds up dead at the hand of the other man, the woman -- maybe both -- or even the husband. The story is repeated too frequently in towns and cities across the nation, hardly a blockbuster in a city like New York.

True, some odd circumstances in this killing would perk up the weary ears of any crusty city editor worth his salt.

For starters, two boys found the headless upper torso of a man, wrapped in bright oilcloth tied in a bundle, floating near an East River ferry slip. While citizens clamored to identify the remains, some berry pickers near the Harlem River stumbled across a neatly severed lower torso and legs. Sure enough, the pieces matched.

Surely a head would turn up soon, officials predicted. It never did.

Even without the identifying head -- this was before DNA or even routine fingerprinting -- newspaper reporters led police to a barber named Martin Thorn and a midwife, Augusta Nack, who was nabbed with her bags already packed for a return to her native Germany.

The torso probably belonged to a masseur named William Guldensuppe, Mrs. Nack's first lover -- not counting husband Herman Nack. Thorn, the barber, claimed to be Mrs. Nack's current lover. Gussie Nack at various times insisted she loved all three men, although in the parlance of the 21st century, Mr. Nack was ancient history.

So, who did it?

It turned out not to be that simple considering that hundreds of New Yorkers were claiming the torso as their lost relative or best friend. Besides, when confronted, the prime suspects accused each other. To add to the circus atmosphere, one of the city's leading defense lawyers took Gussie's case, while the chief prosecutor was a close associate of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who had just left his police job for a more promising career and eventually San Juan Hill.

There's more, lots more. Author Collins does a masterful job of moving the mystery forward while capturing the character and color of New York City, its corrupt police department, the smells of its bustling lower Manhattan neighborhoods and its shops crowded with recently arrived immigrants. He may drop a cliche or two, but Collins tells this story like a true mystery writer.

This mystery, however, contains a strong subplot. Just below the surface of this fully researched and annotated thriller is the story of an emerging new medium, struggling for acceptance, looking for a reason to be and finding it in this unlikely story that would hold 100,000 readers captivated for months. The phenomenon became known as yellow journalism, named for a cartoon character of the time.

The young, brash Hearst had recently set up shop in Park Row and needed a good story, a lurid mystery -- a story that editors say "has legs" -- to help him wrest the title of "the yellowest of the yellows" from Pulitizer. New York City had 48 dailies at the time, butThis was war between Hearst's Journal and Pulitizer's World.

True, newspapers weren't invented in 1897, but penny-papers, the new medium that everyone could afford and that appealed to the masses through scandal, petty crime and infidelity -- the more shocking the better -- were in their infancies. They needed a big story to prove their legitimacy, even if they had to make it up.

This is where the story begins to sound like today's media dogfights. Just substitute the antics of the 24-hour news talking heads, or the local evening newscast investigators, or the latest news-gossip website for the penny-papers in these vignettes:

Every police reporter and would-be police reporter in town had his own theory on the identity of the floating torso and the killer. Most were total fantasy, and most were printed in one edition or another of the Journal or the World and then forgotten. Police reporters carried badges, and a few made citizen's arrests. (Does that sound like arranging for a murder suspect to turn himself in at a TV studio?) "Why just cover news when you could make it?" Hearst shouted to his editors.
The yellow journalists contrived news, going as far as renting a crime scene from a landlord and letting police in only after scouring the place for clues. The opposition suspected Journal reporters planted phony evidence so they could write about it one day and disprove it the next.

After hiding a witness from police, the Journal trumpeted across Page One: "Murder Mystery Solved by the Journal -- Mrs. Nack Murderess!" Well maybe. And maybe not. You'll have to read the book.

But what we do know is that Pulitzer went on to respectability by donating wheelbarrows of money to Columbia University (the Pulitizer Prize). Hearst eventually got his war, and the family went on to publishing respectability. With time, the penny-papers softened, waiting to be supplanted by the next innovation.

History reminds us again: There is hope in our future.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.


The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars

by Paul Collins

Crown, 325 pages, $26