Sunday, February 12, 2012

"The Murder of the Century" by Paul Collins

Years ago, long before I was married, I formed the habit of not dating murderesses. I'm too much the nervous type to be looking over my shoulder all the time, or sleep with one eye open. Also, once you fall in with a murderess, there is, like the Mafia, only one way out. William Guldensuppe was ignorant of this fact. And that ignorance led to his untimely demise. You might even say he lost his head over the whole affair.

Augusta and Herman Nack arrived in America from Germany around 1890. He was a bakery driver, delivering fresh breads to the neighborhood stores by means of a horse drawn cart. Mrs. Nack was a mid-wife, trained in Germany, but unable to use her skills in New York City, which had outlawed the practice some time before her arrival. But, armed with her knowledge of medicine and obstetrics, she was an able, although illegal, abortionist. At $25 apiece, doing several of these procedures a week, she was doing quite well for herself. She also took in boarders. And there-in lies the true mystery behind the mystery presented by Mr. Collins. With all that money rolling in, why did she need to take on a boarder?

In this highly charged and readable book, Mr. Collins painstakingly traces the mystery of a human torso found floating off the East 3rd Street Pier in Manhattan on a hot summer's day in June of 1897, a year before all 5 boroughs would unite to become New York City as we know it today.

Briefly, Mrs. Nack took her boarder, William Guldensuppe, a masseur, as a lover. With her husband, Herman Nack, gone for fourteen hours a day, she had plenty of time for her abortion business, which she ran with the help of a local pharmacist, a local doctor, and an undertaker. She also had time for a lover, in this case it was first William Guldensuppe. Later, there would be another lover, Martin Thorn, who would help her dispose of Mr. Guldensuppe.

On June 26th, 1897 in the midst of a scorching heat wave, 2 boys swimming in the East River found a parcel wrapped in oilcloth. When they opened it they found a human torso. There was nothing else; just a torso. This was baffling enough, but when more body parts; which all fit the previous parts perfectly; were found scattered about the Bronx, and Queens, the police, urged on by the newspapers of the day, were hard pressed to act.

This case touched off a newspaper rivalry which would lead to the rise of the new so-called "Yellow Journalism", and spark the famous tabloid war between Wm. Randolph Hearst's Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.

With forensics largely non-existent, the case turns on good old fashioned police work. The crime was committed in such a daring fashion, with Mrs. Nack pitting one lover against the other in her quest to avoid detection concerning her illegal business. Just how she ran this business is as fascinating as the murder of Mr. Guldensuppe himself.

From the Public Baths of Murray Hill, to the Washington Bridge in East Harlem, all the way to a house in Woodside Queens, and back to the East 3rd Street Piers, Mr. Collins has written a history of New York at the close of the 19th century, as well as presenting a highly charged true life murder mystery. This is one book you will not be able to put down.

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