In New York, 1897 and 1898 were important years for the tabloids and the sensationalist press. According to A.J. Liebling in a 1955 article for The New Yorker, the murder of a man named William Guldenseppe was “the case of the scattered Dutchman” because different parts of Guldenseppe’s corpse were found scattered among different parts of New York City.
Two teenagers swimming in the East River found a headless and legless body wrapped in cloth. David J. Krajicek at the New York Daily News notes the lower torso of Guldenseppe was fished out near Harlem, while the legs were found in the waters of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The New York Tribune said every part of the body was wrapped in red oilcloth and bound with a cord. Coroners eventually put the body together, without a head and piece of skin from the man’s body.
They were able to identify the put-together body as Guldenseppe, who was a German immigrant who worked as a masseur. According to the Library of Congress, Guldensuppe was actually Turkish. His co-workers said he missed work for a couple of days and were able to identify him based on a tattoo on his body of an ex-girlfriend’s face.
Krajicek notes the case became popular due to competition in the age of yellow journalism between William Randolph Hurst’s New York Evening Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. In 2012, author Paul Collins wrote a book titled The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars, in reference to the Guldenseppe murder and subsequent coverage. At the time, the crime was especially jarring because there were no leads. Collin says “there are on witnesses, no motives, no suspects” upon the discovery of the crime, and a June 30 article in The Sun titled “Butchered by a Maniac, Startling Theory to the Headless Body Mystery” confirms this claim.
Eventually, two suspects were apprehended: Augusta Nack and Martin Thorn. It’s clear the case wouldn’t actually have been solved without the intervention of tabloid reporters. According to true crime writer Jason Lucky Morrow, Guldenseppe lived with Nack on Fifth Avenue. Thorn, a local barber, apparently confessed to another barber he was sleeping with Nack whenever Guldenseppe was away. However, Guldenseppe once came home to find Thorn in Nack’s room — the two got into a fight that sent Thorn to the hospital. Thorn told the other barber he moved farther away in Manhattan, where Nack would visit him in secret. She gave him money and said she wanted to leave Guldenseppe for him.
Thorn said he found a house for rent in Woodside, a neighborhood in Queens. And by then, he wanted Guldenseppe out of the way of his dreams. Morrow writes Thorn then got a pistol to “get even with Guldenseppe.” Apparently, Nack convinced Guldenseppe to look at the new house with her, and Thorn confessed to shooting Guldenseppe in the back of the head when he came. He told the other barber he threw Guldenseppe in the bathtub, cut off his head as well as other parts of his body. They then allegedly went to the store to buy red oilcloth, threw Guldenseppe’s head into the river, and then put other parts of his body into other places.
Nack was apprehended first, according to the Record-Union. She vehemently denied any wrongdoing and said she and Guldenseppe had separated. Nack alleged they had separated and fought violently due to Guldenseppe’s unfaithfulness. While she was being arrested, she was about to leave for Europe.
However, when authorities apprehended Thorn, he said Nack was the one who already killed Guldenseppe, and he only helped her discard parts of Guldenseppe’s body. A store owner identified Nack as the one who bought the oilcloth similar to the type used to wrap around Guldenseppe. When authorities went to investigate the Woodside house, they found a knife, saw, revolver, and human blood.
Both would be tried — but according to Collins. Thorn had a very prominent attorney. Nack’s attorney, William “Big Bill” Howe, who James McGrath Morris at the Washington Post calls the “Johnnie Cochran of his day,” was able to call the evidence into question and claim Guldenseppe wasn’t even dead. The coverage of the case led to a “circulation war” between Pullitzer and Hurst the next year.
Collins writes the trial itself was the subject of much attention. While the case went to trial in November of 1897, the courthouse had thousands of ticket requests. There were seats for 72 reporters, and room was left for 10 telegraph lines. During the trial, Nack and Thorn turned on each other. They both said the other was the actual killer, and even their attorneys exchanged words. Howe called Nack’s lawyer an “insignificant little imp.” Some suspected Nack, a midwife by trade, had Guldensuppe killed because he threatened to expose an illegal abortion business. Ultimately, Nack confessed, but Thorn did not.
On August 1, 1898, Thorn was executed for the murder of Guldensuppe. At Sing Sing, New York, the New York Times reported he was executed by an electric chair with the power of 1750 volts, killed within 59 seconds. The Times said, “none of twenty-six murderers who had previously been killed in the electric chair at Sing Sing met a more painless death.” Before his execution, Thorn held a crucifix on his right hand while a priest prayed over him.
Collins notes the Guldenseppe case had unprecedented implications for yellow journalism. Hearst had defeated Pullitzer in the coverage and pursuit of the case. Both offered financial incentives for information: Pullitzer offered $500 to any reader who could solve the case, while Hearst offered $1,000. Today, that would be about $32,000. It was the year before the Spanish American War, where news started to become entertainment. Hearst relished in presenting sensationalist news the New York Times hated, and his reporters were great at uncovering leads and finding information — the New York Journal was the newspaper who first found the store owner that sold the oilcloth to Nack. Hearst's aggressive coverage would continue well into the Spanish American War.
In one headline, the New York Journal said: “MURDER MYSTERY SOLVED BY THE JOURNAL!” and gave a reporter $1,000.
To this day, Collins says there’s doubt over whether Nack or Thorn actually killed Guldensuppe. Both the Journal and World were more concerned about selling stories than the actual truth, and readers like ourselves are the ones who want the rush to judgment to satiate our appetites. In the Guldenseppe case, the evidence was still very circumstantial and the police could not actually identify the victim with certainty.
For Collins, this wasn’t just the media of 1898. The case was so unprecedented and influential that this is the media that has stuck with us until now.
Originally published on May 2, 2021, on CrimeBeat.