Froth & Scum
Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America’s First Mass Medium
by Andie Tucher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 244 pages, $34.95 . CODE: UNC-6
In the early 1830s a new style of newspaper arrived, aimed at the urban working-class reader. Scandals and horrors were suddenly, for the first time, front-page news. According to Andie Tucher’s excellent account, the penny press’s defining moment came in New York in 1836, when an infatuated drygoods clerk was accused of ax-murdering a young prostitute. The case seized the city, and each of New York’s penny editors claimed to have the captivating true account. James Gordon Bennett, the flamboyant, Scottish-born editor of the New York Herald , wrote that at the crime scene he had viewed the “perfect” body, which “surpassed in every respect the Venus de Medicis.” After the suspected murderer went free to Texas, letters were found in which he had offered to seduce a man’s wife, providing grounds for divorce, in exchange for alibi testimony in his own case.
Five years later a second ax murder caused another fierce competition, this time joined by Horace Greeley’s new Tribune . With immigrants flooding into New York City, some penny papers that had begun life as working-class sheets were pitching to the threatened middleclass and pursuing more high-toned stories; Bennett’s Herald was not among them, and it became the target of a “Moral Crusade,” more economic than high-minded in its ends, launched by competing editors. Tucher, a former Clinton campaign speechwriter, presents the colorful story of the early penny press with all the verve, intelligence, and humor it merits.