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the devil's gentleman

8 august 2008

Within the space of a few weeks late in 1898, two people were killed in separate incidents in New York City. Each sampled a package of headache powders they'd received in the mail only to discover too late that the nostrum was laced with cyanide. No-one was ever punished for the murders. But one suspect was tried, convicted, appealed his death sentence, and won acquittal in a new trial. His name was Roland Molineux, and Harold Schechter tells the story of his particular "trial of the century" in The Devil's Gentleman.

The thesis of this historical true-crime book is that celebrated murders covered by an unscrupulous press came into being with the Molineux case. That thesis remains weak, because Schechter really offers no evidence that the Molineux foofaraw was unprecedented or even highly influential on later sensations. In fact, Daniel Stashower has recently shown in The Beautiful Cigar Girl that New Yorkers were taking a prurient interest in high-profile murder cases half a century before Molineux.

The case of "cigar girl" Mary Rogers tends to show that a convection current has been at work in American media at least since mechanical presses began to bring cheap newsprint to the masses. When Rogers was murdered in 1841, respectable newspapers and magazines took no notice. But James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald had nothing to lose, and in fact had built his paper's somewhat scurfy reputation on covering hideous murders like the 1836 Helen Jewett case.

By 1898 the Herald was one of the world's great grey newspapers, with a bow-tie square named after it in the Manhattan street grid and a solemn memorial to Bennett smack in the middle of that Herald Square. Sensational journalism was now in the hands of Pulitzer and Hearst, whose "yellow" New York World and New York Journal now occupied the sub-basement of the newspaper world.

Right up to the Drudges of the 1990s and the bloggers of the Oughts, there is always somebody dredging up the muck of a sensational story. Except for the watershed date of the Molineux trial (which started late in 1899) there's little to mark it as an exceptional turning point in the American dynamic of scandal and storytelling.

The Devil's Gentleman doesn't live up to its subtitle, but is compelling storytelling nonetheless. The Molineux murders were exceptional in their callousness and effrontery. Schechter claims to remain agnostic on the point of Molineux's guilt, but inclines to think that the first jury was correct in convicting Molineux. Sheer MO leads one to conclude that Molineux was guilty. The first to die by bromo-seltzer was H.C. Barnet, sometime lover of Molineux's on-off fiancée and eventual wife Blanche Chesebrough. Next to go was Katherine Adams, landlady of Molineux's inveterate enemy Harry Cornish. Unaware that Barnet had perished by free sample, Cornish poured Mrs. Adams a refreshing glass of cyanide-seltzer, and took a bit himself. Adams died and Cornish was in agony for weeks.

Aside from a great deal of corroborating circumstantial evidence (handwriting, stationery, the fact that Molineux was a paint manufacturer with access to poisonous chemicals), the sheer fact of two of his rivals dying by the same murderous device would seem enough to convict Molineux. And it was. But on appeal, the New York State courts found that Molineux's conviction for the murder of Adams was only obtained by introducing evidence about the death of Barnet. But the prosecution had made the mistake of not trying Molineux for both murders at once (indeed, no-one was ever tried for Barnet's murder). Evidence showing connections between the kllling of Barnet and that of Adams was inadmissable. Without it, the case collapsed at a second trial.

The Pulitzer and Hearst papers made the story into a saga of justice versus privilege. Molineux was not only wealthy in his own right, but he was the son of a rich manufacturer who was a Civil War general and pillar of the G.A.R. The best lawyers in the state were Molineux's birthright. Despite the crusading work of the yellow-newspaper reporters (who actually put together as much of the case as the police department did), Molineux walked free after his second trial.

And he did not murder again, though he would decline within a few years into late-stage syphilitic dementia. Possibly Molineux had simply run out of people he actually wanted to murder, though he later feuded with theatre impresario David Belasco over a bad play that Molineux had written and that Belasco took a chance on producing. Of course, who knows what packets of fast temporary relief Belasco got in his mail and had the good sense to throw away.

Schechter, Harold. The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, poison, and the trial that ushered in the twentieth century. New York: Ballantine, 2007.