Book Review: Harold Schechter’s The Devil’s Gentleman
Ballantine Books (October 2007)
Harold Schechter, an American literature professor at CUNY, has written a gripping account of the criminal trial and appeal of Roland Molineux, a case that grabbed headlines throughout the late 1890s. His book, The Devil’s Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial that Ushered in the Twentieth Century (2007) is a page-turner, and it reads almost like a novel.
Roland Molineux, the son of a revered Civil War general, was accused of an elaborate scheme of sending medicines and potions containing cyanide in order to kill two men. One was his friend whom Molineux wanted out of the picture because he was having an affair with the woman Molineux had his sights on marrying. The other was the director of an athletic club to which Molineux belonged and whom Molineux hated. The result was two murders, one of which involved an unintended victim. Oddly, anonymously sending potions or food laced with poison in the mail was an effective way to kill at that time. People apparently thought nothing of ingesting things that were sent to them anonymously. Poison was a popular murder instrument at the time, and people viewed poisoning as an especially sinister and “unmanly” way to kill. And one could readily be poisoned not through any nefarious scheme, but by the medicines at the time, some of which contained cyanide and arsenic. The cure was often more deadly than the disease.
The book focuses considerably on the role that the media played in the justice system. The media in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century was rabidly sensationalistic. The rise of “Yellow Journalism” was one of the factors that prompted Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis to write their famous article, The Right to Privacy in 1890. Yellow Journalism emerged as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst transformed the newspaper business, from small circulations and weak profits (sometimes even losses), to a booming success. In two years, for example, Pulitzer increased the circulation of the New York World from under 12,000 a day to 150,000 a day:
The very look of the paper underwent a radical alternation. Headlines now stretched over several columns or were splashed across the entire top of the page. And there were cartoons, caricatures, lurid illustrations, and other voyeuristic visual aids. Not only were grisly murders reported in graphic detail; they were diagrammed so that readers could picture the horrors more clearly. (p. 98)
The newspapers conducted their own investigations into criminal cases, interviewing witnesses, tracing leads, shadowing the police. In one instance, a newspaper even funded an investigation. The police needed to go through 50,000 sales slips at a pharmacy, and “they would have had an impossible time of it, since orders were full of Latin medical terms and abbreviations. Only people with pharmaceutical training could accomplish the task.” The pharmaceutical supply company “couldn’t afford to loan [its clerks with the requisite training] out for an indefinite period of time.” Enter the media:
At that point, however, the yellow papers, with their genius for self-promotion, insinuated themselves into the proceedings. The World–which never wearied of trumpeting its own invaluable contributions to the case–offered to reimburse Smith for his clerks’ time. (p. 164)
When it came to the trial, the newspapers presented it more as a play than as a real event. One newspaper “presented a summary of the case in the form of a stage play, complete with a ‘Cast of Characters'; a synopsis of the ‘Great Double Poisoning Drama’ divided into acts and scenes.” (p. 173). A different paper had its theater critic covering the trial, which drew an attack from another newspaper as stepping over the line. “The trial is dramatic but it is not a dramatic spectacle,” the editorial decried. “A murder trial should not be made to wear the aspect of a public diversion.” (p. 289)
The Devil’s Gentleman is riveting and engaging, and it and captures a vivid slice of life at the turn of the Twentieth Century. It contains an extensive and very interesting account of police investigations, trials, and appeals at the time. The book chronicles step-by-step how the police and press pieced together the case, as well as demonstrates the impact of various courtroom strategies and evidence (there were two trials, each involving considerably different strategies and admitted evidence).
And along the way, the book contains some interesting tidbits of information. For example, Theodore Dreiser mulled over writing a novel based on the case, but abandoned the project. He found another crime which formed the basis of An American Tragedy. And the book notes that in the 1890s, “dealers in mail-order patent medicine brought in extra income by saving the correspondence they received from customers, then selling these letters to other mail-order firms.” (p. 269). Selling people’s personal information, it seems, was a popular pastime then, as it is now.