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: