The Devil’s Gentleman

devilsgentlemanSuggested by Brad Nelson • Schechter expertly weaves a rich historical tapestry–exploring everything from the birth of ‘yellow’ journalism to the history of poison as a murder weapon–without sacrificing a novelistic sense of character, pacing and suspense.
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3 Responses to The Devil’s Gentleman

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I dare say, the subject matter of this book runs a little close to “gutter press” for my taste. But that’s just the subject matter. To the extent that this subject matter can be dignified and made interesting without being completely salacious, Schechter has done a superb job.

    One of the reviewers at Amazon called this book “a page turner.” Well, darned if he wasn’t right. The story of this murder connects on various subjects including: a much-revered Civil War hero, the establishment of the gutter press (by Pulitzer and Hearst with their competing papers), a slightly twisted romance (and the dirty underbelly of “polite” society), and just the general life and times of that era around the turn of the century (1900).

    What makes this book readable is the obvious attention to detail that is re-articulated into a (hopefully) truthful and fairly objective narrative. The author himself has self-consciously rejected the more fanciful techniques of Capote by inventing dialogue, imagining what people were thinking, “fleshing out scenes with atmospheric touches,” etc. This more careful technique (using only original sources) has made this book a reliable primer of many things, including especially the beginning of mob entertainment culture. This was the O.J. Simpson Trial at its creation and the true beginning of the degradation of our culture into superficial titillation. Schechter writes:

    If the twentieth century can be defined not strictly by chronology, however, but in terms of its distinctive features, then there is another possibility.3 In his 1998 book, Life: The Movie, culture critic Neal Gabler examines the way the American media have turned all of reality—everything from news and politics to high art and crime—into “a branch of show business, where the overriding objective is getting and satisfying an audience.” Gabler sees this “conversion of life into an entertainment medium” as the “single most important cultural transformation in this country in the twentieth century.”4

    If Gabler is right—that the obliteration of the boundaries between real life and show business is the hallmark of our age—then the twentieth century can be said to have begun not on New Year’s Day 1900, but a month earlier: on December 4, 1899, when one of New York City’s leading newspapers, the Herald, assigned its renowned theater critic, Clement Scott, to cover the murder trial of Roland Molineux.

    That last part is telling. Many newspapers at the time (especially the newly-spawned tabloids of Pulitzer and Hearst) hired drama critics (and other famous or semi-famous writers such as the son of Hawthorne) to write about the Molineux trial. The job of this new “yellow” journalism was basically the forerunner of Ophrah, Jerry Springer, the National Enquirer, etc. It appealed and promoted the lowest common denominator. That said, they had so many reporters on the Molineux case that reporters regularly were of material help to the police in discovering “clews.”

    The author takes you through all the particulars. You have a pretty good idea who likely did it, but the trial and story itself have a number of Perry-Mason-like twists and turns that, as the author notes, are typically only the purview of that TV show. And in the end, there is some doubt raised about who-done-it.

    You’ll also witness the incompetence of lawyers and prosecutors. That is in abundance, as well as the doctor who basically killed William McKinley by his incompetence. Although the story of Roland Molineux, his life, and his family and friends is interesting, the largest impression left on me is the stupidity of mobs and the beginning of the true degradation of America by entertainment triviality.

    As the author noted, it is also extremely fascinating that people were either so trusting (or stupid) to take medicinal remedies sent to them anonymously. Product tampering was not yet a big thing. Schechter writes:

    In view of our contemporary concerns about product tampering, it seems almost unbelievable that anyone would casually ingest medication received through the mail from an anonymous sender. That both Mrs. Adams and Harry Cornish (and others, too, as events would prove) did so without a second thought reveals something about their era, though exactly what is hard to say. Perhaps people were simply more trusting back then. Certainly, they paid little heed to the ingredients of the Kilmer’s Acid Phosphate, Carlsbad Sprudel Salt, Cascarets Candy Cathartic, Peruna Catarrh Tablets, and countless other nostrums they routinely put into their bodies.

    I suppose back when people used a solution of mercury as a gargle and gave small doses of strychnine to their children as a medicine, there was a lack of basic common sense (sort of like our global warming hysteria or fixation on gluten). Hey, they used to bleed people to make them better. Quackery has been around a long time. And whether medicinal or political quackery, I think people can become inured to it.

    Anyway, if you’re looking for a good page-turner that offers more than just a titillating crime drama, this is a terrific book. It will give you an informed perspective on a whole number of things.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Anonymous medicines or candy through the mail . . . a lot of murders were committed that way. I suppose the murder rate was low enough that it rarely occurred to people that someone might wish them ill (quite literally). Then again, we don’t know how many attempts miscarried because the receiver was a bit more cautious than Molineux’s victims.

      I wonder, though, if we can really date sensationalist yellow journalism to the Molineux case. The Borden murders in 1892 certainly attracted a lot of this (though perhaps mostly in Fall River itself), and people have blamed Hearst and his papers for playing a major role in bringing about the Spanish-American War.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I’ll jump ahead here a little in the story. One of the guys who apparently was the target of poisoning (Harry Cornish) was well aware that the bottle of Bromo-Seltzer he was sent was in a package that did not have a return address. As an afterthought, he clipped the label from the envelope and saved it in his desk drawer.

        A few more spoilers. I do recommend reading this story from scratch to get the full effect. Anyway, in his office (Cornish was athletic director of the Knickerbocker Athletic Club), one of his friends was feeling a little subpar and asked if he could take some of the Bromo-Seltzer. His life was saved because when he went out into the hallway, the water cooler was empty.

        For some damned reason (and the defense later used this to take suspicious away from Molineux by putting the suspicion on Cornish), Cornish took the bottle home with him. And, as you can imagine, bad things happened. It’s getting into the nitty-gritty of the real life aspect (and foibles) that makes the story so interesting.

        And (another spoiler) the first trial of Molineux is amazing in its own way. The prosecution lays out a horrible case. It’s convoluted, over-done, and generally doesn’t establish a number of important things. You’ll also gain from this book the now common belief (and not without much truth) that “the rich,” via the use of high-priced lawyers, receive a different brand of justice.

        But that would be assuming that Molineux’s lawyer was particularly clever. In the first trial (and I won’t blow this spoiler), let’s just say he was not.

        It’s unclear (another spoiler…again, I recommend reading the book from scratch) whether Molineux’s behavior was the result of being a sociopath or whether the syphilis he caught (whether from his part-time-prostitute employee/girlfriend or from the opium-dens/brothels is never established) had addled his brain even in its rather early stages.

        What is interesting about Molineux and his father (who can be faulted for being perhaps too loyal) are their otherwise bedrock virtues of hard work, endurance, etc. The Molineux murders are extraordinary because (if he did them), Roland Molineux — although wound a little tight and perhaps with some sexual issues — was a very accomplished guy.

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