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The Difference Engine and the Murder of the Century

London, Summer 1821. Charles Babbage (1791-1871), inventor  and mathematician, is poring over a set of astronomical tables calculated by hand. Finding error after error he finally exclaims ‘I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam’. 

I recently had the good fortune to read two excellent and complementary books in tandem.

One was The Difference Engine, a famous piece of sci-fi alternate history by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.  It takes place in Victorian England—a different Victorian England, still driven by steam and innocent of electricity, but one in which Charles Babbage’s machine for mechanical computing has been perfected.  New but oddly familiar vistas of technology, pollution, wealth, crime, control, and oppression confront the characters and the reader.  Gibson has said that The Difference Engine remains his favorite among his books and the only one he re-reads.  Coming from the author of Neuromancer, that’s no small claim.  Unsurprisingly, the book has become something of a touchstone for the steampunk movement, which it anticipated by about a decade.

The other book is Murder of the Century, by Paul Collins.  It reads like a prequel to The Difference Engine, with the added advantage that it is both strange and true.  The murder in question was the quite mundane if gruesome liquidation and dismemberment in 1897 New York City of a German immigrant, William Guldensuppe by his lover, Augusta Nack, and her other lover, Martin Thorn. What made it the murder of that century was the central role it played in the New York tabloid wars and the rise of William Randolph Hearst.

The Guldensuppe murder made Hearst.  Through a combination of luck, energy, and money Hearst’s upstart New York Journal rode the case to victory over the Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and mastery of the New York newspaper universe.

Hearst did not only report the case—he made the case.  His “Wrecking Crew”—a pack of reporters whizzing around the city on that new-fangled invention, the bicycle, to scoop the competition—not only kept ahead of the World; it stayed a step ahead of New York’s not-too-impressive police department, unearthing clues, accumulating evidence, interviewing suspects, and keeping the prosecutorial ball rolling.

At the time, New York was a big city, but as yet deficient in the big city mechanisms of control and consent meant to convey the unassailable authority of the government.  The suspect, Martin Thorn, was trundled to and from the courthouse on the trolley by his police escort; when it was time to go up the river to Sing Sing, he was loaded on the public ferry to be ogled, consoled, insulted, or interviewed by any passenger who had the inclination.

The whole book reads like a steampunk artifact from when the cage of science, modern laws, and bourgeois morals had not yet been completely erected around the human passions, but the modern hive mind fostered by capitalism, population density, and the omnipresent media had already emerged.

Even as Hearst’s hyper-modern steam presses thundered out multiple daily editions to overwhelm The World, and Linotype operators in the printing plant received direct telephone feeds of the courtroom testimony in their headsets, The Journal’s crack sketch artists relied on Aeolus, Flyaway, and Electra—three U.S. record-holding racing pigeons hired by Hearst—to deliver the latest pictures from the courthouse to Newspaper Row.

Throughout the book glides the sensuous and sinister figure of Mrs. Nack: an uneducated German immigrant who deftly navigated 19th century New York as a single woman by deftly juggling and exploiting multiple lovers, and through her talents as a midwife and alleged abortionist.  She played the press like a fiddle, doling out scoops, interviews, and accusations that kept her the center of sympathetic attention.  Although Mrs. Nack, according to Collins’ reconstruction, killed Guldensuppe in the most intimate manner conceivable with Thorn’s assistance, she blithely and easily rolled over on her accomplice by turning state’s evidence.

Augusta Nack emerged from prison ten years later and, after a flurry of media interest and interviews, disappeared forever.

Martin Thorne went to the electric chair at Sing Sing.

In true steampunk irony, the electric chair, still in its infancy, only delivered a modest jolt of 1750 volts at ten amperes.  After the sentence was executed—accompanied by a smell that a witness described as resembling “an overheated flatiron on a handkerchief” — Thorn was pronounced dead.  Reporters dashed out to file their stories and Dr. Joseph O’Neill of the New York School of Clinical Medicine came forward to examine the body.

Collins describes the aftermath:

O’Neill bent over and rested the stethoscope on Thorn’s skin.  There was a motion underneath—a faint thrill in the carotid artery…With swift and practiced movements, the doctor examined the cremasteric reflex, which retracted or loosened the testes; it was still working.  O’Neill…pulled back Thorn’s left eyelid; the pupil contracted beneath the blaze of light.

“If required, I should be very reluctant to sign his death certificate,” the surgeon announced.

The prison doctor pointedly ignored O’Neill and directed two attendants to carry the body to an autopsy room.  Thorn’s skull and chest were quickly opened…

Aghast, Dr. O’Neill fired off a dispatch titled “Who’s the Executioner?” to the Atlantic Medical Weekly.  “The law requires post-mortem mutilation…as it reveals no cause of death and teaches nothing of interest to science, it is evident that its purpose is to complete the killing.

Relishing his victory over The World and Joseph Pulitzer in New York City, Hearst quickly moved on to leverage his talents, ambitions, and media assets on a truly global stage.

His chosen sensation: the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898.  The objective: war between Spain and the United States.

The outcome: well, the rest is history.  Modern history.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org


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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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