Book Reviews -- Froth & Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium by Andie Tucher

Article excerpt

Tucher, Andie. Froth & Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. 257 pp. $39.95.

This examination of crime reporting in the Penny Press era will become a classic in American journalism history. The author has adopted a delightful storytelling voice to discuss a deeply important issue in journalism: the difference between reporting the facts and reporting the truth.

While the book originated in a carefully researched doctoral dissertation at New York University, Audie Tucher has presented the findings in a thoroughly readable style. For example, Tucher describes New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley in the early 1840s as follows: "A pallid, skinny, downyhaired, cherub-faced, semivegetarian, Greeley was equipped with one of the city's most profane mouths and a long-thwarted ambition to publish a high-class newspaper at a working-class price."

While giving particular attention to the fulminations of James Gordon Bennett's Herald, Tucher focuses on the reporting of the two famous nineteenth-century murder cases: the 1836 murder of prostitute Helen Jewett and the 1841 murder of printer Samuel Adams. In each case, the author concludes that the real murderer went free. If this were the sum total of the research, the book would make a good mystery read but not a classic in journalism history.

The major historical value of this book comes with Tucher's exploration of the reasons why these two murders received such celebrated coverage. Although the murders occurred in New York City, the author does not confine the research to that city's newspapers. …