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Three Reads: Bad Guys of Gilded Age New York


The 1870s through the turn of the century are known as the Gilded Age. "The term was coined by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), satirizing what they believed to be an era of serious social problems disguised by a thin gold gilding." (Wikipedia) The US underwent a period of enormous change: increased industrialization including the growth of the railroads and the rise of the robber barons, a massive influx of European immigrants, widespread devastation in the South, the social reform movement, and the rapid urbanization of the North. While much good was done, there was massive political corruption and economic unrest. Here are three books about some of our fine city's bad guys, lying, cheating, and stealing their way through the 1890s.

A Disposition to Be Rich: How A Small-town Pastor's Son Ruined An American President, Brought on A Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-hated Man in the United States by Geoffrey C. Ward

I first came upon this story during a "Murder, Mayhem, and Disasters of Green-Wood" walking tour of the famous Brooklyn cemetery, where Ferdinand Ward is buried in an unmarked grave. This book, penned by his great-grandson, has my favorite subtitle ever, and that says it all.

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-loving New York by Richard Zacks

Roosevelt's gumption was admirable, as he took on gamblers, madams, barkeeps, and a horde of crooked police officers in his quixotic quest to rid New York City of sin. But much like the 1986 World Series, the bad guys won.

The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins

Collins recounts the grisly murder of one William Guldensuppe, whose body was found in pieces scattered about New York City in 1897. While the NYPD bumbled through the investigation, reporters from Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal raced to solve the mystery and outscoop each other. A fascinating look at crime-as-entertainment.

More Gilded Age reading suggestions in Elizabeth's post.


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