It was a spring day in 1889 when Julian Ralph’s editor handed him an assignment that made the famous reporter sigh. Ralph, one of the first true stars of the journalism world, wrote for the New York Sun. He had become famous a few years before for his impressive coverage of Henry Ward Beecher’s adultery trial for the New York Daily Graphic, which is how he came to work for the Sun, the most prominent and well-respected paper of the day. But Ralph didn’t like covering crimes and trials. He would much rather have spent his time exposing political corruption or the deplorable conditions inflicted upon the working poor. But his editor urged him to check into it, and reluctantly, Ralph agreed to investigate.
The case couldn’t have been more pedestrian. The victim was a clerk named Wechsung who worked and lived in a drugstore in Manhattan. In the early morning hours of March 7, 1889, Wechsung was attacked from behind by a robber. A neighbor discovered him barely alive, suffering from cruel hatchet wounds to the back of his head. His blood spattered the walls and surely spattered his assailant. Wechsung managed to whisper a description of being attacked as he bent to tie his shoe, but he could not manage more before he died.
The hot glare of police searchlights landed upon another young clerk at the store, William Krulisch, a 17-year-old orphan who ran errands for the owner. It was the boy’s custom to fetch rolls every morning for the store staff, and he claimed that he knew nothing of the murder of his co-worker until he returned from roll-fetching that morning. The policemen had other ideas, and although they were unsuccessful in beating a confession out of the boy during a straight twenty-four hours of questioning, Krulisch was haled to court to answer a charge of felony murder. A coroner’s jury indicted him, and he was thrown in the Tombs and put on trial to face a possible trip to the state’s brand new electric chair.
Julian Ralph picked up the story from there and attended the first several days of Krulisch’s trial. But Ralph had done his homework, and he knew that the facts as presented to the jury were not as they’d been presented to him. Ralph knew that the errand-boy owned only one set of clothes, and his clothes were spotless when he returned to the store from his errand, minutes after the cruel deed. Ralph also knew that the exact words of the dying man were, “after the boy went out, I stooped to tie my shoe and a man struck me.” A man. Not the errand boy. But the policemen hadn’t reported the dying declaration to the jurors, claiming that they’d lost their notes.
On the 7th of April, a full week into the trial, the Sun ran Ralph’s scathing report of distorted testimony and concealment of exculpatory evidence. The story stole the prosecution’s thunder. On the 9th of April, the jury acquitted the boy, and the triumphant news of the “not guilty” verdict electrified the newswires. Ralph added another feather to his war bonnet of journalistic triumphs and chalked up the incident to the “power of a journalist.”
Today, Ralph is all but forgotten except by those who quote his voluminous travel writings. He also wrote fiction as well as a fascinating book called People We Pass: Stories of Life Among the Masses of New York City, which your correspondent recommends as an interesting study of its title subjects. An inspiring biography of Ralph, Gentlemen of the Press, is on my shelf of “Books to Read Every Few Years."