Froth and Scum

Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium

By Andie Tucher

266 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 6 illus.

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4472-4
    Published: November 1994
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-6601-6
    Published: November 2000
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6723-0
    Published: November 2000

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Two notorious antebellum New York murder cases--a prostitute slashed in an elegant brothel and a tradesman bludgeoned by the brother of inventor Samuel Colt--set off journalistic scrambles over the meanings of truth, objectivity, and the duty of the press that reverberate to this day. In 1833 an entirely new kind of newspaper--cheap, feisty, and politically independent--introduced American readers to the novel concept of what has come to be called objectivity in news coverage. The penny press was the first medium that claimed to present the true, unbiased facts to a democratic audience. But in Froth and Scum, Andie Tucher explores--and explodes--the notion that 'objective' reporting will discover a single, definitive truth. As they do now, news stories of the time aroused strong feelings about the possibility of justice, the privileges of power, and the nature of evil. The prostitute's murder in 1836 sparked an impassioned public debate, but one newspaper's 'impartial investigation' pleased the powerful by helping the killer go free. Colt's 1841 murder of the tradesman inspired universal condemnation, but the newspapers' singleminded focus on his conviction allowed another secret criminal to escape. By examining media coverage of these two sensational murders, Tucher reveals how a community's needs and anxieties can shape its public truths. The manuscript of this book won the 1991 Allan Nevins Prize of the Society of American Historians for the best-written dissertation in American history. from the book Journalism is important. It catches events on the cusp between now and then--events that still may be changing, developing, ripening. And while new interpretations of the past can alter our understanding of lives once led, new interpretations of the present can alter the course of our lives as we live them. Understanding the news properly is important. The way a community receives the news is profoundly influenced by who its members are, what they hope and fear and wish, and how they think about their fellow citizens. It is informed by some of the most occult and abstract of human ideas, about truth, beauty, goodness, and justice.

About the Author

Andie Tucher, editorial producer of The Twentieth Century documentary series at ABC News, was a Clinton campaign speechwriter. She lives in New York.
For more information about Andie Tucher, visit the Author Page.


"From the yellowed columns of newsprint, Ms. Tucher . . . skillfully draws a contemporary moral."--New York Times Book Review

"[Tucher] presents the colorful story of the early penny press with all the verve, intelligence, and humor it merits."--American Heritage

"A deceptively complex book. . . . A readable, racy, and often funny study of an important aspect of antebellum social history. Among the book's many virtues is the author's repeated concern to stress the relevance of these ancient scandals for contemporary debate about the nature of journalism and, indirectly, for the relationship between fact and truth in modern historical debate."--American Historical Review

"Will add a new dimension to the ongoing efforts to understand the development of the penny press and its links to modern journalism. . . . This well-written book is a valuable contribution to the literature on journalism in the nineteenth century."--Journal of the Early Republic

"This is scholarship as solid as oak and history as timely as today's tabloid titillation. No one I know but Andie Tucher could have spun from two long-forgotten murders such a rollicking account of the misbegotten origins of the tumultuous affair between the popular press and the American people. You can read it for pleasure alone--she has the storyteller's touch--or to ponder the riddle of democracy when the mass media run amuck. Either way, you will never again think the same about truth, justice, and the comics."--Bill Moyers

"Deeply researched, beautifully written, and thoughtfully argued, Froth and Scum is the most significant new work on the penny press and nineteenth-century journalism in many years. Tucher has made an original and important contribution to American cultural history."--Daniel Czitrom, Mount Holyoke College