Shadow Men

The Tangled Story of Murder, Media, and Privilege That Scandalized Jazz Age America

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Book Description

“Polchin knows the era, and brings to his account a wealth of colorful supporting detail . . . With its layers of taboos and public spectacle, the case feels, a century later, as relevant as ever.” —Marisa Meltzer, The New York Times Book Review

From Edgar Award finalist James Polchin comes a thrilling examination of the murder that captivated Jazz Age America, with echoes of the decadence and violence of The Great Gatsby

On the morning of May 16, 1922, a young man’s body was found on a desolate road in Westchester County. The victim was penniless ex-sailor Clarence Peters. Walter Ward, the handsome scion of the family that owned the largest chain of bread factories in the country, confessed to the crime as an act of self-defense against a violent gang of “shadow men,” blackmailers who extorted their victims’ moral weaknesses. From the start, one question defined the investigation: What scandalous secret could lead Ward to murder?

For sixteen months, the media fueled a firestorm of speculation. Unscrupulous criminal attorneys, fame-seeking chorus girls, con artists, and misogynistic millionaires harnessed the power of the press to shape public perception. New York governor and future presidential candidate Al Smith and editor of the Daily News Joseph Medill Patterson leveraged the investigation to further professional ambitions. Famous figures like Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and F. Scott Fitzgerald weighed in. As the bereaved working-class Peters family sought to bring the callous Ward to justice, America watched enraptured.

Capturing the extraordinary twists and turns of the case, Shadow Men conjures the excess and contradictions of the Jazz Age and reveals the true-crime origins of the media-led voyeurism that reverberates through contemporary life. It’s a story of privilege and power that lays bare the social inequity that continues to influence our system of justice.

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Praise For This Book

"Polchin knows the era, and brings to his account a wealth of colorful supporting detail . . . With its layers of taboos and public spectacle, the case feels, a century later, as relevant as ever." —Marisa Meltzer, The New York Times Book Review

“Polchin’s engrossing account of this forgotten cause célèbre exposes how easily wealth, power, and privilege can tip the scales of justice.” —Dean Jobb, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

"Shadow Men cements his place in the new true crime canon." —Molly Odintz, CrimeReads

"Polchin combines a novelist’s gift for narrative and a journalist’s eye for detail in this riveting work of true crime . . . It’s an entertaining account of an obscure yet fascinating crime." —Publishers Weekly

"This true crime book slowly reveals the underworlds of the 1920s, including what being queer in the Jazz Age was like." —Danika Ellis, Book Riot

"Readers today will—as were readers in the 1920s—be confounded by the crime's lack of resolution, which presages modern-day issues of money, political power, gambling, homophobia, media coverage, and accountability—or lack thereof—in America." —Booklist

"A sensational crime provokes thought about class privilege and injustice in the American legal system." —Kirkus Reviews

"Shadow Men unwinds a complex murder investigation about the moral decadence of the Jazz Age, the façade of privileged class mores, and the power of William Randolph Hearst’s empire of yellow journalism to shape public perception. Polchin brilliantly balances historical detail and forward momentum in a true crime tale that exposes the great inequities in our justice system, the shadows of which still loom today." —John Copenhaver, award-winning author of Hall of Mirrors

"James Polchin's triumphant Shadow Men weaves a Jazz Age whodunit out of Hitchcock, a richly laden escapade of gentlemen's intrigue and the roughest of rough trade blackmail. This devilishly plotted potboiler exposes a champagne underworld of confidence men, blowoffs and suckers in a 1920s America that only gets queerer and queerer." ––Robert W. Fieseler, Author of the Edgar Award Winner Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation