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.