When the nude and battered body of Anna Pulitzer was found in a New Jersey barge canal on Sept. 18, 1902, her murder became one of those “crimes of the century” that seize the attention of the entire country. Four of Salt Lake’s daily newspapers carried stories of the discovery.
When the iron weight tied her body was traced to a buggy rented by William Hooper Young, a grandson of Brigham Young, and when it was learned that Young shared a New York City apartment with four Mormon missionaries, Utah’s interest in the case deepened.
Hooper, as he was called, had had a troubled youth. His parents divorced when he was ten. He ran away from school. An old friend described him as having “funny streaks” and a cousin said he was “bright but erratic.” Although he went to England as a missionary in 1890, he soon ceased mission activities and joined his family for an extended European tour before returning to the U.S. in 1893.
From then on, Hooper was a wanderer. He was an Arizona cowboy, tried reporting for one of the Salt Lake papers, published a paper in Seattle that was closed under the obscenity laws, became wanted as a forger, peddled insurance, labored as a miner, fathered a daughter out of wedlock, and became a heavy drinker. When family attempts to help Hooper failed, they eventually cut off financial support and lost contact with him.
Hooper surfaced in Manhattan in the spring of 1902 while his father was in England, and sought money from the head of the Mormon mission there. While refusing to give money to the obvious derelict, President John G. McQuarrie nevertheless offered him a room in Hooper’s father’s apartment, which had been turned over to the missionaries during the father’s absence.
On the night of Sept. 16, Hooper convinced Mrs. Pulitzer to return to that room with him. Without money to pay for her services, he plied her with beer spiked with chloral hydrate – “knockout drops” – until she passed out on his bed and apparently stopped breathing. A panicked Hooper, believing she was dead, began to dismember the body so he could hide it in a trunk. Ironically, a coroner would later determine that she had not died from the drug, but had instead bled to death under Hooper’s knife.
Hooper rented the rig that would soon be traced to him, disposed of the body in that New Jersey canal, shipped the bloody trunk with Mrs. Pulitzer’s effects inside to a non-existent Chicago address, and, dressed as a tramp, disappeared into the night. When the police broke into the apartment there was no sign of Hooper, but there was plenty of evidence of the murder. There was also a notebook in Hooper’s handwriting, a list of Biblical scriptures headed by the phrase “Blood Atonement.”
That was enough for headlines elsewhere – but not in Utah – to trumpet the sensational and ultimately unsustainable claim that a “Mormon Boy Murdered Mrs. Pulitzer in Obedience to Mormon Doctrine.” For a time, the four missionaries, also from Utah, were suspected of complicity in the crime, especially when one elder’s shirt, cast carelessly aside in the bathroom where Hooper had washed himself, was found to be spattered with blood. But the elders’ complete cooperation with police and absence of other incriminating evidence soon cleared them officially, if not in the public’s mind.
Hooper was arrested in Connecticut three days later. He confessed to the murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment at Sing Sing. He was a model prisoner, working in both the prison chapel and greenhouse, and before he had served 20 years he was released into the custody of the Salvation Army. Hooper was present as his father’s nurse when the father died in 1924. His later whereabouts are uncertain, although unconfirmed rumors of his travels continue to circulate in the historical community.
This short version of the story was written for the Salt Lake Tribune, 15 August 2010. For a fuller account, see: