Crime and Punishment: 5 Most Controversial ‘Trials of the Century’

Crime and Punishment: 5 Most Controversial ‘Trials of the Century’

Donna Patricia Ward - July 26, 2017

During the 20th century, numerous court cases in the United States have been dubbed the “trial of the century.” First used in 1907, the moniker has been used to help sell newspapers and gain international attention. Most of the cases labeled “trial of the century” involved crimes of passion, challenges to ideology, and heinous and unthinkable acts. With intense media coverage, most of the court cases are discussed in the court of public opinion, which does not always align with the actual ruling of a case. Below are five court cases dubbed “trial of the century” that shocked Americans and the world.

Crime and Punishment: 5 Most Controversial ‘Trials of the Century’
Front page of the New York American, June 26, 1906. Public Domain

1. Harry Kendall Thaw 1907

Harry Kendall Thaw displayed unusual behaviors. He enjoyed hurling heavy household items at servants, had outrageous temper tantrums, and conversed using baby talk. Thaw was born into an extremely wealthy coal and railroad family in 1871 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Thaw family wealth kept most of Harry’s stays at asylums and extravagant, sexual, and violent escapades out of the newspapers. Thaw was expelled from Harvard University due to his “immoral practices,” he became a drug addict injecting himself with a combination of morphine and cocaine, and he visited brothels frequently and participated in sexual bondage and long drinking binges.

One evening, Harry Thaw became infatuated with Evelyn Nesbit, a showgirl and model. Thaw’s admiration became obsessive and he repeatedly attended the show, each time bringing Nesbit luxurious gifts. After Nesbit suffered an appendectomy, Thaw convinced her to travel with him through Europe as his guest. During their courtship, Thaw had made it clear to Nesbit that he valued female chastity above anything else. While the couple was in Paris, Nesbit told Thaw about Stanford White, a man Nesbit knew and believed to be out to get him. Nesbit claimed that White got her drunk and then had his way with her. Thaw was enraged.

While in Europe, Thaw locked Nesbit up in a room, whipped her, and over two weeks raped her repeatedly. Despite his violent behavior, Nesbit agreed to married him and they were wed on April 4, 1905. In June the following year, on the evening before they left for Europe, Thaw and Nesbit attended a show. When Stanford White arrived and took his unusual table, Thaw eerily focused on him. During the finale of the performance, Thaw approached White and shot him three times. Part of White’s face was shot off and blood was everywhere. Thaw stood over the body proclaiming that he had rid the world of the man that ruined and abandoned his wife. Thaw believed he was a hero.

Newspapers ran outrageous stories about the murder, Nesbit, and Thaw. Yet, throughout the smear campaign, the torrid details of Thaw’s sexual and violent exploits were not printed. Harry Thaw was charged with first-degree murder and held without bail. While awaiting trial, Thaw’s wealth influenced his imprisonment where he ate food from Delmonico’s restaurant, wore his own tailored clothes, and slept in a brass bed. The publicity surrounding the murder forced the judge to sequester the jury, a first in American history.

Thaw stood trial twice for the murder of Stanford White. The first trial held from January 23-April 11, 1907, concluded in a deadlocked jury. From January to February 1, 1908, Thaw stood trial for a second time where he was found guilty by reason of insanity. The judge sentenced Thaw to life at the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, New York. In 1910, Thaw petitioned for release from Matteawan. His request was denied. With the help from his mother, Thaw escaped to Canada. Upon his return to New York, he was sent to a mental asylum in New Hampshire.

On July 16, 1913, Thaw was released after a jury found him sane. In 1916, Thaw was once again admitted to an asylum for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 19-year-old boy. Declared sane, he was released in 1924 and began working in film production. Eventually, Thaw moved to Miami where he died in 1947. Thaw’s life influenced several movies and was the inspiration for E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 historical fiction, Ragtime.

Crime and Punishment: 5 Most Controversial ‘Trials of the Century’
Nathan Leopold (top) and Richard Loeb, 1924. Public Domain

2. Leopold & Loeb 1924

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr., and Richard Albert Loeb grew upon in the prestigious Kenwood neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Born in 1904 and 1905 respectively, the men developed an intimate friendship while they attended the University of Chicago. Sharing an interest in crime and influenced by the concept of Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman, the men believed that they had superior intellects and were above the law. To prove it they devised a plan to commit the perfect crime.

After months of planning, Leopold and Loeb began their plot. On May 21, 1924, they rented a car, drove to the Harvard School for boys, and asked a family friend and neighbor, 14-year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks, if he wanted a ride home. When Franks refused as he was almost home, Loeb convinced the boy to get into the car so that they could discuss tennis. Leopold drove the car and Franks sat in the front seat. Loeb hit Franks several times with a chisel and then dragged the boy into the back seat and gagged him. Franks died shortly thereafter. The duo drove to Hammond, Indiana, stripped Franks, poured hydrochloric acid on his face and genitals, and then concealed him in a culvert near the railroad tracks.

When Leopold and Loeb returned to Chicago later in the evening, family members had already noticed that Bobby Franks was missing. Leopold called Bobby’s mother, identifying himself as George Johnson, and stated that Franks had been kidnapped and that she would receive instructions concerning a ransom. Leopold and Loeb then burned their clothes, cleaned the bloodstained car, typed and mailed a ransom note, and then settled in for a night of cards. The next morning, Leopold called with instructions for the ransom. Before a nervous family member could proceed with the instructions for payment, Franks’ body was found.

Leopold and Loeb believed that they had successfully covered their tracks. While Loeb kept to himself, Leopold freely spoke to the press and police. He stated that “If I were to murder anybody, it would be just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks.” Unbeknownst to the duo, a rare pair of eyeglasses that belonged to Leopold was found near the body. Soon the disposed of typewriter was found. Eight days after the murder of Bobby Franks, the police summoned Leopold and Loeb for official questioning. Loeb was the first one to confess and stated that Leopold had killed Franks, which was a lie. When Leopold quickly confessed, he stated that Loeb had murdered the boy. In their confessions, both stated that they were driven by the thrill of the crime and that the “killing was an experiment.”

The Loeb family hired Clarence Darrow. Darrow entered a plea of guilty to ensure that the men did not receive the death penalty. Coverage of the murder was extensive as was the sentencing hearing. The hearing lasted 32 days, concluding with a 12-hour speech from Darrow who expounded upon the inhuman methods of the American judicial system in the aftermath of the Great War. He stated that Leopold and Loeb, like many boys, grew up in a world where “honorable young boys…learned to place a cheap value on human life” and that the “tales of death” from the war were everywhere including in “their homes, their playgrounds, their schools” and in the newspapers. Furthering his idea, Darrow stated that the murder committed by Leopold and Loeb was the making of society and that they “were trained to this cruelty.”

Both men were sentenced to life in prison with an additional 99 years for kidnapping. Eventually, both men were transferred to Statesville Penitentiary where they expanded their education in the prison to include high school and junior college curriculum. A former cellmate murdered Loeb in a razor attack. Leopold was released in March 1958 on parole and died in 1971. Leopold and Loeb’s quest to commit the perfect crime influenced numerous publications, movies, and songs.

Crime and Punishment: 5 Most Controversial ‘Trials of the Century’
Outdoor platform erected during the Scopes trial with hand-painted sign that states, “Read Your Bible,”. Public Domain

3. The Scopes Monkey Trial 1925

In a small Tennessee town northeast of Chattanooga, a teacher was put on trial for teaching evolution. The notion that man had evolved from cells like other species was not new. Since the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” advocates and opponents of evolution had fought against each other. At issue was the belief that Darwinism directly challenged the origins of the Earth and man as stated in the Bible. The idea that man evolved from apes made fundamental Christian groups mad. In an era where women shortened their hair and skirts, voted, and danced in Jazz clubs, long-standing cultural norms were shattered. A rapidly modernizing world was encroaching upon traditional family roles and how religion shaped those roles.

In Tennessee, John W. Butler was a state legislator, farmer, and leader of the World Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA). He and his supporters successfully passed the Butler Act which made it illegal for anyone to teach ideas surrounding evolution in any school that received state funding. The penalty for defying the Act, which was rarely enforced, was a fine. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wanted to challenge the legality of the law. At issue was how much authority did the state have in directing what topics could be taught and what could not, particularly when the Butler Act was not enforced throughout the state. The ACLU began searching for a person to be their test case.

John T. Scoops was a 24-year-old teacher that hailed from Kentucky. He was contacted by the ACLU to confess that he had violated the Butler Act in teaching his students about the theory of evolution. He was arrested, charged, and put on trial. William Jennings Bryan led the state’s legal team. Bryan was well-known populist, fighter for workers’ rights, and a presidential candidate three times. Clarence Darrow, a famous lawyer from Chicago, headed the defense team. Darrow had also been an advocate for workers’ rights as well as a defender in several well-known murder trials. Bryan and Darrow were friends and allies.

The Scoops Trial drew hundreds of city reporters and spectators to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. A radio station in Chicago made it possible to broadcast the trial live. As the trial commenced on July 10, 1925, it was clear from its onset that it was going to be a spectacle. Darrow and Bryan argued over who could be considered an expert witness. Many of the students called as witnesses were 14-year-old boys who had been coached on what to say. Evolutionists proclaimed that man was made up of cells while anti-evolutionists stated that the history of man was factually stated in the Bible and it was blasphemous to challenge it.

In an unusual and dramatic act, Darrow called Bryan to testify. In an examination about the length of time, it took for the Earth to form, Bryan, stated that he was a defender of Christianity and the Bible and members of the defense, and people like them, had “no other purpose than ridiculing every Christian who believes in the Bible.” Darrow responded, “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and you know it.” This type of banter had been going on for six days.

On July 25, 1925, after closing arguments, the jury deliberated for 90 minutes. John Scoops was found guilty of violating the Butler Act and fined $100.00. The Scoops trial drew a deeper line in the sand between the ideas of evolution and creation. Five days after the trial, William Jennings Bryan died. Those close to him speculated that the stress of the trial adversely impacted his health. In 1955, during McCarthyism, the trial was fictionalized as a play, Inherit the Wind. The play was made into a movie, in 1960, using several passages from the actual trial.

Crime and Punishment: 5 Most Controversial ‘Trials of the Century’
Lindbergh Wanted Poster, 1935. Public Domain

4. Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping 1935

Charles Lindbergh became an international hero when he completed the first solo non-stop transatlantic flight from Long Island to Paris in 1927. Two months after his flight, he went on an international book tour to promote his autobiography. While touring, he met Anne Marrow whom he married in May 1929. The couple lived in rural New Jersey and on June 22, 1930, Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was born. On March 2, 1932, a strange noise was heard around 9:30 pm. When the nurse went to check on the toddler at 10 pm, he was not in his bed. Within 20 minutes, the police arrived at the Lindbergh home and began their investigation. Left behind was a ransom note sitting on the nursery windowsill and a homemade wooden ladder.

News of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping quickly spread throughout the world. On March 16th, the boy’s sleeping suit was delivered to a mediator. A ransom of $50,000 gold certificates was placed in a custom-made box and delivered on April 2, 1932, but the baby was not returned. On May 12th, a delivery driver near the Lindbergh home pulled off the road to urinate. When he looked down he saw a dead toddler, partially eaten by animals, badly decomposed, with a fractured skull. Over 30 months local law enforcement continued to investigate the kidnapping and murder. At times, gold certificates made their way back to New York City banks. On one occasion, a teller noticed a certificate had a New York license plate number written on it.

Authorities contacted the gas station where the certificate came from and found that the holder of the certificate had acted “suspicious” and was probably a “counterfeiter.” The plate belonged to Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant with a criminal record. Upon his arrest, he was carrying a $20 gold certificate. He was charged with kidnapping, murder, and extortion. Reporters swarmed the Hunterdon County Courthouse in Flemington, New Jersey. The Daily Mirror hired a defense attorney for Richard Hauptmann in exchange for an exclusive to print his story. The prosecution convinced the court that Hauptmann kidnapped and murdered the toddler based upon the custom-made box and the same wood used to make the ladder in his apartment. Hauptmann was found guilty and quickly sentenced to death in the electric chair.

Hauptmann appealed his sentence in June 1935 and received clemency from the governor. When that ran out, he again requested clemency but was denied. In a last-ditch effort to save his life, the Hearst group wanted Hauptmann to confess in exchange for a life sentence and an exclusive story, to which he declined. He was executed on April 3, 1936. Numerous theories still surround the guilt of Hauptmann. Some believe that the investigation into the kidnapping and murder was sloppy, that the local police permitted Charles Lindbergh to have too much control over the investigation, while others believe Hauptmann committed the crime but did not deserve to die. One theory states that the baby was born with a physical disability and that Charles Lindbergh arranged for the toddler to be kidnapped and sent to Germany.

Crime and Punishment: 5 Most Controversial ‘Trials of the Century’
Cover images of Newsweek and Time for June 14, 1994. Time darkened Simpson’s image, which led to public outcry. Public Domain

5. O.J. Simpson 1995

O.J. “The Juice” Simpson was an international star. A professional football player, he also appeared in commercials, television shows, and sports programs. In 1975, People magazine stated that OJ was “the first black athlete to become a bona fide lovable media superstar.” During the early morning hours on June 13, 1994, the LAPD discovered the murdered bodies of O.J.’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Both had been stabbed to death. O.J. Simpson was not home when the police arrived to notify him of his ex-wife’s murder, but detectives noticed splattered blood in Simpson’s white Ford Bronco.

With enough probable cause, an arrest warrant for O.J. Simpson was issued. The LAPD arranged for Simpson to turn himself in at 11 am on June 17th. Hundreds of reporters waited outside the police station for O.J.’s arrival. When he did not show up, the LAPD issued an all-points bulletin. One member of O.J.’s defense team read a letter written by the Juice that gave the impression that O.J. was going to kill himself. On life television, Simpson’s attorney pled for him to surrender. Shortly after the news conference, Simpson’s with Ford Bronco was spotted on the interstate. The driver told police that O.J. was in the backseat with a gun to his head.

The slow-speed chase was a media circus. Major television networks carried the chase and at one time, there were nine helicopters following the Bronco and police form the air. Several family members and friends appeared in front of live cameras pleading for O.J. to surrender, that they loved him, and to not take his own life. When the trial for the People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson began in January 1995, people had little choice but to pay attention as the coverage was everywhere all of the time. Everything about the trial was scrutinized, including the education level of the jurors, their race, and gender. After eleven months of constant coverage, the jury reached a verdict. Millions around the world watched live when the verdict of not guilty was read on October 3, 1995.

In the aftermath of the not guilty verdict, the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman sued Simpson for wrongful death. A jury found Simpson guilty and the judge ordered him to pay over $33 million in damages. Simpson began selling his assets to raise the money for the wrongful death settlement. In 2007, Simpson, along with others, was arrested for breaking into a hotel room and stealing sports memorabilia, which Simpson claimed was his. Found guilty he was sentenced to 33 years in prison. Simpson was granted parole on July 20, 2017, and can be released after October 1, 2017. The drama surrounding the murders and trials led to numerous made-for-TV movies, a critically acclaimed miniseries, and hundreds of print publications.


Sources For Further Reading:

Medium – The Girl on the Velvet Swing

All That’s Interesting – “The Trial Of The Century” – A Sordid Tale Of Sex, Jealousy, And Murder In High Class Manhattan

The Philosophy – Nietzsche’s Superman

Medium – Breeding Nietzsche’s Superman

Philosophy Now – Nietzsche’s Übermensch: A Hero of Our Time?

Chicago Sun Times – This Week In History: Catching Bobby Franks’ Killers

ACLU – State of Tennessee v. Scopes

Scientific American – 50 Years Ago: Repeal of Tennessee’s “Monkey Law”

Biography – Inside the Mysterious Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping and Trial

State of New Jersey – Lindberg Kidnapping Evidence Photograph

American Numismatic Society – Lindbergh Kidnapping Ransom Money

New England Today – Who Kidnapped and Killed Charles Lindbergh III?

ABC News – O.J. Simpson Appeals Civil Suit Verdict

LA Times – Kim Goldman’s Crusade: Make O.J. Simpson Pay And Never Forget

Time Magazine – How the O.J. Simpson Verdict Changed the Way We All Watch TV