Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century
Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century

Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century

Michelle Powell-Smith - October 5, 2016

Murders are, of course, always a tragedy, but most are, over time, forgotten by all but family and friends. Some, however, end up changing public perception, judicial practices, or even leading to changes in the laws of the country.

Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century

Bobby Franks, 1924

Murder victim Bobby Franks is rarely remembered in his own right. The fourteen-year-old was walking home from school when he was abducted. He was a victim of chance and circumstance, nothing more. Bobby Franks was murdered on May 21, 1924 by two wealthy young men of only 19, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Bobby Franks was Richard Loeb’s cousin. While Bobby Franks life had was short, his death and the trial that followed had a significant impact on the history of criminal justice in America.

Leopold and Loeb planned to kidnap, ransom and murder a child, essentially, for fun, believing that they were superior, and this act was morally acceptable if it gave them pleasure. The two had committed minor crimes together, including burglary and larceny, but none had been reported in the papers. Both boys were from exceptionally wealthy families, and were highly intelligent; however, Loeb was the dominant off the two, planning their crimes with Leopold’s support.

After they killed the boy in a rental car on the afternoon of May 21, they dumped the body, making one significant error; Leopold’s eyeglasses fell from his pocket at the site, linking them to the crime. On May 31, 1924, the two confessed. The case drew significant attention from the press—it was morally deranged, and involved the wealthiest and most powerful families in Chicago.

The murderers’ families hired renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow to defend them. Darrow had a purpose when he accepted the case; he was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and hoped to use this case to share that message. The boys had confessed, and were sane, so Darrow could not claim their innocence or insanity. He had no choice but to set forth a guilty plea. Darrow’s goal was to mitigate the sentence, to avoid the death penalty. He based his arguments on three points: age, the guilty plea, and mental condition.

The judge was not swayed by the guilty plea, or by the testimony of many imminent psychiatrists; however, he did not sentence the boys to death. The sentence was mitigated based on the young age of the defendants. They were each sentenced to 99 years in prison for the kidnapping, plus life in prison for the murder.

The trial of Leopold and Loeb was one of the first in a long and progressive shift in attitudes toward the death penalty. Today, the death penalty has been abolished in most developed countries, and it has become significantly less common in the United States, with some states ceasing its use entirely.

Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century

Charles Lindbergh Jr., 1932

Charles Lindbergh Jr., called Charlie, was the son of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife. Charlie was only 20 months’ old on March 1, 1932. His mother and nurse put him to bed around 7:00 that evening, but when his nurse checked on him at 10:00, he was gone from his crib. The window was open, and an envelope lay on its sill. His father grabbed his rifle and ran from the house in search of the baby. The envelope contained a badly-written ransom letter.

A nationwide search began at once, with the radio news reporting the kidnapping by 10:30 that night. The papers reported it in the morning edition on March 2, 1932. In March and early April, the family delivered a ransom, but discovered that they had been double-crossed; the baby was not found.

Little Charlie’s decomposed body was discovered on May 12, 1932 in the woods near the Lindbergh home. He had died of a skull fracture on the very night of the kidnapping. The ransom paid in April was traced, and in September 1934, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested. Some 14,000 dollars of the ransom was found in his possession; however, he maintained his innocence throughout the trial and eventual execution.

The kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr. led to legislative action even before the trial was complete. Congress passed the Lindbergh Law, making kidnapping a federal offense if the victim is taken across state lines. The law, for a time, allowed for the use of capital punishment in these cases. Many states also adopted their own laws regarding kidnapping, allowing for the imposition of harsh punishments if an individual was harmed, including death.

Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century

Emmett Till, 1955

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was the son of a successful African-American single mother, living in Chicago. In the summer of 1955, he travelled to Mississippi with his great-uncle, having begged his mother to let him go. On August 24, 1955, the young teen interacted with a white shop clerk, Carolyn Bryant, in Money, Mississippi. Perhaps he flirted with her, whistled, or touched her hand; the stories differ.

Four days later, on August 28, 1955, Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam kidnapped the boy from his uncle’s home. He was beaten, shot in the head, and tied to a large metal fan with barbed wire before being thrown in the Tallahatchie River. Till was only identified by his father’s signet ring, given to him by his mother before he left Chicago.

Till’s body was shipped back to Chicago. His mother opted for an open-casket and a long visitation period. In the five days his body was displayed in Roberts Temple Church of God, thousands saw the impact of this hate crime. Black publications published photos of the boy’s body. While his mother expressed how difficult this was, she recognized the importance of viewing the results of the crime.

Bryant and Milam were tried on September 19, 1955 in front of an all-white jury. They were acquitted days later. A few months’ later, they sold the story of the murder to Look Magazine, protected by double jeopardy laws.

Emmett Till’s tragic death helped to mobilize the civil rights movement in the United States and, particularly, in the South. Only one hundred days later, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat. The NAACP increased its activity, and a young minister was asked to support the bus boycott. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.

Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century

Kitty Genovese, 1964

On March 13, 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment in Queens, New York. Kitty was killed by Winston Moseley, and she was not his only victim. She was a bar manager, so was coming in late at night on March 13. Neither her murder nor her murderer make her influential, nor does her life. Kitty Genovese was an ordinary young woman, and her murder was not that unusual in the streets of New York.

Kitty did not die immediately; she screamed, Moseley came back and she screamed again, having staggered into the vestibule of her building. The New York Times reported that well over 30 individuals heard her scream. It should be noted that while the Times report was highly influential, a recent thorough review by Kitty Genovese’s own brother has shown that there were two calls to the police that night. The police, believing it to be a domestic incident, failed to respond.

Regardless of the inaccuracies of the Times Report, there certainly were individuals who heard Kitty scream, and ignored her screams. At least one witness was aware she had been stabbed and did not call the police or offer aid. Certainly, as people still do to some extent, many chose to not get involved.

These reports led to discussions of the “bystander effect,” sometimes called “Genovese syndrome”. Essentially, the bystander effect supposes that an individual is unlikely to step up to offer aid if others have not. Today, regardless of the realities of Genovese’s murder, the bystander effect is still taught in introductory psychology classes.

The outcry over the lack of response to Kitty Genovese’s screams directly contributed to something we still rely upon today—the 9-1-1 system. The public outcry over the lack of response to her screams intensified the ongoing conversations about the need for an accessible emergency response system.

Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century

Adam Walsh, 1981

Six-year-old Adam Walsh was kidnapped from a Sears store on July 7, 1981. Adam was at the store with his mother, and she left him at a video game display, while stepping away to speak to a store employee. When she returned, he was gone. Adam may have been asked to leave the store with the other children at the video game display; however, the specifics of the kidnapping are unknown. The child’s decapitated head was located 16 days later.

His father, John Walsh, took on a strong anti-crime advocacy role after his son’s death, eventually creating the television program America’s Most Wanted and helping with the passage of the Code Adam Act and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.

The Code Adam Act mandates a public response to a report of a lost or missing child in federal facilities. The same response is used voluntarily in many stores throughout the country. When a child is reported missing, the store or facility announces the child’s name and description throughout the store, enabling patrons to help locate the child.

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, passed on July 27, 2006, created a national sex offender registry, dividing sex offenders into three tiers. Those in the most severe tier, tier three, are required to update their whereabouts every three months throughout their lives. Tier two offenders required to update every six months for 25 years, while tier one offenders are required to update annually for 15 years. In addition, the law provides federal judges with the ability to civilly commit offenders in the custody of the federal prisons who are deemed a high risk of offending against children and sets federal sentencing minimums for offenders guilty of child sexual assault.

Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century

Amber Hagerman, 1996

On January 13, 1996, nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was riding her bicycle with her younger brother in Arlington, Texas. According to a witness, a pickup pulled up, an individual jumped out, and grabbed the girl. The witness phoned the police immediately, and they arrived quickly. The witness, unfortunately, could only identify the kidnapper as male, and possibly white or Hispanic, and the truck as dark colored, maybe black.

While rare, stranger abductions can be extraordinarily difficult for police to solve. Local police and the FBI worked to find the missing girl, along with members of the community. Four days after the kidnapping, her body was found. She had been alive for two days following the kidnapping, but the authorities had not been able to find her to rescue her. For the next three years, a team of investigators continued to work on the case; however, it remains unsolved to this day.

In the days following the kidnapping, a caller to a Dallas radio station asked why police could not quickly notify the media, and therefore the public, about cases like this. From this question, the Amber Alert was born.

The Amber in Amber Alert stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, but is also named after Amber Hagerman. The Amber Alert system sends out an alert to television, radio, and cellular service providers when a child has been reported missing or abducted. Since 1996, 800 children have been rescued from a variety of situations as the direct result of Amber Alerts. Amber Alerts provide authorities with the ability to connect with potential witnesses, and the ability to provide information telling people what to report and who to call with information.

Seven of the Most Influential Murders of the 20th Century

Matthew Shepard, 1998

On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, was brutally beaten and left tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. He was found 18 hours later, and rushed into intensive care. He never regained consciousness. Shepard died in the hospital on October 12, 1998.

The night of October 7, two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, abducted Shepard from a bar and drove to a remote area. They tied him to a split-rail fence and beat him brutally, taking his wallet, keys and shoes with the intention of burglarizing his apartment. When a bicyclist found Shepard the next day, he thought that the young man was a scarecrow, his condition was so poor.

The killers’ stories have changed significantly over time, and there has been much discussion about the motivation for the murder, with one well-known author connecting it to methamphetamine use, rather than a hate crime. The words of the killers, in their interrogations, appear to conflict with that conclusion. Both the Laramie police and the jury in the trial certainly believed that the crime was motivated by hate. Regardless of the motives of the killers, Shepard’s death had a significant and lasting impact on the gay rights movement in the United States and on hate crime legislation in the U.S.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed by Congress on October 22, 2009 and signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 28, 2009. The measure expands federal hate crime laws to include crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. In addition, the law provided for increased funding, increased ability to conduct federal investigations and eliminates the requirements that the crime occur when the victim is involved in a federally protected activity.

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