There are some cases that capture the public’s imagination and cause a media frenzy. There are the political trials, which cover treason, spying, dissidents, and radicals. Celebrity trials that involve high-profile people, whether victims or defendants. And the “whodunit” trials that are surrounded in mystery. Whatever the case, 19th century America has its share of legendary trials that captivate the public interest and newspapers deliver all the sensational details.
Treason Trial of Aaron Burr, Richmond, VA (1807)—America’s first “Trial of the Century.” Three years after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, the former Vice President stands accused of conspiracy against the United States after attempting to raise a small army in the Western frontier. His exact motives are hazy, but some believe he sought to establish a new nation with himself as emperor.
United States v. The Amistad, Washington, DC (1841)—Former President John Quincy Adams argues before the Supreme Court to secure the freedom of the African captives who rebelled against Spanish slave traders aboard the ship Amistad.
Trial of John Brown, Charles Town, WV (1859)—The abolitionist is tried for treason against the state of Virginia, inciting slaves to rebellion, and murder after leading a failed attempt to initiate a slave insurrection in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (later, West Virginia). Essayist Henry David Thoreau delivers a memorable courtroom speech praising Brown as “a man of ideas and principles.”
Trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators, Washington, DC (1865)—President Andrew Johnson insists on trying the eight conspirators before a nine-member military tribunal. The defendants are allowed to have lawyers and witnesses but are not allowed to testify themselves.
Mountain Meadows Massacre Trials, Utah Territory (1875-1876)—In 1857, a Mormon militia murders 120 Arkansas emigrants passing through Utah on their way to California. Eighteen years later, a series of published stories challenging Brigham Young’s response to the massacre leads to renewed public interest, but only one man, John D. Lee, is prosecuted for the mass killings.
Adultery Trial of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, Brooklyn, NY (1875)—One of the biggest sex scandals of the 19th century, America’s leading moral and spiritual teacher (and brother of famed abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe), is accused by his closest friend, Theodore Tilton, of having an affair with Tilton’s wife, Elizabeth.
Trial of Charles Guiteau, Washington, DC (1881)—President Garfield’s assassin goes on trial for his murder and is one of the first high-profile insanity cases in the United States. Guiteau acts bizarrely throughout the trial; cursing and insulting the judge, giving his testimony in the form of epic poems, and soliciting legal advice from spectators in the courtroom.
Trial of the O.K. Corral, Tombstone, AZ (1881)—The most famous gun battle of the Old West lasts roughly thirty seconds, but leaves three men dead and three more wounded. The Earp brothers (Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan), along with Doc Holliday, go on trial for their involvement in the shootout.
Haymarket Riot and Trial, Chicago, IL (1886)—Headlines in Chicago newspapers cry out for vengeance against mostly immigrant workers believed to have inspired the riot that followed a bombing during a labor demonstration. In response, police without warrant round up and arrest known socialists and anarchists. A Chicago grand jury indicts twelve people in connection with the riot, while the actual bomber remains a mystery.
Trial of Lizzie Borden, New Bedford, MA (1893)—Lizzie goes on trial for the axe murders of her father and step-mother before a jury of twelve men. In one of many shocking moments, Lizzie faints after one of her lawyers reveals the skulls of her deceased parents in the courtroom.
- Search Chronicling America* to find more newspaper coverage of these trials and more!
- Check out these related Chronicling America Topics Pages:
Harper’s Ferry: Topics in Chronicling America
Lincoln Assassination: Topics in Chronicling America
Dr. Mudd, Conspirator or Saint?: Topics in Chronicling America
James Garfield Assassination: Topics in Chronicling America
Wyatt Earp: Topics in Chronicling America
Haymarket Affair: Topics in Chronicling America
Arrest & Trial of Lizzie Borden: Topics in Chronicling America
- Read these similar Headlines & Heroes blog posts:
America’s Most Notorious Kidnappings
Early American Serial Killers
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.