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Trials of the Century: 19th Century Edition

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New York Journal and Advertiser (New York, NY), August 13, 1899

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.

“The Trial of Aaron Burr,” The Midland Journal (Rising Sun, MD), September 9, 1932

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.

“In 1839…Joseph Cinque,” The Detroit Tribune (Detroit, MI), December 14, 1963

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.”

“John Brown in 1855,” Carbon County News (Red Lodge, MT), December 8, 1939

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.

“A reproduction of the official pictures arranged after the trial,” The Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, IN), December 7, 1902

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.

“THE PLACE OF THE MASSACRE,” The New York Herald (New York, NY), March 22, 1877

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.

The Tiltons. The Black Hills Union (Rapid City, SD), July 16, 1897

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.

“GUITEAU’S APPEARANCE IN COURT IN CHARGE OF DEPUTY MARSHAL WILLIAMS,” The Indianapolis Leader (Indianapolis. IN), November 26, 1881

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.

“A DESPERATE STREET-FIGHT,” Arizona Weekly Citizen (Tucson, AZ), October 30, 1881

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.

“THE ANARCHISTS HANGED,” Watertown Republican (Watertown, WI), November 16, 1887

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.

“LIZZIE BORDEN ON TRIAL,” Fisherman & Farmer (Edenton, NC), June 16, 1893

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* 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.

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