The infamous trials throughout the early 20th century provide great theater for the masses. A look at these trials gives a snapshot of the issues of class, wealth, status, and race that pervade the time period.
Murder Trial of Harry Kendell Thaw, New York (1906)—The wealthy railroad heir, with a history of mental illness, shoots and kills famed architect Stanford White on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden in a jealous rage over Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit. The high society crime and ensuing trials create a media frenzy.
Trial of “Big Bill” Haywood, Boise (1907)—The war between the Western Federation of Miners and the Western Mine Owners’ Association in Idaho comes to a climax when radical labor leader, “Big Bill” Haywood, is prosecuted for ordering the assassination of governor Frank Steunenberg. The trial exposes years of union violence and mine owners’ intimidation and corruption. Famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow argues on Haywood’s behalf.
Trial of Leo Frank, Atlanta (1913)—The Jewish American businessman is placed on trial for the rape and murder of 13-year-old factory worker, Mary Phagan. The trial is based mostly on the testimony of a janitor who was held in seclusion by order of the Solicitor General, Hugh M. Dorsey, six weeks prior. Doubts about Frank’s guilt swirl in the press.
Sacco & Vanzetti Trial, Boston (1920-1921)—The two Italian immigrants and anarchists stand accused of armed robbery and the murder of two men. Anti-immigrant and anti-radical sentiment runs high in America and the case makes international headlines.
Chicago Black Sox Scandal, Chicago (1921)—Eight members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team are tried for intentionally losing the 1919 World Series in exchange for money. The defendants include two of the team’s best players, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and George “Buck” Weaver, both of whom deny throwing the games.
Murder Trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, San Francisco (1921)—One of the biggest silent film stars in American cinema is arrested in San Francisco for the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe, an aspiring actress he had invited to a party. Arbuckle maintains his innocence throughout numerous trials, but he is lambasted in the press and the case is a major Hollywood scandal.
Leopold & Loeb Trial, Chicago (1924)—The murder trial of two elitist college students who decided to commit the “perfect crime” shocks the nation as details emerge about how they kidnapped and murdered, Bobby Franks, a 14-year-old boy. Defense attorney Clarence Darrow delivers a twelve-hour long plea to save his clients from the gallows.
Scopes “Monkey Trial,” Dayton, TN (1925)—Clarence Darrow again takes center stage while defending John Scopes, a Tennessee high school teacher who is arrested for teaching the theory of evolution in violation of the state’s recently passed Butler Act, which forbade teaching evolution at any state-funded school. A carnival atmosphere pervades as the trial opens with hundreds of people jammed in the courthouse and banners, refreshment stands, and performing sideshows line the surrounding streets for the crowds.
Trial of Al Capone, Chicago (1931)—The government charges “Public Enemy No. 1” with tax evasion and prohibition charges. The mobster pleads guilty and brags to the press that he has struck a deal for a light sentence. When the judge informs the court that he is not bound to any deal, Capone changes his plea to not guilty.
Custody Battle for Gloria Vanderbilt, New York (1934)—At the age of 10, the young heiress to a multimillion-dollar family fortune, is caught in a custody battle between her mother and her deceased father’s sister. Her aunt argues that Gloria’s mothers’ lifestyle of extravagant spending and perverse sexual exploits is damaging to the young girl. The scandalous testimony of her mother’s servants makes national headlines.
Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping Trial, Flemington, NJ (1935)—After a two-year investigation, German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann is arrested for the kidnapping and murder of the 20-month-old son of famed aviator, Charles Lindbergh. The circumstantial case against Hauptmann lasts for five weeks and a parade of witnesses testify at the trial, including dramatic testimony from Lindbergh.
Scottsboro Boys Trial, Scottsboro, AL (1931-1937)—Nine young black men and boys, ages 12 to 19, stand accused of raping two young white women, 21-year-old Victoria Price and 17-year-old Ruby Bates, while traveling on a train through rural Alabama. The case leads to many different trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials over the course of a decade.
Nuremberg Trials, Nuremberg, Germany (1945-1949)—A series of thirteen trials are carried out in Nuremberg, Germany with the purpose of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. The defendants, which include Nazi Party officials and high-ranking military officers, as well as German industrialists, doctors, and lawyers, are charged with such crimes as crimes against peace and crimes against humanity.
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