Trials of the Century: 1900 to 1950

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.

“Hold Center Stage in America’s ‘Trial of the Century,’” The Indianapolis Times (Indianapolis, IN), February 13, 1935

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.

“Harry Thaw Kills Stanford White in Jealous Rage Over Actress Wife,” The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 26, 1906

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.

“Great Trial On,” Perrysburg Journal (Perrysburg, OH), May 10, 1907

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.

“The Slain Girl and the Man Georgia Wants to Hang for the Murder,” The Day Book (Chicago, IL), March 12, 1914

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. 

“Niccola Sacco (left) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti as they appeared in court in Dedham, Mass., Saturday…,” New-York Tribune (New York, NY), October 31, 1921

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.

“Cases Against White Sox Dismissed,” Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, NE), March 18, 1921

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. 

“Pays Price of Wild Party,” Arizona Republican (Phoenix, AZ), September 13, 1921

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. 

“Leopold and Loeb Pleading Guilty,” The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, ND), July 25, 1924

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. 

“They Will Try Scopes For Teaching Evolution,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 14, 1925

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.

“When ‘Public Enemy No. 1′ finally went to court…,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 26, 1931

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. 

“Mother’s Day for Little Gloria,” The Times-News (Hendersonville, NC), May 16, 1935

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.

“Sentenced to Death,” The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, ND), February 14, 1935

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.

“Candidate Visits Scottsboro Boys,” Metropolitan News (Chicago, IL), October 17, 1936

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.

“Scenes, Personalities In Nazi Trials At Nuremberg,” The Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, NC), December 7, 1945

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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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