Our story begins on the evening of June 25, 1906, when Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw walked up to New York architect and socialite Stanford White during a sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden and fired three shots into his head, an act of vengeance for White's sexual corruption of Thaw's young wife. The resulting murder trial transfixed a nation, tearing at the fabric of America's Gilded Age. When the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers reported the murder and sensationalized the trial that followed, the Twentieth century was only six years old, and no one could foretell or predict the coming media frenzies that would surround the trial of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, the Tate/LaBianca killings, or the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldberg. Yet the trial of Harry K. Thaw for White's murder was promptly and confidently pronounced in newspapers to be the trial of the century. Such is the origin of the phrase "trial of the century", an overblown, overused bit of media hype so frequently used to label high profile murder trials, the frequency and selection of which are limited only by the prurient taste of Americans, and the imagination of editors.
Americans, it turns out, are addicted to violent crime. Not to committing it particularly, notwithstanding a history of Nineteenth century gunslingers, Twentieth century gangsters, and the wide prevalence of handguns, which outnumber citizens. Rather, Americans love to talk about crime, read about it, relive it, and revel in it.
And it is increasingly evident that our modern obsession with violent crime in American culture is slaked by the media. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, total daily newspaper circulation in America was barely 2,000,000. By 1893, when Herbert Holmes committed the most murders of any serial killer in American history, a Chicago crime spree largely forgotten until Erik Larson's hugely popular The Devil in the White City, total newspaper circulation was still only 7,500,000. But by 1910, in only 17 years, that circulation had more than tripled to 25,000,000.
Newspaper circulation requires grist for the mill. Sales depend upon lurid headlines and articles that catch the reader's eye and cause him or her to reach into a pocket for change. As any watcher of nightly news knows, local violent crime and attendant trials lead the newscast, followed only distantly by sports, traffic, weather and the political events of a wide world forever teetering on the edge of famine, war and mutually assured destruction. For further evidence, look no further than your television guide, where Cold Case, Criminal Minds, NCIS, Bones, and countless iterations of Law and Order and CSI air at seemingly every hour of the day and night. But real trials bring these dramas to greater life, and Americans are riveted by them when they contain additional intrigue or twist; love, money, celebrity, sex, betrayal or scandal. Trials become theatre, with the courtroom as stage, the participants as actors, and enraptured Americans as audience.
They also act as a mirror to our changing mores and beliefs. As the decades pass, the popular trials reveal in kaleidoscopic miniature the then current American attitudes about poverty, class relations and race.
At the 1913 trial of Jewish industrialist Leo Frank for the Atlanta murder of Mary Phagan, a crime that local politicians, lawyers, even the presiding judge knew he likely didn't commit, crowds of angry spectators whipped into a passion by newspaper accounts daily besieged the courthouse, intimidating the jurors and compelling a guilty verdict. At the 1925 Scopes trial, pitting science against religion, proceedings had to be moved outdoors because the sheer number of those attending threatened the physical stability of the courthouse. Five thousand observers watched from makeshift bleachers, and partisan banners hung in full view of the jurors. Conviction unsurprisingly followed in an environment of a bible revival meeting. In the 1934 trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the reporters numbered 350 and the world came to witness what H.L. Mencken called "the greatest story since the Resurrection." In the 1954 trial of Sam Sheppard for the murder of his wife Marilyn, reporters inundated the trial, occupying every inch of the courtroom, sitting mere feet from the jury, listening in to the private conversations of lawyers, and handling the evidence. The public fascination with the crime spawned books, hit movies, and the television series "The Fugitive." And in 1992, when news reports hit the Los Angeles streets of the acquittal of four police officers in state charges for the beating of Rodney King, so did protestors. In the subsequent riots fifty-three people died and more than a thousand buildings were torched, assuring the officers' conviction in their subsequent federal trial.
What the Twentieth century has proven is that an unrestrained media driven to sell newspapers, radio and television ads will inevitably intrude on courts ill-equipped to insulate themselves from excess. Unrestrained, the press will threaten and cajole investigators, influence the courtroom behavior and tactics of lawyers and judges, and frighten jurors. Unrestrained, the press will so inflame a community that the environment becomes toxic, inhospitable to a fair judicial process.
Trials of the Century tells ten of these stories, and we learn from them that innocence or guilt depends as much on the way in which the proceedings are reflected in the media as on the evidence.