A Decade-By-Decade Look at Ten of America's Most Sensational Crimes
Harry K. Thaw
When railroad millionaire Harry K. Thaw killed architect Stanford White in 1906 at Madison Square Garden, the crime was witnessed by thousands and his guilt was not in question. The trial focused instead on Thaw's mental state, and whether he was driven insane by White's sexual corruption of Thaw's young wife, Evelyn Nesbit. On trial was the profligate lifestyle of the wealthy privileged of America's Gilded Age, that careless period before income taxes, estate taxes and world war. Every sexual detail of their relationship was faithfully reported and eagerly devoured by a reading proletariat.
On Confederate Memorial Day in 1913 in Atlanta, Georgia, thirteen-year-old white factory worker Mary Phagan was found murdered in the basement of the National Pencil Company. Suspects abounded, but the newspapers howled for the arrest of factory superintended Leo Frank, a stern, aloof Jew from New York City. By mid-trial, it was obvious that Frank was innocent, but the enraged citizens of Atlanta demanded his conviction, surrounding the courthouse and creating a poisonous environment where even the jurors feared for their lives. The Frank case led directly to both the creation of B'nai B'rith and the re-institution of the Ku Klux Klan.
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
In 1921, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was the highest paid movie star in America. It was Prohibition, and when young actress Virginia Rappe fell ill at a wild alcohol-fueled party in Arbuckle's suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco and died a few days later, an ambitious prosecutor determined to bring him down and make a name for himself at the same time. Despite all of the evidence which pointed to his innocence, Arbuckle was charged with rape and murder. Although tried three times and eventually acquitted, Arbuckle was blacklisted, disgraced, and financially ruined. But the newspapers had a field day.
Few crimes were more heinous than the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and few trials more purely theatre. A two year manhunt led to the arrest and trial of Bruno Hauptmann, a German carpenter and petty criminal. Every American newspaper as well as many international publications attended the trial. The guilt of Hauptmann is still argued today, but every commentator agrees that the media was out of control and that Hauptmann received anything but a fair trial. Supremely influential Walter Winchell of the New York Daily Mirror pronounced him guilty before a jury was seated, and crowds in the streets chanted "Kill Hauptmann!" throughout the trial.
The murder of Patricia Burton Lonergan, New York socialite, by her husband Wayne in October of 1943 was referred to by newspapers as "New York's greatest murder thriller in recent years." Patricia was found in her bedroom beaten to death with a large metal candlestick, blood spattered everywhere. In the midst of a world war, an entire nation found distraction in the case's tangled drama of love, jealousy, scandalous behavior and a vast fortune. The guilty verdict was inevitable, but the trial was a circus; more reporters were present on the first day of proceedings than were covering the allied invasion of Italy.
The storybook life of Sam and Marilyn Sheppard in Bay Village, Ohio came to a violent end on the night of July 4, 1954, when Marilyn was brutally murdered in her bed. Sam swore that he had struggled with the intruder until he was struck on the head and knocked unconscious. America came to a stop while Sam was tried and convicted in both the media and the courts. The Supreme Court reversed, calling the trial "a carnival." On retrial, a young F. Lee Bailey at his side, Sam was acquitted. One of the most memorable of American trials, it spawned books, Hollywood blockbusters, and the television show "The Fugitive."
On a steamy Chicago night in July of 1966, drifter and petty criminal Richard Speck broke into a boarding house of student nurses, tied them up, and murdered them one by one. Appalled and fascinated, America forgot the political strife and race riots of the 1960s, transfixed by the media coverage of Speck's manhunt, arrest and trial. Murders for profit or passion were reprehensible yet understandable, but never before had someone committed mass murder without reason. Speck launched America on the pathway to Columbine and Virginia Tech, Newtown and Aurora. Motiveless mass murder is now a part of the fabric of America.
No American who lived in the 1970s can erase the image of Charles Manson, unfathomable and evil. The Rasputin of misguided youth of the dying Summer of Love, he sought to unleash revolution by the hacking death of pregnant movie starlet Sharon Tate and her friends in her Hollywood home, and the following murder of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The horror of these crimes poured into everyone's homes through unprecedented television and newspaper coverage. Few trials were as complicated or bizarre, a remarkable tale of murder, sex, drugs, revolution and politics. Manson became the watershed between the idealism of the 1960s and the harsh commercialism of the decades that followed.
The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet swept the nation when it debuted in 1978. According to its creator, Dr. Herman Tarnower, anyone could lose twenty pounds in fourteen days and keep them off. Thousands took the challenge. To the surprise of a startled nation, on March 10, 1980, someone shot the famous diet guru three times in his own bedroom. The culprit was no disgruntled dieter, but Jean Harris, elite prep school head mistress and Tarnower's long suffering girlfriend, pushed to the breaking point by his domineering treatment. His murder and her lengthy trial captivated a nation and spurred an outpouring of social commentary on women's rights.
If you are old enough to read this, you experienced firsthand the trial of O.J. Simpson for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Few trials before or since have captured the passions of so many Americans or sparked so much media attention. When the verdict was read on October 3, 1995, 91% of all televisions in operation in America were tuned in. That the Simpson case was ultimately about race was understood by the media immediately, and while it is tempting to believe that by 1995 America had shrugged off its legacy of prejudice, the reality is different, as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities across America have shown.