The Nine “Trials of the (20th) Century”

Leopold & Loeb, 1924

The Michael Jackson molestation trial is nearly over as I write this. Possibly the only good thing that can be said about the media's coverage of this is that nobody's been calling it the "Trial of the Century" - seeing as how we're only five years in. However, that appellation was frantically used left and right during the last decades of the 20th century. Remember O.J. Simpson and Patty Hearst? Which got me thinking: What was the real trial of that century? As my friend Thomas Lakeman wrote me, "A classic trial needs to have three ingredients: a socially dividing issue (race, culture, politics, science), a title bout between lawyers (e.g., Darrow vs. Bryan), and a significant legacy. Also, a whiff of scandal doesn't hurt." My research comes to one conclusion: there's no one case that stands head and shoulders above the others. However, there are certainly nine strong contenders. (And several more: Sacco-Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, Mississippi Burning, Big Bill Haywood, etc.) In chronological order:

  1. Harry K. Thaw, 1904. Pittsburgh millionaire Thaw was married to beloved "Gibson girl" model/actress Evelyn Nesbit. When he discovered that Nesbit had lost her virginity to famous architect Stanford White, Thaw murdered him at a packed Madison Square Garden restaurant, in full view of witnesses. The trial was a sensation. As Thomas Lakeman wrote, "The case is remarkable since Thaw was the first man ever to be acquitted of murder by reason of temporary insanity." It was later immortalized in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime.
  2. Fatty Arbuckle, 1921-22. Decades before O.J., Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, an incredibly popular silent film comedian, was accused of raping and murdering young actress Virginia Rappe. He was acquitted, but this event kicked off a series of Hollywood scandals that eventually brought about the notorious "Hayes Code", where the US government forced studios to clean up their movies.
  3. Leopold & Loeb, 1924. Clarence Darrow was a legendary attorney, and this is one of his most famous cases (see also the Scopes Monkey Trial, below). The trial of two wealthy teenagers who kidnapped and murdered a younger neighbor was full of rich theatrical twists and turns. It was the story of the year.
  4. Scopes "Monkey" Trial, 1925. The importance of this trial is inarguable: John Scopes was a teacher in Tennessee who dared to teach his students about Darwin's theory of evolution (hence the "Monkey"), which opened up a huge can of worms in the Bible Belt. The ramifications of this outcome are still hotly debated to this day.
  5. The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping, 1935. Charles Lindbergh was a bona fide hero, and the world was horrified when his infant son was kidnapped - and later murdered. When Bruno Hauptmann was fingered for the crimes - railroaded, in fact - his trial gripped a nation starved for drama in Depression-era America.
  6. Nuremberg, 1945-46.This list is a little US-centric; let's not forget Australia's "Dingo" trial or, more importantly, China's "Gang of Four" Trial. But for some international flavor, you can't overlook the Nuremberg Trials. Though the war crimes tribunal of former Nazi leaders was mostly, in retrospect, a mere formality to their imprisonment and/or execution, at the time it not only allowed the world some closure after the bloodiest war in history, but filled the public in on the depth of the Nazis' genocidal atrocities.
  7. Alger Hiss, 1949-50. Not long after the Nazis were defeated, a new enemy had to emerge to fill the so-called military industrial complex's thirst for endless war. Enter the Communists. Their first American scapegoat, Alger Hiss, made Red-baiting congressman Richard Nixon a household name (as well as commie-hating senator Joseph McCarthy), gave increased prestige to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, resulted in the blacklisting of countless leftists, and even laid the stage for a resurgence in political and social conservatism.
  8. The Rosenbergs, 1951. Of course, some American Communists were actual threats to national security, like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union. The public was fascinated by this husband-and-wife spy team, but that fascination didn't save the Rosenbergs from the electric chair.
  9. Emmett Till's Murder. In 1955, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago named Emmett Till made the mistake of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. For that, the woman's husband and the husband's brother tortured and killed him. An all-white jury quickly found the defendants innocent. Months later, the defendants proudly confessed their deed. National outrage over this - as well as over photos of the mutilated Till, whose mother insisted on an open coffin - spurred the Civil Rights movement. The Rodney King trial had nothing on this.