How Many Trials of the (20th) Century Were There?

They can’t all be THE trial, but here are the contenders.

Reporters swarm O.J. Simpson's motorcade during his pre-trial in 1994,

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When the O.J. Simpson trial began 25 years ago this week, news outlets breathlessly declared that it was the “Trial of the Century.” It certainly wasn’t the only major trial to occur between 1900 and 1999; it wasn’t even the last one. But the title gets thrown around so frequently, it leads to the question of just how many “trials of the century” were there in the 1900s? When you narrow the scope to those in the United States, there remain a number of contenders. Despite convincing evidence on behalf of Leopold and Loeb, the Chicago “Black Sox,” and others, here are the five most significant possibilities for the title of “Actual Trial of the Century.”

1. The O.J. Simpson Trial (January 24, 1995-October 3, 1995)

There’s probably not a person over 20 who hasn’t memorized the particulars of the case. Former football star, commentator, and actor Simpson stood accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman in June of 1994. Simpson assembled a so-called legal “Dream Team” and the proceedings went on for months with countless hours broadcast live. The country was transfixed right up through the “Not Guilty” verdict.

2. Lindbergh Kidnapping

A police sketch of the Lindburgh baby's kidnapper
A police artist’s sketch bore a strong resemblance to Hauptmann. (Everett Historical / Shutterstock)

In 1932, you would have to have looked far and wide to find a person more famous than aviator Charles Lindbergh. When Lindbergh’s son, Charles Jr., was reported missing in March of that year, the story became international news. Following up on a series of ransom notes and delivering money proved to be of no avail; sadly, a little over two months later, the baby’s body was discovered in a wooded area not far from Lindbergh’s home. The subsequent investigation led to Richard Hauptmann, who had spent some of the money and still had some $20,000 in his garage. Hauptmann went to trial (which the press dubbed, naturally, “The Trial of the Century”) and was convicted and sentenced to die. While Hauptmann never confessed and a number of alternative theories were proposed, he was nevertheless executed in 1936.

3. Clinton Impeachment

You may know the story, or at least think you do. President Bill Clinton was deposed in a sexual harassment suit filed by Paula Jones while he was simultaneously being investigated by special counsel Ken Starr for his role in the Whitewater real estate imbroglio. Clinton lied under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which led to impeachment in the House and a trial in the Senate. The nation’s attention was fixed on the proceedings right up through Clinton’s acquittal in the Senate.

4. The Trial of Charles Manson

Charles Manson sits in a courtroom during his murder trial.
Manson in court in 1970. (PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

A criminal and musician that styled himself into a messianic cult leader, Charles Manson inspired his followers to murder in an attempt to begin a race war that he called “Helter Skelter.” The killings, later referred to as the Tate-LaBianca Murders, claimed the lives of seven people across 2 nights in Los Angeles in 1969, including the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanksi, the actress Sharon Tate. The earlier murder of music teacher Gary Hinman and unrelated arrests of Manson Family members for car theft and other crimes combined to lead investigators to the conclusion that the “Family” had committed the Tate-LaBianca killings. The trial of Manson and three co-defendants (Leslie Van HoutenSusan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel) began on July 15, 1970 and ran until January 25, 1971, making it the longest murder trial in U.S. history at the time and the source of intense media attention. Manson was convicted for the Tate-LaBianca murders, as well as those of Hinman and Donald Shea in a later trial. Manson lived the rest of his life in prison, dying in November of 2017.

5. The Scopes “Monkey” Trial

William Jennings Bryan being interrogated by Clarence Darrow
The heat became so unbearable in court that part of the proceedings were held outside. (Everett Historical / Shutterstock)

This trial separated itself from the others for being based on ideology rather than a crime of violence. Teacher John T. Scopes taught high school in Tennessee. In 1925, he broached the subject of evolution and got arrested for it. Hundreds of reporters and boosters for the sides of “evolution” and “Creationism” descended on Dayton, Tennessee for the trial. Scopes was defended by Clarence Darrow, while the prosecution was presented in part by William Jennings Bryan, evangelist and former U.S. vice-president. At the end of the trial (orchestrated in the first place by the ACLU to test the laws against teaching evolution), Scopes was convicted and ordered to pay a fine. Controversies continue to roil when it comes to how evolution versus Creationism are taught in school, and the Scopes story itself lives on in the play (and its film versions) Inherit the Wind.

Featured image: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. I am surprised that the 1907 trial of Big Bill Haywood and other officers of the Western Federation of Miners in Boise for the murder of former Governor Frank Steunenberg didn’t make the list. In its day, it was as notorious — or more than — the O.J. trial.

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