• Weird History

12 Court Cases That Were Called 'The Trial Of The Century'

List RulesVote up the most sensational cases you think truly were the "trial of the century."

The phrase "trial of the century" is obviously a misnomer, as dozens of court cases have been given this label since the 1880s. But it's still a useful term to describe trials that capture the public's attention. Many of these cases have similar circumstances. Often, they involve sordid and unusual crimes, rich and famous individuals, or they tap into the dominant political and social anxieties of their times. Occasionally, like the O.J. Simpson trial, they involve all three. 

But most of all, these cases become notorious because of their media coverage. Since the rise of mass media, beginning with newspapers and radio and continuing with TV and the internet, crime has always been a compelling subject. Trials of the century sell a lot of newspapers - or more recently, generate a lot of clicks. 

Here are some of the most infamous trials of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

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  • Photo: World Telegram staff photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    While some cases are considered trials of the century because of their sensationalist nature, others dominate headlines because they involve celebrities. With the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby, both factors were in play. 

    By 1932, aviator Lindbergh was already a household name in the US for completing the first non-stop flight from New York City to Paris in 1927. This also made his family a target for ransom.

    On March 1 of that year, Lindbergh's 20-month-old son, Charles Jr., was abducted from the family's home in Hopewell, NJ. The first ransom note demanded $50,000, and a second asked for $70,000. The Lindberghs paid the ransom per the instructions, but it was all a misdirect. The baby was discovered less than a mile from their home, likely murdered the night he was taken. 

    In 1934, a gas station attendant helped police locate the alleged kidnapper, a German immigrant and carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann. In his trial, Hauptmann pleaded innocent. The case against him relied mostly on circumstantial evidence. But in the one pivotal moment, Lindbergh testified that he recognized Hauptmann's voice from the night his son was taken. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and Hauptmann was executed in 1936. 

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    The Scopes Monkey Trial Helped Define The Role Of Religion In Education

    In 2021, the separation of church and state remains a controversial issue in the US. This was even more true in 1925 when the "Scopes Monkey Trial" put the subject up for debate in the courts. 

    In March of that year, the Tennessee state legislature passed the Butler Act, which banned teaching the theory of evolution in public schools. In May, young science teacher John Scopes of Dayton, TN, was arrested for violating the Butler Act. In the ensuing trial, famous lawyer Clarence Darrow teamed up with ACLU General Counsel Arthur Garfield Hays to defend Scopes. Former presidential candidate and secretary of state William Jennings Bryan represented the prosecution. 

    The judge, a conservative Christian who started each day's session with a prayer, weighed the case in Bryan's favor by refusing to allow the defense to call witnesses. Instead, Darrow called on Bryan, a Bible expert, to defend his literal interpretations of the holy book. After Darrow caught Bryan in multiple contradictions and got him to admit that "I do not think about things I do not think about," the judge was forced to rule in Scopes's favor. 

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  • Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-12794 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
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    Leopold And Loeb Kidnapped And Murdered A 14-Year-Old Boy For The ‘Intellectual Thrill’

    Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were Chicago-area teenagers and best friends. Both were extremely intelligent. The older Leopold was more awkward and shy compared with Loeb, but in their friendship, Leopold was the more dominant. After reading the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Leopold became obsessed with the idea of committing the "perfect crime." 

    On May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb kidnapped their 14-year-old neighbor Bobby Frank, murdered him, and left his body in a nearby culvert. They also left a ransom note to misdirect authorities. However, Leopold lost his glasses at the scene where they hid the body, and his optometrist led police to him. 

    The case was another crime involving the depravities of the relatively well-off. The young men's parents hired famous lawyer Clarence Darrow in hopes of defending them. Conceding Leopold's and Loeb's guilt, Darrow instead argued for them to be spared the death penalty. Law professor Philip Johnson summed up Darrow's 12-hour closing speech as follows: "Nature made them do it; evolution made them do it; Nietzsche made them do it. So they should not be sentenced to death for it." Leopold and Loeb avoided the death penalty and were sentenced to life in prison instead. 

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  • Photo: Bain / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Traditionally, trials have become sensationalized because they confirm what many media consumers suspect about the rich and famous. One of the earliest "trials of the century" was the murder of Stanford White by Harry Thaw, son of Pennsylvania coal and railroad tycoon William Thaw. And it all happened because Thaw was jealous that White had once dated his wife, Evelyn Nesbit. 

    In 1906, White was a wealthy architect and one of the most notorious playboys in New York City. Nesbit arrived in the city when she was 15 and was working as an artist's model when she caught White's eye.

    Thaw was a wealthy socialite who had been expelled from Harvard, as well as a morphine and cocaine addict with an erratic reputation. White first became the target of Thaw's rage when he reportedly insulted Thaw in front of a group of showgirls. When White began dating Nesbit, Thaw became obsessed and repeatedly tried to woo her. White and Nesbit eventually broke up because White wasn't interested in marriage, and Nesbit reluctantly agreed to marry Thaw. 

    On June 26, 1906, Thaw shot White in front of a packed house at the rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden. In his 1908 trial, a jury found Thaw not guilty on the grounds of insanity. 

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