BackStory’s Top 5 Trials of the Century
In preparation for our episode on “Trial-Watching,” we asked the Guys, BackStory producers, and some of our other favorite historians to choose a trial that defined the century that they study. Here are their top picks for trials that influenced the American public, media, and courts in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.
The Boston “Massacre” Trial (1770)
Chosen by: American History Guy, Peter Onuf, and Dan Cohen, Prof. of History at Case Western Reserve University
Chaos erupted on the snowy streets of Boston on March 5, 1770, when a skirmish between residents and British troops resulted in the deaths of 5 colonists. Three weeks later, a grand jury indicted eight British soldiers with murder. But thanks to the work of the soldiers’ defense lawyer, future-president John Adams, the jury charged two of the soldiers with manslaughter and acquitted the others. Anger over the verdict fuelled Patriot sentiments in Massachusetts. For historian Dan Cohen, the trial also marked an early instance of an enduring pattern of “lawyer-politicians representing accused murderers and other unpopular criminal defendants.” Other famous criminal defense lawyers-turned-politicians followed in Adams’s footsteps, including Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and Pres. Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Howard Baker.
Tilton v. Beecher (1875)
Chosen by: American History Guy, Ed Ayers
In late 1874, Theodore Tilton charged Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a famous social reformer, with adultery after Tilton learned that Beecher had an affair with his wife, Elizabeth. Reporters flocked to Brooklyn to watch the January 1875 court proceedings, which resulted in a hung jury. Still, the trial was, as American History Guy Ed Ayers notes, a “doozy.” It dominated national headlines, made Beecher “the most famous man in America,” and mirrored widespread concerns with sexuality and morality in the Victorian era. For more on the Beecher trial, check out our segment with biographer Debby Applegate on “Shocked and Appalled: A History of Scandal.”
State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1925)
Chosen by: BackStory Senior Editor, Brigid McCarthy
The trial of Scopes, a schoolteacher charged with violating a law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools, had all the makings of a courtroom drama. There were the lawyers: former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow, a leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union, for the defense. Stuffed into a tiny, stifling courthouse during the summer of 1925, both gave Oscar-worthy performances. The trial also generated notorious reporting from the thousands of reporters, including H.L. Mencken for the Baltimore Sun, who descended on the tiny town of Dayton, TN, to watch what Mencken dubbed the “Monkey Trial.” The trial gets BackStory producer Brigid McCarthy’s vote because it debated an issue unresolved today: “belief in evolution, and science versus a (Christian) faith-based worldview.”
Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville (1972)
Chosen by: Risa Goluboff, Prof. of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, and author of the upcoming book, Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s
In 1969, Jacksonville police arrested Margaret Lorraine Papachristou, who was out on the town with some friends, including two African-American men. Authorities convicted Papachristou of vagrancy, which made it a crime to wander with no apparent purpose. Papachristou challenged her conviction and in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court struck down Jacksonville’s vagrancy law. For hundreds of years, vagrancy laws gave officers “a roving license,” as legal historian Risa Goluboff put it, to arrest people who challenged societal expectations such as protestors, hippies, prostitutes, and gay men and lesbians. For Goluboff, Papachristou’s trial was the trial of the twentieth-century because the invalidation of vagrancy laws marked “a major milestone in the legal toleration of greater pluralism in America.”
People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson (1994-5)
Chosen by: American History Guy, Brian Balogh
Americans were glued to their televisions in 1995 to watch the trial of former actor and NFL star, O.J. Simpson, for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman. From the beginning, the trial had everything: an alluring female victim, a famous defendant, an entertaining defense lawyer, a live chase leading to Simpson’s arrest, and the iconic moment when Simpson attempted to put on a glove found at the crime scene. The jury found Simpson not guilty. The verdict divided the nation but for Brian, the O.J. Trial gets his vote for “the trial of the century” because it “exposed for those who required such reminding, a deep racial divide in the nation regarding America’s criminal justice system, from top to bottom.”
Learn more about America’s fascination with crime and punishment in this week’s episode of BackStory, COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION: A HISTORY OF TRIAL-WATCHING IN AMERICA.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist