Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The trial of the century only comes along a dozen or so times a century

Screenshot: O.J.: Made In America
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Trial of the century

What it’s about: A legal drama so sensational, so scandalous, so captivating to the nation, that it only happens once every hundred years! Or, you know, 18 times or so every hundred years. Seemingly every few years, a high-profile trial gets tagged as the biggest of the century, a designation which is forgotten only a few years later as the crown is passed to the next showstopper.


Strangest fact: Clarence Darrow, the most famous lawyer in America a century ago, argued for the defense in no less than three trials of the century. For many years, Darrow was a labor lawyer, and in 1907, he defended union leader “Big Bill” Haywood against a sensational murder charge. The victim, Frank Steunenberg, was a former governor of Idaho, killed by an explosion outside his home. Steunenberg had clashed with organized labor during his time in office, in particular the Western Federation Of Miners (WFM). Harry Orchard, a local WFM member, was implicated, but Haywood and two other men were named as co-conspirators.

The three suspects were arrested and refused contact with lawyers or family members, and whisked out of state in secret for the trial. Darrow served as their defense lawyer, and Orchard, who by that point had admitted to the bombing, also admitted to taking money from both labor and management, as well as the Pinkerton detectives trying to implicate Haywood and the others. The alleged co-conspirators were found innocent, and Darrow’s fame increased.


So much so that in 1924, when Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy college students, kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy, believing they were brilliant enough to commit the “perfect crime,” Loeb’s family hired Darrow. The men were clearly guilty, but Darrow gave a 12-hour speech decrying capital punishment, called the finest of his career, and the two men were sentenced to life in prison.

The following year, Darrow was the star in another trial of the century, the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” in which a substitute teacher was prosecuted for teaching evolution in school, outlawed in Tennessee. The trial was largely held for publicity (Scopes, with the support of the ACLU, incriminated himself so the law could be challenged), and Darrow met his match in another legal titan, William Jennings Bryan, a former congressman and secretary of state who had run for president three times and lost (twice to William McKinley and once to William Howard Taft; he wisely declined to run against Teddy Roosevelt in between the two). When the judge refused to allow scientific experts to testify on Scopes’ behalf, Darrow took the radical step of calling Bryan to the stand, questioning him about the scientific veracity of the Good Book. The jury ended up deciding against Scopes, but Darrow had swayed many of the millions who were captivated by the trial on the radio.

Screenshot: Inherit The Wind, a dramatization of the Scopes trial, with Spencer Tracy (left) and Fredric March playing stand-ins for Darrow and Bryan, respectively.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Plenty of dictators got their due. The past 30 years alone have seen public trials of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena; Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević; and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. The Ceaușescu trial was widely considered a show trial, with the couple’s guilt (of genocide and other charges) decided well in advance. Hussein’s trial was considered by Human Rights Watch to be “a flawed trial [which] marks a significant step away from the rule of law in Iraq.” In both instances, the countries executed their former leaders. Milošević’s trial, for genocide and war crimes, was conducted by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal, and held to a higher legal standard, but no punishment was handed down, as Milošević himself died before the years-long proceedings finished.


Several trials of the century involved the aftermath of WWII, including those of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, and Klaus Barbie, a Gestapo member who was able to hide in Bolivia until 1983; and the Nuremberg Trials, in which numerous high-ranking Nazis were condemned for crimes against humanity.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The very first trial of the century listed was a pretty tough act to follow. Only nine months into the new century, anarchist Leon Czolgosz (spelled like it sounds) went on trial for assassinating President William McKinley. Czolgosz’s lawyers had their work cut out for them, as the defendant refused to speak to any of them or testify in his own defense, nor would he talk to the court-appointed psychiatrist who intended to test his sanity. The defense went ahead with an insanity plea (which fellow presidential assassin Charles Guiteau tried to use 20 years earlier), but the jury agreed he clearly knew what he was doing and recommended the death penalty. Not only did Czolgosz get the electric chair, his body was also destroyed with acid, and his letters and clothes were burned.

T. Dart Walker’s illustration of McKinley’s assassination. (Wikipedia/public domain)

Also noteworthy: Thus far, the most talked-about trial in 21st-century America is still the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial. As such, China has the best claim to this century’s trial of the century, as Bo Xilai, a charismatic political scion, crusader against organized crime, and rising star in the Communist Party, was caught in a web of corruption. In 2011, British businessman Neil Heywood appeared to have died of alcohol poisoning, but months later it was revealed he died of far more sinister poison poisoning. Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun led the investigation, and as Bo fell under suspicion (he had financial ties to Heywood), Bo illegally wiretapped Wang, and may have been planning to have him killed. He was also accused of taking bribes. His wife, Gu Kailai, was found guilty of poisoning Heywood, although it also came out that he had cheated on her. (Rumors abounded that he had had an affair with actress Zhang Ziyi. Zhang not only denied the claims, she also sued several media outlets for defamation.)


Bo was brought up on trial for bribery, abuse of power, and embezzlement. He was sent to jail, but the scandal opened up divisions within the political establishment, largely centered on resentment of “princelings” like Bo, who come from powerful families. A populist faction has risen to hold up Bo as emblematic of corruption by the political elites. The Bo affair will likely be the biggest political scandal for some time, unless, hypothetically, the president of the United States were suspected of treason, but what are the odds of something like that happening?

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: “Trial of the century” is a phrase that also appears on English-language idioms, one of those Wikipedia pages that’s impossibly long and yet doesn’t seem to scratch the surface of its subject. But if you want to find out where phrases like “passing the buck,” “cold shoulder,” “sea change,” or “foot the bill” come from, not to mention less-common phrases like “born in the purple,” “Hobson’s choice,” or “a wigwam for a goose’s bridle,” then Wikipedia’s got you covered.


Further down the Wormhole: While some trials made their participants famous, some were famous because the defendants were already famous: the Simpson trial; the custody battle over Gloria Vanderbilt; the attempted murder trial of British socialite Claus Von Bülow; Michael Jackson’s trial for child molestation. But America’s first celebrity trial of the century happened in 1906, when millionaire Harry Thaw murdered famed architect Stanford White after White sexually assaulted Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit. While Thaw and White were well-known before the trial, model-turned-silent-film-star Nesbit was more famous than either. We’ll take a look at her tumultuous life next week.

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