Updating NAFTA; Portraits on Parade; SI and #MeToo; Courtroom Circus
Good morning, it’s Tuesday, February 13, 2018. On this date in 1935, the “Trial of the Century” ended with the conviction of Bruno Richard Hauptmann on charges of kidnapping and killing the infant son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
This wasn’t the first time the phrase “trial of the century” was used, and it wouldn’t be the last. By the time of O.J. Simpson’s dubious acquittal in October 1995 on double murder charges, there had been a dozen or so such trials.
Historians and crime writers don’t use the same baseline when tallying such events, but many of them point to the sensational 1906 slaying of famed architect Stanford White as the first one. The unsuspecting White was shot at point-blank range during the finale of a musical on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden.
White’s killer was Harry Kendall Thaw, a Pittsburgh-born socialite and heir to a coal and railroad fortune. Thaw used cocaine frequently and was probably a sociopath. He was also an aggrieved husband. A year before, he had married Evelyn Nesbit, a beautiful 20-year-old model and showgirl. Thaw harbored a murderous grudge against Stanford White on the grounds that he “took advantage” of Nesbit, to use his own words, when she was only 16. “He ruined my wife!” is what Thaw cried after he fired the fatal shots.
The trial that followed -- actually, there were two trials -- never resulted in a guilty conviction for Thaw, who spent time in mental hospitals, on the lam, and eventually living free on estates in Virginia and Florida.
Although the media landscape lacked Twitter, television, radio, smartphones, and social media, early 20th century Americans had no trouble following this story, or any other of the “trials of the century.” Tabloid newspapers had just come into their own, and were read by the masses.
I’ll have more on the Thaw case, and on the trial that ended 83 years ago today, in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:
* * *
Don't Withdraw From NAFTA, Modernize It. In an op-ed for RealClearPolicy, Rep. Ron Estes touts the benefits of free trade for American agriculture.
Developing an Agile Space Architecture. In RealClearDefense, John Hoehn warns that the U.S. risks falling behind peer adversaries in space-based capabilities.
Why Go to College? In RealClearEducation, Carol D’Amico spotlights news polling data indicating students’ primary motivation.
Cheers to Mulvaney. RealClearMarkets editor John Tamny argues that the competition to put money to work profitably ensures the policing the CFPB was set up to supposedly provide.
Presidential Portraits Through the Years. In RealClearLife, Rebecca Gibian offers a look at the likenesses showcased by the National Portrait Gallery, which unveiled stylized images of Barack and Michelle Obama on Monday.
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Joins the #MeToo Movement. Also in RCL, Michael Malice considers the magazine’s response to a pivotal cultural moment.
* * *
As best I can tell, famed wordsmith Damon Runyon was the first to employ the “trial of the century” formulation in print. It occurred during the sensational coverage of the now-forgotten 1922 double murder of Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall. Hall was a married Episcopal priest; Mills sang in the church choir. Their bodies were positioned next to one another in a New Jersey field, with their ripped-up loved letters placed between them. Hall’s widow and her brothers were charged with murder, but prosecutors didn’t convince a jury to convict them.
Runyon was also in court, along with some 700 other reporters and celebrities who descended on Flemington, New Jersey for the 32-day trial at the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, among them Walter Winchell, Arthur Brisbane, and H.L. Mencken.
The jury’s guilty verdict and the defendant’s death sentence were trumpeted by radio broadcasters and newsboys hawking afternoon papers. The New York Times’ headline was spread in two decks across its front page. Mencken called the trial the “greatest story since the Resurrection.” Jack Benny, who was also present, opined after the prosecutor’s withering cross-examination of Hauptmann, “What Bruno needs is a second act.”
He didn’t get one -- Hauptmann was executed the following year. In some ways the public mood there mirrored the one involving disgraced Michigan doctor Larry Nassar. During Hauptmann’s trial, bystanders shouted “Baby killer!” at him as he was transported from the jail to the courtroom. New Jersey Attorney General David Wilentz described him to the jury as “the lowest animal in the animal kingdom.” Few Americans disagreed.
One of them, though, was Hauptmann’s wife, who spent 60 years vainly trying to clear her husband’s name. She went to her grave in 1994 still proclaiming his innocence and still recoiling from the insults hurled her way at the trial in Flemington. Another person who doubted Hauptmann’s guilt -- or, more accurately, doubted he was the mastermind -- was New Jersey Gov. Harold Hoffman, the lone vote for clemency among the state’s Board of Pardons.
The case against Hauptmann had been circumstantial. No one saw him in little Charlie Lindbergh’s nursery, his fingerprints were not found there, no accomplice ever fingered him, no one could even connect him with the family at all. Certainly, Richard Hauptmann, as he was called by family and friends, never confessed to the crime.
But neither could Hauptmann satisfactorily explain how thousands of dollars of the Lindbergh ransom money was found in his possession. He claimed that a friend named Isador Fisch had left it in his belongings before sailing to Germany, where he died. No part of this story could be verified and his alibi witness, his wife, was not believed by the jury.
In time, other monsters, not excluding Adolf Hitler, would take Hauptmann’s place in the public imagination. Other “trials of the century” would flood the airwaves and intrigue journalists and their public. Time, too, brought revisionists. Several books, and a couple of movies, would champion Hauptmann’s innocence. Other authors would reaffirm his guilt.
If key factual answers from the past are not always knowable, however, lessons are to be gleaned nonetheless.
Even now, more evidence damns Richard Hauptmann than exonerates him. Yet, that trial was a circus. The authorities were probably framing a guilty man, but the shoddy police work, ethnic animus, and perjured testimony in this case tainted that conviction. This “trial of the century” reminds us that the Framers’ concept about being innocent until proven guilty is not a legal nicety. It is, as I’ve written in this space before, a bedrock principle of democracy on which our freedoms rest.
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics