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The Crime Of The Century

The media have always covered significant trials, but the beginning of motion pictures and television presented a new set of challenges. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping, known as the "crime of the century," illustrated the increasing noise of the media and its influence upon juries.

On March 1, 1932, the infant son of world famous aviator and American hero Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974), and his wife, Anne Morrow, was abducted from their home. Despite ransom notes and other communications from the kidnapper, the baby was found dead of a skull fracture nearby. News of the kidnapping attracted the attention of the world press. Journalists and sightseers soon gathered around the Lindbergh home, destroying evidence and clues. Photographers disguised as rescue workers even set up a darkroom in an ambulance.

Members of the press trying to get a shot of Charles Lindbergh leaving the courtroom. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Two years later, police arrested Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1899–1936) and charged him with kidnapping and murder. The Hearst newspaper chain was once again involved, and even paid the legal fees of Hauptmann's attorney in exchange for the exclusive right to interview Hauptmann's wife during the trial. The trial itself was held in Flemington, New Jersey, near the Lindbergh home.

Journalists from across the globe traveled to Flemington and used the latest technological equipment to bring news of the trial to consumers. Over one hundred Western Union telegraph wires were strung in the courthouse attic. The Associated Press set up four teletype machines to transmit trial transcripts to New York and Philadelphia newspapers.

At this time, newsreels had become a popular medium among moviegoers. News, sports, and entertainment were shown before the main feature in theaters across the nation. During the Lindbergh trial, five newsreel companies covered the testimony. They pooled their resources and operated a remote control camera to bring the trial to thousands throughout the country. When the judge learned that court proceedings were being played in movie houses during the trial, he shut down all filming of testimony.

The jury had a difficult time staying away from the extensive coverage. Despite orders from the judge not to read newspapers, listen to the radio, or talk to anyone regarding the trial, jurors were affected by the spectacle. Each day the court was in session, the jurors made their way from a hotel to the courthouse through hundreds of newsboys who shouted the latest headlines. Observers hollered for the jury to convict Hauptmann and send him to his death.

When the jury was ready to give its verdict, the media stood ready to relay the news with speed. Reporters smuggled portable radio transmitters into the courthouse so they could signal the verdict to the outside world. The newsreel cameras recorded a crowd of ten thousand people waiting outside the courthouse. The jury found Hauptmann guilty and recommended the death penalty. The mob outside roared its approval and Charles Lindbergh, listening to the radio, disapproved such a display.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawMedia - History Of The Media And The Courts, Tried In The Media, The Crime Of The Century