To put Chicago’s trials into perspective….
Sabella Nitti is one of the women who was right alongside Belva and Beulah in the Cook County Jail. Sabella was profiled as “dirty,” “repulsive,” and “animal-like” on account of her heritage. Sabella was an Italian immigrant who did not speak any English. She was accused of murdering her first husband to marry again. After a four day trial, Sabella was sentenced to die by a twelve person jury, all made up of men. With the help of a female lawyer who stepped up to take Sabella’s case, she was able to present herself in a more sophisticated fashion that the likes of Belva and Beulah could afford. Her simple nature had hindered her coverage and public perception, but with a little help her sentence was appealed a year later and her charges were dismissed. Sabella Nitti was put through hell because it was easy to pin a murder on an Italian-speaking immigrant.
White City Killer, Beast of Chicago, H.H. Holmes: all aliases and nicknames for Herman Webster Mudgett. Mudgett moved to Chicago in 1886 where he went by the name Henry H. Holmes, a pharmacist whose home and place of business was used for murdering his victims. Holmes outfitted the pharmacy with all types of equipment designed to subdue and slay innocent people. This is how he dubbed the nickname “Murder Palace.” Holmes was considered an affluent, intelligent, yer strange and troubled child. He had an interest in medicine and would conduct surgeries on animals. Holmes was prone to profiting from insurance schemes after he killed his victims and this is how he was eventually apprehended. Holmes is credited with anywhere from 20 to 200 murders spanning the United States as well as Canada. Even today, the White City Killer is known as one of the most famous serial killers in American History. Your characters would have had their own images of Holmes ingrained in their heads. The most famous murdered in America had been hiding right under their noses!
Ruth Snyder died on January 12th, 1928 in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in New York. Snyder was found guilty of killing her husband for insurance money. She beat her husband with a dumb-bell and strangled him with wire. She was arrested on March 20th, 1928 – the same day as the murder. Women’s suffrage was ratified in 1920 which played a large part in the coverage of Snyder’s trial. Her sentence was an example of the growing equality between men and women. These sentiments seem to be lacking in the the coverage of Beulah and Belva and are not an immediate issue in the stage play or the musical. A photograph of the Snyder in the electric chair became an iconic photograph of the ’20s. I won’t post it here, but you can easily find it online.
Lindbergh Baby: Charles A. Lindbergh was an American pilot who made the first solo trip across the Atlantic Ocean. His flight took place on May 20-21 1927, one year after the premiere of Chicago. The kidnapping Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son is perhaps the most famous case in American History. The child was kidnapped out of his nursery on March 1st, 1932, at about 9:00 pm. The search for the child was long and included the aid of Dr. John F. Condon, a volunteer who agreed to be the middleman in the ransom exchange required by the kidnapper(s). A total of thirteen ransom notes came into the possession of the Lindbergh family and Dr. Condon. The Doctor met with the kidnapper who called himself “John” on two occasions, the last of which included the exchange of gold bonds. After the transfer of the ransom money the last ransom note included details that the child could be found on a boat called “Nellie”near Martha’s Vineyard. Several search attempts were fruitless. On May 12th, 1932, the remains of the child were found about four miles away from the Lindbergh estate, 45 feet away from the highway. The child’s remains were badly decomposed, missing limbs, and a crushed head which indicated the cause of death. The coroner’s examination also showed that the child had been dead for about two months when it had been found. The FBI later assumed all jurisdiction in the case which went all the way up to involve President Franklin D. Roosevelt who required all gold and gold certificates be returned to the Treasury and exchanged in an effort to track the ransom certificates. The publication of the serial numbers of these certificates eventually led to the apprehension of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a carpenter and illegal German immigrant. Hauptmann was tried on circumstantial evidence such as handwriting, identification by Dr. Condon, information related to the case written on the walls of his home, the same wood and tools in his home which were used in the construction of the ladder used to climb to the infant’s nursery. On February 13th, 1935, he was found guilty of first degree murder. The verdict was appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey where it was upheld. An appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States was denied. After many reprieves and extensions to his sentence, Hauptmann was eventually executed by electrocution on April 3rd, 1936 at 8:47 PM, more than five years after the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr.
The events of this case were sensational, occurring only 7 years after the events which inspired Chicago and five years after the premiere of the play. The Lindbergh case included President, the Supreme Court, and the celebrity pilot, Charles Lindbergh. The use of the papers to run advertisements for the middleman, Dr. Condon, and instructions for the Lindbergh family absolutely heightened the interest in the case just as Maurine Watkins and her colleagues sensationalized the trial of the Lady Killers in Chicago.
Charlie Manson: please refer to this page from the section of the website on 1970’s crime.
The nature of the Manson Murders shocked the nation and the trials of those involved, including Charles Manson, were widely televised and had a large following especially in the teenage to young adult demographics. Like Ted Bundy was seen as a sex symbol, Charles Manson and his Family were seen like rock stars. The evidence against them was obviously indisputable and their sentencing came as no surprise, but those who had been heavily influenced by the media began to see things in a different light.
OJ Simpson: The trial of O.J. Simpson, accused of murdering his ex, Nicole Brown, took the country by storm. Jokes and anecdotes about the trial are now popular lingo, even “classic.” The car chase along the southern California freeway captivated the country in a way no developing crime story had before. Multiple networks broadcast live footage of the chase and the ensuing trial only grew from there. The New York Times called it “the first trial of the digital century.”
Michael Jackson: In 2005 Michael Jackson went on trial accused of the molestation of young boys as well as distribution of alcohol to minors. Jackson was found not guily of these charges when the jury decided that there was room for reasonable doubt. The New York Times reported on the verdict calling the trial “the latest of California’s celebrity trials.” Coverage of the verdict was broadcast in Time’s Square. Jackson reached a $20 million settlement with the family of another boy who claimed to have been molested by Jackson. After the settlement the family refused to cooperate with a criminal trial against Jackson. Many details in this case leave one scratching their head, but there is no doubt that this trial goes down as one of the most famous botched trials in America.
George Zimmerman: In February of 2012 George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, in self defense. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law played a role, bringing in the question of the legitimacy of Zimmerman’s self defense claims. The details of the murder included Martin walking through a neighborhood of town homes on his way home when Zimmerman, on his way back from Target, saw a suspicious person walking slowly in the rain, looking at the houses. Zimmerman called the police and remained on the phone with the operator who advised him to stay in the car and not pursue the suspect. He did not take the advice and then pursued Martin. At the time, Martin was on the phone with a friend from Miami. A fight ensued which became the spotlight of the trial. Jourer B37 offered her thoughts in an interview with Anderson Cooper, saying “If anything, Zimmerman was guilty of not using good judgement… When he was in the car, and he had called 911, he shouldn’t have gotten out of that car…Trayvon decided that he wasn’t going to let him (Zimmerman) scare him (his friend had suggested Zimmerman, who was following Martin, could be a rapist)… and I think Trayvon got mad and attacked him.”
In many ways the Zimmerman case was the beginning of a new era of American social policies. The Black Lives Matter movement sprang out of this event and into the public spotlight to gain momentum. It is also the first case relating to prejudice against African-Americans that sent shock waves into numerous minority communities.
Casey Anthony was accused of the murder of her two year old daughter, Caylee, in 2008. It was alleged that she had subdued her daughter with Chloroform and suffocated her with duct tape. Caylee’s remains were found nearly six months after her death in close proximity to her mother’s house. An analysis of the air particles as well as the presence of Chloroform and a human hair of the Anthony female line (identified by an analysis of mitochondrial DNA) all pointed the blame at Casey. After 30 days of of testimony in court, Casey was found not guilty of the charges relating to the murder of her daughter. She was, however, forced to pay fines for presenting false information as well as foot the bill for Caylee’s search. The grand total ran upwards of $200,000. Many considered this trial to showcase the failures in the American judicial system as many believed that Casey Anthony’s guilt surpassed reasonable doubt.
Jodi Arias killed her boyfriend in 2008. She has a rocky relationship with Travis Alexander and ultimately claimed she killed him in self defense as he sexually attacked her. Her first claim was that she had not killed him. Then she claimed that two intruders had forced their way in and killed him. Then she settled on the claim that she killed him in self defense, claiming that a collection of letters would prove her struggle with Alexander’s abuse. Arias’s hand print was found in Alexander’s blood at the crime scene. Arias was found guilty on May 8, 2013. The sentencing part of her trial concluded that Arias killed Alexander in a cruel and heinous fashion. Arias has asked for a sentence of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty.
Amanda Knox was wrongfully accused of killing her roommate Meredith Kercher in 2007. Knox and Kercher were both foreign exchange students living in Italy. When Kercher was murdered Rudy Guede was swiftly convicted for the crime, but the case against Knox and her then boyfriend still continued. Italian Law and the missteps of their justice system made their trial into a drawn out, unnecessary “witch hunt.” The details are so bizarre they are hard to keep track of. This video does a good job of explaining how Amanda was twice-cleared of the charges.
Marissa Alexander is a Florida mother who shot a gun at close range in the direction of her husband, who she had a protective order against, and her step sons. Alexander had given birth to her husbands baby nine days before the incident. She claimed that she felt threatened by her husband and shot the gun, which only fired one shot into the wall and ricocheted into the ceiling. The judge refused to grant the “Stand Your Ground” law in Alexander’s defense, which was a hot topic especially since the Zimmerman case was already underway in Orlando. Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison which she took over a 3 year plea bargain! Alexander is so steadfast in her innocence that she did not accept THREE YEARS over TWENTY…. many believe that if Marissa Alexander was not black she would have been cleared of the charges.