Most of us would say that any murder is awful. But some murders seem to especially capture the public interest. I’m not really talking here of serial killers; to me, that’s a separate category of murders. Rather, I mean murders that have enough notoriety that people discuss/debate them, books are written about them, and so on. Sometimes they even inspire crime novels. There are several reasons certain murders catch the public attention that way; space only permits me to mention a few.
Some murders become especially notorious because of their sensational qualities. For example, in August 1892, Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, were murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew’s daughter (and Abby’s stepdaughter) Lizzie Borden was immediately suspected of the crime, and there was evidence against her. In fact, she was arrested and tried. The jury acquitted her, and there was evidence that she was innocent. There were also incidents of mishandling of evidence, as well as other errors. Despite this, though, many people still believed that Lizzie Borden was a murderer. There’s been a lot of speculation, too, about her motive. Books have been written, films have been made, and research has been done about this case. For plenty of people, it’s still not entirely settled.
Sometimes, the murder gets people’s attention because the victim is very young. That’s arguably part of why the March 1932 kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. got so much media and public attention. Of course, it’s also important to remember that the Lindberghs were wealthy and well-known, so any major event concerning them would probably have garnered publicity. That said, though, people were outraged at the kidnapping, and even more so when the boy was later found dead. The investigation involved thousands of hours of following up leads, some of which were scams or otherwise not genuine. In the end, the FBI and other police targeted a German émigré named Bruno Richard Hauptmann. A great deal of evidence suggested that he was guilty, and he was tried, convicted, and executed in 1936. The assumption has always been that Hauptmann was guilty. But there is some speculation that the investigation was rushed because of pressure from the media and public to catch the criminal. There’s also speculation that Hauptmann was set up for the crime. Either way, people still write and talk about the Lindbergh kidnapping.
In March 1964, Kitty Genovese was walking home from the New York City bar where she worked. She was almost to her apartment building when Winston Moseley, who’d been following her, stabbed her. He also raped her and stole money from her purse. It was a horrible murder, but there was never much question as to who was guilty. What made this particular murder so famous was a New York Times story that claimed there were several witnesses to the murder, and no-one did anything about it, or tried to get help. That aspect of the murder shocked people and was considered an example of ‘the bystander effect,’ where people don’t act unless someone else does. There is support for that phenomenon, but later research about Kitty Genovese’s murder showed that some of what was originally reported wasn’t accurate. There was, for instance, no evidence that a group of witnesses knew what was going on; because of the way the murder was committed, no-one really saw the whole thing. There was also evidence that some people did try to help or get help. It’s a real example of the impact that inaccuracy can have, and it certainly helped keep the Genovese case in people’s minds.
In August 1980, two-month-old Azaria Chamberlain was with her parents at Uluru, in Australia’s Northern Territory. One night, she disappeared; her body was never found. The disappearance made a sensation, and an investigation began. Azaria’s parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, were immediately suspected of murdering their daughter and were questioned intensively. The parents claimed that a dingo had taken Azaria, but they weren’t believed. Instead, Lindy was tried and convicted, and spent more than three years in prison. Michael was imprisoned, too. There was no evidence of motive, though, and nothing to directly suggest either of them had murdered Azaria. The case was re-opened when Azaria’s jacket was found near a dingo den, and in 1988, the convictions were overturned. In 2012, after more inquests, it was determined that the baby was killed by a dingo, and Lindy was compensated by the government for wrongly imprisoning her. People still talk about this case, though, and there are still some who swear that ‘Lindy did it!’ It’s that sort of case.
Sometimes, a case gets a lot of attention because the criminals are very young. That’s what happened in the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in February 1993. Two ten-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, abducted the toddler from a shopping center, and later killed him. His body was discovered on a railway line two days later. The boys were caught because there was CCTV footage – grainy but usable – of James’ abduction. A witness who saw the recording knew Venables and had seen him with Thompson earlier that day. The crime sent shock waves through the press and the public. Not only was it a brutal murder, but the killers were very young. This made sentencing them challenging and raised a lot of questions about how best to deal with such young offenders.
There are a lot of other murder cases that have gained a lot of notoriety for one reason or another. Even years later, people talk and write about them, and there’s sometimes debate about them. Sometimes they’re even inspiration for crime novels. Which cases stand out in your memory?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Little River Band’s Paper Paradise.