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.
8 thoughts on “Your Name’s in All the Papers*”
I think in the UK, apart from James Bulger, it’s the Madeline McCann abduction in 2007. She was taken from her parents’ holiday apartment in Portugal while they were out having dinner. I think there’s now a theory that a German prison inmate had something to do with it but goodness, people still talk about it. A lot of people thought at the time that the parents did it despite a complete lack of evidence. A few years ago they did a photokit sort of thing where they tried to depict what she would now look like and that got a lot of publicity. But I think it’s generally acepted now that she was abducted and murdered, but it’s a good example of one of your notorious cases.
Oh, yes, of course, Cath! Thank you for adding that in! Madeleine McCann’s disappearance made the news over here, too, and people talked a lot about it. I’ve heard that theory about the German prison inmate, ‘though I don’t know how much weight there is to that one. I also heard the theory about the parents (I suppose you expect that in these cases, but still!). At any rate, I would love for the actual truth to be known, if for no other reason than that it would give the family some peace perhaps.
Yes, the McCann case was the one that sprang to my mind too. It looks like they’re pretty sure about the German suspect’s guilt, but I suspect some people will never stop believing the parents did it, and certainly many people feel they were completely negligent even if they were innocent. There was also a lot of resentment over just how much that story did dominate the headlines. People felt, I think rightly, that the case was treated more seriously because the parents were middle-class, highly educated and well-connected, and knew how to use the media to keep the case prominent. There was a similar case from several years before of a little boy going missing, Ben Needham, while on holiday in Greece. His parents were working class and not well-educated, and they got very little publicity and very little support from British or Greek police or authorities. It opened a debate on class when the McCann case was treated so differently, and in the end the police did reinvestigate Ben’s disappearance. Sadly, it transpired he had probably died in an accident on the day he disappeared.
You make a very valid point about the comparison/contrast with the McCann case and the Needham case, FictionFan. There is a tragic difference between the way those two cases were(n’t) discussed in the media and treated by the police. That’s another thing that’s worth thinking about when it comes to those cases that get a lot of attention. One reason why is the sort of victim there is (class, education level of family, and so on). We had a similar case here some years ago. A little six-year-old girl was snatched from her front yard and later found killed. I’ve actually met the mother of the child, and a we have a mutual friend. The press was everywhere, the police caught the perpetrator and so on. Very soon thereafter, in another part of the San Diego area, a little boy (two, I think) was found dead in a trash bin. There was very little hoopla about that case; in fact, I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t happened to be tuned in to the news at the right time. Yes, I’m sure the police investigated, and I believe they got leads, but it was handled so differently. It’s probably not a shock to you that the little girl was white, and the little boy wasn’t. So perhaps the sad moral of the story is that the public interest in a case can sometimes depend on the victim’s ‘station in life.’
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Margot, in both cases above I find the lack of closure for the families upsetting. Another victim I think of from time to time is Elizabeth Short. I don’t think I would have heard of her if not for James Ellroy’s book.
Oh, I’m sure you’re right, Col, about closure and answers for the families. That’s really difficult and it is very upsetting. And it’s funny; I almost mentioned Elizabeth Short’s murder in this post. It certainly got a lot of headlines at the time, and there are still people who are trying to find the truth about that one.
I think of murders involving the rich and famous. In real life and fiction they attract the most attention. In Canada we are still waiting for the murders of Toronto billionaires, Barry and Honey Sherman, to be solved. It has been over 2 years since they were killed in their home. The police got off to a bad start thinking it was a murder / suicide. Their deaths attracted attention in another way. The family sought to keep private particulars of the estate. Media said it was an effort at secrecy. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to seal the court records of the estate.
You’ve got a point, Bill, about the rich and famous. Their murders do attract a lot more media attention, don’t they? I remember reading about the Sherman murders and wondering who killed them. And the whole question of the details of their estate adds to the mystery about their deaths. I hope those questions are answered.