January 10, 2008

Front Page Crime: If It Bleeds, It Leads

The Herald, New York, April 11, 1836 (Newseum collection)

The Herald, New York, April 11, 1836 (Newseum collection)

The Boston Herald, May 13, 1932 (Newseum collection)

The Boston Herald, May 13, 1932 (Newseum collection)

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 21, 1934 (Newseum collection)

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 21, 1934 (Newseum collection)

The Evening News, Toronto, Nov. 12, 1888 (Newseum collection)

The Evening News, Toronto, Nov. 12, 1888 (Newseum collection)

The Boston Post, June 21, 1893 (Newseum collection)

The Boston Post, June 21, 1893 (Newseum collection)

Before "Court TV" or "America's Most Wanted," there was the newspaper front page.

The unthinkable crime, the well-known victim, the accused with a flimsy alibi — all captured the imaginations of newspaper editors and readers in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

When Ellen Jewett, a fashionable New York prostitute, was murdered in 1836, The Herald published a first-person account of a visit to the murder scene.

"For a few moments I was lost in admiration at this extraordinary sight — a beautiful female corpse — that surpassed the finest statue of antiquity," publisher James Gordon Bennett wrote. "I was recalled to her horrid destiny by seeing the dreadful bloody gashes on the right temple." Jewett's 19-year-old lover was accused of her murder, but he was later acquitted.

The Jewett murder case is known for its unprecedented press coverage. It is among the headlines of history and sensational crime stories told in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

In what was called the crime of the century, the toddler son of Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh was kidnapped from a family home in New Jersey in March 1932. The Philadelphia Inquirer called the kidnapping "the greatest mystery of modern time." The press followed every move in sensational fashion.

Two months later, the remains of the boy were found in woods near the home. "Boston Stunned by Baby News," The Boston Herald said. "Many Are Unable to Believe Word." Two years passed before the Inquirer announced: "Lindbergh Kidnapping Case Solved." The Sept. 21, 1934, headline and a story quoting the police commissioner seemed to convict a German immigrant arrested in the case. It was a secondary story that noted a speedy trial was sought. The carpenter whose picture appeared on the front page was later convicted in a much-publicized trial and executed in 1936.

In the late 1880s, serial killings by a murderer dubbed "Jack the Ripper" gripped Londoners. The news was ghastly — the victims were prostitutes, their bodies mutilated, the crimes unsolved — and it spread across the Atlantic. "The People Growing Callous to Such Crimes," The Evening News of Toronto said in a Nov. 12, 1888, story headlined "London's Scare." The Evening News detailed "Particulars of the Latest Murder" and noted "denunciation of the police department."

Another murder case so fascinated the public that it inspired a ditty:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother 40 whacks.
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father 41.

Public sentiment might have convicted Lizzie Borden, a Massachusetts Sunday school teacher, of the hatchet murders of her father and stepmother. But the verdict "Innocent" was announced by the June 21, 1893, Boston Post. The newspaper described the jury's decision as "the ending worthy of the greatest murder tribunal of the century." Courtroom sketches filled much of the edition, including drawings of "Lizzie as she went into the court at 1:45 p.m. a prisoner" and "Lizzie Borden as she left the court at 5:45 p.m. — free."

In reporting the celebrated case, the competitive Boston Post bragged on Page One: "Is it not true that in news, art and impartiality the Post has led in the Borden case from start to finish?"

That verdict was left with readers.

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