Trials of the Century: A Decade-By-Decade Look at Ten of America's Most Sensational Crimes.

Author:Waas, George
Position::Book review

Trials of the Century: A DecadeBy-Decade Look at Ten of America's Most Sensational Crimes

by Mark J. Phillips and Aryn Z. Phillips

Reviewed by George Waas

Perhaps nothing stokes the fires of human emotion more than the ultimate crime committed by one against another --murder. When that crime involves raw passion driven by love, wealth, celebrity, sex, race, or scandal fed by a frenzied media driven by increased circulation or ratings, the result is a candidate for "crime of the century."

So say the father/daughter authors, attorney Mark J. Phillips and social and behavioral sciences graduate student Aryn Z. Phillips, in their recap of 11 murder cases--one from each decade beginning in 1900. The authors tell each story in relatively short chapters through the lens of the prevailing mood of the country at the time, together with the media's insatiable desire to increase readership or viewership and thereby satisfy the public's equally insatiable desire to be titillated and emotionally aroused.

In short, it is this cyclical desire of the public for more information--accurate or not, fact or opinion--and the media's desire to provide more and more information--again, truthful or not--that keeps the flames of passion, anger, hatred, etc., burning.

The writers are most clear as to the core message of their book: Today's "fascination with violent crime in American culture is slaked by the media." This, however, is nothing new. They note that this fascination with the prurient, lurid, and highly inaccurate descriptions can be traced to at least 18th Century England and the rise of the printing press.

The term "crime of the century" is, in the words of the authors, "an overblown bit of media hype ... the frequency and selection of which are limited only by the prurient taste of Americans and the imagination of editors."

Thus, the first case--the 1906 murder in New York's Madison Square Garden of famed architect Stanford White by Pittsburgh millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw over the affections of White's wife and Thaw's former girlfriend, actress Evelyn Nesbit--had all of the...

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