The Roots of Justice: Crime and Punishment in Alameda County, California, 1870-1910

By Lawrence M. Friedman; Robert V. Percival | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Front Page: Sensations in the Courtroom

Every year, there were a handful of cases at the apex of the system different from all the others. These were the big cases, the celebrated cases, the notorious cases: cases that made a splash in the papers, cases that people talked about in the streets. They were more mysterious or sensational than all the others; they dragged on longer, ate up more resources, and demanded more time and attention. There is no easy line between a "great" and an "ordinary" case. It is a matter of judgment or taste to guess how many "great" cases came up in any particular year. Five to ten at the most is a fair estimate. There was no mistaking the really big ones. In these, reporters crowded into the courtroom, and the public fought for seats. Every step was hotly contested, from jury selection to final verdict; clever, expensive lawyers pitted their cunning against the state; and each day brought fresh shock and surprise.

What set these cases apart? First of all, the crime itself. When some miserable wretch was caught taking cash from the till, or forging a twenty-dollar check, nobody much cared, outside his circle and the circle of the victim. But the lurid, bloody offenses, the murders and the great crimes of passion: these were a different story. Murder cases, too, had the smell of death at both ends. The victim's ghost hung over the courtroom. At the same time, the shadow of the gallows fell across the prisoner. Most of the sensational cases, then, were cases of murder; a few were cases of rape or seduction. One was a bombing. It was not always the crime itself that caused the sensation. Sometimes the criminal had the limelight, if he was rich, famous, or socially prominent. In one case at least, the victim was part of the shock: Isabella Martin was accused of planting a bomb at the house of a judge of Superior Court.

What do we learn from these big cases? We will set out a few examples, then try to pull together some general notions. Before we begin, however, a word of caution is in order. Much of what we know has been filtered through newspaper reports. This was, of course, the age of the yellow press. Crime news was shrill and sensational. Trials

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