Few crimes can alter the course of history more than a murder. An assassination can change the course of political history, but a murder is an isolated act that can send a chaotic shock wave through the public psyche with unpredictable results.
Over the next few pages, we'll chronologically look at some of the most influential murders in history. Some changed the way we look at human nature. Others spurred social change. A few resulted in hundreds of thousands more deaths. All turned their victims, and in some cases their killers, into legends.
Ivan the Terrible never had good impulse control. One night in November 1582, the Russian Czar Ivan IV was busy yelling at his son Ivan Ivanovich's pregnant wife. The argument became violent, and when the czar flew into a rage and struck her, Ivan Ivanovich rushed to intervene. Ivan IV lashed out at his son, striking him in the head with a scepter. There's a reason he's called Ivan the Terrible.
The young heir to the throne survived for a few days before finally dying of his wounds, but the fallout from his death lasted much longer. Ivan Ivanovich was the only one of Ivan the Terrible's sons who stood a chance of running the country -- his younger brother Feodor was sickly and mentally disabled. When Feodor did, in fact, ascend the throne after his father's death, he was essentially a figurehead controlled by ministers.
Feodor never produced an heir. After he died, conditions in Russia, which had steady declined during his reign, finally flipped over and burst into flames. The years after his death are known as the Time of Troubles, an unprecedented era of anarchy and chaos. Over the two decades that followed, a third of the population, about 5 million people, either starved to death or were killed in the civil strife of the newly lawless Russia [source: White].
After the abolition of the French monarchy, several factions fought for control of the new republic. Jean-Paul Marat belonged to the Jacobins, one of the most radical political groups, and used his influence as a journalist to garner popular support for violence against other groups, most notably the more conservative Girondins.
Charlotte Corday was a young woman with Girondin sympathies who had been horrified by the violence of the Jacobins during the revolution. On July 13, 1793, she visited Marat, claiming to have information about Girondin plotters. Marat, who suffered a skin condition, received her in his bath. After a brief interview, she pulled out a kitchen knife hidden in her clothes and stabbed Marat in the chest. He died almost instantly. At her trial, she testified that she had killed one man in order to save 100,000.
She may have been disappointed with the results. Far from ending the Terror, Marat's death elevated him to martyr status. Maximilien de Robespierre, the most powerful Jacobin and a major instigator of the Terror, used Marat's death as an excuse to purge even more political enemies, inflaming fear and distrust among the revolutionaries. Surviving Girondins were executed, and counter-purges followed. The Hébertists, the Dantonists and finally, following a coup a year later in 1794, Robespierre himself was executed. Estimates of the death toll during the Terror run between 16,000 and 25,000 for those officially executed across France, but as high as 200,000 for those who died in the ensuing mob violence [source: Linton].
Bobby Franks was a 14-year-old Chicago kid, killed as an intellectual exercise. His murderers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, believed themselves to be Nietzschean supermen, superior humans beyond moral law. But in order to prove it, they needed to commit the perfect crime.
Initially they started small, acts of vandalism and theft that they initially got away with, but it wasn't long before they decided it was time to commit a murder. They spent the next seven months carefully crafting a murder scenario. On May 21, 1924, they settled on Bobby Franks, Loeb's second cousin, as their victim. They coaxed Franks into a car, struck him on the head with a chisel, and then drove to Indiana to dump the body.
In spite of their careful planning, they were ridiculously incompetent. Witnesses saw Franks get into a car with Leopold, who also dropped his glasses near the body. Once the glasses were traced back to him, their alibi fell apart and the boys confessed, each blaming the other for the murder.
The ensuing trial, like many of the trials on this list, was a huge spectacle. Clarence Darrow, who was already one of the most famous defense attorneys in the country, unexpectedly entered a guilty plea for the boys in an attempt to save them from the death penalty. His 12-hour closing argument remains one of the most heartfelt and moving attacks on capital punishment.
A major victory for opponents of the death penalty, Darrow's defense represented the beginning of a big shift in American attitudes toward execution. Over the next few decades, the number of executions, which had been rising precipitously since the 1850s, fell off sharply, finally culminating in a short but total federal suspension of the death penalty in 1972 [source: Procon.org].
Early in the evening on March 1, 1932, 22-month old Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, was put to bed in his second-story nursery with a mild cold. A few hours later, his nurse went up to check on him and found an empty crib. The child had vanished. On the window sill was an envelope with a strangely worded ransom note demanding $50,000:
Lindbergh's fame quickly turned the kidnapping into one of the most famous crimes of the century, but the accompanying media circus and police incompetence hampered efforts. Reporters and police accidentally destroyed footprints, and cranks flooded the investigation with false sightings. Aside from the note, the only clue was a handmade ladder abandoned nearby.
More ransom notes followed, but in May a truck driver found the toddler's body a few miles from the house. He had been killed months earlier by a blow to the head, probably on the night he was taken.
Two years later police arrested a German carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann. The carpenter fit the profile perfectly; he had the know-how to build a crude ladder, marks on the ladder matched tools owned by Hauptmann, and experts traced wood from the ladder to Hauptmann's attic. He was found guilty and executed in 1936, maintaining his innocence until the end.
Lindbergh's kidnapping is one of the most famous crimes of the 20th century, and the ensuing panic over child protection led to a tightening of U.S. kidnapping laws both at the state and federal levels. The Federal Kidnapping Act, or the "Little Lindbergh Law" not only gave federal authorities jurisdiction in kidnapping cases, but also authorized the death sentence for kidnappers if their victims were injured.
On Jan. 15, 1947, a woman's body was found in a Los Angeles vacant lot. Not only had the body been completely drained of blood, the woman's cheeks had been sliced open, and the corpse had been cut in half. Wherever she had died, someone had carefully washed her, moved her in pieces to the vacant lot and then deliberately posed her body. The murder was never solved.
The body was quickly identified as Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress. The press began to interfere almost immediately, going so far as to tell her mother that Short had won a beauty contest in order to get personal details before she found out about her daughter's murder. Short had indeed been a beauty, enhancing public fascination with her macabre death.
Because of the heavy press coverage, dozens of pranksters came forward to confess, but all were a waste of time. Over the next few weeks there were dozens of clues and leads. Short's purse and one of her shoes were found in a dumpster miles from the crime scene, and a week after the body was found one newspaper received a package full of her belongings. Gasoline had been used to wipe the package clean of fingerprints, and its sender remained unidentified.
The ensuing decades have shed no light on the circumstances surrounding Short's death. Although there are dozens of theories about who her killer actually was (Orson Welles is one of the more far-out suspects), no one was ever charged. Historically, Short's murder remains an early counterpoint to the golden age of Hollywood. The gruesome nature of the crime remains a testament to the fact that even amid the glitz and glamour, there are always monsters to be found.
Few incidents affected the U.S. civil rights movement more than the brutal murder of Emmett Till. In August 1955, Till was 14 years old and visiting relatives in Mississippi when he happened to speak to Carolyn Bryant, a grocery store owner. Bryant's husband, enraged that an African-American had "flirted" with his wife, went with two other men to Till's great-uncle's house, where they abducted him, beat him and removed one of his eyes before finally shooting him in the head. Till's body was discovered several days later, having been sunk into a river with a heavy fan.
Till's mother decided that, because of the brutal inhumanity of the crime, the funeral would be open casket. Newspapers and magazines published pictures of Till's mutilated body, and the public demand for justice reached a fever pitch. Public outcry over Till's death was a huge factor influencing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as Northerners and Southerners alike could no longer turn a blind eye to the reality of violence against African-Americans in the South.
Bryant and his accomplices were acquitted of all charges by an all-white, all-male jury. A few months later, protected by double jeopardy laws that prevented them from being tried again, they admitted to Till's murder during an interview in Look magazine. They were never imprisoned.
Kitty Genovese was a young woman living in Queens, New York City, who was stabbed to death in a parking lot outside her apartment building on March 13, 1964. Her killer, Winston Moseley, spotted Genovese walking home from her job as a bar manager around 3 a.m. and decided she would be an easy target.
What made the murder so strange and notable, and in some ways even more chilling, is the response of Genovese's neighbors. The initial stabbing took place in full view of Genovese's apartment building, and the press initially reported that as many as 38 neighbors had heard or seen the stabbing, yet none called the police. The public took it as a sign of moral collapse – how was it possible that so many people did nothing to help a dying woman?
Re-evaluating the facts has shown that the idea of dozens of neighbors witnessing a murder and doing nothing was an exaggeration, and most of the people who had heard or seen the killing did not realize that a murder was taking place. However, the case prompted sociologists to look into a "Genovese syndrome," and their research has pointed to dark truths about human nature. The idea of the bystander effect, or the diffusion of responsibility, is now an established phenomenon. That is, as the number of bystanders increases, people become less likely to intervene, even in life-threatening situations.
The deaths of Sharon Tate and her friends at the hands of the Manson Family, a cult centered on Charles Manson, is one of the most brutal and shocking murders in American history. In the summer of 1969, Tate was young, beautiful, a Hollywood it-girl, and an icon of the bright, idealistic side of the hippie counterculture. Charles Manson, the man who ordered her murder, was a cult leader and prophet of a violent apocalypse. Believing that he had decoded secret prophecies in Beatles songs, Manson predicted what he called Helter Skelter, a catastrophic race war from which he would emerge as the supreme ruler. In order to bring about this scenario, he believed he needed a provocative crime that would be blamed on militant African-American groups like the Black Panthers, and that the ensuing violence would turn into an all-out war.
On Aug. 8, 1969, members of the Manson Family cut Tate's phone lines, climbed the hill to her house, and began systematically murdering Tate and her friends. Most famously, one member of the Manson Family cryptically wrote "pig" on the front door in Tate's blood. Tate had been eight months pregnant at the time. They continued with their murderous spree the following night at the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, both of whom died.
In many ways, the Tate-LaBianca murders marked the end of the hippie dream, which was already moving into the disillusionment of the Vietnam War as Manson's twisted vision showed a stark counterpoint to the idealism and optimism of the Summer of Love two short years previous.
During the early 1980s, Enrique "Kiki" Camarena was working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and he was hot on the trail of Rafael Caro Quintero and Miguel Gallardo, two of the biggest names in drug trafficking. Allied with Columbian cocaine producers, Caro Quintero organized most of the drug flow through Mexico, as well as the yearly production of millions of dollars' worth of marijuana [source: Beith]. However, by early 1985, Camarena had become too much of a threat. Abducted on Feb. 7, 1985, Camarena was tortured on Gallardo's ranch for two days before his death. Many of the bones in his head had been broken, his windpipe was crushed, and a screwdriver had punctured his skull. The autopsy also showed that he had been given drugs to keep him conscious throughout his ordeal [source: Seper].
Caro Quintero was caught in 1985 for his role in orchestrating the killing, and Gallardo in 1989. Their arrests sent a shock wave through the Mexican underworld that shattered the once stable cartels. Where before there had been a form of stability among only a few cartels that controlled distribution and production, the following decades devolved into an all-out war as smaller and younger cartels vied for power. Fighting has become steadily bloodier in recent years, and it is estimated that more than 60,000 people were killed between 2006 and 2012 [source: Human Rights Watch].
Tupac Shakur was gunned down on Sept. 7, 1996, in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, a victim of the East-West hip-hop rivalry of the 1990s. He would die from those wounds a few days later. Already a huge star at the time of his death, in the years following he is now recognized as one of the most influential and beloved voices in the history of hip-hop.
Although hip-hop had begun on the East Coast, by the 1990s LA rappers began to emerge, eclipsing the East Coast scene. East Coast diss tracks specifically targeting West Coast rappers Eazy-E and Dr. Dre were met in kind. Resentment on both sides began to boil over into violence, and in late 1995, Jake Robles, an employee at Shakur's label Death Row Records, was killed by gunfire during a nightclub confrontation.
Shakur, however, was by far the highest profile death in the conflict, and his death, along with the shooting of his rival Biggie Smalls six months later, brought the East-West conflict to national prominence. Although his work had already guaranteed his hip-hop legacy, his death and large body of unreleased tracks catapulted him to a posthumous superstardom, securing his place as a legend who died too young.
Broken Harts is a new serial podcast that delves into the tragic deaths of the Hart family. HowStuffWorks finds out more.
Author's Note: 10 Historically Pivotal Murders
One of the most surprising facts I found while researching this article was that one of the murders happened only a few blocks from my own house. Even though it happened decades ago, I was still a little spooked -- there are only so many murders you can read about before becoming firmly convinced that there are murderers lurking in every closet and behind every shower curtain. However, I was also surprised by how much influence a single event can have over public opinion. Emmett Till's death especially was hugely influential in generating public support for the U.S. civil rights movement, and it was a tremendous act of bravery for Till's mother to display his body. It's hard to think in terms of murder as anything but a tragedy, but it's a reminder that human dignity and decency can still triumph in the face of brutality.
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