A Question of Guilt: Were these American Criminals Actually Innocent?

There are a handful of trials that are labelled the “trial of the century,” from the assassination of President Kennedy to the trial of O.J. Simpson. Several of these trials ended with more questions than answers - from motive to cover-ups. The following blog post looks at some of the most infamous crimes in America and the possibility of a different answer.

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Lizzie Borden: Acquitted of Parricide

Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Lizzie Borden’s case is somewhat of an oddity on this list, as she was actually aquitted of her crime. However, popular consensus believes her to be guilty of the murder of her mother and father. 

The Crime

August 4, 1892 - Fall River, Massachusetts

One the morning of August 4, Abby Borden made her way to the second floor between 9am-10:30am to make the bed of the guest room of her home. Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, maid to the Bordens, was outside washing windows. Andrew Borden, the patriarch of the family and prominent business man, was out on a walk and returned to the home around 10:30am and headed to the couch for a nap. Maggie retired upstairs for a nap after finishing her chores. Shortly after 11am, she heard a cry from downstairs. It came from Lizzie Borden, one of the businessman’s adult daughters.

“Maggie, come down! Come down quick; Father’s dead; somebody came in and killed him.

Andrew Borden appeared to have been brutally attacked with a hatchet on the downstairs couch. A half an hour later, the body of Lizzie’s stepmother, Abby, was found on the second floor, apparently having suffered the same fate. One Herald reporter described the injuries on Andrew Borden: “Over the left temple a wound six by four inches wide had been made as if it had been pounded with the dull edge of an axe. The left eye had been dug out and a cut extended the length of the nose. The face was hacked to pieces and the blood had covered the man’s shirt.” However, Andrew Borden did not suffer forty-one strikes. Rather, he suffered 10-11 strikes from a hatchet. Abby Borden was struck 18 times.

Lizzie was arrested for the murder of her father and stepmother and put on trial, where she was later acquitted.

The Evidence

No one else was at the home save for Lizzie and the maid, Maggie. Maggie had been outside washing windows at the time of the murders and was ruled out as a suspect. Emma, the other Borden sister, was out of town. The previous evening, a friend, John Morse, had spent the night, but left before 9am to visit his niece. The front door and basement door were locked and the only other point of entry, a side door, was typically latched. Judging by the temperature of the bodies, Abby was killed approximately 90 minutes before her husband, which meant an outside killer would have lingered in the home for that period of time without being noticed. Lizzie gave differing accounts of her whereabouts that morning, some of which didn’t have any evidence to corroborate it. It was also reported that Lizzie had a strained relationship with her father and her stepmother in particular. A friend of the family also saw Lizzie attempting to destroy a dress in the kitchen. Lizzie claimed she was burning it because it was covered in paint. 

Alternative Theories

Various theories have been proposed for what actually may have happened to Andrew and Abby Borden. One theory points the finger at Maggie Sullivan, suggesting she may have been resentful of having to clean the windows on a hot day and retaliated. Another suggests that Emma Borden, Lizzie’s sister, who was only 15 miles from her home in Fall River, secretly went home and murdered the pair, before returning to Fairhaven, Massachusetts for her alibi. John Morse, Lizzie’s uncle who had spent the night at the home, had an alibi that was considered so airtight it bordered on absurd. Yet other theories suggest Lizzie was the culprit, but for reasons other than a difficult relationship with her parents. One suggests she did so in a fugue state and was not aware that she actually carried out the murders. Another suggests she was abused by her father, though there is no evidence for this. 

Another somewhat sensationalist theory stems from rumors that surrounded Lizzie later in life, suggesting that she was a lesbian. Ed McBain suggested that Lizzie and Maggie, the maid, had been caught by her stepmother Abby, who had a reaction of disgust. Lizzie then murdered Abby. After Lizzie revealed what happened to her father, he reacted similarly, and she murdered him as well. Other than the rumors of her sexuality later in life, the only other evidence for this theory comes from Maggie’s sister. Allegedly, Maggie had confessed on her deathbed that she had lied on the stand to protect Lizzie. 

It is unclear who actually killed the Bordens, though popular theory pins it on the acquitted Lizzie. However, there are a number of other possibilities that cast doubt on her guilt. 

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Richard Hauptmann: The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping

We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police

The child is in gut care.
— Part of the ransom note left for the Lindberghs

The kidnapping of the famous aviator’s child is what gave us the Federal Kidnapping Act (also called the Lindbergh Law), making it a federal crime to take kidnapped victims over state lines. 

The Crime

March 1, 1932 - East Amwell, New Jersey

On March 1, 1932, at approximately 7:30pm, Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of aviator Charles Lindbergh, was put to bed by his nurse, Betty Gow. At 9:30pm, Charles Lindbergh heard a noise he thought came from the kitchen. A half an hour later, Betty Gow discovered the baby missing from his crib. After alerting his parents, a search of the room was conducted, in which a ransom note demanding $50,000 for the child’s return was found. Charles Lindbergh and the family’s butler searched the grounds before alerting the local police. 

There was no indication of how to get in touch with the kidnapper(s) in the ransom note. Another letter was received via postal service to Charles Lindbergh on March 6, upping the demand to $70,000 and telling them to await further instructions. A third letter was sent to the Lindbergh’s lawyer, demanding a note in the newspaper acknowledging receipt of the third letter and denying the Lindbergh’s appoint their own intermediary. 

After publishing an ad in the newspaper adding an additional $1,000 to the ransom and offering to act as an intermediary, a retired principal John Condon; a letter was sent to Condon from the kidnappers appointing him as the intermediary. For several weeks, different notes were passed through intermediaries and apparent meetings were had between John Condon and the kidnapper(s). The kidnapper did receive $70,000 for the return of the child, which never happened. 

On May 12, 1932, the partially buried, badly decomposed body of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was discovered about 4 miles from his home. According to the coroner’s report, the child had been dead for about two months from a blow to the head, likely on the very night he was kidnapped. It is possible the death was an accident, but the kidnapper still tried to extort the money according to the original plan. 

The ransom money was paid with marked gold notes, which would no longer be in use in two years. Law enforcement tracked the use of gold notes in New York City until they were led to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who had over $10,000 worth of gold notes hidden in his house. Hauptmann claimed they were given to him by a friend, Isidor Fisch, before the latter left for Germany. In the intervening time, Fisch had died. Hauptmann was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death

The Evidence

At the crime scene, the police found footprints and two sections of ladder under the nursery window. In the nursery, they found mud on the floor, but no fingerprints or blood. The footprints were never measured. 

Because the home was under construction, the Lindberghs had only ever spent the weekend at the home. This time was going to be no different, however, the baby fell ill with the cold and Anne Lindbergh decided to remain at the home for a longer period. This means that the family should not have been at home on the Tuesday night when the baby was kidnapped. 

The ransom note read as follows: 

Dear Sir!

Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony.

We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police

The child is in gut care. Indication for all letters are Singnature [Symbol to right] and 3 hohls.

The handwriting on the ransom note matched samples from Hauptmann while in custody. Hauptmann also misspelled the same words as the letter. However, in court, Hauptmann testified that he was told to misspell the words by the authorities. The wood of the homemade ladder from the crime scene supposedly matched wood in Hauptmann’s attic, but when the case was reopened, this could not be confirmed. Hauptmann denied his involvement to the end, even when offered to be spared from the electric chair if he admitted to the crime. 

Alternative Theories

Charles Lindbergh was one of the most famous figures of the era, but he was not without controversy. In the years before World War II and the early years of the Nazi movement, Charles Lindbergh was pro-German and a proponent of eugenics. He had several affairs and seemed keen on spreading his superior genes. Early on, there were indications that Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was not perfect. He was afflicted with a condition that may have been rickets, requiring mega doses of vitamin D, and an exposure to a sunlamp. He had hammertoes on one foot, an over-sized head, and unfused skull bones. There are those who speculate that Charles Lindbergh was involved in the kidnapping and/or death of his son to cover up the deformities of his imperfect child, which opposed his strong belief in eugenics and his own perfect genes. 

There are other theories that suggest accomplices must be involved to have pulled off the kidnapping. Evidence against Hauptmann was circumstantial and he proclaimed his innocence even to his death. 

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James Earl Ray: The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

America will never have the benefit of Mr. Ray’s trial, which would have produced new revelations about the assassination…as well as establish the facts concerning Mr. Ray’s innocence.
— Coretta Scott King, 1998

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a civil rights activist during the mid-20th century. His assassination made him a martyr for the movement and we still celebrate his strides for racial equality to this day. 

The Crime

April 4, 1968 - Memphis, Tennessee

Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Memphis, Tennessee to speak on behalf of striking African-American sanitation workers. On April 4, 1968 at 6:05pm, he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel outside of his room. The bullet struck his cheek, shattered his jaw and several vertebrae, severing his spinal cord. He was pronounced dead an hour later. Riots erupted across the country, ending the deaths of several people. His funeral was held on April 8. 

James Earl Ray was later arrested in the U.K. on June 8, 1968, and extradited back to the U.S. He pled guilty to the murder to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later recanted his confession and claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy. 

The Evidence

Upon search of the building from where the shot came, a Remington rifle and binoculars were found with Ray’s fingerprints. Investigation led to an apartment in Atlanta where Ray’s fingerprints were found. Evidence also was found that he had registered on April 4 at the boarding house and near a common bathroom that had a view of the Lorraine Motel. Ray was a small-time crook who had escaped prison after serving a sentence for mail fraud, and repeated offenses of armed robbery. He was a white supremacist who supported segregation. 

Alternative Theories

Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his son, Dexter King, believe Ray to be innocent. Revelations later of COINTELPRO, in which the American Government attempted to discredit and disrupt civil rights groups and leaders, which included a letter from the FBI urging King to commit suicide, further cemented beliefs in a conspiracy. The FBI had been the primary institution to investigate King’s murder.

Ray himself claimed that someone else named Raul orchestrated the conspiracy against him. A mock trial later acquitted Ray, where he was represented by a friend of King. In 1999, the King family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a local restaurant owner called Loyd Jowers, which found him legally liable in the conspiracy to assassinate Dr. King, further cementing the belief for the King family that Ray had nothing to do with the murder of Dr. King.

Although speculation and educated guesses are made about these famous crimes and trials, we will likely never know the truth. And those who have been convicted or acquitted of these crimes would not see their fortunes changed. Lizzie Borden died a free woman. Bruno Richard Hauptmann was sentenced to death in the electric chair. And James Earl Ray died in prison.