‘Trials of the Century’ Examines Obsession with Crime

Americans are fascinated with crime. They like to read about it, watch it, talk about it and revel in it.” said Mark J. Phillips, one of the authors of the nonfiction book, “Trials of the Century,” about America’s fixation on crime.

A group of 25 people gathered around the main room of Casa Verdugo Library to listen Phillips discuss his book at an event organized by Friends of the Glendale Public Library on Oct. 26.

“Trials of the Century” delves into 10 high-profile murder cases of the 20th century, one for each decade, and how media shaped people’s perception of the trials. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Manson Family trial and O.J. Simpson trial were just some of the crimes outlined in the book.

“Take a look at every other hour of TV – ‘NCIS,’ ‘Bones’ and ‘Law and Order’ – there are so many of these shows,” Phillips said. “This concept of fascination with crime and with the media feeding it to us has been going on for hundreds of years.”

He talked about the “Newgate Calendar,” a collection of stories accompanied with drawings published in the 1700s that told the stories of people executed in London’s Newgate prison. He also discussed dime novels and pulp magazines or “the pulps,” fictitious literature published in the late 19th century to the early 20th century that fed people’s thirst for detective and crime stories.

“As these publications left the telling of non-fiction – of the truth – and became full fiction, the newspapers in America picked up the reporting of true crime,” he said.

He continued to give a summary of some of the trials reviewed in the book. One of which is the first crime in the book, involving Harry Thaw, Everlyn Nesbit and Stanford White.

In 1906 at the Roof Garden Theater of Madison Garden, Harry Thaw shot Stanford White three times on the head while watching a musical. Thaw claimed that White “deserved it for ruining his wife.”

Evelyn Nesbit, Thaw’s wife, was a young actress who had an affair with White, a renowned architect. When White moved on to other women, Nesbit started to entertain Thaw as a suitor and later on married him.

After a while, Nesbit would share with her husband what transcribed between her and White, which resulted in the killing.

“The trial of Harry K. Thaw for the murder of Stanford White played out like a perfectly crafted piece of drama, scripted by newspaper coverage, with the world’s audience watching in fascination,” Phillips said in his book.

“Trials of the Century” explores the significance of media in these crimes and how they affected the trials that ensued. It burrows into how the media magnified and sensationalized these trials, focusing on every detail for the entire country to pick on.

Phillips also talked about the process of writing the book. He and his daughter and co-author, Aryn Phillips was fascinated at how the media seems to come up with a “trial of the century” every decade.

So they started to dig through cases and trials. Divvying up decades between themselves and carefully choosing which trials should be in it based on their significance and impact on the era in which they were popular.

One of the questions raised is whether America’s appetite for criminal drama has been there even before the media focused on it, or if media was the main reason why Americans crave these kind of news.

“For me, clearly it is that Americans are fascinated and the media is just feeding us,” Phillips answered. “There is something about true crime that makes it more fascinating. The characters in the stories are real – victims and perpetrators – and we become the audience. Knowing that all is true and really happened makes it more interesting.”

Mark Phillips has been a lawyer for more than 30 years specializing in estate planning, trust and probate law. He is also a professor at the University of West Los Angeles- School of Law. Aryn Phillips has a bachelor’s degree from Emory University and a master’s from Harvard. She is currently pursuing a doctorate at UC Berkeley.