Crimes are, unfortunately, committed every day in this great country of ours. While most crimes are largely forgotten, save by those directly involved or impacted by the crime, others are remembered for decades, even centuries. Those crimes are the ones that changed American history, like the seven we have for you today.
Below are some of the most shocking, famous crimes in American history, crimes that changed the way we look at the U.S., and view the world.
April 14, 1865 – The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
One of the first truly famous crimes in America was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, and, just one month after his second inaugural address, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, on April 14, 1865, while watching the play, Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Not only was John Wilkes Booth a well-known stage actor who previously performed in Ford’s Theatre, but he was also a well-known Confederate sympathizer who was fanatically pro-slavery. And he desperately wanted to free the South from the tyrannical rule of Abraham Lincoln.
The civil war technically ended just five days before Lincoln was assassinated. Confederate Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.
The Civil War might have been done on the fields, but in the minds of Confederates, there was still time to change the course of history.
Booth initially wanted to kidnap Lincoln in exchange for thousands of Confederate soldiers. But after the fall of Richmond and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Booth decided it made more sense to shoot the president.
On the night of April 14, 1865, Booth opened the door to the private balcony suit, snuck up behind the president, pulled out his derringer, and fired a single shot at the back of Lincoln’s head. The president died at 7:22 a.m. the following morning.
Lincoln’s murder was actually part of a larger plot to derail the U.S. government. Booth and his cohorts plotted to kill Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, who was supposed to be with Lincoln on that fateful night. Secretary William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson were also supposed to die that night.
Grant unexpectedly changed his plans and opted out of seeing the play. Fellow conspirator George Atzerodt lost his nerve (or got drunk), which ended up saving Johnson’s life. While Booth was assassinating Lincoln, another conspirator, Lewis Powell, entered Seward’s home and stabbed the cabinet minister, four of Seward’s children, a bodyguard, and a messenger. Somehow, Seward survived the attack.
President Lincoln’s death was mourned in the North and South with Ulysses S. Grant calling Lincoln “incontestably the greatest man I ever knew.”
The Civil War was over and America just lost one of its greatest presidents.
March 1, 1932 – Kidnapping of the Lindbergh Baby
On March 1, 1932 Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., the 20-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was kidnapped at about 9:00 p.m. from a nursery on the second floor of their home near Hopewell, New Jersey.
The baby’s absence was discovered by his nurse, Betty Gow, and reported to Charles and Anne. The couple found a ransom note on the nursery window sill demanding $50,000 (more than $900,000 today).
Investigators found muddy footprints in the room, footprints under the nursery window, and a broken ladder used to climb up to the open second-floor window. No blood stains were found in or around the nursery. Police did not find any fingerprints either.
A few days later, another ransom note appeared, this time asking for $70,000 ($1.2 million today). After handing over the ransom, they were told that the kidnapped Lindberg baby could be found on a boat named “Nellie” near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Despite numerous efforts, investigators never found Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. As is often the case, the baby was found by accident. On May 12, 1932, the body of Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. was found partially buried and badly decomposed less than five miles southeast of the Lindberg home.
The head was crushed, there was a hole in the skull, and some of the body members were missing. According to the coroner, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. had been dead for about two months. and the death was a result of a blow to the head.
Two years later, investigators arrested Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German-born carpenter. He maintained his innocence, but for a working-class German immigrant, it did no use. The deification of Charles Lindbergh Jr., and growing anti-German sentiment sealed Hauptmann’s fate.
The prosecution’s case was not exactly iron clad; it was mostly circumstantial. The main evidence was the ransom money they found on him, which Hauptmann claimed was given to him by a friend, and testimony from handwriting experts that said Hauptmann wrote the ransom note.
Intense public pressure was enough to convict Hauptmann.
He was executed on April 3, 1996.
Since that time, numerous books have been written on the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby; in particular, whether Hauptmann was innocent and a victim of the American criminal justice system.
His wife, Anna Hauptmann spent the rest of her life trying to clear his name, maintaining that her husband was “framed from beginning to end” by hapless police desperate to close the case.
It is quite possible that the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby is unsolved and that the U.S. government put an innocent man to death. Popular theories that have surfaced about the kidnapping include the child’s nanny being involved and a retired teacher, who volunteered to meet the kidnapper on two occasions.
Following the most notorious crime of the 1930s, kidnapping was made a federal offense.
November 22, 1963 – The Assassination of John F. Kennedy
Who shot JFK? The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is perhaps the most debated and talked about crime in American history. If you believe the Warren Commission, which was assigned to investigate the assassination of Kennedy, than the answer is 24-year-old Marine veteran Lee Harvey Oswald.
It was Oswald alone who shot Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on that fateful day. After shooting Kennedy, Oswald fled the building and fatally shot Patrolman J.D. Tippit. When finally captured, Oswald famously said, “I’m just a patsy.”
Those who do not take the Warren Commission as gospel, however, have different takes on what occurred on as the president’s motorcade drove along Elm Street in downtown Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Oswald was murdered by local strip-club owner Jack Ruby as he was being escorted to a car in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters. The entire incident was broadcast live on national television at 11:21 a.m. Central Time on Sunday, November 24.
Why Ruby killed Oswald spawned an almost endless number of conspiracy theories. Decades later, hearings, documents, records, interviews, and movies, have failed to concisely answer how Oswald was able to orchestrate the attack.
We know Oswald shot Kennedy, but did he really act alone or was he working with the Russians or Cubans? Was the U.S. government involved? Did Lyndon B. Johnson, the Mob, or the CIA kill Kennedy?
No matter what the truth is, America lost a young, charismatic president, and his assassination changed the course of U.S. history. Kennedy hadn’t officially announced he was going to run in the next presidential campaign, but it was clear he was going to. And his chances of winning was almost guaranteed.
For his run at reelection in 1964, Kennedy was testing out ideas on education, national security, and world peace. Where Kennedy wanted to eventually withdraw from Vietnam, the war escalated under his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson; eventually claiming close to 60,000 Americans, along with large numbers of soldiers and civilians from South and North Vietnam.
With Oswald dead, we may never know why he killed President Kennedy, or if he acted alone.
April 4, 1968 – The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The 1960s was a decade of loss: President Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. were all assassinated.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister who sought social justice and was instrumental in the American civil rights movement from the 1950s until his death in 1968.
Where other civil rights leaders wanted revenge, King echoed Gandhi’s model of nonviolent noncompliance. Instead of using violence, King used his voice to criticize inequality and the Vietnam War.
He was also the driving force behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which helped usher in landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Novel Peace Prize.
But while King was trying to usher in equality and peace, James Earl Ray, a career criminal and known racist, was planning murder.
In early April 1968, Martin Luther King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to support a sanitation worker’s strike. On the evening of April 4, King stepped out of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel and talked to friends in the parking lot below. At 6:01 p.m., as King turned to walk back into the room, he was shot through the neck and chin.
An hour later, King, aged just 39, was pronounced dead.
In the wake of King’s death, riots swept major cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, Louisville, and Kansas City. President Johnson declared a national day of mourning.
Ray was captured two months later trying to leave England on a fake Canadian passport on his way to Rhodesia. He was extradited to Tennessee and confessed to assassination King on March 10, 1969 (his 41st birthday).
Ray recanted his confession three days later, and alleged that a man named “Raoul” whom he met in Montreal was the mastermind behind the assassination. Just like the Kennedy assassination, Raoul spawned many, many conspiracy theories.
Ray was sentenced to 99 years in jail and died on April 23, 1998 at the age of 70.
June 12, 1994 – Murder of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman
On June 12, 1994, O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, 25, were murdered on the steps of her tony Brentwood home. While many initially felt sorry for O.J. Simpson, that grief turned to suspicion.
Detectives said they found bloody footprints and a bloody glove at the scene, and a search of Simpson’s home turned up bloodstains on his driveway, car, and socks.
Police charged Simpson with the two murders but couldn’t locate him. He was declared a fugitive and, hours later, the infamous low-speed chase, in his white Ford Bronco commenced. Al Cowlings, his best friend and former teammate, was driving, Simpson was riding in the back seat and allegedly had a gun.
The chase, which was broadcasted live, ended when the Bronco pulled into his driveway. While O.J. Simpson denied he was trying to run away, police found almost $9,000 in cash on Cowling, a fake goatee, and moustache with makeup glue, receipts from a beauty store, and Simpson’s passport.
What followed was the trial of the century. After 11 long-suffering months, on October 3, 1995, the jury declared Simpson not guilty, on both counts, after deliberating for just four hours.
Americans, transfixed to their televisions for almost a year, had their answer. And it had a lasting impact. According to a 2005 survey, the Simpson verdict was the third most “universally impactful” televised moment of the last 40 years, behind the September 11, 2001 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
Simpson’s Bronco chase came in sixth place, behind the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and the death of Osama bin Laden.
When the verdict was read, Americans were divided along racial lines as to whether or not Simpson was guilty: 22% of black Americans thought Simpson was guilty, compared to 63% of white Americans.
In the 20 years since the trial ended, more and more people think O.J. Simpson, one of the greatest all-time running backs in college football, was in fact, guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
A full 83% of white Americans say they are “definitely” or “probably” sure of Simpson’s guilt. Meanwhile, 57% of black Americans said the same thing. While there is still a sizeable divide among blacks and whites, the figures are both at all-time highs and moving in the same direction.
April 19, 1995 – The Oklahoma City Bombing
Historically, April 19 is an important date in American history. On April 19, 1775, the Revolutionary war began. On April 19, 1993, federal agents stormed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas; more than 70 people would die.
And on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh drove a truck packed with 5,000 pounds of homemade explosives up to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and detonated it: 168 were killed – 19 of whom were children, and hundreds more were injured.
Until the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Oklahoma City bombing was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
A little after 9:00 a.m. on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a Ryder truck that was parked in front of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The powerful explosion destroyed the buildings entire north wall. It also damaged or destroyed over 300 buildings in the immediate vicinity.
A massive manhunt for the bombing suspects ensued, and an eyewitness description led authorities to charge Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in the case.
McVeigh, who served in the Persian Gulf War and was decorated for his service, was a member of a survivalist group based in Michigan. With the end of the Cold War, McVeigh also became suspicious of President Bill Clinton, who campaigned for strict gun controls.
McVeigh and Nichols were also deeply troubled by events such as the 1992 shoot-out at Ruby Ridge, Idaho between federal agents and survivalist Randy Weaver. McVeigh also thought the April 1993 siege in Waco, Texas was heavy handed.
McVeigh’s attach on the Murrah Building was planned as revenge for those events. The building held regional offices for the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives – the agency responsible for the initial raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.
On June 2, 1997, McVeigh was convicted on all 11 counts against him and on August 14 was sentenced to die. In December 1997, Nichols was found guilty on one count of conspiracy and eight counts of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to life in prison.
On June 11, 2001, Timothy McVeigh, 33, died by lethal injection at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
April 20, 1999 – Massacre at Columbine High School
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing 17 and wounding more than 2o others. They committed suicide in the library before being captured: Harris shot himself through the roof of his mouth; Klebold shot himself in the side of his head.
At the time, the Columbine shooting was the worst high school shooting in U.S. history, prompting a national debate on gun control and school safety.
Following the shooting, it was speculated that Klebold and Harris intentionally targeted Christians, minorities, and athletes. But that theory was later debunked, and investigators determined the two chose their victims randomly. Initially, the pair planned to bomb the school, killing hundreds, but they failed to detonate, it was then that the two went inside with their guns.
As to their motives, it has been speculated that Harris and Klebold committed the killings because they were members of a group of outcasts called the Trenchcoat Mafia, which was fascinated by goth culture. It has also been suggested that the two carried out the massacre in retaliation for being bullied. No theory has ever been proven.
Journals left behind by both Harris and Klebold show the two planned to bomb the school in an attack similar to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Harris was remembered as a callously brutal mastermind, while a depressed Klebold constantly journaled about love and attended the Columbine prom three days before the killings.
Since Columbine, there have been 10 school shootings that each claimed the lives of least four victims, resulting in a total of 122 deaths just from those 10.
Three school shootings have had a disturbingly higher victim count:
- Columbine: 2007 Virginia Tech University, Blacksburg, VA — 33 deaths
- 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, CT — 27 deaths
- 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, FL — 17 deaths
When it comes to the total number of these violent incidences affecting our country’s children, it has been estimated that, since Columbine, there were over 200 school shootings in the United States alone.