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Famous Murders of the 19th Century

In the 1800s the Emerging Press Sensationalized Notorious Murders


The 19th century can be remembered for some notorious murders, including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the double murder which may have been committed by Lizzie Borden, and a murder of a New York City prostitute which essentially created the template for tabloid newspaper coverage.

As the press developed, and news began to travel quickly by telegraph, the public clamored to get all the details of particular murder cases.

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Library of Congress

Perhaps the most shocking and most significant crime of the 19th century was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. The assassin was the actor John Wilkes Booth, a notable actor deeply embittered by the outcome of the recently concluded Civil War.

The news about the president's murder traveled quickly by telegraph, and the next day Americans awoke to enormous newspaper headlines proclaiming the tragic news. A collection of vintage images related to the Lincoln assassination tells the story of the horrible crime and the manhunt for Booth and other conspirators.

The Lizzie Borden Murder Case

Trial of Lizzie Borden.
Library of Congress

Except for the Lincoln assassination, the most notorious murder case in 19th century America was the double murder in 1892 which may have been committed by Lizzie Borden, a young woman in Fall River, Massachusetts.

As a popular and grisly playground rhyme began, "Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother 40 whacks..." The morbid poem was inaccurate in several respects, but Lizzie's father and his wife were indeed murdered in horrible fashion, most likely by strikes from an axe.

Lizzie was arrested and put on trial. Newspapers transmitted every detail as high-powered legal talent battled it out. And in the end Lizzie Borden was acquitted. But doubts about the case persist, and to this day experts come along and debate the evidence.

The Murder of Helen Jewett

Helen Jewett
Library of Congress

The brutal killing of a New York City prostitute in 1836 became the first great sensational murder case in 19th century newspapers. And the coverage of the murder of Helen Jewett created a template that lives on to the present day in tabloid coverage.

Helen Jewett, by all accounts, was beautiful and unusually sophisticated for a prostitute. She had come from New England, received a good education, and when she came to New York she seemed to captivate young men in the city.

Jewett was discovered dead one night in her room in a high-priced brothel, and a young man, Richard Robinson, was put on trial. The new "penny press," newspapers hawking scandals, had a field day publishing exaggerated if not fabricated material about the case.

And Robinson, after a spectacular trial, was acquitted in the summer of 1836. But the techniques of the penny press were established with the murder of Helen Jewett and would prove to be enduring.

Famous Duels of the 19th Century

Some notorious murders of the 19th century were fairly formalized events which were not even considered murder, at least by the participants. They were interactions between gentlemen who subscribed to the accepted rules of dueling, the Code Duello.

The code, which had been devised in Ireland in the late 1700s, dictated certain rules by which a gentleman could get satisfaction if he believed his honor had been violated. Invitations to a duel could be issued, and had to be answered.

Famous duels involving prominent figures included:

Dueling was always illegal. And even participants who survived would often flee, as Aaron Burr did after the duel with Hamilton, as he feared being tried for murder. But the tradition didn't fully fade away until the mid-1800s.

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