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See The 5 Infamous “Not Guilty” Verdicts

Belva Gaertner in a Chicago jail, awaiting trial in 1924. (Credit: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)Long before the so-called trial of the century in which O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in 1995, there were a number of other criminal cases that captivated the public and resulted in not guilty verdicts. From the millionaire who shot the high-society architect to the pioneering photographer who slayed a romantic rival, find out about five famous defendants who were ultimately acquitted of murder following their headline-generating trials.

1. The millionaire who gunned down the high-society architect.

Harry Thaw in 1905. (Credit: Hulton Archives/Getty Images)
Harry Thaw in 1905. (Credit: Hulton Archives/Getty Images)
On the night of June 25, 1906, Harry K. Thaw, the son of a railroad and coal magnate, shot and killed famed architect Stanford White during a show at the rooftop theater of New York City’s Madison Square Garden, which White had designed. The year before the crime, Thaw wed model and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, who was White’s former mistress. Nesbit had been seduced by the Gilded Age architect in 1901 when she was 16 and he was in his 40s. The public was fascinated with the slaying of White, whose firm had designed mansions for the Astors and Vanderbilts, among numerous other prominent projects. Stories appeared in the press portraying the dead architect as a debauched womanizer, while Thaw eventually was revealed to be a spoiled, abusive playboy.
When the case went to court in 1907, Thaw’s attorney contended his millionaire client suffered from “dementia Americana,” a supposed phenomenon that caused American men to become temporarily insane and seek revenge against anyone who had tainted their wives’ virtue. Media coverage of the case was so intense that the jurors, for the first time in U.S. history, were sequestered for the length of the trial, which eventually ended in a hung jury. At a second trial the following year, Thaw was acquitted on the grounds he was insane when he carried out the killing. A judge committed him to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, New York, but he escaped in 1913 and fled to Canada. He was returned to the United States and in 1915 was declared sane and released. Two years later, he was tried for assaulting a young man and committed to a mental institution in Pennsylvania. He remained there until 1924, when he once again was declared sane and freed. Incidentally, the next year Madison Square Garden, where White’s death occurred, was demolished and rebuilt at a new location.

2. The accused killer who inspired a “Chicago” character.

Belva Gaertner in a Chicago jail, awaiting trial in 1924. (Credit: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
Belva Gaertner in a Chicago jail, awaiting trial in 1924. (Credit: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
On March 12, 1924, Belva Gaertner was arrested in Chicago for the murder of auto salesman Walter Law, who had been found shot to death in Gaertner’s car, a bullet in his head from her gun, which was in the vehicle. Police discovered Gaertner at her nearby apartment, her clothing bloody. She admitted to having gone dancing with Law the night before but when asked by police what had happened to him Gaertner claimed she was too drunk to remember. Gaertner’s wealthy, manufacturer ex-husband, William, hired a top lawyer to represent her. A former cabaret performer, Belva had married William Gaertner in 1917, bit the pair went through a high-profile divorce three years later, after Belva was caught having an affair. When Gaertner went on trial in the summer of 1924, her defense attorney claimed the prosecution’s case was purely circumstantial, as there were no eyewitnesses or solid evidence. After a short trial, Gaertner, who’d been referred to by the news media as the most stylish woman on Murderess’ Row at the Cook County Jail, was acquitted by an all-male jury. Male juries of that era (women weren’t allowed to serve on juries in Illinois until 1939) were disinclined to believe that attractive white women could be stone-cold murderers.
Belva and William Gaertner remarried in 1925, only to soon divorce after she cheated on him again (when William died in 1948, he nonetheless left part of his estate to Belva). The play “Chicago” premiered in 1926 and was based on the unrelated stories of Gaertner and Beulah Annan, another woman acquitted of murder in the Windy City in 1924. The playwright, Maurine Watkins, covered both cases as a reporter for The Chicago Tribune.

3. The photographer who got away with murder.

Eadweard Muybridge (Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Eadweard Muybridge (Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Near Calistoga, California, on October 17, 1874, Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer of stop-motion photography and early filmmaking, shot and killed a man with whom his much-younger wife was having an affair. The shooting made national news, in part due to Muybridge’s association with Leland Stanford, the California politician and railroad magnate. The British-born Muybridge first arrived in San Francisco in 1855, five years after California became a state. After trying his hand at various careers, including bookseller and inventor, he turned to photography and by the late 1860s had become known for his Western landscapes. In 1872, he was hired by Leland Stanford, who raised racehorses (Stanford University is located on the site of his former stock farm), to make a photographic study that would resolve a popular debate of the day: whether a horse lifts all four hooves off the ground at some point when galloping. Stanford believed the answer was yes, but it took Muybridge six years to develop a photographic process capable of proving it.
In the midst of this work, Muybridge went on trial in 1875 for the murder of Harry Larkyns, the man who had an affair with Muybridge’s wife, Flora. Muybridge shot Larkyns in October 1874, in front of other people at a miner’s cabin near Calistoga, and afterward freely admitted to the killing. At trial, the photographer’s attorney attempted an insanity defense, which included putting witnesses on the stand who testified that ever since a near-fatal stagecoach accident in 1860 Muybridge had behaved strangely. In the end, the jury didn’t think Muybridge was insane, but they acquitted him on the belief, not uncommon among all-male Western juries of the time, that a man was justified in slaying another man who’d seduced his wife. After the verdict, Muybridge resumed his successful photography career. In 1879, he invented the zoopraxiscope, an early type of motion-picture projector.

4. The doctor whose case may have inspired “The Fugitive.”

Sam Sheppard, wearing a neck brace, while on trail for the murder of his wife in 1954. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Sam Sheppard, wearing a neck brace, while on trail for the murder of his wife in 1954. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In the early hours of July 4, 1954, Sam Sheppard’s pregnant wife, Marilyn, was bludgeoned to death in her bed at the couple’s Bay Village, Ohio, home. Sheppard, a doctor, claimed he’d been sleeping on a living room couch when he heard his wife’s cries, ran upstairs toward her bedroom and was struck from behind and knocked unconscious. When he regained consciousness, he saw an intruder downstairs and chased him outside; they struggled and Sheppard was knocked out again. The Sheppard’s young son slept through the entire incident. Amidst a media frenzy, Sheppard was arrested and put on trial, during which the prosecution argued the doctor had been motivated to kill his wife so he could run off with a woman with whom he was having an affair. In December 1954, Sheppard was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Sheppard spent a decade behind bars before a federal court ordered him released on the grounds he’d been denied his constitutional right to a fair trial; the court cited a variety of reasons, including the trial judge’s failure to disqualify himself after making biased comments about the case. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Sheppard’s conviction, faulting the trial judge for not sequestering the jurors and ruling that “massive, pervasive and prejudicial publicity” had prevented Sheppard from getting a fair trial. Later that year, Sheppard was retried and acquitted. Afterward, he briefly returned to practicing medicine and then, to the surprise of a number of people, embarked on a professional wrestling career; he died from liver disease at age 46. No one else ever was charged with Marilyn Sheppard’s murder, although there has been speculation the Sheppards’ window washer might’ve committed the crime. The TV series “The Fugitive,” which first aired in the 1960s and later became a movie, is often said to have been inspired by Sheppard’s case; however, the program’s creator denied being influenced by it.

5. The star of an early Hollywood scandal.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the most popular and highest-paid movie stars in Hollywood when he was charged with raping and killing a woman in San Francisco in September 1921. That Labor Day weekend, Arbuckle and two friends checked into the St. Francis Hotel and a party soon kicked off in their suite of rooms. At one point, an actress named Virginia Rappe was found in one of the rooms vomiting and in pain. After the hotel doctor was called, he concluded the actress had too much to drink. (Alcohol flowed freely at the party even though it was Prohibition.) Rappe’s condition worsened and she eventually was taken to a hospital, where she died after several days from a ruptured bladder. Maude Delmont, a woman who had accompanied Rappe to the party, claimed the actress had been assaulted by Arbuckle. However, Rappe herself never made any such charges, and it’s been suggested Delmont made accusations against Arbuckle because she intended to try to extort money from him. The actor was quickly vilified in the press and held up an example of Hollywood’s moral depravity. He was charged with manslaughter and put on trial, during which the prosecution attempted to demonstrate that the heavyset Arbuckle had attacked Rappe, causing her bladder to rupture. The defense, meanwhile, poked holes in the prosecution’s case and questioned why Delmont had not been called to testify. Arbuckle’s first two trials ended with hung juries while his third concluded in April 1922 with an acquittal, along with a statement of apology from the jurors that read, in part: “We feel that a great injustice has been done to [Arbuckle]…for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.”
Despite his vindication in court, Arbuckle’s career was severely damaged. He was temporarily banned from appearing in movies and denounced by religious and civic leaders. After directing short films under an assumed name, he reportedly inked a deal in 1933 to act in a feature film, only to die from a heart attack shortly afterward.

Did You Know?

  • In 1807, Aaron Burr, who served as vice president under Thomas Jefferson from 1801 to 1805, was acquitted of treason in connection with a plot to either invade Mexico and establish an independent republic there or separate the Western states from the Union and create a new republic. Burr’s participation in the conspiracy came after he failed to be re-nominated as vice president, lost his bid for the governorship of New York and killed his political rival Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel. Following his acquittal for treason, Burr fled to Europe for several years to escape his creditors. After returning to the United States, he practiced law before dying on Staten Island, New York, in 1836.
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