The Five Greatest Criminal Trials of History

Law changes history. There are plenty examples of that: The Magna Carta, the Napoleonic Code, the United States Constitution.

So do criminal trials. In 1985, Fritjof Haft, criminal law professor at the University of Tübingen in Germany, published a list of the greatest criminal trials of all history. He didn’t focus on pivotal trials that changed the law, but on the ones that shaped history and culture.

Here are five of them. (Because I focus on historical crime, I haven’t included the 20th century.) Which one do you think swung the rudder of history the farthest? I’ll ask you to vote at the end.

Five greatest criminal trials

The trial of Socrates was one of the greatest criminal trials of history.

Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates (1787). New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.

Trial of Socrates

The right to criticize authority

What Socrates taught his students in Athens didn’t please its public figures. He criticized the Athenian democracy. The philosopher “stung” the city, wrote Plato, creating the popular image of Socrates as a gadfly stinging the lethargic horse of government.

In 399 BC, the poet Meletus accused the 70-year-old of failing to recognize the Gods and corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates was tried by a jury of 501 and almost acquitted. Once acquitted, he refused to beg the court for mercy. The jury voted to execute him.

Although Socrates had a chance to flee and save his life, he refused on the grounds that such an action would violate his own philosophy of obedience to the law. He complied with his sentence by drinking a cup of hemlock. That deliberate choice may have been the gadfly’s last sting in the rump of authority. But it was a lasting one, one that catapulted it to one of the world’s greatest criminal trials. History has forgotten neither this trial nor its philosophical underpinnings.

Jesus Christ before Pontius Pilate.

Jesus Christ before Pontius Pilate in a Polish Passion play. (c) Stanislaw Tokarski /

Trial of Jesus Christ

Quid est veritas? Birth of a world religion

Following his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ’s accusers hauled him before Annas, who conducted a preliminary hearing and transferred him to the Jewish court. There Caiaphas, the high priest, formulated three charges:  (1) desecration of the temple, (2) Roman tax evasion, and (3) claiming to be the Messiah. This procedure took place at night, but because Jewish procedural law prohibited nighttime trials, members of the court met again in the morning, this time with a full plenary session of 71 judges.

The Jewish court had no authority under Roman rule to impose the death penalty, so it transferred Christ to Pontius Pilate to be tried under Roman law. The tax evasion charges were dropped. Pilate asked Christ if he claimed to be king. “You are right in saying I am a king,” replied Jesus. “In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”*

Pilate’s answer is now the most famous question in the Latin language: “Quid est veritas?”

He sentenced Christ under the Roman code Lex Julia for lèse-majesty. The prescribed penalty was death. Christ’s followers saw a sacrifice in this execution that became the cornerstone of a world religion.

A witch trial.

Witchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving. From William A. Crafts (1876) Pioneers in the Settlement of America, public domain.

Witch Trials

Mass prejudice based on repressed sexuality

Superstitions about the demonic world received academic support between the 13th and 16th centuries. Scholars developed a new criminal concept – witchcraft, based on a pact with the devil – subject to death by fire. Although witchcraft appeared in ancient Graeco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, Norse, and Celtic mythology, the medieval church feminized it. Witches became predominantly female.

By the 15th century, systematic prosecution of women began. Two Dominican scholars wrote the Malleus Maleficarium (Witch’s Hammer), the legal handbook for witch prosecutions. They analyzed such questions as: Can a witch amputate a man’s member through magic? Can demons who take human form sleep with each other and reproduce? Can witches use love potions? The questions reveal a deep-seated fear of women and of the reproductive process. In fact, beauty made a woman suspect.

The Jesuit scholar Friedrich von Spee became the most outspoken critic of witch trials. One of his encounters with an accused witch revealed another reason for the trials. A woman visited him in Wurzburg and explained how her marriage was going downhill. For seven years she and her husband had been happily married, but now he was cold-hearted. He had found another woman. Three days later, the woman was delivered to the court and charged with witchcraft. Her husband testified against her. The judge said he had to believe the husband. On the day of her execution, the woman told Spee she would have to burn in the fire just so her husband could marry another woman.

The witch trials were sometimes a substitute for divorce.

As a whole, the witch prosecutions found a place among the world’s greatest criminal trials. By the 18th century, public opinion changed and the mass hysteria waned. The last witch trial in Germany was in 1793.

Mill at dawn.

Mill and half-timbered house at dawn. Pixabay.

Trial of the Miller Arnold and the Edict of Frederick the Great

All men are equal before the law

This case is an unusual mix of criminal and civil law. A Prussian peasant named Christian Arnold ran a mill on a stream and had to pay rent to his landlord, Count Schmettau. But when a neighbor upstream, Baron von Gersdorff, dammed the stream to create a fishpond in 1770, Arnold lost his source of livelihood. Count Schmettau sued him for rent and won. Unable to pay the damages without a working mill, Arnold appealed, but lost. The landlord ordered sale of the mill in 1778 to pay Arnold’s back rent, and Baron von Gersdorff ended up buying it. Arnold’s wife Rosine was imprisoned during the foreclosure proceedings for contempt of court. Now having lost their mill, Arnolds appealed to King Frederick in 1779.

frederick-the-great-258986_1280 PixabayFrederick investigated and was livid about the injustice doled out for the Arnolds in his name. The king overturned the civil cases and went so far as to punish the judges. On December 11, 1779, he issued an edict whose words echoed around the world: All men being equal before the law…. It doesn’t matter, the king wrote, whether a prince complains before the court about a peasant, or vice versa. Nobility enjoys no favoritism under the law.

Frederick the Great incorporated the ideal of the Declaration of Independence into European law (he was an admirer of George Washington’s). Catherine the Great made copies of Frederick’s edict and sent them to all her judges in Russia. French shopkeepers posted copies of the edict in their windows.

Its ideas contributed to the French Revolution.

Goethe made the tragedy of Susanne Margarete one of the greatest criminal trials of literature.

Faust and Mephisto with Gretchen in the dungeon, Joseph Fay, Illustrierte Textstelle: Faust – Der Tragödie erster Teil (1846), public domain.

Decapitation of the Child Murderer Susanna Margareta in Frankfurt

The match that ignited a genius

The 1772 trial of a child murderer in Frankfurt wouldn’t have captured world attention if it weren’t for one of the young lawyers following the case. For influence on literature, this counts among the world’s greatest criminal trials.

A wealthy goldsmith had seduced and impregnated Susanna Margareta and then left her. Helpless and desperate, she killed the baby. The court found her guilty and had her decapitated with a sword.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe realized he had chosen the wrong career. Cases like these made better fodder for literature than courtroom strategy. Goethe reworked the case into Faust. Susanna became Gretchen, who once convicted, turned to religion and found redemption. Goethe imbued her with the virtues of the Virgin Mary and Eve. Although Faust made a pact with the devil to save Gretchen from execution, neither he nor the devil could influence her. Gretchen accepted her fate and Faust became the ultimate loser.

And Goethe’s career change became a turning point in world literature.

Professor Haft did not list any American trials. If you could add one, which one would it be?

I might do a future post on the greatest criminal trials in America and would be interested in your opinion!


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Literature on point:

1779 – The Miller Arnold Lawsuit: How One Court Case Changed the World

*John 18:37-38. Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (North American Edition). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

Fritjof Haft, Aus der Waagschale der Justitia: In Lesebuch aus 2000 Jahren Rechtsgeschichte (Munich: C.H. Beck/dtv, 1985).

Christa Agnes Tuczay, “Witchcraft and Supersitition,” in Handbook of Medieval Culture, vol. 3, Albrecht Classon, ed. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2015).


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How Frederick the Great’s Sword Helped Spark the Civil War

This is not Frederick the Great's sword, but a Civil War era Klingenthal sword.

This is not Frederick the Great’s sword, but a Civil War era Klingenthal sword.

More than any other event, it was John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry that lit the fuse of North-South tension and ignited the Civil War. Brown planned the raid for two years in advance, so it was no mistake that the first thing he did when he crossed into Virginia was to send a detachment to steal a sword and kidnap its owner. It wasn’t just any old sword. It was – purportedly – the sword of the Prussian monarch Frederick the Great.

Legend of the Sword

Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great (standing) before the Battle of Torgau (1791) by Bernhard Rode, public domain.

The story of why Frederick the Great’s sword fascinated John Brown is a story of the symbolism in the raid. And that symbolism helped establish Brown’s reputation as a martyr.

Lewis Washington

Lewis Washington, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain.

Brown’s preparations for the raid included sending an advance man, John Edwin Cook, as a spy. Cook moved to Harpers Ferry over a year in advance. He blended in well and even married a local girl. One interesting tidbit Cook passed on to Brown had to do with a sword once belonging to Frederick the Great and two pistols once belonging to General Lafayette. Col. Lewis W. Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington, had inherited them and lived only four miles from Harpers Ferry. Frederick the Great had reputedly sent the sword to Washington in 1780 with a note: “From the oldest General in the world to the Greatest.”

John Brown Steals Frederick the Great’s Sword

John Brown. LOC LC-USZ62-89569

John Brown, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Brown’s raiders kidnapped Washington in the middle of the night and delivered him by carriage, along with the sword and pistols, to the U.S. armory in Harpers Ferry, now under John Brown’s command. Brown kept Washington hostage in the armory’s fire engine house and wore Frederick’s sword during the following standoff. Robert E. Lee, appointed to command the U.S. troops from Fr. Monroe present in Harpers Ferry, successfully recaptured the armory.

Harpers Ferry

View over the historical Civil War town of Harpers Ferry, a National Park owned town, by the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, by Steve Heap,

Brown was injured and captured. Carrying Frederick’s sword might have helped save his life. When a U.S. Army lieutenant tried to strike Brown with a saber, something under Brown’s shirt deflected the blow. That something is thought to be the buckle for the belt carrying the sword. Brown, according to one source, surrendered Frederick’s sword and Lafayette’s pistols to a black man, Osborn Perry Anderson, a freeborn Pennsylvanian who had joined Brown on the raid. They were eventually returned to Washington.

Had Brown been killed immediately, he may not have become a national martyr. His stoicism in face of the death penalty is one of the things that changed him, in the eyes of the North, from an abolitionist who had gone too far to a national saint.

Why the sword? And why the pistols?

The Sword in Symbolism

Lewis Washington as a captive in Harpers Ferry.

Harper’s Ferry insurrection – Interior of the Engine-House, just before the gate is broken down by the storming party – Col. Washington and his associates as captives, held by Brown as hostages. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, 1859; public domain.

John Brown planned the raid on Harpers Ferry not only on a tactical level, but also a symbolic one. Symbolism was already reflected in his selection of the date for his raid: July 4, 1859. Only because he couldn’t amass enough men and materials by Independence Day did Brown postpone the raid to October 16.

George Washington & Lafayette at Valley Forge

Washington & Lafayette at Valley Forge, public domain.

Historians today doubt whether Frederick really gave Washington a sword. It’s impossible to determine the origins of the sword because it was severely damaged in a fire in 1911. But the point is moot, because the people of the era believed it really was Frederick the Great’s sword and the role it played was symbolic. Brown had planned from the beginning to place those national heirlooms in the hands of a black man as a symbol of racial justice.

Literature on point:

Michael Korda: Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (Harper, 2014)

Peggy A. Russo & Paul Finkelman, eds. Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press 2005)

United States Department of the Interior; National Park Service. National Registers of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for Beall-Air (Jefferson County, West Virginia) 1973.

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