13 Crimes That Shocked the World and Changed Our Culture Forever

From the rise of the 24/7 media circus, conspiracy theories and the end of the '60s, here are the crimes that left forever marks on our culture

By Natalie Finn Sep 20, 2016 1:00 PMTags
True CrimeAP, Getty Images; E! Illustration

Crime happens every day, all over the world.

We don't mean that in a make-America-great again kind of way. Rather, the existence of crime is a scary, often uncontrollable part of life. And it can seem like an even bigger part of life because we tend to be a society that demands all the details, anytime something tragic or shocking happens, no matter how—or perhaps because of how—far removed the situation may be from our personal experience of the world.

Not only is it endlessly fascinating to probe the human condition, trying to figure out not just how, but why something happened, but perhaps in some ways learning all there is to know about a crime makes us feel like we're building a fortress of information that will help prevent anything of that sort from happening to us.

And it isn't just online media, which operate at fever pitch 24/7, that have deposited us in the current state of true-crime-junkie nirvana in which we find ourselves today. While the doings of daily life tend to be on the dull side and always have been, the media in general have always sensationalized anything ripe for the picking—and crime is always ripe for the picking.

Whether it was the ax murders of Lizzie Borden's parents inspiring a morbid nursery rhyme or Jack the Ripper stalking prostitutes on the streets of White Chapel, some form of media has always been there to put a salacious spin on the scariest tales of the day. 

And while crime is often just so much more fodder for the 11 o'clock news mill, certain crimes have had lasting impact, whether by inspiring ever more copious means of absorbing information, prompting policy that we may take for granted today or, in some cases, by altering our perspectives, affecting the way we view the world altogether.

Here are 13 of those crimes, ones that left a forever mark:

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The Kidnapping of the Lindbergh Baby: The original "Crime of the Century." News of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh's son being snatched from his crib in the middle of the night was about as scary as it got in 1932. Despite the family having every resource at their disposal, the body of 20-month-old Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. was found two months later in a field not far from the family's New Jersey home. Two years later, German-born carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested for the crime, tried, convicted and subsequently executed on April 3, 1996, having insisted all the while that he was innocent.

Multiple books written in the 84 years since the kidnapping contend that Hauptmann—whose status as a working-class immigrant, particularly from Germany in the days leading up to World War II, did him no favors with the American criminal justice system—was innocent. His wife, Anna Hauptmann, spent the rest of her life trying to clear his name, alleging at one point that her husband had been "framed from beginning to end" by police desperate to close the case.

So not only is this crime possibly still unsolved, but the government may have put an innocent man to death. The kidnapping terrified a nation, and newspapers pretty much flayed Hauptmann alive before he was even convicted. Spurred on by anti-German sentiment and major hero worship for Lindbergh, the police, the media and, ultimately, a jury (that for the most part probably thought it was doing the right thing) joined forces to bring Hauptmann down, with even those higher-ups who believed in his innocence not being able to reverse the course of a system not interested in alternative theories.

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The Assassination of JFK: Who shot JFK? Most people accepted the answer. Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots at President John F. Kennedy from his perch at a sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. He was arrested hours later, initially for killing a police officer but ultimately arraigned for the president's murder. On Nov. 24, Jack Ruby, who ran a nearby nightclub, shot and killed Oswald as police were escorting him toward an armored car that would take him to jail. The entire thing was caught on live network TV.

Obviously the murder of the president of the United States was a life-altering event for millions of people, shattering their sense of security and, for some, their hopes for the future. Kennedy's death changed the course of the nation, particularly when it came to the war in Vietnam. But JFK's murder also launched the mother of conspiracy theories, as probed in pop culture by the likes of Oliver Stone's JFK, and John and Jackie Kennedy became almost mythological figures, with every generation since lending its cinematic, TV and literary takes on the Camelot couple to the conversation.

AP Photo/George Brich, File; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Manson Family Murders: The 1960s didn't end on Dec. 31, 1969. They ended between Aug. 8 and Aug. 10 of that year when Charles Manson sent five members of his "Family" to two homes—one in L.A.'s Benedict Canyon and the other in Los Feliz—to kill whichever "piggies" they found there in order to incite "Helter Skelter." Manson, a struggling musician, got the term from The BeatlesWhite Album, having interpreted the Fab Four's tunes as a signal to incite a race war.

Not only did the murder of an 8 1/2-months pregnant Sharon Tate and four other people at the Benedict Canyon home she had been renting with husband Roman Polanski (who was out of town), followed by the murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca at their Los Feliz home a night later, terrify every star (and pretty much everyone else) in Hollywood beyond belief, but Manson too became the most twisted kind of celebrity. He landed the cover of Rolling Stone as "The Most Dangerous Man in Alive"—and he basked in the attention at his trial. To this day, the now 81-year-old loon remains a subject of endless fascination—largely because it's still impossible for us to get our heads around how he secured and maintained such a hold over his followers, including three young women who took part in slaughtering seven people. 

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The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst: The 19-year-old granddaughter of publishing titan William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Citizen Kane) was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment on Feb. 4, 1974, by members of the self-proclaimed Symbionese Liberation Army, left-wing revolutionaries whose primary intention was to stick it to the Man. And commit some crimes. On April 15, 1974, members of the SLA robbed a branch of Hibernia Bank in San Francisco—and there was Hearst, wielding a machine gun, a couple weeks after the SLA released a video of her declaring her allegiance and saying her new name was "Tania."

Was she at the bank out of fearful obedience? A sufferer of Stockholm syndrome? Or was she a willing participant? In 1976, Hearst was sentenced to 35 years in prison for her role in the robbery, during which two people were shot, but that was quickly knocked down to seven. She appealed and was in and out of jail on bail, until finally President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence to probation and 22 months of time served. President Bill Clinton granted her a full pardon before he left office in 2001.

Hearst appeared in a bunch of John Waters films, an indicator right there that she had become a pop culture oddity, and has continued on in the gray area where celebrity meets notoriety. Hearst wrote in her 1981 memoir Every Secret Thing that she only helped rob that bank because she was forced to, but New Yorker writer and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin sounds skeptical that the answer is that simple in his 2016 book American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.


The Murder of John Lennon: On Dec. 8, 1980, the former Beatle and wife Yoko Ono were just steps away from The Dakota, on their way home from a hauntingly intimate photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, when Mark David Chapman shot Lennon four times in the back. He calmly stayed at the scene and, when the cops arrived, he was reading from a copy of Catcher in the Rye.

Culturally, it's too painful to think about what the musical landscape would look like had Lennon, who was only 40 when he was killed, been alive all this time. Moreover, he spent almost the entirety of his days post-Beatles crafting a message about peace, from the literal meaning of "Imagine" to his and Yoko's "bed-in"—and Lennon had so much more to do. Ono has made it her mission to remind the world what it lost and what Lennon stood for, paying annual tribute to him, advocating for gun control in his name and doing everything in her power to make sure Chapman never gets out of prison.

John Lennon's Killer Mark Chapman Denied Parole for Seventh Time
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp

The Abduction and Murder of Adam Walsh: The 6-year-old was kidnapped from a Sears in Florida in 1981 and his severed head was found about 120 miles away from his family's home 16 days later. The rest of his remains have never been found.

His son's killer still unknown in 1988, John Walsh became the host of America's Most Wanted, a show that probably served as rather dour background noise once a week for a lot of us when we were kids, none of us realizing until much later that it was personal for Walsh. He had been in the hotel business but after Adam's murder he completely devoted himself to criminal justice, victim advocacy and hunting down the worst criminals—more than 1,200 of whom were captured thanks to AMW. The show, along with CBS' 48 Hours, also helped pave the way for Hard CopyDateline and the bevy of other predator-catching, mystery-solving shows whose numbers have only multiplied in the days since.

And those, in turn, led up to the current true crime boom, with The JinxMaking a Murder, The Staircase and Serial standing out from the pack, along with intense, reality-driven scripted sagas such as The Night OfAmerican Crime and almost every plot line lately on Law & Order: SVU.

In 2008, the Hollywood (Fla.) Police Department officially identified serial killer Otis Toole, who died in prison in 1996 while serving life for other crimes, as Adam's killer.

Ron Galella/WireImage

The O.J. Simpson Murder Trial: TV was never the same after June 17, 1994, when football hero turned actor and beloved pitchman O.J. Simpson led police on a low-speed chase through a positively glamorous concrete maze of Orange County and L.A. freeways, all parties finally ending up back at Simpson's Brentwood mansion. Not only did all the major networks zoom in, even relegating the NBA Finals on NBC into a secondary box on the screen, but broadcast and cable never let up until Simpson had been found not guilty of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman more than a year later.

Twenty-one years and a dozen books later, FX's Emmy-winning series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and the riveting, nearly eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America got people talking all over again about the evidence, where this case went wrong for the prosecution, how the defense owned the narrative, the turmoil that to this day exists between people of color and the police, the sociopolitical tinderbox in which the trial took place and how so many people could have known what was going on behind closed doors between O.J. and Nicole, yet no one could help her.

Actually, the conversation had never really stopped.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: Where Are the Real-Life Players Now?
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The Murder of JonBenét Ramsey: On Dec. 26, 1997, Patsy Ramsey woke at 5:30 a.m. to find a rambling ransom note stating that her 6-year-old daughter had been kidnapped from their Boulder, Colo. home. About eight hours later, John Ramsey found JonBenét's body in their basement wine cellar. She had ligature marks on her neck and her skull was fractured from a blow to the head.

In the days that followed, the media operated at fever pitch, swarming JonBenét's school, John Ramsey's office and the family's church. No one in Boulder had ever seen anything like it—and most people watching the news at home around the country had never heard of beauty pageants for little kids. The photos and videos of a heavily made-up JonBenét competing for titles like Little Miss led the nightly news, and that's how the world got to know her—as a murder victim and, in some opinions, as a victim of exploitation by a mother voluntarily putting her child on display.

Almost 20 years later, JonBenét's murder remains unsolved and experts, investigators and Dr. Phil are coming out of the woodwork in hopes of getting to the bottom of what happened. Patsy, who died in 2006, John and their son Burke, who was 9 when his sister was killed, were all cleared via DNA testing years ago, but suspicions linger and most of the questions that people have about the odd-to-this-day details of the crime remain unanswered.

Moreover, one generation's scandal is the next generation's guilty-pleasure entertainment. Toddlers and Tiaras, about the type of competition among children that was so shocking or distasteful to onlookers in 1997, premiered on TLC in 2008.

AP Photo/Jefferson County Sheriff Dept.

Columbine: The murder of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, wasn't the first mass school shooting, but it was the first to occur in the 24/7 news age, which ensured that any detail available would be sent out into the world as soon as possible, long before there was any context to put it in. 

The shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, weren't the most popular kids in school, but they weren't bullied outcasts, nor did they fit into any other neat box of student tropes. Then came the outcry about violent video games, goth kids who liked Marilyn Manson, the "trench coat mafia." All were things that people tried to link to disturbing behavior, in desperate hopes of understanding what led those two teenagers to do what they did—but none of those things were responsible for what occurred at Columbine.

They suffered from mental illness to be sure, Harris the alpha and the stone-cold killer of the pair, while Klebold was the depressive follower. But even the definitive book on the massacre, Dave Cullen's 2009 best-seller Columbine, is so frustrating, because it reveals all of the red flags evidenced by Harris ahead of time that were missed by authorities, as well as the untruths and exaggerations that piled up in the days immediately following the shooting. 

With all the misinformation at our fingertips on a daily basis, we can understand why it usually takes at least a decade to paint a clearer picture of the most twisted crimes.

Crimes That Changed the Law: Amber Alerts, Three Strikes, 911...We didn't have any of those until devastated family members, angry communities and, finally, law enforcement and government officials made them happen. 

NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

 • The story of how, in 1964, Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed to death on a New York street in front of 38 witnesses, none of whom tried to intervene or call police, has remained a powerfully haunting and rather sickening tale about people who might have cared but for whatever reason didn't want to be the ones to get involved. And while the new documentary The Witness, which chronicles her brother's efforts to figure out what really happened that night, helps absolve society a bit of being a pathetic disgrace, Genovese's murder helped expedite the creation of 911.

Back in the day, people would have had to dial the operator and go through a few people to get the police—or call a precinct number directly. In 1967, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended a one-step process for contacting emergency responders, and in 1968 the first 911 call was made.

• In addition to hosting America's Most Wanted, John Walsh was instrumental in implementing the Code Adam Program—a precursor to the Amber Alert—in retail stores and, mandatory since 2003, in federal facilities.

How The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey Perfectly Recreated the Ramsey House and Crime Scene

• The body of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was found on Jan. 17, 1996, four days after she was abducted off of her bicycle in Arlington, Texas. Within days, her parents, Richard and Donna, were calling for stricter laws pertaining to sex offenders, as well as a better alert system to notify many people in the area at once that a child was missing. With the help of Congressman Martin Frost and Mark Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter Polly was murdered after being abducted from her bedroom in October 1993, the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act was signed into federal law by President Bill Clinton, setting up the national sex offender registry.

The first AMBER Alert was sent in 1996, and the FCC endorsed the system in 2002. By Jan. 1, 2013, AMBER Alerts were being sent in all 50 states through Wireless Emergency Alerts.

• The 1993 murder of Polly Klaas resulted in California's Three Strikes Law after it was discovered that Polly's killer, Richard Allen Davis (who's currently on death row), had numerous offenses on his rap sheet. Mark Klaas actually felt torn about the idea, seeing potential issues, but Mike Reynolds, whose 18-year-old daughter Kimber was murdered by a purse snatcher who had prior offenses in June 1992, pushed hard for the bill after Polly's death. It has proved controversial, and in 2012 voters elected to soften the mandatory sentencing guidelines.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

• The 1989 murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was shot to death at her front door in West Hollywood by a stalker, eventually led to the country's first anti-stalking law when California became the first state to criminalize stalking in 1990.

Her killer, Robert John Bardo, had gotten the idea to hire a P.I. from Arthur Richard Jackson, who stalked and stabbed actress Theresa Saldana in 1982 after he hired a detective to find Saldana's address. The Driver's Protection Privacy Act was subsequently enacted in 1994 because Bardo's investigator was able to obtain Schaeffer's address from the DMV. Saldana, who survived her attack, founded the advocacy group Victims for Victims and lobbied for both the anti-stalking legislation and the DPPA.

Future O.J. prosecutor Marcia Clark successfully got Bardo convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Director Brad Silberling was dating Schaeffer when she was killed and his 2002 film Moonlight Mile, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Susan Sarandon, is inspired by those events.

Watch: "American Crime Story" Cast and Producers Tease Season 2