What Crime Most Changed the Course of History?

A big question

Graham Roumieu

Benjamin Percy, writer, Green Arrow and Teen Titans

If the Sons of Liberty, in defiance of the Tea Act, hadn’t boarded those ships in Boston Harbor in 1773 and heaved overboard shipments from the East India Company, then the British Parliament wouldn’t have responded with the Intolerable Acts. The American Revolution might not have erupted into all-out war, and the Constitution might not have been written.

Tana French, author, The Trespasser

Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, precipitated World War I, which reshaped large parts of the world politically, culturally, and psychologically and laid the groundwork for World War II.

Graham Roumieu

Kevin Flynn, editor, The New York Times Book of Crime

Pretext or not, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, in 1914, plunged the world into the first war that fully employed the brutal weaponry of an industrialized society. Millions died and the carnage fed an unvarnished view of war, startling political changes in Russia and elsewhere, and a new cynicism in the arts, as evident in the Dada movement.

Reginald Hudlin, director, Marshall

Some of the greatest crimes are not considered illegal. The African slave trade changed history by forcibly disrupting millions of lives in two worlds—it robbed Africa of its people and perverted the foundation of America with a national sin, while leaving more than 1 million bodies dead in the Atlantic.

Jonathan Moore, attorney, and author, The Night Market

The Atlantic slave trade completely altered the course and nature of the New World. And by enriching European powers, it enabled their pursuit of empires—a global competition that ultimately created the conditions for the genocidal chaos of the 20th century.

Erin L. Thompson, art-crime specialist

An Italian wishing to return Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece to its homeland stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. Museum officials swear they recovered the painting in 1913, but the theft launched our modern age of artistic skepticism: Some still think the painting on display is a copy.

Anthony E. Zuiker, creator and executive producer, CSI franchise

People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson was the crime of the century. Not only was “The Juice” on trial for double murder, but our entire judicial system was on trial for evidentiary integrity and racial sensitivity. The jury rendered a not-guilty decision in 1995, but America is still guilty of disharmony in 2017.

J. D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts), author, Secrets in Death

The crimes of Jack the Ripper, arguably the best known serial killer, not only terrorized Victorian London but changed the scope of murder investigations. In a failed effort to identify Jack the Ripper, investigators created what might have been the first criminal profile.

Jill Leovy, author, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

Redemption, the movement by Southern ex-Confederates after the Civil War to reestablish their control and put an end to Reconstruction, was really accomplished through countless discrete crimes against ex-slaves and their advocates trying to enlarge on the promise of the nation's first Civil Rights Act. But considered as a whole—as one brutally effective campaign of terror—Redemption was catastrophic for generations of black Americans and endlessly corrosive to American legal development.

Josh Braun, executive producer, The Keepers

The Manson-family murders were one of the first crimes that became a celebrity spectacle. They also changed people’s day-to-day perception of how safe they were at home: Suddenly the bogeyman was real.

Peter Landesman, writer and director, Mark Felt—The Man Who Brought Down the White House

In crimes of ideology, it’s rarely the crime itself that sends people to ruination, but the cover-up. Watergate ended a presidency, and ever since, -gate has been stuck to political crimes like an STD.

Graham Roumieu

Michael Bryant, professor of history and legal studies

Balzac’s aphorism that behind every great fortune lies a great crime applies to colonial empires, and few crimes in history are greater than Europe’s colonization of the Americas. Some 90 percent of the pre-Columbian population perished as a direct result of contact with the Europeans.

Reader Responses

Jim Lee III, Charlotte, N.C.

Caesar’s murder by stabbing in the Roman Senate in 44 b.c., which led to major political changes and helped Rome become a great empire.

Paul Jones, L’Île-Perrot, Quebec

Hitler used the Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933, as an excuse to crack down on his opposition. He persuaded German President Paul von Hindenburg to pass draconian laws that suspended civil liberties, allowing the Nazis to seize control.

Gloria Kottick, Iowa City, Iowa

For the civil-rights movement in the United States, a pivotal awakening came with the horrific murder, in 1955, of Emmett Till by two racially motivated white men, who accused him of whistling at a white woman. Gradual, painful progress toward a civilized society has ensued since that event.

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