The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us

Course No. 3767
Professor Douglas O. Linder, J.D.
University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
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Course No. 3767
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover what the "Apology" of Socrates teaches us about the responsibility of seeking out truth.
  • Examine how three strange trials illustrate the strong links between faith and justice in the medieval world.
  • Learn how the Trials of Oscar Wilde influenced public ideas about art, sex, and morality.
  • Explore the impact of the Alger Hiss Trial on the political careers of future presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
  • Investigate what the Salem Witch Trials and the McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial reveal about the miscarriage of justice.

Course Overview

There are trials that don’t simply end with their verdict. There are trials that have a power that reverberates throughout history. Many have shaped and transformed the very social, political, and legal traditions we take for granted today. It’s trials like these that are deserving of the description “great.”

What makes a trial one of the great ones in world history? According to award-winning law professor Dr. Douglas O. Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, there are two main benchmarks.

First, the trial must have grabbed the attention of society in its own time and place, whether in the courts of ancient Greece or 20th-century Los Angeles.

Second, the trial must matter. Perhaps it matters because of how it shaped history; perhaps because it allows us in the 21st century to draw lessons that bring us closer to our highest ideals of justice; or perhaps because the trial provides an especially clear way of understanding a particular place or time.

No understanding of the past is complete without an understanding of the legal battles and struggles that have done so much to shape it. Inside a survey of world history’s greatest trials are the key insights to critical issues we still talk about today, including:

  • freedom of speech,
  • the death penalty,
  • religious freedom, and
  • the meaning of equality.

And even when trials illustrate grave miscarriages of justice, they still have much to teach us about how law is an ever-evolving aspect of human civilization.

Join Professor Linder for The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us, a 24-lecture investigation of important legal cases from around the world and across the centuries. From the trials of Socrates in ancient Athens and Thomas More in Henry VIII’s England to the Nuremburg Trials in the wake of World War II and the media frenzy of the O. J. Simpson murder case, you’ll discover what each of these fascinating and profound trials has to teach us about ourselves and our society. The horror of the Salem Witch Trials, the drama of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, the trial for Nelson Mandela’s life—inside these and other cases are enduring lessons that can help us avoid repeating the errors of the past and that will strengthen your appreciation for the goal of justice.

New Perspectives on Familiar Cases…

Varied in its scope, The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us brings together a fascinating range of cases. Some of them advanced great causes. Some of them raised profound questions. Some of them turned defendants into martyrs. Some of them not only decided the fate of defendants, but also changed the hearts or minds of the public. And some of them went horribly wrong.

Professor Linder, with his broad knowledge of legal history and his knack for telling great stories, takes you back in time to revisit some of history’s most famous trials from fresh perspectives that ground them in the evolution of human ideas of law and justice.

  • The Trial of Socrates: One of the many interesting things about the philosopher’s trial is the procedural rules of ancient Athenian courts. Any citizen could initiate criminal proceedings. To discourage frivolous suits, Athenian law imposed fines on citizen accusers who were unable to win the votes of one-fifth of jurors.
  • The Salem Witch Trials: These trials are rightly considered one of history’s greatest travesties of justice. Evidence that we would exclude from modern courtrooms—such as hearsay and unsupported assertions—was admitted. Accused witches also had no legal counsel or formal avenues of appeal.
  • The Nuremburg Trials: This monumental event, which brought the Nazi’s crimes against humanity to the world stage, was actually composed of 12 trials. By far the most attention has focused on the first Nuremberg trial of 22 defendants—the major war criminals—and which set precedents for judges in subsequent trials to follow.
  • The Trial of the Chicago Eight: No legal case is more emblematic of American cultural divisions during the late 1960s. The chasm between the world views of the defendants and Judge Julius Hoffman reflected the deep divisions of the time: establishment versus the counter-culture, police versus protesters, and political decorum versus political violence.

…and Insights into Unfamiliar Ones

While The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us contains trials you may already be well familiar with, the survey also includes those that may be less familiar—but which are nevertheless equally important to a complete understanding of the history-making role trials have played throughout the vast story of civilization.

  • Trial by Ordeal: In one of three medieval trials you explore, you’ll learn how (according to the Annals of Winchester) King Edward the Confessor’s mother, Emma of Normandy, supposedly proved her innocence against charges of adultery by walking barefoot over red-hot ploughshares. Trials like these were designed to attract God’s attention. If the defendant was without guilt, God would step in and perform a miracle.
  • The Trial of Giordano Bruno: The execution of this original Italian thinker represented a failure of the Roman Inquisition to perform its mission, which was to “admonish and persuade” (not to terrify or punish). The man responsible for Bruno’s death at the stake, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, learned from Bruno’s case and proceeded differently 15 years later when he dealt with another alleged heretic named Galileo.
  • The Dakota Conflict Trials: These trials—392 in all—raise a number of intriguing questions. Were trials the appropriate end to a bloody conflict between a native population and a wave of settlers? When trials take place on the frontier, where no courts are operating, who should serve as judge and jury? Can we trust military officers to be impartial when they’ve just fought the men whose cases they will hear?
  • The Trial of Louis Riel: The trial and execution of Riel, who took up arms against the Canadian government and led the 1885 North-West Rebellion, became a turning point in the country’s politics. Opposition to Riel’s execution helped break the Conservative hold on French Canada. It also illustrates cultural tensions that continue in Canada today.

Throughout these lectures, you’ll also meet famous historical figures who played lead roles in some of world history’s greatest trials, including:

  • Cicero, who attacked the corruption of Rome’s tottering oligarchy during the Trial of Gaius Verres;
  • John Adams, the future president of the United States who paid a price for deciding to represent British soldiers during the Boston Massacre Trials; and
  • Clarence Darrow, perhaps America’s most famous defense lawyer, who championed the cause of defendants in both the Leopold and Loeb Trial and the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.

Explore the Crossroads of History and Law

“Apart from being terrific theater, great trials can shape history,” Professor Linder notes. “They can change attitudes and reinforce ideals. And they can provide a remarkably clear window for observing societies, both past and present.”

For years, Professor Linder has been fascinated by the stories behind the world’s great trials. He’s studied transcripts, examined facts, even collected exhibits from many trials—all in an effort to study the intriguing intersection between history and jurisprudence. Now he’s crafted The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us to share that fascination with you.

But these lectures are about so much more than just facts and narrative. They’re a chance for you to get to the beating heart of deeply human stories involving innocence and guilt, truth and deception, life and death. As momentous and (sometimes) bizarre as these trials can be, Professor Linder never lets you forget that human life—and human history—is always at stake.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Trial of Socrates
    After learning what makes a trial historically important, begin your survey of some of history's greatest trials with a visit to ancient Athens. It's here, in 399 B.C., that Socrates undergoes his trial for corrupting Athenians and disrespecting their gods. In the process, he lectures his jurors on the duty of seeking the truth. x
  • 2
    The Trial of Gaius Verres
    Cicero's greatest desire was to save the Roman Republic. For this reason, he charged Gaius Verres, a provincial governor, with crimes against the people. Central to this insightful lecture are Cicero's five orations, the Actio Secunda, which aimed to educate the Roman public about the corruption and rot in its political system. x
  • 3
    Three Medieval Trials
    Explore medieval beliefs about justice through the lens of three strange trials from the Middle Ages. The first involves a dead pope put on trial. The second involves an accused adulterer's walk over red-hot ploughshares. The third involves a jousting battle whose victor will be vindicated as a matter of law. x
  • 4
    The Trial of Sir Thomas More
    Travel back to Westminster Hall on July 1, 1535, when Sir Thomas More stood on trial for his refusal to acknowledge King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. Discover the story of how one of England's most revered men ended up on the chopping block and why it is both important and instructive. x
  • 5
    The Trial of Giordano Bruno
    What made Giordano Bruno's ideas on natural philosophy so dangerous to 16th-century thought? Why does his execution represent a failure of the Roman Inquisition to perform its mission to admonish, not punish? What impact did this trial have on another heresy case fifteen years later: that of Galileo? x
  • 6
    The Salem Witchcraft Trials
    According to Professor Linder, the Salem witchcraft trials illustrate the danger of drawing conclusions ahead of evidence—and of dispensing with procedural rules that can save us from rushing to judgment. Gain a greater understanding of the legal basis for a travesty that accused hundreds of people of practicing witchcraft. x
  • 7
    The Boston Massacre Trials
    A harbinger of the American Revolution, the Boston Massacre trials (and the reaction to the verdict) reflected the heated partisanship of the times. Central to this story is the young attorney John Adams, who paid a price for his decision to represent the accused British soldiers and their captain. x
  • 8
    The Aaron Burr Conspiracy Trial
    In great trials, can politics and justice ever be kept entirely separate? Explore this question by considering the conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr. This case, presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall, set the precedent that no one in the United States—even the president—is above the law. x
  • 9
    The Amistad Trials
    Learn about the legal importance of the Amistad trials by exploring three questions they presented. First: Are the African mutineers criminals? Second: Are they property? Third: If neither, what should happen to them? The ensuing controversy, you'll learn, helped build momentum for turning public opinion in the North against slavery. x
  • 10
    The Dakota Conflict Trials
    The 392 Dakota Conflict trials led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history. It also marked the end of a legal process unlike any used before or since in the nation. Consider whether or not these cases were an appropriate end to the conflict between settlers and Native Americans. x
  • 11
    The Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy Trial
    The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was only part of a larger conspiracy involving many men and women—eight of whom would be tried for conspiracy to murder the president and other officials. Join Professor Linder for a look at the verdicts, sentences, and procedures of the 1865 Military Commission. x
  • 12
    The Trial of Louis Riel
    Few of us know about the 1885 trial of Canada's Louis Riel. Yet it's important for what it reveals about tensions in Canada that exist to this day: between native and non-native, French-speaking and English-speaking peoples. It's a trial, as you'll learn, that became a turning point in Canadian politics. x
  • 13
    The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
    Old Bailey, the main courthouse in London, was the scene for a set of trials that captivated England and the literary world. Celebrity, sex, wit, political intrigue, important issues of art and morality and sexuality—learn about the role they all played in the charges against Oscar Wilde for “gross indecency.” x
  • 14
    The Trial of Sheriff Joseph Shipp
    Go back to March 1909, when the Supreme Court assembled to do something it had never done before and would never do again: listen to closing arguments in a criminal case. Learn how Sheriff Joseph Shipp's trial impacted the act of lynching and its relationship to the rule of law. x
  • 15
    The Leopold and Loeb Trial
    In the first of two lectures involving the nation’s most famous defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, focus on a trial involving a “thrill killing” by two rich and intelligent teenagers. Central to this lecture are Darrow’s impassioned efforts to save the confessed murderers from the gallows by challenging the morality of capital punishment. x
  • 16
    The Scopes Monkey Trial
    Defense lawyer Clarence Darrow also made history defending high-school teacher John Scopes at 1925’s famous “Monkey” Trial. Discover how the case that put the theory of evolution on trial brought to Tennessee a three-time presidential candidate, a flock of international reporters, and the battle for 1920s social mores. x
  • 17
    The Trials of the "Scottsboro Boys"
    Examine how the legal nightmare of the “Scottsboro Boys” trials extended for decades. It launched and ended careers. It educated the public about the plight of African-Americans. It divided—then united—America’s political left. And it illustrates what was wrong with America’s justice system in the 1930s. x
  • 18
    The Nuremberg Trials
    No trial, according to Professor Linder, provides a better basis for understanding the nature and causes of evil than the war crime trials in Nuremberg from 1945 to 1949. In this lecture, your focus is on the first of 12 trials, regarded by scholars as “The Trial of the Major War Criminals.” x
  • 19
    The Alger Hiss Trial
    Probe the far-reaching political effects of the trial of former State Department official Alger Hiss for perjury. They include: catapulting Richard Nixon to national fame; setting the stage for Joseph McCarthy's Communist-hunting; and marking the start of a conservative political movement that would put Ronald Reagan in the White House. x
  • 20
    The Rivonia (Nelson Mandela) Trial
    Why is the Rivonia Trial considered “the trial that changed South Africa”? Why did Nelson Mandela and his nine co-defendants seek to wage guerilla war against the South African government? How did the trial shape the future of South Africa, including Mandela’s election as the country’s first black president? x
  • 21
    The Mississippi Burning Trial
    Discover how the Mississippi Burning case took the nation deep into the darkness of the Ku Klux Klan and its hatred. By the end of this lecture, you'll learn how the trial would go on to change the Klan, change Mississippi, and change the course of civil rights in America. x
  • 22
    The Trial of the Chicago Eight
    It's been described as a travesty of justice. A circus. An important battle for the American people. A monumental non-event. Whatever conclusion you come to by the end of this lecture, few events better exemplify the conflict of values in the late 1960s than the trial of these eight radicals. x
  • 23
    The McMartin Preschool Abuse Trial
    Professor Linder takes you inside the longest, most expensive criminal trial in American history (with a taxpayer cost of over $15 million dollars). It was also a trial that produced not a single conviction—but highlighted the dangerous problems that happen when police and prosecutors leap to conclusions. x
  • 24
    The O. J. Simpson Trial
    How did the trial of O. J. Simpson come to command such media attention? What about the case caused it to be viewed differently by people of different races? How did it change the way celebrity trials are handled? Explore questions about one of the 20th century's last great trials. x

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Your professor

Douglas O. Linder

About Your Professor

Douglas O. Linder, J.D.
University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Douglas O. Linder is the Elmer Powell Peer Professor of Law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. He graduated summa cum laude from Gustavus Adolphus College and from Stanford Law School. Professor Linder has taught as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa and Indiana University School of Law. Professor Linder has published extensively in legal journals and books on such topics as great...
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Reviews

The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 39.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Set of Lectures! Each lecture is a separate story, all told with clarity and enough detail to hold one's interest. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2018-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating This is a fascinating review of some of the most interesting trials in history. I was familiar with most of the trials, but there were some unheard of ones that I found particularly interesting. Even for those that I already knew, the professor added a lot more color and background so that I now have a much better understanding. None of the lessons were boring. My one small complaint is that the course focuses a little too much on the Twentieth Century with over 45% of the trials coming from just that century. This is a worthwhile course, and I would enjoy more from this professor.
Date published: 2018-05-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wow! The title pretty much sums up my review of this outstanding course. If you are looking to be educated, informed, and entertained, this would be easily at the top of the list of the 40 + courses I have enjoyed. Let's face it, if you have any interest in the human side of history, then how can you not be intrigued to learn about topics from the trial of Socrates to one prosecuted by Cicero to Thomas More to the Salem Witch Trials to Oscar Wilde, the Scopes 'Monkey Trial', Nuremberg, the Chicago Eight, Nelson Mandela, OJ Simpson.... I was really disappointed to see this series end. Professor Linder has a very judicial temperament and does not tell us what to think, nor use any legalese to suggest how any of these trials would have been handled differently by a modern judicial system, He simply flatly states the facts and let's the reader 'jury' draw their conclusions. But the facts can often be sufficiently damning in themselves. I don't want to give any spoilers away, but, for example, when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years he was allowed to write one letter and receive one visitor .... A YEAR! Some trials, such as the Scopes Trial, the Chicago Eight, and, oddly even the absurdities of the McMartin Pre-School fiasco, are treated with wit and whimsy. Others, like the three trials concerning racism in the South, will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up in horror. It is very interesting that long ago trials from 'High Cultures' like Athens, Rome, or the Italian Renaissance seem very modern, and far more well reasoned than more recent affairs like Salem or the 'Mississippi Burning' civil rights murder trials. A couple of quibbles- The Nuremberg Trials may be the weakest segment as there are almost no references to the controversy of post ipso facto laws being pretty much made up as the affair went on. Also the choice to examine the trial of Bruni, (a heretic prosecuted by the cardinal who later, as pope, punished Galileo), was an interesting one, but I think I am not alone in wishing we had gotten Prof Linder's viewpoint on Galileo's trial instead. I hope my enjoyment and enthusiasm for this course shows through this review. Just a remarkably informative and enjoyable experience.
Date published: 2018-04-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course Enjoyed course. I learned a lot about history and the legal process. I knew about some of the trials, but still learned new things that put the issues in clearer perspective. I also went to the lecturer's "trial" website to learn more about other trials and more about the "trials" in the lecture.
Date published: 2018-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Interesting Every lecture well done. I especially enjoyed the jewels I was totally unaware of.
Date published: 2018-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great courses: Great trials of world history. This is an outstanding course! It combines all the legal, cultural, ideological and factual issues into a single course, and it is totally fascinating! The wonderful thing about the Great Courses is that it produces course materials that allows you to reach a level of expertise on any subject that is close to what you would get in an undergraduate University Course on that subject, without ANY of the problems that one normally experiences in attending University.....expense, time commitment and the fact that in a university course you are tied to ONLY the professors in that particular university. The Great Courses chooses the best professors in the subject matter, allows you to cover courses at your own schedule and most importantly, allows you to cover material at a cost that is about 1/100-1/1000 times what you would pay if you took EXACTLY the same course at a University! To show that I truly believe what I have said in the above statement, I have purchased 129 Great Courses to date over the last few years. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in educating themselves in any of these subjects to join the Great Courses. It is unquestionably the best investment you will ever make.
Date published: 2018-04-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fun Survey of Famous - and not so famous - Cases As a law professor, I originally bought this as a way to review important cases that have occurred over time. I quickly realized that my definition of "important" is different that the consumer's definition, and I'm glad the author opted for a consumer definition of important. This course swept through history, identifying interesting, significant and just plain strange cases. Where appropriate, the professor got into the nits of the case, in others he focused on the swirl of history around the case. He kept the tone light, and never got "lawyerly" about the subject matter. And, his choice of cases helped keep interest levels up. Sure, he chose some of the obvious cases (Socrates to start and O.J. to conclude), but he also reviewed some comparatively unknown, yet relevant cases. If you want to take a different tour through history, by viewing it through the lens of a courtroom, you'll find this a fun and engaging trip!
Date published: 2018-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 24 Excellent Lectures Professor Linder has selected 24 "great" trials from history, ranging from Socrates' trial to that of OJ Simpson. I had heard of about 1/2 the cases before listening to his course, but have no question about the validity of any of his selections. He covers each one from the perspective of a historian, describing the broad background issues that led to the trial, of a lawyer, discussing the key legal aspects of the trial, and of a futurist, analyzing the impact of the trial and its broader long-term effects. He has a comfortable style and is easy to understand and follow. One of the unique aspects of this course is that you don't have to listen to the lectures in sequence. Each trial stands on its own. This course is one of the best of the 30+ Great Courses I have enjoyed over the years.
Date published: 2018-03-27
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