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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
Literature on point:
*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).
An Interview with Ron Franscell, Coauthor of the New Book, “Morgue: A Life in Death”
Vincent van Gogh’s death is one of greatest mysteries of the art world.
Historians can tell you this much for sure: The Dutch artist was staying in Auvers, France in July, 1890, and at nightfall one Sunday, he returned from painting outdoors. He was clutching his stomach and his paints and easel were gone.
The landlord rushed to van Gogh’s aid and discovered a gunshot in the painter’s abdomen. Despite medical attention, the wound became infected, and van Gogh died two days later.
In 1956, the landlord’s daughter published her memories of Vincent van Gogh’s death. The artist, she recalled, admitted to having injured himself. In the minds of art historians, suicide became the official cause of death.
Two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers researching Vincent van Gogh’s death stumbled across archival contradictions, eventually concluding someone had shot the artist. They published that theory in a book, Vincent van Gogh: A Life, in 2011. Revisionist history always meets with resistance, and this was no exception. Art historians balked.
To bolster their claims, the two authors turned to a world-renowned expert on gunshot wounds, Dr. Vincent Di Maio. He examined the historical record with the eye of a pathologist, and his conclusions might surprise you.
Dr. Di Maio teamed up with national bestselling author Ron Franscell to publish a collection of those cases that made Dr. Di Maio famous: the exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald, the controversial shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unmasking of a serial baby killer, and the true cause of Vincent van Gogh’s death.
Morgue: A Life in Death was published on May 17, 2016, and promises to be a good read. Ron Franscell joins us for an interview to pull back the curtains on an old French case.
Ron, what are the strongest arguments that Vincent van Gogh was shot by another person?
Dr. Di Maio told van Gogh’s biographers the description and location of the wound are inconsistent with a self-inflicted gunshot in 1890.
As two attending doctors and other eyewitnesses described it, the clean, pea-sized wound showed no evidence of messy, obvious soot or powder stippling, which the black powder-filled civilian handgun cartridges of the time would have caused in any point-blank or close-up shot. Even his blouse and jacket would not have blocked all the super-hot particles and gases from the muzzle blast. Dr. Di Maio calculated that the pistol’s muzzle would have been AT LEAST 20 inches from van Gogh’s side when the shot was fired.
But equally important is the location: on or just below the bottom rib on the artist’s left side (about where your left elbow would touch your side if you stood with your arms straight-down by your side). Data showed that it is rare for a suicidal man to shoot himself in the torso, and even rarer for him to shoot himself in the low part of his side (not a direct shot to the heart). And the notion is far-fetched that a right-handed man would hold a gun at least 20 inches from his side with his left hand to fire a shot that he wished would kill him. (If you try to re-enact it, please be sure your gun is unloaded! But I think you’ll find that it is clumsy and damn near impossible.)
Supporting evidence also informs the scientific analysis. The gun was never found, even though many people searched for it. The artist’s painting equipment, left behind after his fatal wounding, was never found either. And it was known that while the troubled genius van Gogh sometimes mused about his own death in his letters, as a former clergyman he also believed suicide was an immoral act.
Dr. Di Maio’s conclusion: “It is my opinion that, in all medical probability, the wound incurred by van Gogh was not self-inflicted.”
Could we call Vincent van Gogh’s death a murder?
All murders are homicides, but not all homicides are murder. Certainly, Dr. Di Maio would call the manner of Vincent van Gogh’s death a “homicide.” There is, however, a distinct possibility it was an accidental shooting by someone else. There is not enough evidence—nor ever likely to be—to prove what really happened, but the forensic evidence suggests it was not an intentional shooting by van Gogh himself. Whether this homicide [the catch-all term for any killing of one human by another] was “murder” or “manslaughter”—both criminal forms of homicide that require intent or negligence—or merely an accident is unknown.
Why the myth of a suicide? And how did it hinder later investigation and research?
To be fair, van Gogh himself suggested that he alone was responsible, and he wasn’t exactly the celebrity that he is today. The investigation was cursory and, like today, the death of an addled, itinerant, penniless, and nearly homeless person wouldn’t mobilize the national police. As we sometimes still see in modern media, the real story gets lost as it is retold over time. Gossip becomes fact becomes history. In the village where it happened, a lot of people believed van Gogh had been shot by someone else, but over time, the story of a troubled genius saying goodbye to this cruel world became the superior narrative.
The resistance of many van Gogh curators to the homicide theory shows another reason why researchers and investigators would have had a difficult time pursuing it. They would have been pooh-poohed, ridiculed, and criticized—as the biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith were—by some of the keenest official sources on the artist’s life.
A major part of Dr. Di Maio’s argument rests on the assumption that the weapon was loaded with black powder, which burns dirty and is more likely to leave behind powder burns. Smokeless nitrocellulose powder was developed in 1884. Even if the gun had been loaded with the newer, cleaner powder, wouldn’t it also leave powder burns at a close range?
Yes. Even in 2016, point-blank and intermediate-range gunshots leave powder tattooing, burns, and other expulsive evidence. In 1890, it would have been dirtier and more pronounced, even in the unlikely event that this old, balky pistol had been loaded with the “high tech” ammo of the day.
Dr. Di Mao’s response: “The first form of smokeless powder was invented in 1884 in France. It was a military secret but by 1888 other countries were producing it. It was first used in military rifles.”
Dr. Di Maio’s opinion was based solely on the appearance of the wound, as described by the attending doctors. Where a close-up shot would have shown definite powder tattooing (even in modern times), van Gogh’s very definitely did not. Dr. Di Maio reasons that in 1890 it would have been even more pronounced, for the reasons we write.
Who was René Secrétan? How did his statements affect the research into Vincent van Gogh’s death?
Rene was a village boy who delighted in hectoring, teasing, harassing, and pranking van Gogh, who was a slightly crazy, odd-acting, funny-dressing loner. Rene might have been the subject of one van Gogh drawing, but mostly their relationship was bully and victim.
In the 1950s, Rene gave an interview to a French paper about van Gogh. Although he didn’t say anything directly about the wounding, he described that old pistol as having a mind of its own. He said specifically that it would sometimes go off without any help from a trigger finger. Was he describing what happened when van Gogh was wounded? Had he seen it? Nobody knows. The reporter didn’t follow up and Rene died fairly soon afterward.
At least one witness later described seeing van Gogh on the fateful day with some local boys in a barnyard that was in the opposite direction of the fields where he claimed he’d been painting. It might have been misremembered, or it might not have been what he saw at all, but it intrigues us to think that maybe van Gogh didn’t tell the whole (or genuine) story about what he was doing when he was shot.
Again, because the gun, his easel, brushes, paints and other equipment were never found, the story accrues more mystery.
Are there any indications Secrétan wasn’t completely forthcoming?
See above. But 60 years after the fact, why talk about a balky gun?
Secrétan claimed to have learned of Vincent van Gogh’s from a Paris newspaper. Why would a Paris newspaper report the death of an unknown, derelict artist out in the country?
Historians have never been able to find any such mention in any newspaper, probably for the reasons you state: Vincent van Gogh was not a known person and his death simply would not have been news.
Vincent van Gogh’s death came just two years after the French pathologist Alexandre Lacassagne invented the field of forensic ballistics. Did the French police use that technique to match the bullet in van Gogh’s abdomen to a weapon?
The bullet was never removed, and the gun never found, so ballistic analysis—even in its primitive form—was never done. The bullet lies buried in van Gogh’s remains, but the gun has never been found, so even today, ballistic expert would be stymied.
Did the painter suffer from a psychiatric illness? Did that play a role in Vincent van Gogh’s death? And could it have affected the veracity of his statements to the gendarmes before he died?
Yes. Vincent van Gogh had been institutionalized and even in his life was presumed to have mental illness. Today, we can inventory his symptoms and give them a better name, but at the time he was definitely considered “crazy” and “troubled.” Whether the gendarmes attributed his statements to being crazy or not, we cannot know. But we know he spoke to them, answered their questions fairly calmly, and they were satisfied that no further investigation was necessary.
One of the big surprises in your book is that there was more than one crime that affected Vincent van Gogh’s life. An argument with impressionist painter Paul Gauguin about a serial slasher precipitated the famous incident of van Gogh cutting off his ear. That was in 1888. Was the criminal they were arguing about the London Monster? He was active from 1888 to 1890.
No, it was reportedly the case of a prostitute killer named Luis Carlos Prado, who ultimately was beheaded for his crimes. The argument was apparently over an au courant artistic discussion about whether murder was simply a natural human instinct, or a primitive act. You can imagine where the former clergyman van Gogh came down on that.
Why does all this matter 125 years later?
One thread that ties MORGUE’s fascinating cases together was our tendency, as humans, to leap to conclusions. We often see events through the prism of our own biases and form everlasting conclusions, even before we have all the facts. It was true in the case of Trayvon Martin (the book’s first chapter), the West Memphis Three, and other stories we tell in this book, including van Gogh (the last chapter).
From the book: “By and large, some in the art world resist the notion of a homicide, whether accidental or premeditated, because it’s neither dramatic nor poetic enough. After all, painters, poets, and lonely lovers die so much more romantically if they drink from their own little poison vials, or cut their veins beneath a pale blue moon, or swim far out into the sea with no intention of swimming back. “
Many artists were so invested in the idea of a great (but overlooked-in-life) artist’s suicide that they didn’t want to hear a more plausible and less romantic alternative.
So one of the roles of forensic science is to deliver objective facts. It should tell us honestly and candidly what we must know as a society. Forensic evidence is the bedrock of justice. It doesn’t change its story or misremember what it saw. It doesn’t cower when a mob gathers on the courthouse steps. It doesn’t run away or go silent out of fear. It tells us honestly and candidly what we need to know as a society.
Nevertheless, even with history’s most powerful forensic tools, these stories show that popular opinion and scientific facts are frequently at odds, sometimes violently.
Thank you, Ron, and good luck with your new book!
Do you find Dr. Di Maio’s arguments on Vincent van Gogh’s death convincing? Why or why not?
Literature on point:
Vincent Di Maio and Ron Franscell, Morgue: A Life in Death (St. Martin’s Press, 2016)Read More
And did Mark Twain mistake the empress for someone else?
Mark Twain’s account of an encounter with Empress Augusta of Germany counts among his most hilarious sketches of Baden-Baden. It appears in A Tramp Abroad, where he recorded his 1878 visit to an English-speaking church in the German resort town.
In the church sat a celebrity: As the wife of Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany, Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (1811-1890) held the titles of Queen of Prussia and Empress of Germany. She was well-connected. Empress Augusta of Germany was Catherine the Great’s great-granddaughter, and her grandson Friedrich married Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter.
And that makes Mark Twain’s description of her particularly puzzling.
Mark Twain and the Empress Augusta of Germany in Baden-Baden’s church
Because his hired coachman was so well dressed, wrote Twain in A Tramp Abroad, “we were probably mistaken for a brace of stray dukes; why else were we honored with a pew all to ourselves, away up among the very elect…. In the pew directly in front of us sat an elderly lady, plainly and cheaply dressed; at her side sat a young lady with a very sweet face, and she also was quite simply dressed; but around us and about us were clothes and jewels which it would do anybody’s heart good to worship in.”
Twain began to feel sorry for the old lady:
I thought it was pretty manifest that the elderly lady was embarrassed at finding herself in such a conspicuous place arrayed in such cheap apparel; I began to feel sorry for her and troubled about her. She tried to seem very busy with her prayer-book and her responses, and unconscious that she was out of place, but I said to myself, “She is not succeeding–there is a distressed tremulousness in her voice which betrays increasing embarrassment.” Presently the Savior’s name was mentioned, and in her flurry she lost her head completely, and rose and curtsied, instead of making a slight nod as everybody else did. The sympathetic blood surged to my temples and I turned and gave those fine birds what I intended to be a beseeching look, but my feelings got the better of me and changed it into a look which said, “If any of you pets of fortune laugh at this poor soul, you will deserve to be flayed for it.” Things went from bad to worse, and I shortly found myself mentally taking the unfriended lady under my protection. My mind was wholly upon her. I forgot all about the sermon. Her embarrassment took stronger and stronger hold upon her; she got to snapping the lid of her smelling-bottle–it made a loud, sharp sound, but in her trouble she snapped and snapped away, unconscious of what she was doing. The last extremity was reached when the collection-plate began its rounds; the moderate people threw in pennies, the nobles and the rich contributed silver, but she laid a twenty-mark gold piece upon the book-rest before her with a sounding slap! I said to myself, “She has parted with all her little hoard to buy the consideration of these unpitying people–it is a sorrowful spectacle.” I did not venture to look around this time; but as the service closed, I said to myself, “Let them laugh, it is their opportunity; but at the door of this church they shall see her step into our fine carriage with us, and our gaudy coachman shall drive her home.”
Then she rose–and all the congregation stood while she walked down the aisle. She was the Empress of Germany!
No–she had not been so much embarrassed as I had supposed. My imagination had got started on the wrong scent, and that is always hopeless; one is sure, then, to go straight on misinterpreting everything, clear through to the end. The young lady with her imperial Majesty was a maid of honor–and I had been taking her for one of her boarders, all the time.
This is the only time I have ever had an Empress under my personal protection; and considering my inexperience, I wonder I got through with it so well. I should have been a little embarrassed myself if I had known earlier what sort of a contract I had on my hands.
We found that the Empress had been in Baden-Baden several days. It is said that she never attends any but the English form of church service.
Truth or tall tale?
With Mark Twain’s travel literature, it’s not always easy to tell. Germans love to say that Twain’s 1878 raft trip down the Neckar River, a travel adventure covering several chapters in A Tramp Abroad, inspired Huckleberry Finn, published just a few years later. But that trip never happened – a fact documented in Twain’s travel journal. His German riparian expedition navigated nothing more than the river of his imagnination.*
On the other hand, one of Twain’s most incredible tales – about a secret passage in the town in Dilsberg, Germany, with its entrance in the town well – turned out to be true. Inspired by Twain’s story to search for it, archaeologists discovered the passage years later. It’s now open to the public and one of Dilsberg’s tourist attractions. Some of Twain’s tall tales do have kernels of truth in them. Twain’s interplay between fact and fiction make him so interesting.
So how much of Twain’s story about Empress Augusta of Germany can we trust?
To answer that, I turned to one of her biographers, Karin Feuerstein-Praßer. She joins us today, not only to insert her historical scalpel between Twain’s fact and fiction, but to introduce us to a woman who wasn’t afraid to buck convention and was fascinating in her own right. You can read about Feuerstein-Praßer’s book, Augusta: Kaiserin und Preußin, below.
Interview with biographer Karin Feuerstein-Praßer
Frau Feuerstein-Praßer, did Empress Augusta of Germany visit Baden-Baden often?
Yes, she came there regularly, especially to meet with her daughter Luise, the Grand Duchess of Baden.
Did she worship at the English church there?
That hasn’t been precisely documented, but it’s entirely possible. Augusta had – much to the regret of her subjects – a preference for all things English (and French), which one can see in her reading material. Although she grew up to a certain extent under Goethe’s wing, German literature hardly interested Augusta at all.
Where would she have sat in the church?
Augusta was a very status-conscious lady who always avoided contact with “ordinary” people. She would have never mixed with “normal” visitors in the church, but would have taken a separate place of honor.
Was Empress Augusta of Germany very religious? Would it be in character for her to curtsey at the name of the Savior instead of inclining her head like everyone else?
Yes, August was indeed a deeply religious woman who interpreted her Protestant faith in her own fashion. As a child, she often accompanied her mother, Maria Pavlovna, to Russian Orthodox services and loved its mystical atmosphere, redolent with incense. The Protestant faith was much too sterile for her; she missed the sensual experience, the spirituality. For this reason, it’s possible that Augusta curtsied during the service, perhaps as a reflex from her childhood, but perhaps it was also a gesture with which she wanted to express her own conviction. Whenever Augusta took leave of her children, for example, she blessed them with the sign of the cross, which was in no way usual for Protestants.
Was she a member of the Pietist movement?
No, definitely not. Like I said, she tended towards Catholicism, and her opponents even accused her of having secretly converted to the Catholic faith. That, of course, is complete nonsense.
Twain says she snapped her smelling bottle a lot. Was she known to carry a smelling bottle and use it?
Smelling bottles like that were actually more for temperamental ladies who wanted to call attention to themselves. Augusta was exactly the opposite. She was a dutiful and disciplined woman through and through who would have never allowed the public to see her human weaknesses. Her use of a smelling bottle is thus extremely unlikely. And if she did use one, then Augusta would have never “played” with it during a church service.
You describe in your book how Augusta wasn’t feminine enough for the emperor. Was her dress unfeminine or inelegant?
When Wilhelm married Augusta, he was already a man of ample erotic experience. He had hoped to find a sensual partner in Augusta, but the exact opposite was the case. She was cool and disciplined in bed. Sex didn’t appear to be much fun for her. In his letters, Wilhelm always complained of Augusta’s “lack of femininity.” But that didn’t apply to her clothing, in fact, the opposite was true. Already as a young woman, Augusta was very fashion-conscious, and for the somewhat conservative Prussian royal house, way too fashion-conscious. It annoyed Wilhelm that his wife had to follow every trend, and he hoped that would blow over with time. She was only 17 years old when they got married.
Do you think it’s at all possible that Mark Twain could mistake Empress Augusta of Germany for a poor woman?
I consider it absolutely inconceivable. The period reports all emphasize that Augusta was invariably attired to perfection and with elegance. She used cosmetics, valued a well-fitting hairstyle, and wore jewelry – and all that into her old age. It is of course possible that she selected more ordinary clothing for her church visit, but nevertheless, representation of “majesty” was important to her, everywhere and at all times. There was absolutely nothing folksy about her.
Thank you, Frau Feuerstein-Praßer!
Have you ever encountered a celebrity without knowing who they were? It’s happened to me!
Literature on point:
Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, ch. XXIV (public domain)
Mark Twain, Notes and Journals
Karin Feuerstein-Praßer, Augusta: Kaiserin und Preußin (Munich: Piper Verlag, 2015)
*Richard Bridgman, Traveling in Mark Twain ((Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987) 100.
About the book, Augusta: Kaiserin und Preußin: When the Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach married the Prussian Prince Wilhelm, she had no idea she would one day become the first empress of Germany. Raised in the cultural atmosphere of Goethe’s era, she was highly educated and had pronounced appreciation for art. Only with the Revolution of 1848 did she step into the spotlight of history: As the liberal wife of the Prussian king and later emperor, she sought to influence her husband’s conservative politics. But she had a powerful enemy in Otto von Bismark, whose military plans to unite Germany were hated by the staunch pacifist.
Piper Verlag, 320 pages. Unfortunately available only in German.
The author, Karin Feuerstein-Praßer, ist a freelance historian in Germany and author of numerous biographies.
The thing that scares me most about the Jack the Ripper case is not the murders. Oh, no. It’s the number of suspects!
The list of men accused of the world’s most famous serial killing spree now far outstrips the number of victims, and fresh suspects appear every decade. With the publication of each new Ripper book comes totally convincing arguments that the newly introduced suspect could have murdered and mutilated at least five women in Whitechapel in 1888. That always leaves me with lingering questions:
Were Victorian men really that depraved? Were there so many of them really capable of history’s most famous serial killing spree?
The answers suggested in the Ripper literature frighten me more than the crimes, because collectively, they say yes.
With that ripe fodder, I’m opening a new historical true crime blog category: Ripper suspects. I don’t really have a favorite candidate and won’t advocate for one over the other. This category will present the suspects objectively.
One suspect, however, more than any other, gives me goose bumps. It’s not because I’ve singled him out as the most likely candidate. It’s because I knew him – through his poetry – even before anyone ever fingered him as Jack the Ripper, and viewed him as an eloquent champion of the Christian faith. Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven, accompanied me through my childhood with its haunting images of a God who pursues the fleeing sinner:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
– Francis Thompson, excerpt from The Hound of Heaven
As it turns out, Francis Thompson knew a few things about sin. At La Trobe University, in Melbourne, Australia, Richard Patterson discovered a Thompson-Ripper connection in a research project. He’s continued investigating Thompson for twenty years and just published the book, Francis Thompson – A Ripper Suspect. Patterson will be a featured speaker at Ripper Conference this coming November in London. (You can read more about him at the end of the post.)
Reading Patterson’s book gave me a wholly different view of the poet who inspired both J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. Now I’d be afraid to travel back in time and meet him. Here’s why.
Mr. Patterson, What are the strongest arguments for Francis Thompson as a Ripper suspect?
Apart from his prose and poetry in which he wrote on killing prostitutes with a knife before the murders and writing about killing women with a knife after the murders, Thompson had the means and opportunity to have committed the Whitechapel murders. In researching the life of Francis Thompson it can be shown that during the final murder Thompson was living in the Providence Row night refuge. This was a homeless shelter situated at the end of Dorset Street, the street that the last Ripper Victim, Mary Kelly, was killed in. As well as being only yards away from Kelly, Thompson, during the murders, lived within walking distance of all the murders. I can also show that Thompson was carrying a dissecting scalpel, and being homeless at the time, it was always in his coat pocket. Added to this, Thompson had trained as a surgeon for several years. He had been trained in dissection techniques that are similar to the wounding done to the victims. Thompson also may have been a suspect who was questioned by the London City Police, at the time of the murders. Thompson’s motive can be primarily traced to the fact that not long before the murders began, Thompson was rejected by a prostitute, who broke up with him and fled him. All the victims were prostitutes.
Who first recognized Francis Thompson as a Ripper suspect? When and why?
In 1988, the year that coincided with the anniversary of the Whitechapel murders, Dr. Joseph Rupp, a Texan forensic pathologist, published an article “Was Francis Thompson Jack the Ripper?” It came out in a British journal the ‘Criminologist’. His article examined Thompson’s medical skill discussed Thompson living as a vagrant in London during the murders. Rupp explained that Thompson was seeking out a prostitute who had left him. I have spoken with Dr. Rupp many times, since making contact with him in early 2015. He told me he had studied the works of Francis Thompson and as well as his pathology, he had in interest in poetry. Rupp, who had been introduced to the works of Francis Thompson in college and knew a little about his life, could see how Thompson could be the murderer. Rupp’s article was the first to openly suggest Thompson was the Ripper. My book shows that it appears that other writers have also hinted, before Dr Rupp’s article, that Thompson was the Ripper
Thompson wrote a poem, Nightmare of the Witch-Babies, about a knight stalking and killing a prostitute and then cutting out her uterus to find two unborn children. Was that a usual topic for Victorian literature?
And its paunch was rent [her belly was ripped]
Like a brasten drum [burst drum];
And the blubbered fat
From its belly doth come
It was a stream ran bloodily under the wall.
O Stream, you cannot run too red!
Under the wall.
With a sickening ooze – Hell made it so!
Two witch-babies, ho! ho! ho!
– Francis Thompson, excerpt from Nightmare of the Witch-Babies
Victorian literature has always had a dark gothic element and the industrial revolution with the accompanied rise of science and medicine brought with it a morbid fascination in anatomy. Novels and serialized magazines, which dealt with the exploits of criminals like the body snatchers Burke and Hare and highwaymen, were also very popular. Even with all this interest in crime and medicine, the gruesomeness and visceral intensity of Thompson’s poetry, in which he reveled in the gory detail of killing and disembowelment of women, surpasses the darkest fiction of the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or Thomas Dequincy. No other works by any other author focuses so strongly or takes such delight in describing the mutilation of women. Only the sardonic Jack the Ripper letters provide any comparison.
Did Jack the Ripper ever cut the uterus out of any of his prostitute-victims?
Yes. Annie Chapman, who is known as the Ripper’s second victim, had her uterus removed.
Has anyone performed handwriting and/or linguistic analyses to compare Thompson’s poems to Jack the Ripper’s purported letters?
Yes. In my research I visited the Kew archives in London and took forensic photographs of the Dear Boss letter. This is a letter that has become infamous for the belief that the killer had written it during the murders and sent it to Central News Agency in London. The letter boasted of the crimes and it is from this letter that the name Jack the Ripper originates. I believe I am the first and only person to have taken photographs of the Dear Boss letter, using a template superimposed over it, so that it could be used as evidence in a court of law. I also travelled to Boston College’s Burns Library in the United States. Here are the most comprehensive archives of Francis Thompson’s letters and manuscripts. I also took photos of Francis Thompson’s handwriting. In 2009 I sent samples of Thompson’s writing and the Dear Boss letter to a document forensic examiner. He concluded that the handwriting did not match. I have not sought a second opinion. Proving that Francis Thompson wrote the Jack the Ripper letters would only show that Thompson knew about the murders and not that he was the Ripper, but I still believed that once my research was complete, people would enquire if it could be shown whether Thompson wrote the Ripper letters, the Dear Boss letter, in particular. Others, such as Dr. Joseph Rupp, have urged me to get a second opinion and also see if Thompson’s handwriting matches other purported Ripper letters, such as the From Hell, letter that was sent to a member of a Whitechapel vigilance committee. The letter was accompanied by a piece of kidney preserved in a cardboard box and some believed that this kidney matched a Ripper victim. As of now, I believe that some of the Ripper letters may have been written by Thompson, and that the Dear Boss letter was written by another person who knew both about the Ripper crimes and about Thompson’s personal circumstances. I detail this in my book and provide an explanation for who wrote the Dear Boss letter and why.
Some authors say Jack the Ripper displayed anatomical knowledge in mutilating his victims. True? Or just a Ripper myth?
I believe it is true. That the Ripper held anatomical knowledge was also something that some of the doctors who examined the victims and some of the police who investigated the case also believed.
In your book, you describe how the poet mutilated dolls as a child. How does that strengthen the argument for Francis Thompson as a Ripper suspect?
When criminal psychologists have studied serial killers and looked at the formative years, they have seen that serial killers show a propensity for mutilation themes in their childhood. Although acts of mutilation does not automatically lead to serial killing they are considered as factor which shows a latency of serial killing. Childhood mutilation acts are one of three indicators which psychologists have named the Triad. The other two are fire-starting and arson as well as bedwetting. Of the bedwetting, I have seen no evidence that this can be applied to the poet, but Thompson, on several occasions, started fires.
As a medical student, Francis Thompson paid money to dissect extra cadavers. Was that usual for a medical student of his time? To what extent might it have pointed to a pathological interest in dead bodies?
Paying extra for anything was unusual for medical students at the time, and probably is still unusual. It should be noted that Thompson’s medical school saw the practical study of anatomy as far more instructive then the reading of textbooks. So it could be argued that teachers would have urged that students spent their extra money on working on more cadavers than was usually allowed. None the less, his family expressed surprised that Francis Thompson spent so much on extra cadavers.
How close did Francis Thompson live to the victims at the time of the murders?
Because Francis Thompson was a vagrant from 1885 to 1889 and spent most of his time living on the streets, it has been hard to track his whereabouts. What we do know is that he used the Salvation Homeless shelter in Limehouse which was the district adjacent to Whitechapel where the murders happened. We also know that he spent nights walking along Mile End road, which is a busy thoroughfare in Whitechapel. It can also be established, by Thompson’s own admission that he stayed in Providence Row. The most likely time, given the strict entry conditions of the Row, was during the first weeks of November 1888. Mary Kelly was killed on November 9th. From the building Thompson had his bed in, a resident could look out the window down the 80 or so yards to the covered archway that led to Mary Kelly’s bed. No other known suspect can be shown to have lived so close to one of the murder sites.
Did Thomson experience any significant life events when the Ripper murder series started?
Yes. Criminal psychologists look to what stressors where in in play, when a serial killer first begin murdering. Just before the Ripper murders, a prostitute who he had been living with for a year dumped Thompson. She fled him after she found out that he had become a published poet. Included in the submission of poems delivered to the editor that published a poem of Thompson’s was his ‘Nightmare of the Witch Babies’ poem that detailed the killing of prostitute. Previous biographers have stated that Thompson’s friend left him because she did believed that their relationship, if he became an established writer, would cause a scandal. Thompson was devastated by her leaving him and this emotional upheaval happened at the same time of his transition from a homeless man to a working journalist with responsibilities. Thompson was also a long time opium addict, just before the murders Thompson also began to withdraw from a drug that he had been on for many years. I believe that all of these things as well as earlier traumatic episodes in his life and a previous mental breakdown contributed to his mind snapping and him living out in reality what he had only previously reserved for the pen
Why do you think Thompson stopped killing?
Because doing so became physically impossible. Only days after the last murder, Thompson was placed in private hospital for exhaustion and taken to a faraway, male-only country monastery. He spent most his remaining years in monasteries and when he did live in London it was under supervision and within a limited area, far away from where the murders happened. As my book explains, his return to London, however, coincides with other murders, some of which have attributed to Jack the Ripper.
In his book, “The Cases that Haunt Us,” FBI behavioral scientist John Douglas offers a criminal profile of Jack the Ripper. He says the extent of the mutilation of the Jack the Ripper’s last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, indicates the Ripper was at the end of his rope, psychologically speaking. Such a person would have trouble functioning in society. Does that speak against Francis Thompson as a Ripper suspect? In other words, do you think Douglas’s assessment still would apply to a former medical student trained in the Virchow technique of organ removal at autopsy, and who had already “mutilated” a number of bodies, albeit for medical school dissection?
Yes it would. Thompson’s physical condition and his letters and written work reflect a man at the brink of a complete nervous breakdown immediately after the murders and on several occasions in the following years.
You’ve indicated that Thompson’s editor covered up evidence of the poet’s guilt. How?
After Thompson’s death, in 1907, his editor, who lived until 1948, took complete control of Thompson’s papers. Within days of Thompson’s death, his editor orchestrated the revising of Thompson’s life by suggesting that Thompson hated his medical studies and spent all his time in libraries instead of the surgery. That Thompson stayed at Providence Row, which Thompson himself wrote about in essays and articles, was erased from subsequent publications. Other works of Thompson which showed Thompson in a bad light were burnt by his editor. His editor also made unauthorized alterations to Thompson’s work, removing references to murder and killing women. His editor saw nothing wrong in forging Thompson’s signature so that it would appear that the altered poems were original works.
Thank you, Richard Patterson!
Were you already familiar with Francis Thompson through his poetry? Given what you just read about him, would you feel comfortable meeting him in a dark alley?
Literature on point:
Robert Patterson, Francis Thompson – A Ripper Suspect (self-published, February 2016)
Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (1893, public domain)
Francis Thompson, Nightmare of the Witch-Babies (unpublished, 1887, public domain)
Richard Patterson biography:
Born in Melbourne in 1970, Richard Patterson, a High School Teacher, independently determined that Thompson may be the Ripper in 1997. Patterson’s continued research has made him a guest speaker at the 2005, UK Jack the Ripper Conference, held in Brighton. He has been invited to speak again on his book and his latest findings at the 2016 Conference to be held in London. He has had articles published on the theory in newspapers, magazines and journals. He authored the Francis Thompson page on the Ripper Casebook, the world’s most visited Ripper website. His research into this suspect has made news headlines around the world. Media interest includes, The UK Express, The Lancashire Evening Post, The UK Daily Mail, The UK Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor Magazine, The New York Daily News, The UK Sun, The UK Daily Star, The Examiner.com, The UK North West Tonight News & Sydney’s 2UE Radio Station, The Echo, and The Northern Star.
Patterson’s research relies on press reports, police documents, letters, biographies, uncut-volumes, and the first hand examination of historical and artifacts relating to the case. These include the Ripper’s infamous ‘Dear Boss’ letter of which Patterson personally handled, at London’s Kew Archives. He also visited the Burns Library at Boston College in the US, where Patterson read Thompson’s notebooks of 1888, and many other original documents including Thompson’s private letters.Read More