Betrayed by her boots
When she pulled the trigger, the last thing Nancy Clem thought about was her boots. In 1868, she and an accomplice murdered Jacob and Nancy Jane Young in a riverside park northwest of Indianapolis. They’d owed the couple money, and she decided murder was the best way to solve the problem. But the “notorious Mrs. Clem” left behind a footprint. That’s what led to her arrest in one of the nation’s most celebrated murder cases until Lizzie Borden swung up her ax in 1892.
A young cowherd found the bodies the next day. Jacob Young had most of his face blown off by a shotgun. Nancy Jane Young had been shot in the temple by a pistol at close range. Something – possibly the gunpowder – caught her crinoline on fire. Her body was still smoking when the cowherd found them. The flesh of her thighs had been burnt off, her bones pulverized, and her intestines spilled out of her charred skin. “Burned to the crisp,” wrote one Indianapolis newspaper.
The Hoosier murder that shocked the nation
The police originally surmised it was a murder-suicide. But a small woman’s footprint and a shotgun purchased the previous day and left at the scene led them to the “notorious Mrs. Clem” (as the papers dubbed her) and her accomplice, William J. Abrams.
The case wrote history. The public was shocked that a woman could commit such a murder. A future U.S. President – Benjamin Harrison – cut his prosecutorial teeth on the case. The notorious Mrs. Clem was his first major trial. The case also showcases the first known use of the financial swindle known as the Ponzi scheme. That was the motive for the murder. But what most shifted the tectonic plates of history was that the case put women’s right to work on trial. In a new book by Indiana University history professor Wendy Gamber, The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), the author navigates both the murder and the societal tsunami it created.
If you’re looking for a conventional true-crime read, this book may not be for you, because the raw facts of history don’t always neatly fit into a narrative arc. Notorious Mrs. Clem slipped through the fingers of justice. Her first trial resulted in a hung jury. She was convicted of second-degree murder in the second trial, but Mrs. Clem appealed and the Indiana Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial. The third trial resulted in a hung jury and the fourth a first-degree murder conviction. Once again, the Indiana Supreme Court reserved and remanded. By then, six years later, most of the witnesses had left the state and the prosecution gave up. That’s not an emotionally satisfying ending to a true-crime book.
Notorious Mrs. Clem as a societal magnifying glass
But Wendy Gamber’s forte is history, and that’s precisely what she does so well in this book. Gamber uses notorious Mrs. Clem’s trials to dissect 19th-century Hoosier culture and values. Notorious Mrs. Clem became the first person to use the Ponzi scheme to bilk clients of their money, Gamber claims. Mrs. Clem borrowed money from her clients, promising to pay it back at attractive interest rates. But the money she paid back was nothing more than funds obtained from new clients. No Ponzi scheme can go on forever. Her debts to the Youngs forced a breaking point.
Notorious Mrs. Clem’s financial trading shocked not only Hoosiers but the rest of the nation. More than just guilt and innocence went on trial: Mrs. Clem made the public question women’s rights to manage their own businesses and keep their own profits. The trials serve as a magnifying glass to illuminate 19th-century ideas about gender against the backdrop of the emerging women’s rights movement. That’s what makes this case so fascinating.
In fact, you might say that the notorious Mrs. Clem left her footprints on history.
Disclaimer: I received an advanced review copy of The Notorious Mrs. Clem in exchange for an honest review.
What surprises you most about the notorious Mrs. Clem — her willingness to murder or her invention of the Ponzi scheme?
A daring jump
The night lights of Vienna swayed 12,500 feet beneath him as Gerald Blanchard perched at the airplane hatch. Once the Schönbrunn Palace came into sight, he signaled the pilot to slow down. Then Blanchard adjusted his parachute one last time. A nighttime jump to a city roof counted among the most dangerous types of skydives, but Blanchard was no ordinary thief. The theft he was about to accomplish – the Köchert Diamond heist – has taken its place among the most daring jewelry thefts ever.
The day before, he’d taken a palace tour. On display glittered Austria’s most famous jewel, the last remaining Köchert Diamond, one of the jeweled stars Empress Elisabeth used to wear in her hair. Blanchard hatched a plan to steal it.
An expert at analyzing weaknesses in security systems, Blanchard lingered behind the tour group, videotaping the room and making preliminary preparations. From the roof, he decided. Whoever planned the palace security system didn’t that method of entry into account.
Blanchard then contacted a friend of his, a German pilot, to fly him over the city that night for the jump. Once inside the palace, he dismantled the display case and switched out the diamond with a replica he’d purchased in the museum shop.
A crime that touched history
He may not have known it, but as his hand touched the diamond, Blanchard’s 1998 crime converged with one of Europe’s greatest 19th-century crimes. The only woman to ever have worn that star, the Empress “Sisi,” fell victim to an assassin’s knife in 1898.
Jennifer Bowers Bahney’s new book, Stealing Sisi’s Star: How a Master Thief Nearly Got Away with Austria’s Most Famous Jewel, masterfully weaves the Köchert Diamond heist and the royal assassination into a compelling story. She joins us today for an interview about both of them.
Interview with Jennifer Bowers Bahney
What is Sisi’s Star and why is it so famous?
Empress Elisabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, loved her ankle-length hair and went to great pains to care for and dress it. She had a personal hairdresser who spent nearly three hours each day braiding it into intricate updos. Once, when Sisi was at the theater, she saw an actress with jeweled stars pinned throughout her hair, and Sisi decided that she would commission her own “hair stars” from the royal court jewel firm, Köchert. The jeweler created 27 ten-pointed stars for Sisi to pin throughout her braids featuring 30 graduated diamonds and a large center pearl set in white gold. (The hair star I write about in the book is known as the Köchert Diamond Pearl). When being painted for her state portrait in 1865 (“Empress Elisabeth in a Star-Spangled Dress” by Franz-Xaver Winterhalter), Sisi wore the stars in place of an old-fashioned tiara. The decision was considered very fashion forward and original.
Why was only one left in 1998?
Sisi actually had several sets of hair stars created, some versions were all diamonds without center pearls. Different sets were bequeathed to relatives (her grand-daughter, Erzsi, received a full set for her wedding after Sisi’s death). After World War I, when the Habsburg monarchy was disbanded, many formerly-titled royals broke down their jewelry and sold the gems piecemeal since they no longer received income from the state. This may have been the fate of many of the stars. There may also be a forgotten set locked away in a vault somewhere in Europe. A private collector who owned the last known Köchert Diamond Pearl lent it to Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna in 1998 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Sisi’s assassination.
You compare the Gerald Blanchard, the man responsible for the Köchert Diamond heist, to James Bond. Why?
Gerald Blanchard is a real genius with the unique ability to size-up security systems and figure out how to successfully dismantle them. He was also one of the first thieves to use modern technology like pin-hole cameras, listening devices and computers to perpetrate his crimes. The Canadian police I spoke to said they had never seen anyone take so much time, effort, and patience to complete his crimes. For the Sisi Star theft, Blanchard said he parachuted onto the roof of Schönbrunn Palace in the dead of night, slipped inside, evaded the motion sensors and security guards, and plucked the star from a weight-sensitive pedestal. To me, his actions played like a James Bond film!
How did you get Blanchard to talk to you about his theft of Sisi’s Star?
I contacted a journalist named Josh Berman who wrote a story on the Sisi Star theft for Wired Magazine. He gave me Blanchard’s email address, which was something like a bunch of random numbers @hotmail.com. I sent an email introducing myself, telling him that I was writing a book, and asking him to contact me. I waited several days and heard nothing back. So, I decided to appeal to his vanity. I sent another email telling him that I spoke to an authority at Schönbrunn who didn’t believe he pulled off the crime the way he said he had; the official thought Blanchard had inside help and wasn’t the “James Bond character” he wanted everyone to believe he was. I told Blanchard that only he could clear this up for me. I got a fairly immediate email back with a phone number saying, “call me.”
What surprised you most about Blanchard?
I think I was surprised by his humanity. He seemed like a very nice, very intelligent person who grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks” and discovered he had a talent for theft. He bought his mother a home with some money he stole when he was a teenager. And he took more jail time later in life so that his accomplices wouldn’t have to serve any. By the end of the Sisi Star caper, all of the Canadian cops seemed to really like him. So, he definitely wasn’t an uncaring psychopath and his crimes never turned violent. But I think he was a narcissist who had to become his own best champion because he didn’t receive the safety and stability he needed as a kid. He had learned to use his extraordinary intelligence and talents to take care of himself.
Was the German pilot ever identified?
Not to my knowledge. Blanchard is trying to get a movie made of his life, so we’ll see if he gives up the pilot in the future!
Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) is often compared to Princess Diana. In what ways were they similar?
Both women were born noble, and were very young and sheltered when they married into top-tier monarchy. Both had a difficult time coping with their mothers-in-law and their new positions in the limelight; they were both considered “difficult” and both suffered from eating disorders. Interestingly, Sisi spent time at Althorp House where Lady Diana would one day grow up. There may have been a portrait of Sisi somewhere on the estate as a gift given during one of her many riding excursions with Earl Spencer, so Diana may have been familiar with Sisi’s reputation as “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
In what ways was Sisi like her Wittelsbach cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria?
Both Sisi and Ludwig considered themselves to be “otherworldly creatures” who were misunderstood by the average people. They loved poetry, theater, and being around other beautiful people. Both suffered from “melancholy,” or depression. Madness in all its forms was said to be the “Wittelsbach Curse.”
What do you like most about Sisi?
This is a tough one. I like her creative mind, her independent spirit, and her originality, but I did not like her selfishness and her refusal to help her husband when he needed her most. He was under tremendous political stress, and there are many “public relations” moves she could have initiated to have bolstered the opinion of the monarchy in the eyes of the people. Concurrently, she could have used her great fame to help the people more — just like Princess Diana did with AIDS patients and land mines. Sisi visited a cholera hospital and a mental ward here and there, but was never known for her “service” to the people. I also think it’s tragic that she didn’t have a better relationship with her children. She rarely interacted with Gisela, who was married off at 16; never tried to understand her son, Rudolf, who committed suicide; and smothered her youngest daughter, Marie Valerie with overwhelming love and guilt. My new book takes a look at Marie Valerie’s life and quotes quite a bit from her diary where she expresses dismay at her mother’s behavior.
How was Sisi assassinated?
Sisi was staying at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, and was walking along the quay toward a steamer ship to her next destination when she was stabbed by an anarchist. Everyone thought she was OK at first, but she slowly bled to death internally. Sadly, Sisi always refused a police escort or bodyguards in her attempt to remain independent. She thought she was traveling incognito, but everyone knew who she was. Also, the anarchist had been simply looking for anyone of royal blood to kill in order to make a statement, and Sisi just happened to cross his path at the wrong time.
What is Blanchard doing today?
Blanchard served his time for the crimes that caused him to turn over the Sisi Star, then changed his name to Rick White and worked as a cable installer for a time in Canada. Today, he seems to travel a lot to Asia and he has a penchant for drones and posting his exploits as Rick White on social media.
Did Austria ever prosecute him for the Köchert Diamond heist?
Austria never prosecuted Blanchard for stealing the Sisi Star, probably because they never had enough evidence against him. In fact, had it not been for the Canadian Police who caught him for another international crime, the star might still be hidden away in a very unlikely hiding spot.
Thank you, Jennifer!
If you want to read how Blanchard avoided the motion detectors and display case alarms in the palace, and how Canadian authorities finally caught him, you’ll need to read the book. I don’t want to give everything away.
Literature on point:
Jennifer Bowers Bahney, Stealing Sisi’s Star: How a Master Thief Nearly Got Away with Austria’s Most Famous Jewel (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015).
What would you do if you had clues to a murder no one else knew about?
And what if you knew the authorities wouldn’t believe you? Would you still try to preserve your information? Even worse, if the case involved the murder of a U.S. president, your dilemma would take on historical significance. According to Fred Rosen, who recently published a book about the assassination of President Garfield in 1881, that’s exactly what happened. Through newly accessed documents, Rosen found hints about the true assassin in Alexander Graham Bell’s correspondence. Those clues don’t point to Charles Guiteau, the disappointed office-seeker who shot and injured President Garfield at a train station.
Who murdered President Garfield, then? Dr. Bliss, Garfield’s treating physician who managed the president’s bullet wound, says Rosen. Bliss has long been suspected of committing malpractice by mismanaging the case and using unsanitary techniques. An ensuing infection killed the president. But Alexander Graham Bell’s correspondence tells a different story: Dr. Bliss purposely sabotaged Garfield’s treatment. And his actions crossed the line into criminal conduct.
Fred Rosen, a former New York Times columnist and author of twenty-four books on true crime and history, published his research results on September 1. The book’s called Murdering the President: Alexander Graham Bell and the Race to Save James Garfield (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2016). If the book interests you, Rosen has generously offered a 30% discount for my blog readers. You can download the coupon here.
Fred Rosen joins us for a discussion today on the question of who murdered President Garfield. Welcome, Mr. Rosen!
Interview with Fred Rosen on who murdered President Garfield
The most surprising claim in your book is that President Garfield’s treating physician, and not Guiteau, killed Garfield. Why is that?
Alec Bell left a trail behind him for someone to discover what he knew: that Bliss murdered Garfield and discredited the Induction Balance. I followed that trail because I am a homicide investigator and historian who followed the evidence. Plus, new 2014 medical findings helped. Finally, Bliss’s full, previous criminal history that has never before been published until now.
Dr. Bliss had a criminal history?
Dr. Bliss had a long traceable record as a criminal and con man, including being court-martialed for cowardice at the Battle of Bull Run. He also accepted a bribe when he was the head of Armory Square Hospital during the Civil War. That’s just the beginning.
What were the 2014 medical findings?
Bliss perforated the President’s gallbladder with his unnecessary exploration for the bullet. This has never before been revealed.
Who chose Dr. Bliss as Garfield’s treating physician?
Secretary of War Robert Lincoln.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s son! Why he choose Dr. Bliss?
Bob Lincoln called in Bliss because he knew he had treated his father after he was shot. On the basis of that publicity, Bliss built a prominent Washington practice, despite the fact that Lincoln’s attending physician, Charles Leale, wouldn’t let Bliss touch the president. Bob didn’t know that because he was out of the room during most of his dad’s treatment.
Wouldn’t have Guiteau’s bullet killed President Garfield anyway even if it weren’t for Dr. Bliss?
No. The autopsy showed that the bullet safely encysted inside the president’s body. If Bliss had left him alone, President Garfield survives. And even if he decided to operate using the Induction Balance to locate the bullet, he wouldn’t have had to explore for it, let alone DELIBERATELY explore for it on the wrong side of the president’s body. That is why it is second-degree murder.
When does medical malpractice cross the line into murder?
That is what second-degree murder is: depraved indifference to human life. Exactly what Bliss did.
Candice Millard wrote a bestselling book about Garfield’s death in 2012 — “Destiny of the Republic.” She also espouses the theory that Garfield’s physicians killed him. What does your book offer that hers doesn’t?
That is incorrect. I read it. She espouses the theory that his DOCTORS killed him by not practicing sepsis. That is not the case; the evidence does not back her conclusion. Only one doctor killed him. Bliss deliberately killed Pres. Garfield and discredited Alec Bell’s invention. That also eventually led to Pres. McKinley’s death. It’s all in the book.
The other surprising claim in your book is that Alexander Graham Bell invented the metal detector in an effort to save President Garfield’s life. Please explain.
Alec Bell figured there had to be a less barbarous way of finding the bullet than exploring for it with the Nelaton Probe and the scalpel through healthy tissue. He knew that magnetism was the answer and so he invented the world’s first metal detector to find the bullet in the president’s body. And this was 1881!
How did Dr. Bliss sabotage Alexander Graham Bell’s efforts? And why?
He wouldn’t let Bell use his invention; he wielded it, incorrectly, himself. Dr. Bliss wouldn’t look for the bullet on the side of the body the other MDs thought it was in because he staked his reputation on it being someplace else in the President’s body. He didn’t want to look bad in front of the public. And, he did a lot, lot more to deliberately sabotage Bell’s efforts It’s all in the book, revealed for the first time how Bliss murdered the president.
What kind of a background did Dr. Bliss have?
Trained as a surgeon, he served in the Union Army during the Civil War and ran the other way at the Battle of Bull Run. He was excellent at using newspapers to promote his practice and bad at treating his patients. He was a con man who took bribes and fooled his patients.
Did Alexander Graham Bell leave behind clues to Dr. Bliss’s maltreatment of the president?
Yes, in his correspondence with his wife Mabel and the scientific paper he wrote about his efforts that I got ahold of.
Why didn’t Bell take that information to the authorities himself?
Because no one would believe a doctor deliberately killed a patient in 1881. And perhaps more importantly, when James Garfield died, Bell was up in Boston consoling his wife and grieving himself: they had just had a son who died at birth.
Is the Hank Garfield who wrote the foreword to your book related to President James Garfield?
Hank is the great-great-grandson of President James Abram Garfield and First Lady Lucretia Garfield.
Thank you, Fred Rosen!
Who murdered President Garfield? Based on what you just read, whom do you blame more for Garfield’s death, Charles Guiteau or Dr. Bliss?
A new clue on a bullet
With his scalpel, the doctor carefully traced the wound track through the dead man’s body. It entered the man’s left chest and traveled downward. The bullet had passed the third rib, sliced through the right side of the heart, and then the diaphragm and liver. At the wall of the transverse colon he found it. Alexandre Lacassagne was not likely to overlook a good clue.
The bullet made a soft plink as the doctor set it aside for further examination. Even in the 19th century, the projectiles found in murder weapons could offer valuable clues. Their sizes offered clues to the caliber of the murder weapon, and their weight to their manufacturer.
Alexandre Lacassagne as the man for the hour
Alexandre Lacassagne, a French pathology professor, had an outstanding reputation in law enforcement. For good reason. He could coax evidence from dead bodies that most people overlooked. The pathologist founded his own school of criminology in Lyon, France, and took major steps in fashioning a field for a new brand of physician: the medical examiner. By February 1888, when Alexandre Lacassagne performed this autopsy, his school had already become famous.
When he examined the bullet more carefully, he noticed a clue he hadn’t seen before. Seven scratches etched its surface. The bullet was slightly deformed from having nicked that rib, but that didn’t explain the scratches on the other side of the bullet’s surface.
What could have caused them?
Rifling and striations
Lacassagne called in an expert, a gunsmith from the renowned weapons manufacturer Verney-Carron, who verified they came from the rifling grooves in the gun’s barrel. Seven was an unusual number for rifling, however.
Then a suspect was found in possession of the victim’s savings account book. He had an old Belgium revolver, and sure enough, it had seven grooves in the barrel. Alexandre Lacassagne didn’t stop there. He performed test shooting in his laboratory. With the suspect’s Belgium revolver, the pathologist shot bullets into a corpse wearing similar clothing as the victim’s and sought to recreate the same angle. Then he removed the bullets from the body and compared them with those from the victim. They matched. That evidence helped prove the case against the suspect.
Alexandre Lacassagne cracks yet another case
Alexandre Lacassagne worked on a similar case, also in February 1888. A bleeding 78-year-old man knocked at his neighbors’ door. He’d been shot several times, including through the larynx, and he couldn’t say what happened to him. He died several days later.
When Lacassagne dissected the bullets from the man’s body, he weighed them and examined their surface. The bullets appeared partially deformed. They sported an abnormal groove that didn’t seem to come from the firearm’s rifling. He called in the same gunsmith for an expert opinion.
When a revolver was found at the home of the suspect’s girlfriend, Alexandre Lacassagne again used it for test shooting. The gunsmith discovered that the revolver itself was slightly deformed: its sight protruded into the barrel, and that’s what caused the distinctive groove. The evidence was used to convict the suspect of murder.
Systematic research and publication
Realizing he was onto something, Lacassagne and one of his students researched various brands of revolvers and recorded the types of striations left of their projectiles. The scratches on the bullets can be used, if not to identify an individual weapon, the brand or make of the revolver. When Alexandre Lacassagne published his results in 1889, he’d laid the groundwork for a new forensic science: forensic ballistics or firearms identification. He’s now considered the founding father.
An even older case
One exciting part of my research for my forthcoming book, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee (Kent State University Press), was the discovery that forensic ballistics is much older than Lacassagne. More than fifty years prior to Alexandre Lacassagne’s seminal publication, a German detective had used the same technique. Like Lacassagne, he compared the striations on a projectile removed from a murder victim’s body, performed test firing with a suspect weapon, and together with a gunsmith, compared the striations. A firearms technician with the German state police tested his method in the police lab in 2015 and came up with the same results. My book is coming out in the spring of 2017 and I’m thrilled to add to the history of forensic ballistics. I’ll be naming new contenders for the titles of founder and birthplace of forensic ballistics.
If the topic interests you, you can sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be sending updates leading up to the book’s launch.
Literature on point:
Douglas Starr, Killer of Little Shepherds (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 46-47
Alexandre Lacassagne, “De la déformation des balles de revolver, soit dans l’arme, soit sur le squelette,” Archive de Antropologie Criminelle et des Sciences Penales 4 (1889), 70-9.
Jürgen Thorwald, Jahrhundert der Detektive (Zurich: Droemer, 1964), 488-493;
Eugene B. Block, Science vs Crime, (San Francisco: Craigmont Publications, 1979), 65-81.