Hot evidence in a cold case
New evidence in a 130-year-old unexplained death? It’s unusual, but it can happen.
In the case of the mysterious death of Bavaria’s King Ludwig II, the new evidence takes the form of Dr. Gudden’s death mask. Munich’s Rosenheim Museum rediscovered it in its attic in 1999. The mask tells a story that casts new light on Ludwig’s death.
Bavaria’s greatest unsolved mystery
Just how did King Ludwig II die on 13 June 1886? No one knows for sure.
The Bavarian government had just deposed the 40-year-old king as unfit to rule and placed him under guard at Bavaria’s Castle Berg on the shores of Lake Starnberg. Following an evening walk on the lakeshore, Ludwig and Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, Bavaria’s best-known psychiatry professor and expert witness in the proceedings to depose the king, were found floating face-down in the waist-deep waters of the lake. No one witnessed their deaths; no one knew exactly what happened.
Autopsy results on the king found no cause of death. There was no water in his lungs and no visible mortal injury – just a scrape on his knee. Theories about the deaths have spiraled out to suicide, homicide, and various forms of an accident. You can read more about the mysterious case here, and for the reasons many Bavarians think it was murder, click here.
The Bavarian government’s official explanation
The Bavarian government’s official explanation for the deaths was homicide-suicide. King Ludwig II rushed into the lake to commit suicide. When Dr. Guddden tried to stop him, Ludwig killed him. Then he waded out into deeper waters to drown himself.
The problem with this theory is that two pieces of evidence – the men’s pocket watches and Dr. Gudden’s death mask – bear silent witness to the contrary.
The riddle of the pocket watches
King Ludwig’s pocket watch stopped at 6:54 pm. If the government’s theory were true, you’d expect Dr. Gudden’s watch to have stopped earlier because he would have been floating in the water longer than King Ludwig II.
The reverse, however, is true. Dr. Gudden’s watch stopped at 8:06 pm – 72 minutes after the king’s watch did. This discrepancy is one of the most hotly debated aspects of the case.
Once water enters a pocket watch’s machinery, it will stop very quickly. In a televised experiment for a German documentary, a watchmaker dropped a replica of a 19th-century pocket watch into a glass of water. It stopped after 20 seconds.
Various theories have been advanced to explain why the discrepancy might still be consistent with the government version. According to one, Dr. Gudden often forgot to wind his watch. Hence, it may have been running too fast or slow. Likewise, historians have argued the king habitually set his watch back a half hour or more.
The doctor was known to close his watch lid very tightly, and that might have affected how quickly water entered the watch’s gears. Furthermore, Ludwig wore less clothing – only a shirt and vest – when he entered Lake Starnberg. He had stripped off his jacket and greatcoat first, but Dr. Gudden kept on his. Thus, it would have taken the water longer to saturate Dr. Gudden’s outer clothing and reach the watch.
But would it really take 72 minutes?
It’s hard to know which version to believe. Fortunately, there was a third clock ticking, a biological one – one whose accuracy could not be influenced by human maintenance or clothing. That clock, visible on Dr. Gudden’s death mask, sets the pocket watch discrepancy in a new light.
Dr. Gudden’s death mask
For decades, Dr. Gudden’s death mask disappeared among stored and boxed items of the Rosenheim Museum in Munich. A worker rediscovered it in 1999 and it became the subject of an exhibition in 2014.
The mask shows injury to Dr. Gudden’s face. His right eye – the left one from the viewer’s perspective – is visibly swollen. The Rosenheim Museum could not provide me with an image I could use for this post, but you can view the swelling in this German talk show by forwarding to 2:13-17.
The eye injury on Dr. Gudden’s death mask is consistent with descriptions of Gudden’s face following his death. Dr. Heiß, the substitute district physician who assisted the investigating magistrate, noted blue coloring under the right eye and frontal eminence of the brow which appeared to be caused by a heavy blow from a fist. Two government officials described swelling above Dr. Gudden’s left eye (they probably meant left from their perspective). The psychiatry professor Dr. Grashey recorded a broad contusion on the right frontal eminence. Dr. Müller, Gudden’s assistant, noted “not insignificant” blue coloring, over the right eye, which he also thought might have been caused by a fist. Finally, a district commissioner made a similar observation. He found indications of a blow to Dr. Gudden’s right brow.
Antemortem, perimortem, or postmortem?
A pathologist today would try to categorize Dr. Gudden’s bruising according to when it happened – before, at the time of, or after his death. Generally speaking, injuries received before death show swelling. Once the circulatory system stops at death, injuries are less likely to swell. This means Dr. Gudden might have survived the blow to his eye for a period of time before he died. And that would underscore the pocket watch discrepancy.
But there are exceptions. Certain postmortem conditions can cause pseudo-bruising, lending an antemortem appearance to a postmortem injury. One such condition is the position of the body. Dr. Gudden floated face-down in the water for two to three hours before he was found, allowing blood to pool in his face. That pooling might have caused some swelling even after death. He was laid in a supine position after he was found, and that might have reserved the effects by the next day.
Whether Dr. Gudden’s death mask and the descriptions of his injury are enough to pinpoint the time of injury is an issue for a pathologist. Strangely, I’ve found nothing in the literature indicating that Ludwig or Gudden historians have ever approached a pathologist with this question. It’s an important one, because if Dr. Gudden survived his presumed fight with the king for any period of time, the government explanation starts to crumble and the watch discrepancy takes on a new significance.
A British television producer interviewed me about this case in October 2016. I suggested the team take this question to a pathologist. The episode will air in April or May with UKTV as part of a series called “Royal Murder Mysteries,” and with luck, it will also air on the Discovery Channel in the U.S. I’ll be looking forward to seeing if an expert addresses Dr. Gudden’s death mask.
Literature on point:
“Akte Mord – Historische Kriminalfälle,” Welt der Wunder Wissensthek (Schröder Media, 2008), DVD.
“Das Geheimnis der verschollenen Totenmaske,” OVB online (13 May 2014).
“König Ludwig II & Bernhard von Gudden – Stadtgespräch München,” München-TV (10 July 2015).
“Ludwigs letzte Sekunden: Bei der Bestimmung des Todeszeitpunktes hat Uhr des Königs geholfen. Rätsel bleiben ,” Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung (11 July 2011).
C. McIntosh, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria (I.B. Taurus, rev. ed. 2012).
J.P. Saxena, “Medico-Legal Significance of Bruise,” Legal Service India (2000-2015).
Alfrons Schweigert, Der Mann, der mit Ludwig II starb: Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, Gutachter des bayerischen Königs (Husum Druck- und Verlagsgesellschaft, 2014).
Vanezis, “Interpreting Bruises at Necropsy,” J. Clin. Pathol 54:348-355 (2001).
You don’t need a pistol to rob a bank. A pen will do nicely, too.
As the American Civil War drew to a close, a 19th-century forgery conspiracy proved that point quite nicely. Dressed as elegant businessmen, the crooks robbed banks with pen and paper. In time, this group became the most successful forgers in the world. Its crimes almost broke the Bank of England. The case pitted the best detective in the world – Willie Pinkerton – against the so-called “Terror of Wall Street,” and led law enforcement on a wild goose chase throughout the world.
The 19th-century forgery case that made history
British author and broadcaster Nicholas Booth recently published a book about the 19th-century’s most famous fraud case, The Thieves of Threadneedle Street: The Incredible True Story of the American Forgers Who Nearly Broke the Bank of England (New York: Pegasus Books, 2016). He tells the true story of the most spectacular forgery in history – how four Yankee rascals attempted daylight robbery from the Bank of England. Their crime has never been equaled in complexity nor scope ever since. In 1873, a boom in financial services – thanks to a rise in negotiable paper and international trade – led to a brisk market in what were known as bills of exchange. They were essentially credit notes that could be bought and sold by reputable bankers. “A bill on London” had the financial weight of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street (the Bank of England) behind it. And, needless to say, clever criminals realized they could make a killing.
Author Nicholas Booth joins us for an interview.
How did one commit a 19th-century forgery?
Slowly and carefully – if they wanted to avoid jail! Forgers had to be a unique mixture of artists, chemists and criminals. The key to what they had to do was learning how to forge documents. That took practice and refinement. And when the gang in this story moved to London, they realized they could sub-divide all the tasks involved to innocent craftsmen– platemaking, letterings, ink and paper production, and the actual printing. All they had to do for themselves was learn how to forge signatures. For that, they teamed up with a master forger who styled himself as “The Terror of Wall Street”.
At some point, a particularly talented group of criminals started up a 19th-century forgery ring in North America. Tell us about them.
Two of them were brothers, Austin and George Bidwell. They were born in Michigan and it is hard to know who was the worse influence! They started out in long firm fraud in the 1860s – that is, obtaining goods on credit and then selling them off before the money was due. They did that all over the mid-west. They then roped in an Irish-Canadian called George Macdonnell who was a charming, slippery rogue and he knew someone called Edwin Noyes Hills, who they tended to use as the catspaw – the innocent dupe. They moved to New York in about 1867 and learned their trade over the next five years. They became ever more ambitious.
You say this group committed the first truly professional white-collar job – one that set the standards for future criminals. What did it do?
It showed that you didn’t have to use brute force to commit a 19th-century forgery. Thanks to the rise of government bonds, you didn’t have to use dynamite or violence. So long as you were clever, methodical and took things slowly, you could build up credit, bona fides and credibility. That’s what they started to do in New York – and then all over the U.S. In 1871, they planned a spectacular – where small checks would be changed to bigger ones all on the same day in different cities – but one of their helpers panicked. So they carried on in other parts of Europe, where they weren’t so well known – and the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street was an obvious target.
How did this gang move on from American forgeries to international ones?
They were put up to it by the New York Police Department. The cops regularly took a rake off after turning blind eyes to the removal of international bonds in Manhattan. The whole market wasn’t regulated. So two of them came to Europe in 1870 and because all Americans were presumed to be rich, they were believable. They used that for seed capital for a series of other jobs. Two years later, all four of them crossed the Atlantic together and spent the best part of 1872 probing and learning about the European monetary system to find any weaknesses. Incredibly, they didn’t attempt anything fraudulent for those nine or so months.
What countries did its members visit and defraud?
Great Britain, France, Austria, Germany, and Ireland. That was in 1870. They came back to London two years later and then, in the spring of 1873, they added Spain and Cuba to their list of destinations. They were literally chased all over the world.
How close did they come to breaking the Bank of England?
Very! The odd thing was that in the months when they presenting forged bills of exchange at the bank, they made silly mistakes which should have been picked up. But they weren’t. Even though the bank gave them just over £100,000 – about $5 million in today’s money! – its officials didn’t check on their bona fides, their credit or even their real identities. It was really a race against time – the ticking clock is basically the heart of the story.
How did the Bank of England catch the forgeries?
By accident. Three months into the fraud, they had sent in a bill of exchange that had a signature missing. When one of the clerks in Threadneedle Street came to investigate, he realized something wasn’t quite right. He checked all the files and, to his horror, saw that all these particular ones were forgeries. So there was a hue and cry and one of the forgers was caught red-handed in another bank that same day.
What role did the Pinkerton National Detective Agency play in catching the forgers?
A crucial one. Willie Pinkerton, who ran the Chicago office, knew all of them of old. He actually bumped into them on The Strand in London the winter before so knew that they were up to something. He’d heard a “spectacular” was being planned. So he warned the Bank of England but wasn’t listened to. When the forgeries were discovered, he had a pretty shrewd idea who was behind it all. And so the chase began!
Were all of them caught?
Yes, in the sense that the four main characters were. There were chases, escapes and double crosses. Yet when they were all run down, many in law enforcement felt that there might have been others involved; and I end the book with a death bed confession which adds credence to that. I’ll let the reader decide!
Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe petitioned for a more lenient sentence for one of the forgers. Why?
All four had the book thrown at them. They were given life sentences, but one by one, they were let out – apart from the youngest, Austin Bidwell. For some reason, the British authorities thought he was the mastermind even though he was only 27 years of age when he had been sent down. When they were sentenced, there was shock. Nobody lost their lives or livelihoods and, ultimately, the bank was insured. So the wise and famous got involved in petitions on Austin’s behalf – and even when he saved a drowning man in a prison, the authorities still wouldn’t let him out for another decade.
Thank you, Nicholas Booth!
Literature on point:
Nicholas Booth , The Thieves of Threadneedle Street: The Incredible True Story of the American Forgers Who Nearly Broke the Bank of England (New York: Pegasus Books, 2016).
Watergate burglary of the 19th century
It was 2:00 a.m. on December 14, 1874 when the burglar alarm went off. None of the residents in Holmes van Brunt’s house on Long Island could have known that the clanging alarm would earn its place in the history of burglar alarms. For its connection to a nationally publicized crime and its role in unraveling it, the break-in that night was the Watergate burglary of the 19th century.
Holmes van Brunt heard the alarm in his bedroom and sent his son Albert out to the house next door, where the alarm had been set. He thought maybe the wind had blown open a shutter and triggered the alarm. Albert grabbed a lantern and pistol and walked over. But he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw a light on in the house and shadows passing behind the window. That house belonged to his uncle, the judge, and no one was supposed to be there right now.
If anyone understood the importance of protecting his home, Judge Van Brunt did. His caseload in New York City had included plenty of thefts and burglaries. Now he sat in the New York Supreme Court and heard appeals on such cases. He knew the importance of protecting his vacation house on Long Island against burglary.
So he installed a burglar alarm designed to ring at his brother Holmes’s house next door.
History of burglar alarms
If it surprises you that people used electromagnetic home security systems as early as 1874, you should crack a volume on the history of burglar alarms.
Animals offered the most popular home security before 1700. Watchdogs, geese, and even pigs sounded an alarm if strangers approached a house. In the early 18th century, that started to change. Homes and businesses saw a move to mechanical systems. Tildesley, an English inventor, mechanically linked door locks to sets of chimes. A skeleton key in the lock set the chimes a-ringing and offered a new kind of home security.
The idea spread to the American colonies. In the early 1700s, a bank in Plymouth, Massachusetts earned a place in the history of burglar alarms by installing what was perhaps the world’s first mechanical bank alarm. It used a tripwire that ran from the safe’s door handle to the cashier’s house next door.
By 1852, someone figured out how to harness electricity to fend off burglars. Albert Augustus Pope, a Massachusetts minister, fitted magnetic contacts and metal foil to windows and doors. If someone tried to move them, the system sounded a bell. Edwin Holmes bought Pope’s patent in 1857 and began marketing the electromagnetic burglar alarm in New York City. At first, customers were skeptical about the device, but by 1866, Holmes had already outfitted 1200 homes with an alarm.
Then along came a burglary that showcased the alarm and gave it national publicity.
The Van Brunts confront two burglars
Albert raced back home to tell his father there really was a break-in in the judge’s vacation home next door. Holmes and Albert Van Brunt, together with a neighboring gardener and a second hired man, armed themselves with guns and took positions at the front and back doors. Holmes and the hired man entered the judge’s house from the rear. Holmes then opened the trapdoor to the pantry and discovered two men there. Testimony at the coroner’s inquest indicates the burglars fired first. Team Van Brunt returned the fire and shot two men. One, William Mosher, died at the top of the pantry stairs; the other, Joseph Douglas, made it out to the front lawn before he collapsed. Douglas died three hours later, but not before he made a confession. “It’s no use lying now. I helped steal Charlie Ross…. Mosher knows all about it.”
Testimony at the coroner’s inquest indicates the burglars fired first. Team Van Brunt returned the fire and shot two men. One, William Mosher, died at the top of the pantry stairs; the other, Joseph Douglas, made it out to the front lawn before he collapsed. Douglas died three hours later, but not before he made a confession. “It’s no use lying now. I helped steal Charlie Ross…. Mosher knows all about it.”
“It’s no use lying now. I helped steal Charlie Ross…. Mosher knows all about it.”
Douglas had just confessed to one of the worst crimes of the century: the kidnapping of four-year-old Charlie Ross. In fact, the judge who presided over the trial of one of the burglars’ co-conspirators said it was widely regarded “as the worst crime of the century.” Those words were particularly astonishing in August 1875, when the horror of the Lincoln assassination still held the American public in its grip. Why was the kidnapping of a boy worse than the assassination of the president?
Charlie Ross: snatched from the street
Charlie Ross and his five-year-old brother Walter had been playing in front of their home in Philadelphia on July 1, 1874. They accepted an offer of candy from two men in a horse-drawn carriage and climbed in with them. (The parental admonition not to take candy from strangers is a legacy of the Charlie Ross kidnapping.) The men drove the boys out of town and then to the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, where they let Walter out. Then they rode off with Charlie. Two days later his parents received a ransom note. “we is got him,” it said in broken English, “and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand. you will have to pay us before you git him.” The note demanded $20,000.
Two days later his parents received a ransom note. “we is got him,” it said in broken English, “and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand. you will have to pay us before you git him.” The note demanded $20,000.
That was a first.
America’s first kidnapping for ransom
No criminal had ever demanded ransom in an American kidnapping before. The novelty struck terror in the nation’s heart because it highlighted the vulnerability of its children. Parents feared losing their children more than losing their president. Following Charlie’s kidnapping, Pennsylvania became the first state to make child-snatching a felony. It had only been a misdemeanor when Charlie was snatched.
The legal change came too late to help Charlie. Although the police made some inroads in investigating the case, they never found the boy. You can read more about Charlie’s kidnapping in Carrie Hagen’s fascinating book, “we is got him: The Kidnapping That Changed America (New York: Overlook Press, 2011).
Charlie’s case had one unforeseen effect in the history of burglar alarms. Because the Van Brunt burglary was inextricably entwined with both the novel burglar alarm and a nationally publicized kidnapping, Edwin Holmes received a wave of free publicity for his new product. As newspapers all over the country reported the burglary and confession, readers devoured the story of the burglar alarm and its effectiveness. This was the first case to give the burglar alarm major publicity.
A twist of fate linked the first kidnapping for ransom with the history of burglar alarms. Burglar alarms are still with us. But except for the parental admonition not to take candy from strangers, Charlie Ross has been largely forgotten.
Literature on point:
“Back to Basics: Where Did the Burglar Alarm Come From?” Vintech (2011).
Fass, Paula. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997).
Hagen, Carrie. “The Story Behind the First Ransom Note in American History,” Smithsonian.com (Dec. 9, 2013).
Hagen, Carrie. we is got him: The Kidnapping That Changed America (New York: Overlook Press, 2011).
Lee, Seungmug, “The Impact of Home Burglar Alarm Systems on Residential Burglaries.” Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 2008, ProQuest 3326964.
International Foundation for Protection Officers. The Professional Protection Officer: Practical Security Strategies and Emerging Trends (Elsevier, 2010).
Ross, Nick. Crime: How to Solve It – And Why So Much of What We’ve Been Told is Wrong (Biteback Publishing, 2013)
“The Mystery Solved. The Abductors of Charlie Ross,” Indiana State Sentinel, 22 December 1874.
As the executioner’s sword lobbed the man’s head off in an arching crimson spray, the crowd lunged forward. It wasn’t the sensationalism of a violent death that drew all the people clutching their white handkerchiefs. It was the blood. Bubbling from the criminal’s torso in two scarlet fountains, that blood promised healing power in medical folklore, and the crowd surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs in the magical red fluid. The roots of this medical folklore run deep – through two millennia and various cultures. And its impact on public executions lasted well into the 19th century.
Belief in the healing power of blood dates back to the ancient world. In 11th book of Homer’s Odyssey, the dead, starting with the Thebian Tirsesias, drank the blood of Odysseus’s sacrifice of sheep and it revitalized them. Human blood came into play in the Egyptian medical folklore described by Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia in the 1st century. It was dangerous for the common folk when an Egyptian king caught leprosy, wrote Pliny, because the royalty bathed in warm human blood to treat the disease. Both Pliny and a 1st c. AD colleague, Aretaeus of Cappadocia also recommended consumption of fresh blood from slaughtered gladiators or executed criminals as a cure for epilepsy.
The German physician Gunver Anna Maria Werringloer wrote a recent doctoral dissertation on the public treatment of the executed corpse in the 19th century. Medical folklore was one of the reasons why public executions were so popular, she writes. People thought both human blood and other body parts had the power to heal diseases, but it wasn’t any old blood that would do the trick. It worked best when it came from a healthy person killed suddenly. That drew the ill and infirm to public beheadings. Medical folklore turned the executioner’s block into a public pharmacy; in fact, people viewed the executioner as a healer. And few drops of blood apparently did the trick. People brought handkerchiefs to executions to absorb blood and saved them under their cupboards for good luck.
The practice had theological underpinnings. A 1699 German pharmaceutical handbook pointed out that because man was made in God’s image, his body parts offered healing value.
Germany wasn’t the only country whose folklore valued the blood dripping from the executioner’s block. Shakespeare worked the medical folklore about human blood into Othello: Desdemona treats the pain on Othello’s forehead with a handkerchief stained with the blood of virgins. Werringloer also reports the similar medical folklore in Switzerland, France, Austria, and Sweden: Even up until 1940, many people in these countries considered human blood a cure for epilepsy.
As odd as the practice seems today, it’s not all so different from some aspects of modern medicine. It’s not all so different from blood transfusions, points out medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. The period medical folklore casts a different light on the crowds that gathered to watch public executions. They were all there out of curiosity and sensationalism. The were the sick and dying, looking for another shot at life, they were parents seeking a cure for their epileptic children, they were trying to treat their diseases the best way they knew how.
What medical folklore cures have you heard about?
Literature on point:
Lindsey Fitzharris, “Drinking Blood and Eating Flesh: Corpse Medicine in Early Modern England,” The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice (Feb. 25, 2011).
Noble, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Springer, 2011).
Gunver Anna Maria Werringloer, Vom Umgang mit der Leiche im 19. Jahrhundert: Der Fall der Giftmörderin Christiane Ruthardt und die Tübinger Anatomie (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 2013).
Someone pounding on the car windows tore her out of her sleep.
Angie* had tired out and left the pub early. She and her buddies had driven there in her friend’s car, but Angie didn’t want them all to leave just because of her. So her friend gave Angie the car keys and told her she could sleep on the back seat until the rest of them were ready. Angie walked out of the pub out onto the downtown Seattle streets, got in the car, locked the doors, and fell asleep.
Now a man was banging on the window.
Can you lend me your jumper cable? he asked. I’m parked right behind you and my car won’t start.
No, she said. It’s not my car.
He walked back to his car, fiddled with the engine, and came back, this time with panic in his voice.
Can’t you please help me? Please?!
She refused again.
With a look of disgust, he turned and stomped back to his car. Angie watched as he got in, pulled out of his parking space, and drove away. He didn’t have any problems starting his bronze VW bug. Not at all.
When Angie’s friends returned to the car and heard her story, they urged her to call the police. She didn’t want to. Technically, the man had done nothing illegal. It was just her intuition that told her the man could be dangerous. What crime could the police investigate?
Because it’s suspicious, her friends said. Maybe the police can use your description to connect him to other crimes.
Angie thought that was a long shot and didn’t report the man. She had no reason to doubt her decision until a year later, in 1975, when the police in Utah arrested a certain Ted Bundy, suspected of serial killings in Utah and Washington. When they showed his photograph on the news, Angie’s stomach dropped two floors down. He was the man who’d demanded the jumper cable.
Other stories of escaping a serial killer
Angie was able to get out of the situation without coming under Bundy’s control. Other women were unfortunate enough to experience an attack by Bundy, but still managed to escape. Carol DaRonch entered Bundy’s car because he persuaded her he was a police officer investigating a break-in of her car and said he would transport her to the police station. When Bundy slipped a handcuff onto her wrist, she fought him ferociously enough she could get out of his car and flag down help.
One of the most interesting stories of escaping a serial killer is Rhonda Stapley’s recently published book, I Survived Ted Bundy. Bundy offered Stapley, a fellow University of Utah student, a ride home in his car, but instead drove her up into the mountains, where he attacked her. She escaped by leaping into a fast-flowing mountain river. If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil the tale of what Bundy did to her and what happened afterwards, except to say that she might owe her life to the fact that she wore hiking boots that day and laced them a certain way.
What science says about escaping a serial killer
Stephan Harbort, a German criminologist and former police commissioner, conducted a study to find out what factors contribute to escaping a serial killer. He looked at 155 German serial killers and their 674 individual crimes – both murders and assaults that did not result in the victims’ deaths. He examined the police records and where possible, interviewed both the murderers and their 107 surviving victims.
Based on his research, victims have only a 15.9% chance of surviving once a serial killer begins an assault or abducts them. Harbort’s admits, however, that his statistics don’t include people like Angie, who managed to avoid the killer’s ploy. If you count them, the percentages of survival are much higher. His statistics show that serial killers, on average, initiate 31 contacts with potential victims for every victim they get under their control.
What factors play a role in escaping a serial killer? Harbort found that 43% of the surviving victims escaped because the killer’s attack didn’t result in fatal injuries, 36% because the victims fought back physically or verbally, 15% because the killer took the victim for dead, 15% because a third person scared the killer away, 8.4% because the victim had a chance to flee, and 4.7% because the victim outwitted the killer (in some cases, more than one factor applied).
If a victim engages in self-defense, Harbort discovered, it only works if it is massive. Mild resistance never helps. In 73.3% of the cases, mild resistance had no effect on the serial killer, and in the other 26.7%, it led to increased violence and continuation of the crime. But massive resistance isn’t always the key either. In most of the cases it made the killer even more violent, but 17.6% of the cases, the victim could escape. In some cases, serial killers admitted that they let their victims go because they were submissive. Had the victims fought, they would have killed them.
The role of intuition
What can victims do to increase their chances of escaping a serial killer? Which is better, resistance or submission? It’s hard to say, Harbort points out, because the victim’s strategy depends on the personality of the killer. Victims are best advised to follow their intuition. Often the subconscious picks up on small clues that give the victim a gut feeling for what strategy to use.
One example is a German serial killer who gave an intended victim a ride in his car, but she was able to engage him in a deep enough conversation that he began to feel lose his passivity and anonymity. Because he was starting to feel like he knew his victim, he didn’t even begin an attack. Another victim survived because she told the killer that her colleague had already noted his license plate number.
Erik Larson’s book Devil in the White City offers a couple of examples of people whose intuition probably prevented them from becoming H.H. Holmes’s victims. One refused to sign a life insurance policy naming Holmes as the beneficiary because he scared her. Another refused to go up on the roof with Holmes when Holmes invited him. He later found out Holmes was probably intending to kill him by pushing him off the roof.
Harbort’s emphasis on following intuition is echoed by Gavin de Becker in his bestselling book, The Give of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence. When your intuition picks up on danger, you will often experience it as fear. That fear might paralyze you or compel you to act without your thinking about it, but it’s important to follow that intuition. Often a person’s subconscious is more aware of small clues in surroundings and behavior than the conscious mind is.
Intuition in action: my story
There are a few times in my life that I experienced the kind of fear and intuition that Harbort and de Becker wrote about. One was on a trip to Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, Arizona. I was driving down the mountain, alone, when a car began tailgating me. I slowed down to let it pass, but it didn’t. Then I sped up, but it just stayed on my tail. At this point I wasn’t afraid, just annoyed.
I finally lost the car in a series of curves in the road, and because I was tired, I pulled into a rest area, where I drove across the parking lot to a picnic table. With a snack and a book in hand, I got out and sat on the table.
The car in question drove past the rest area and I didn’t give it a second thought until it turned around and pulled into the rest area too. Then it parked between my car and the picnic table, facing me. The driver, whose face I couldn’t see very well because of the reflection on the windshield, just sat there staring at me. That’s when a tidal wave of fear washed over me.
I quickly took an assessment of the situation. We were the only two people in the rest area. The car blocked access to my own car; that escape route was cut off. Behind me was a ravine. I could run down there and try to get away, but an escape wasn’t certain.
A small voice in my head told me to try to intimidate the driver. I was wearing a jacket and slipped my right hand into the pocket, shaping my hand to make it look like I was grabbing a pistol. With my index finger extended to mimic a barrel, I positioned my hand, still in my pocket, on my knee to make it appear like I was taking aim at the driver.
The driver gunned the car and sped out of the rest area. I waited a minute until the car was gone, quickly packed my things, and left, thankful that nothing happened. I never saw the car again on the way down the mountain.
Have you ever been in a situation where your intuition set off alarm bells? How did you handle it?
*Angie was an acquaintance of mine in Seattle, Washington. I’ve changed her name for this story.
Literature on point:
Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence (New York: Dell Publishing, 1997).
Stephan Harbort: Begegnung mit dem Serienmörder: Jetzt Sprechen die Opfer [Encounter with the Serial Killer: Now the Victims Speak] (Düsseldorf, Droste Verlag, 2008).
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (London: Bantam Books, 2003).
Rhonda Stapley: I Survived Ted Bundy: The Attack, Escape, & PTSD That changed My Life (Seattle, Galaxy 44 Publishing, 2016).