The Royal Origin of the Police Lineup: How a Queen’s Funeral Changed Criminal History

Queen Caroline's funeral procession became the origin of the police lineup

The Funeral Procession of her most lamented Majesty Queen Caroline (1821 Mezzotint with etching), ©Trustees of the British Museum, with permission.

A royal funeral makes criminal history

Black plumes bounced on the horses’ heads as they pulled the hearse through the rain and mud. The muffled hoofbeats foreshadowed change. Neither horse nor guard nor mourner could know the path before them led into criminal history, but it did. The reaction to Queen Caroline’s funeral procession became the origin of the police lineup.

Thirteen mourning carriages and the Life Guards, who had orders to escort the queen’s body, accompanied the hearse. Their route deviated from the normal royal funeral: Instead of going into the city center, the procession was to skirt the center and go around it. Ever since Caroline of Bruswick’s death a week ago, on August 7, 1821, officials feared the public would riot at her funeral procession.

And they were right.

But what they couldn’t foresee was how the procession would lead to an innovation in criminal procedure. Just one week later, London would stage an event that became the origin of the police lineup – with the Life Guards as suspects.


Police lineup.

A police lineup. By Oslo police (Torgersen-sa) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Lineups and showups

Police lineups – or identification parades, as they are known in the UK – have long been part of law enforcement’s tool kit for identifying suspects. But the origin of the police lineup is a bit murky.

The Baltimore Police Department has been using lineups for over sixty years. They’ve been part of British criminal procedure for much longer. An 1874 memorandum to the Home Office claimed the Metropolitan Police had used them since its inception. The earliest known police order for the regular use of the lineup was in 1860. Several court cases document lineups outside of London already in the 1850s.

Law enforcement developed lineups in response to criticism about the lineup’s older cousin, the showup. In a showup, the police apprehend a suspect matching a witness’s description, typically not long after taking the initial police report. The police bring the suspect back to the witness for an eyewitness identification: Was this person the perpetrator or not?

False identifications

Showups, however, can lead to false identifications. The problem is suggestiveness. Because the police are showing only one suspect, witnesses might have tendency to pick that one out.

Misidentifications weren’t just a modern concern. Even in the 19th century, scholars discussed the danger. William Wills listed several cases on misidentification in his 1838 essay on circumstantial evidence.

Caroline of Brunswick, whose funeral procession led to the world first police lineup

Caroline of Brunswick, queen consort to King George IV.Thomas Lawrence [1804, Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Events following her funeral procession became of origin of the police lineup.

Origin of the police lineup

When the British police first started regular lineups, they might have been thinking of the example of the Life Guards at Queen Caroline’s funeral. Caroline had a controversial career as queen consort, yet remained very popular with the people. The city folk, angry that her funeral procession wasn’t supposed to head downtown, decided to force it. People set up barricades along the route to detour the procession where they wanted it to go.

When the Life Guards encountered a set of barricades, a riot broke out. The crowd pelted the guards with rocks and injured several of the troops. With orders to use their weapons to disperse the rioters, the guards shot and slashed a path through the people. Two men in the crowd were killed.

One week later, on August 21, 1821, witnesses gathered at the barracks to identify which guards had been shooting. The regiment lined up in formation. Under the supervision of the Bow Street magistrates (an early police force), the witnesses walked through the troops’ ranks to study their faces. Their identifications and testimony were recorded in the inquest proceedings.

Edward Higgs calls the inquest proceedings at the Life Guard barracks one of the first recorded instances of an identification parade. In the UK at least, Queen Caroline’s funeral procession case played an important role in the origin of the police lineup.

But the idea of the lineup was much older. It may have come from France, and interestingly, that case also had a royal connection.


Life Guards

The Life Guards today. By PRA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

A controversial French showup

One of the greatest criminal scandals in the reign of Louis XIV was a vast network of poisoners. Between 1679 and 1680, French police arrested over 400 suspects for crimes related to poisoning and black magic. Witnesses alleged that the web of conspirators reached all the way to the king’s court – with the king himself, in once instance, as the intended victim.

Claude de Vin des Oeillets, the king’s former lover and once a member of his court, found herself facing accusations. And she thought she had a brilliant way of proving herself innocent. Her accusers were jailed in the dungeon of Vincennes. Why not take me there, she asked her interrogator, and show me to them? Oeillets swore none of her accusers would even recognize her.

Her plan backfired.

Investigators brought her down to a room near the dungeon and had the guards bring the witnesses in. Two identified her immediately.

Claude de Vin des Oeillets

Claude de Vin des Oeillets (Mademoiselle des Oeillets, 1637-1687), mistress of Louis XIV of France. Pierre Mignard, public domain. She may have inspired the first argument for a police lineup.

Argument for the world’s first police lineup

Oiellets’s showup procedure reaped criticism. One of Louis’s ministers, Jean Baptiste Colbert, attacked the showup as prejudicial. Because she was the only person presented to the witnesses, Colbert said, it would have been too easy for the witnesses to guess who Oeillets was. Colbert said they should have shown her with four or five other people.

That is quite a modern argument! What Colbert was actually demanding was the world’s first police lineup.

So if France is not the birthplace of the lineup itself, it still might be the origin of the police lineup with respect to its philosophical underpinnings. And that’s fitting, because France also gave birth to the true crime genre.

Literature on point

John Adolphus, The Last Days, Death, Funeral Obsequies, &c of Her Late Majesty Caroline (London: Jones & Co., 1822).

Frederick H. Bealefeld, “Research and Reality: Better Understanding the Debate between Sequential and Simultaneous Photo Arrays,” University of Baltimore Law Review 42(3):513-534, 519 (2013).

David Bentley, English Criminal Justice in the 19th Century (London: Hambledon Press, 1998).

Rt. Hon. Lord Devlin (1976). Report to the Secretary of State fort he Home Department of the Departmental Committee on Evidence of Identification in Criminal Cases. HMSO.

Edward Higgs, Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification 1500 to the Present (London: Continuum, 2011).

Holly Tucker, City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First POlice Chief of Paris (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017).

William Wills, An Essay on the Rationale of Circumstantial Evidence (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans; 1838).

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Dr. Gudden’s Death Mask as a New Clue in the Death of Bavaria’s King Ludwig II

The death of King Ludwig II has long been a mystery.

Ludwig II portrait by Carl Theodor von Piloty, public domain

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 pocket watch discrepancy is controversial.

The pocket watch discrepancy is controversial. Image from Pixabay.

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 might shed new light on the case.

Dr. Bernhard von Gudden. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

My interview with Danny O'Brien about the death of King Ludwig II.

My interview with Danny O’Brien of Like A Shot Entertainment at the site of Dr. Gudden’s and King Ludwig’s deaths. Photo courtesy of Danny O’Brien.

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).


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Thieves of Threadneedle Street: The 19th-Century Forgery That Changed History

Fountain pen

Fountain pen; Pixabay.

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.

Nicholas Booth

Nicholas Booth, courtesy of Sarah Booth.

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.

The four main conspirators in the greatest 19th-century forgery.

The four main conspirators. Clockwise, from the left: George Bidwell, Edwin Noyes Hills, Austin Bidwell, and George Macdonnell. A period newspaper illustration from the Penny Illustrated News (public domain), enhancement courtesy of Pegasus Books.

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.

Pinkerton logo

Pinkerton Detective Agency; original company logo. Public domain.

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

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

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.

Thieves of Threadneedle Street book cover.

Thieves of Threadneedle Street, courtesy of Nicholas Booth.

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).





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History of Burglar Alarms and the Nation’s First Kidnapping for Ransom

The Van Brunt burglarly was an important case in the history of burglar alarms.

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Cellar-Door Of Judge Van Brunt’s House, Where The Burglars Were First Fired Upon,” 1874 New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 2, 2017

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

Patent for the first burglar alarm.

A. Pope’s patent for the first electromagnetic burglar alarm, 1853. Public domain.

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, the first child kidnapped for ransom.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Little, Charlie Ross, the stolen child” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 6, 2017

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,” (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.




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Blood in Medical Folklore: Why it Made Public Executions So Popular

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.

Medical folklore about blood dates back to Homer's Odyssey.

Henry Fuseli, Tiresias appears to Odysseus during the sacrificing (1780-1785) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia

Aretaeus of Cappadocia; By Cesaree01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Handkerschief in Othello

Igor Bulgarin / Shutterstock, Inc. Members of the Dnepropetrovsk State Opera and Ballet Theatre perform ” Othello ” on May 14, 2011 in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine

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).





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Escaping a Serial Killer: What Science Says About Victim Strategy

Escaping a serial killer

Photo by Antonio Guillem; via Shutterstock.

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.

Rhonda Stapley may have been saved by her hiking boots.

Rhonda Stapley may have been saved by her hiking boots. Pixabay.

            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.

Some victims are able to flee.

Some victims are able to flee. Photo by Daxiao Productions, via Shutterstock.

            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.

Trust your intuition.

Trust your intuition. Photo by Straight 8 Photography, via Shutterstock.

            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).


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Perry’s Case: When the Murder Victim Turns Up Alive

Cocktail; Pixabay.

Cocktail; Pixabay.

A dead man drinking a cocktail

The blood drained from my upper body. Dr. X stood before me, a cocktail in one hand, very much alive. But Rick had told me he’d died earlier in the year.

Without question, one of the most awkward social situations anyone can encounter is running into someone they thought was dead. My encounter with the living Dr. X happened to me at a Christmas party in the early nineties. I was working as a staff attorney for the Washington State Department of Health and attended its holiday celebration at a hotel in Tacoma.

There stood Dr. X, talking, laughing, breathing.

I’d only known Dr. X as a casual professional acquaintance. So when Rick, a physician friend of mine, told me he had died, I accepted the information with detachment. And I had no reason to doubt it until I saw Dr. X standing there and I felt my face go white. I stifled the most automatic response – “What?! But I thought you were dead!” What would Miss Manners say? I tried to act natural. I shook his hand in greeting. His hand was warm; he was really alive. I politely disengaged myself from Dr. X before my shock betrayed me, secretly glad I was wearing lipstick. Because Dr. X couldn’t see the blood drain from my lips.

How would have you handled this situation?

Book cover for Rope: A History of the Hanged

Book cover courtesy of Amanda Howard.

The walking dead in Amanda Howard’s new book

Because I’ve experienced the dismay of encountering the walking dead before, I felt for some of the people in Amanda Howard’s new book, Rope: A History of the Hanged. She recounts stories of those whose shock must have been much worse. She tells of those who’ve encountered living people declared dead – criminals who survived their hangings and returned to shock the public, or even worse, of the most egregious mistake the judicial system can make. Occasionally, someone found a supposed murder victim alive after a purported murderer had already been hung.

Amanda Howard graciously let me print an extract from her book that tells just that sort of a story. Perry’s case is an English story, but it changed the American legal landscape.

Perry’s Case

William Harrison, steward to the Lady Viscountess Campden disappeared on August 16, 1660. The 70-year-old man left his home in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire for the two-mile walk to Charringworth to collect rent. He had taken the trip many times before and would always return by evening. When Harrison had not returned by supper, his wife sent a servant, John Perry to look for him but he also went missing.

Perry claimed that he had been afraid of the dark and had returned home for his master’s horse to continue his search well after midnight when the moon was full and illuminated his way. Early in the morning, a mist fell over Charringworth and Perry had become lost, only finding his way when he came upon Edward Harrison, William’s son.

The following day, Mrs. Harrison had sent her son Edward to look for the two men and he came upon John Perry. The servant told Edward that he had no luck finding the elderly gentleman. They visited the homes that William would have visited and found that he had been to some of them.

Perry and Edward Harrison headed back to Campden. On their way, they found a hat, band, and comb which belonged to William. The two men began a search nearby having “suppose[ed] he had been murdered, the hat and comb being hacked and cut and the band bloody, but nothing more could be found.” At this stage, the entire town began a search for the man.

Mrs. Harrison grew suspicious of John Perry and claimed that his whereabouts were suspicious. Perry was interviewed numerous times by the local Justice of the Peace but confessed nothing except for what he had done that evening when Harrison had gone missing. Finally, after a week of questioning, Perry claimed that Harrison had been murdered but he did not know who had done it. He then changed his confession to claim that his mother, Joan, and brother, Richard, had killed the man.416 He claimed that they had killed Harrison, taken his money and hidden his body. Joan and Richard Perry were quickly arrested for the man’s murder and sent to trial.

Though all three pleaded guilty to the murder, the judge refused to accept the plea and neither did the jury. The trial ended without convictions. A second trial, where all three pleaded not guilty, saw them all found guilty of the man’s murder and sentenced to be hanged.

Within the week of the second trial in 1661, the trio were executed.

Joan was hanged first being declared a witch, followed by Richard, then John.

Three years after the Perry family were hanged, William Harrison returned to Campden looking disheveled and drawn. He claimed to have been “carried away beyond the seas.” He claimed that three men on horseback accosted him, made him mount one of the horses and took him away to a place called Deal where he was sold to a ship owner called Wrenshaw. He was then passed to other owners including a surgeon before finding his way back to Campden. Though many doubt his story, it is nonetheless tragic that three innocent people lost their lives for a murder that did not happen.

Perry's case ended with a wrongful execution on the gallows.

Gallows; Pixabay.

Perry’s case and the corpus delicti rule

This case tragically illustrates the importance of the corpus delicti rule in preventing wrongful convictions. Corpus delicti means “body of the crime.” In American law, it requires the prosecutor to present evidence that a crime was actually committed even if the defendant confesses; it protects those who confess to imaginary crimes due to coercion or mental illness.

Corpus delicti is what makes it so hard to prove no-body murder cases.   In fact, it was this case, the so-called “Perry’s case,” that formed the legal foundations of the corpus delicti rule.

I got off much better than the defendants did in Perry’s case – I only suffered a shock. When I saw Rick again, I let have it. How could he be so careless with the facts and tell me a professional acquaintance of mine had died when he hadn’t? But Rick just shrugged and said he must have made a mistake.

That’s just the point. Errors happen – in private conversations, in the courtroom, and at the end of the noose. When they do, they can turn lives upside down. And some, like Perry’s case, can change the law.

The corpus delicti rule has recently fallen into disfavor. Some courts have abandoned it in favor of a looser corroboration rule, arguing that Miranda rights are sufficient to guard against false confessions. What do you think?

Amanda Howard, who wrote about Perry's case

Amanda Howard, with permission. Djbarrett Photographer and Graphic Artist.

Amanda Howard biography

Amanda Howard is a true crime author, fiction writer and serial killer expert who has written 18 books. This includes ten books on a wide range of true crime cases. She has also interviewed some of the world’s most heinous serial killers over two decades and has collected a vast pool of information on various types of killers, their motives and rituals. Coupled with this are studies of criminology, law and psychology.

Amanda has appeared in many critically acclaimed international documentaries regarding famous serial killers, including Jack the Ripper, The Backpacker Killer, David Birnie as well as acted as a criminal consultant on many more. She authored many journal articles on serial killers as well as been a guest on crime shows on radio, online, television and in print. Amanda has worked as a consultant for many current affairs and news programs in Australia regarding vicious crimes, juvenile murderers, serial killers and sex offenders.

Following on from her successful career as a non-fiction author, she has coupled her knowledge of serial killers to develop a series of novels following the life of a police detective who is an international expert on ritual crimes and ancient societies. The fourth book in the series, Shrouded Echoes will be released in November 2016. She has also released a series of short stories and novellas.

Amanda is also currently studying for her Masters of Arts (Writing) and runs successful YouTube channels: Truly Disturbing, Mystery and History, Botched Executions and Forgotten Brutal Crimes.

Literature on point:

Amanda Howard, Rope: A History of the Hanged (New Holland Publishers, September 2016).

David A. Moran, “In Defense of the Corpus Delicti Rule,” Ohio State Law Journal (2003) 64:817-854. Page 828 discusses Perry’s case.





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