Who murdered President Garfield? Interview with author Fred Rosen

President James Garfield

President James Garfield. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

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

Fred Rosen, who wrote a book on who murdered President Garfield.

Fred Rosen on his fantasy baseball card. He insists this is really him and not a baseball pro.

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.

Period poster about the Garfield assassination.

Period poster about the Garfield assassination. Both Dr. Bliss and Charlies Guiteau are pictured. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

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!

Dr. Bliss

Dr. Bliss. Detail from the poster above.

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.

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell: Pixabay, CCO public domain.

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.

Book cover

Book cover courtesy of Fred Rosen.

Thank you, Fred Rosen!

My pleasure.

 Who murdered President Garfield? Based on what you just read, whom do you blame more for Garfield’s death, Charles Guiteau or Dr. Bliss?















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Alexandre Lacassagne: Founder of Forensic Ballistics?

Flying bullet

Shutterstock_250624096; by Tatiana Shepeleva, with permission.

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.

Lacassagne (August 17, 1843 – September 24, 1924), public domain.

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.

Water tank for test firing.

Today, firearms technicians test fire into water tanks, not corpses.

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.

Alexandre Lacassagne's sketches of the bullet deformation.

Lacassagne’s sketch of the deformed bullets in his article, “De la deformation.” Public domain.

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.





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Women Civil War Soldiers: Digging up the Evidence

Tintype of one of the possible women Civil War soldiers.

Tintype of a Civil War soldier, courtesy of Shelby Harriel.

Historians are a bit like detectives. They sift through evidence, weigh it, and try to leave no stone unturned.

But when they publish their results, they’re a bit like lawyers. They need to be objective enough to gain the credibility of the judge and jury, but they are still advocating. They back up their historical observations with evidence and try to draw new conclusions.

In the following guest blog, historian Shelby Harriel uses the same analogy as a springboard into her research into women Civil War soldiers. Those female warriors were actually committing a crime. They also violated the norms of Victorian society. Because of that they covered their tracks and concealed their true identities. Sometimes the army even destroyed the evidence if they were caught.

That makes women Civil War soldiers hard to research. But their contributions to the war were invaluable; the research adds a new layer of understanding to Civil War history. Shelby Harriel is writing a book on women Civil War soldiers. I met her online, through her fascinating blog, Forbidden, Hidden, and Forgotten: Women Soldiers of the Civil War, and invited her to write a guest blog. You can read more about Shelby and her book below.

Here’s Shelby Harriel with her guest blog:

Shelby Harriel

Shelby Harriel, photo by Shellie Beauchamp, courtesy of Shelby Harrriel.

I was delighted to meet Ann Marie recently.  As bloggers, researchers, and writers, we share similar experiences.  We also share a love of history.  So I was extremely honored when she asked me to contribute a guest post.  Beyond the aesthetically pleasing nature of her blog, Ann Marie has some very interesting content among her writings, most of it dealing with true crime.  It made me think of how I, as a historian, am like a detective in my search for women soldiers of the American Civil War, 1861-1865.

The Suspects

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War.  We’ll never know exactly how many there were.

The Crime

Victorian society was strictly defined.  Women were supposed to be passive and remain in the domestic sphere.  They were expected to create life, not take it.  Therefore, the government did not allow Victorian women to serve in the military.  War was the domain of men.

Clothing defined the genders.  Women did not wear pants.  Doing so resulted in imprisonment and/or a fine, not to mention the shame that discovery would bring themselves and their family.

So when women traded in their hoop skirts for army trousers, not only did they defy the morals and mores of the times, which was unacceptable behavior, they were also breaking the law.

It is difficult to think of these women Civil War soldiers as criminals, especially since many of them made the ultimate sacrifice and lie buried in graves right next to the men with whom they served.   But, by definition, women soldiers were committing a crime.  (And so were the hundreds of thousands of boys under 18 years old who lied about their age in order to fight.)

Arrested for wearing pants.

Arrested for wearing pants? You bet. During the Civil War, it was a crime in most states for women to wear men’s attire. Cincinnati Daily Press, January 6th, 1862.

The Crime Scene

Women are reported to have fought in every major battle of the American Civil War.  They were there from the beginning to the end.

The Motives of Women Civil War Soldiers

Why would these women risk their reputation and lives for a society that did not desire their service?  There were several reasons.  A majority of them enlisted in order to avoid being separated from a loved one.  Others were trying to escape an oppressive situation.  Economic factors drove some women.  Disguised as men working in masculine-only professions, they could make more money than they ever could in the few jobs available to Victorian women.  Patriotism motivated some women to enlist while others were simply seeking adventure, not unlike their male counterparts.  Love, fear, money, duty…motives common to any good mystery story.

The Witnesses

Civilians, common soldiers, high-ranking officers, and even well-known generals bore witness to women serving in the military during the Civil War.

The Evidence

Documentation is the backbone of any historian’s arguments.  The same goes for a criminal investigator. Without supporting evidence, there is no case.  And sometimes, acquiring this evidence and documentation is challenging.  Just like investigators of a criminal case, researchers who delve into the topic of women Civil War soldiers must overcome the obstacle of subterfuge.  In order to serve in the military, these women had to disguise themselves.  They cut their hair short, wore clothes that Victorians weren’t accustomed to seeing them wear, and assumed an alias.  (Some men did this, too….enlisted under an alias that is.) When discovered, some women soldiers not only told newspaper reporters the wrong male aliases they used, but they sometimes provided a false feminine name, if any at all.  Remember, it wasn’t that difficult for Victorians to assume a new identity.  They didn’t have birth certificates or forms of identification.

How does one find an individual who doesn’t want to be found?

Chasing phantom identities

Civil War tintype.

Civil War tintype, courtesy of Shelby Harriel.

Secondary sources

Before anyone may choose to venture into this realm themselves, I would suggest purchasing a box of hair color to hide the gray hair that will be infesting your head.  Eat chocolate.  And develop an exercise regimen to relieve the stress.  Eat more chocolate and understand that you’re not going to find all of the answers.

A good place to start an investigation is to read secondary sources.  But proceed with caution.  Both period and contemporary accounts may contain errors.  Some researchers can be careless.  On the other hand, it may not necessarily be the fault of the authors.  Most historians do the best they can with the evidence available to them at the time.  It is the job of subsequent generations of researchers to uncover new findings and advance the historical narrative.  And this is why it’s important to instill the love of history in young people. As archives continue to digitize more records, the more information people from all over the world will have access to.  This is exciting!


After scouring secondary sources for names, dates, regiments, etc., I enter the information in a genealogy website to see if I can discover the true name of the woman soldier, attempt to complete her story by finding out what happened to her after the war, or determine whether she existed at all.

Newspaper archives

I also like to search newspaper archives for period articles.  Again, the information may be wrong.  Names were sometimes spelled phonetically, and an incorrect unit may have been mistakenly recorded.  Furthermore, the woman soldier may have chosen to lead the reporter astray in order to protect the reputation of herself and her family.  Or the reporter may have chosen to take an otherwise true story and embellish it with exciting….and incorrect….details.  And some newspaper editors simply made up the story entirely.  They were trying to make a living by selling newspapers, after all.  I try to collect as many articles as I can about an individual woman soldier.  Even though all of them may contain the same basic information, one unique sentence in a single article can make the difference in piecing together the true story.

Primary sources

All investigators question the witnesses… or they’re supposed to.  Since all of the individuals involved in my realm of research have all passed on, it is necessary to acquire their testimony by investigating their letters and diaries.  I always feel as if I’m being rude by invading someone’s personal space, but at the end of the day, they’re not around to protest.  And these primary sources provide a wealth of all sorts of interesting information.  Again, one must proceed with caution.  Soldiers sometimes merely reported camp rumors and were not personally privy to the events they were writing about.  On the other hand, I have discovered information in a letter or diary that validated a newspaper article or was a completely new find.  One thing is for sure.  These missives are not tainted with political correctness! Other primary sources such as regimental histories, prison records, court martial transcriptions, and provost marshal documents also provide invaluable information.  Some of these particular records that I have examined have supported the claims of some women Civil War soldiers while debunking others.

Service records

Service records are the gold mine of military records.  One can learn all sorts of information from them:  when and where a soldier enlisted, a physical description, an antebellum occupation, when and where the soldier was mustered out, any prison records, some medical records, and any duty the soldier was assigned to.  To a lot of people, service records are the smoking gun.  According to some, if none can be found, this is enough to disprove a woman soldier’s service.  “If they don’t exist, you must omit!”  Ah, but a prosecutor doesn’t need the murder weapon or even a body to get a conviction.  In the case of women Civil War soldiers, a lack of service records does not necessarily equate to a lack of service.  For example, there is an account of a woman killed by an exploding shell during a particular battle. The story is supported by a future president of the United States, his future brother-in-law, who was a surgeon standing next to the soldier when she was killed, and several private soldiers who recorded the event in diaries and letters.  The surgeon provided enough details to narrow down a possible unit that the soldier belonged to.  So off I went to search for her service records.  Two months later, my aching eyes and I were unable to locate any.  Nor have I been unable to find any newspaper articles about the event.  Yet it happened.

Medical records

Muster roll card for one of the women Civil War soldiers.

Civil War muster roll card for “Charles Freeman,” a woman masquerading as a man. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s—1917, RG 94; public domain.

Here’s another example. Enter Exhibit A, carded medical record and discharge document for Mary Scaberry, alias “Charles Freeman,” of the 52nd Ohio Infantry.  Obviously, she served….until she went into the hospital with a fever and ultimately discharged for “sextual incompatibility” after her true identity was discovered.  In addition to this card, newspaper articles document her story as well.  But yet there are no service records for her.  Nor does she appear on the unit’s roster.  So what happened to her records?  It could be that they were inadvertently lost or destroyed over time.  Or officials could have deliberately expunged them.  Officers were often embarrassed and angry when a woman was discovered in their unit.  They had just been fooled after all.  Also, if a woman was hired as an officer’s servant or orderly, there wouldn’t be any service records because she wouldn’t have been mustered in.  Yet she would have worn a uniform and experienced the same trials with the rest of the members of the regiment.

As for Scaberry, just like her service records, her ultimate fate also remains a mystery at this time.  After she was discharged, she went home to Columbus, Ohio, only to be spurned by her father.  Seeking employment, she then made her way to Chicago where she encountered a guard at Camp Douglas who made fun of her.  She promptly beat him up which landed her in police court.  The judge felt sorry for her and released her.  She then vanished from history, rendering the tale of her life incomplete.

Women Civil War Soldiers: Tough Cases to Prove, But Valuable Contributions to History

As we have seen, researching women Civil War soldiers is much like any courtroom drama in film or text. The evidence is gathered, crime scene investigated, witnesses interviewed, and trials held.  However, unlike most crime stories, there is no dramatic final scene….no dramatic presentation of the final piece of evidence to deliver the coup de grace as it were. But just as in these crime stories, the process of bringing the truth to light is the ultimate goal. However, there is no jury to decide the fate of these women. It is up to all of us to help solve this century old “crime.” The book never closes on a murder and it is my hope that the book will never close on the gallant and mostly unknown deeds of these courageous women.

Thank you, Shelby!

Shelby Harriel giving a lecture.

Shelby Harriel giving a lecture dressed as a Confederate soldier. Photo by Tom George Davison, courtesy of Shelby Harriel.

About Shelby Harriel:

Shelby Harriel received her B.A. in History with a minor in mathematics in May 1997 and her M.Ed. with an emphasis in mathematics and history in 2005.  She earned both degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi.  Shelby has been teaching mathematics at Pearl River Community College since 2007.

While her career has always revolved around mathematics, Shelby actively pursues her passion for history through research, exchanging ideas, and speaking to the public.  For her efforts, Pearl River Community College bestowed upon her the Outstanding Humanities Instructor award in 2014.  She is also a member of the speaker bureau of the Mississippi Humanities Council.


“The Third Mississippi Infantry and Hancock County”

“A Different Look at the Yankee Invaders:  Two Women Disguised as Male Soldiers in Louisiana”

“A ‘Hole’ New Perspective:  A Woman Soldier at the Crater”

“Bully For Her:  Women Who Served Openly as Women”  

Shelby is currently writing a book on women soldiers of the Civil War, Forbidden, Hidden, and Forgotten: Women Soldiers of the Civil War.

You can follow Shelby on Facebook too, where you’ll receive updates about her book.





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When a Message in a Bottle Contains Clues to a Crime

Message in a bottle.

Message in a bottle. From Pixabay.

I found a message in a bottle when I was a kid.

Or more precisely, my friend Linda spotted it first. It was floating in Barnegat Bay, a five-mile wide arm of the Atlantic between Long Beach Island, New Jersey and the mainland. On one of the island’s bay accesses, we had lowered our crab traps off the bulkhead in the hopes of catching some dinner. That’s when Linda spotted it bobbing in the water.

“Look, a message in a bottle!”

A flying leap for a bottle

As a child, I lept off this bulkhead on Long Beach Island to retrieve a message in a bottle.

As a child, I leapt off this bulkhead on Long Beach Island to retrieve a message in a bottle.

Fully clothed, I leapt off the bulkhead, ponytail flying and limbs splayed. It was a five-foot drop, and the water was about just as deep, but I could swim. I stroked over to the bottle, grabbed it, and then clambered back up the bulkhead with our treasure.

Linda and I examined it. The message was rolled and tied with a cord. A thick layer of olive-green wax around the cap rendered the bottle waterproof. It was so thick we couldn’t uncap the bottle.Linda and I dashed home, grabbed a pruning knife, and began slicing the wax off layer by layer over the kitchen garbage can. I trembled with excitement as I dripped water all over the kitchen floor. Was the bottle a cry for help? Did it contain a secret message from pirates?

I had to climb back up this bulkhead with the bottle in hand.

I had to climb back up this bulkhead with the bottle in hand.

A message in a bottle as scientific research?

What we read once we slipped the scroll out and untied it couldn’t have been more disappointing for two ten-year-old kids. It was from someone researching ocean currents. It would have been exciting if the bottle had come in from England or India, but according to the message, it had been dropped into the Little Egg Harbor Inlet only four hours before, on the same day. That was less than ten miles away. Whoever did it hadn’t even bothered to check the tide tables before tossing the bottle into the sea. The tide brought the bottle inland, into the bay, not out into the ocean.

Nevertheless, Linda and I dutifully filled out the accompanying questionnaire about when and where we found the bottle. It asked for our addresses, and we gave them. It was yet another childhood disappointment that the researcher never wrote back to thank us. (If you happen to be reading this blog, and you were the one doing ocean current research in the late sixties or early seventies on Barnegat Bay, it’s not too late. Please drop me a line via the contact form on my blog or leave a comment and I’ll make sure Linda gets it too.)

A message in a bottle as a lead in a criminal investigation?

Some messages in bottles are much more ominous than the one we found.

Paul Brown has been collecting historical messages in bottles around the world. The messages come from the newspaper archives. Found messages were regularly printed in newspapers, often in a column titled “Messages from the Sea”, which is where the name of the book comes from. Before the wireless telegraph, the message in a bottle was a useful and legitimate means of communication. It was often the intention of senders to have their message published in newspapers. They knew the messages would eventually be washed ashore, and that their message might reach loved ones and other recipients.

Brown recently wrote a book about his finds. Messages from the Sea is scheduled for publication in September 2016. A few of the messages in his book contained clues to crimes: murders, kidnappings, and body snatchings. Paul joins us today with a guest blog about what must be the most romantic kind of crime clue ever: the message in a bottle.

Here’s Paul Brown:


Messages from the Sea: A Guest Blog by Paul Brown

Message in a bottle.

Message in a bottle. From Pixabay.

A message in a bottle as a clue to a murder?

On September 17, 1889, a man named Samuel McAfee found a message in a bottle floating in Albert Quay, Belfast, Northern Ireland. McAfee passed the message, written on a slip of paper, to the harbor police. The message read as follows:

“Look out for the body of a man in the Blackstaff who committed murder and suicide, and also for the murdered man. 6 p.m. 10/8/89.”

The words “murder and suicide” were written in red ink, and the handwriting was said to be “stiff and cramped”. The Blackstaff is an underground river in Belfast that was culverted and built over in the 1880s. The message was initially assumed to be a hoax “intended by some mischievous person.” However, as a local newspaper noted: “When taken into account that a body was seen floating in the quay about a fortnight ago, the strange find may possibly bear some significance.”

The confluence of the Blackstaff and the River Lagan.

The confluence of the Blackstaff and the River Lagan. Ross (CC BY-SA 2.0 ), via Wikimedia Commons

All sorts of messages

This mysterious message is one of 100 collected in the Messages from the Sea book, based on the website of the same name. Dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these letters and notes were found on beaches and bobbing in rivers, in corked glass bottles and wax-sealed boxes, inside the mouths of codfish and in the bellies of sharks, carved on pieces of wrecked vessels and attached to the necks of seabirds. They tell tales of foundering ships, missing ocean liners, and shipwrecked sailors, and contain moving farewells, romantic declarations, and intriguing confessions.

Often written in the most desperate of circumstances, many of the messages are starkly moving. One such message, found on the northwest coast of England in 1907, reads: “Finder please give this to relatives of Bertha Magnussam, Wavertree, Liverpool, England. Love from Hubert, and good-bye.” Other messages provide clues regarding disappeared vessels. We know what happened to the Titanic – from which several messages in bottles were apparently cast adrift – but what happened to fellow White Star liner the Naronic, or the Collins liner Pacific?

Some of the messages concern murders, kidnappings, body snatchings, and mysterious family secrets. Who was Charles Pilcher, and did he really murder Margaret Hutchinson and put her body in a well? Did Elizabeth Granton find the “secret of her birth”, which a message in a bottle said was hidden behind a picture of the Earl of Warwick? And who was the sender of the message in a corked bottle, written in pencil on a neatly rolled-up piece of paper, which claimed responsibility for the unsolved murder of noted artist Archibald Wakley?

A floating message as the key to a miner’s demise?

And what of the message found floating in Snake River at Weiser, Idaho, in April 1897? It read: “I was shot last night by an unknown party. I am mining on Snake River at Big Bend. I am dying. Yours, W. C. Cook.” It was known that Snake River’s gold deposits attracted many placer miners, most of whom who lived and worked alone along the river. And, ten days previously, an attempt to murder one of these miners, and to steal his gold, had been made at another point in the river. That victim had been left for dead but survived. W. C. Cook was never traced, and local newspapers speculated that he might not have been so lucky.

Messages from the Sea book cover.

Messages from the Sea book cover. Courtesy of Paul Brown.

Messages from the Sea: Letters and Notes from a Lost Era Found in Bottles and on Beaches Around the World is available as a special limited edition hardback from www.messagesfromthesea.com.

Paul Brown is a writer who lives on the northeast coast of England. He can be found on Twitter @paulbrownUK and at www.stuffbypaulbrown.com.


Thank you, Paul Brown!







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Rape in the Civil War

An Interview with Author Kim Murphy

Crying woman. Both white and black women were victims of rape in the Civil War.

Crying woman. Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain.

 Every once in a while, a book comes along that shifts the tectonic plates in my understanding of history.

I used to practice law and was the prosecutor for parole revocation hearings in a ten-country region for Washington State. I’m familiar with elements of the crime of rape. I’m familiar with the questions defense attorneys pose about consent during cross-examination. You’re probably familiar with them too from crime films and books.

What the public never saw was the rape victims in my office when I prepared them for the hearings. They wept. They vented anger. And often, they oozed fear and frustration. It’s not easy to face your rapist in the courtroom, but it’s necessary if we want to send the rapist to prison. Without question, the hardest part of my job as a prosecutor was to lend courage to a frightened rape victim, to convince her to put her fears aside and take the witness stand for the public good.

I wasn’t always successful.

Nevertheless, once a victim agrees to testify, our modern criminal justice system takes a pretty good stab at sifting guilt from innocence, and I naively assumed that had always been the case in United States history. I never realized how much rape laws had changed over time.

My introduction to 19th-century rape laws

Never realized, that is — until I read Kim Murphy’s I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. Murphy’s non-fiction book is not only a survey of rape in the Civil War but an eloquent testimony to prejudice. Prejudice against African Americans, prejudice against foreigners, and above all, prejudice against women. Prejudice that happened in the very location that’s supposed to be the most impartial place of all: the courtroom.

Kim Murphy joins us for an interview about rape in the Civil War. Watch out for the double standard she offers of a criminal soldier who holds a gun to two victims’ heads, a man’s and a woman’s. Look out for her discussion of Sir Matthew Hale and 19th-century rape laws. And take note of the age of consent. Those are things I never learned in law school. They shocked me to the core. And I think they will shock you too.

You can read more about Kim Murphy below.

If this post changes your understanding of the history of rape laws, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

Welcome, Kim Murphy!

Kim Murphy presenting a lecture.

Kim Murphy presenting a lecture. Courtesy of Kim Murphy.

 What got you interested in the subject of rape in the Civil War?

While researching my Civil War fiction, I kept coming across the topic of rape. Some Civil War historians stated that it was uncommon or “rare.” Originally, I took them at their word, but the more I researched the war, I began to doubt their claim. I thought it was time the women involved had a voice, which is why I ended up writing I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. The title comes from a woman’s testimony during a court-martial. She said she’d rather die than to have been raped.

Some authors claim the Civil War was a “low-rape war.” Why has this view been so entrenched?

I think part of the view comes from the fact that few soldiers were executed for the crime of rape during the war. With rape being a capital crime during the 19th century, some historians have used that basis for their “low-rape war” belief. As time went on, the belief was repeated without any facts behind it. Some, I believe, also romanticized the war, claiming the soldiers from the Civil War practiced gentlemanly “self-restraint.” Such a belief ignores the problem we still deal with today, where most rapes are never reported.

What do the facts say?

A Civil War court martial.

A Civil War court martial, sketch by Alfred R. Waud, 1862. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; no known restrictions on publication.

Researchers E. Susan Barber and Charles F. Ritter state that approximately 450 sexual crime cases were heard in Union courts-martial. I personally found over 400 accounts of molestation or rape in the Civil War for my database. Although most were court-martial cases, not all were. Some came from diaries, letters, newspapers, and the Official Records of the two armies. The latter sources show that many cases never made it to trial. The men who were actually charged with the crime rarely got more than a slap on the hand. Some of the sentences were ridiculous, such as their heads being shaved and their getting drummed out of their regiments.

As for the statistics of STD cases, the official report from the United States Surgeon General’s Office stated there were 109,397 cases of gonorrhea and 73,382 cases of syphilis among the U.S. white troops. This report doesn’t include black soldiers or the Confederates. If the Confederate records ever existed, I’m sure they were lost along with most of their other records at the end of the war. In any case, these statistics show that gentlemanly restraint was somewhat lacking.

Are you able to draw any broad conclusions based on the data for rape in the Civil War?

Of the rapes that were reported and went to court-martial, black soldiers frequently received harsher sentences than white soldiers. Of the white soldiers, foreign-born soldiers were more likely to receive harsher punishment. Nearly thirty soldiers were executed for rape or attempted rape. More than half were black, even though they made up 10% of the Union forces. Most of the white soldiers who received the death penalty were accused of other crimes in addition to rape.

As for the victims, conclusions are difficult to arrive at since most rapes are never reported. Those that went to court-martial, upper-class white women were believed more often than poor white women or black women. Poor white women and black women essentially had to prove their cases, since both were regarded as “promiscuous.”

Another factor that many don’t take into account is that during wartime, most reported rapes are during times of occupation. At other times, armies were on the move or engaging in combat. During these times, the authorities had difficulty finding enough officers for judges to hold a court-martial, and women who had been raped wouldn’t have known to whom or where to report the crime.

There are more recorded instances of Union rapists that Confederate rapists. Why is that?

Many of the Confederate records were lost during the retreat and burning of Richmond. Even though few records remain, however, similarities can be seen. Women had to prove they had been raped.

The most shocking thing about your book, at least for me, was the state of the rape laws in the 19th century. Why was a woman required to fight for her life before a court would consider it a rape?

Painting of Sir Matthew Hale.

Painting of Sir Matthew Hale, 1670, by John Michael Wright [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The rape laws for all of early America came from Sir Matthew Hale, an influential 17th-century English judge:

It is true that rape is a most detestable crime, and therefore ought severely and impartially to be punished with death; but it must be remembered, that it is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.

His words echoed throughout courtrooms well into the late-20th century. Basically, his declaration laid the groundwork that women frequently lied about being raped, and it was very difficult for men to prove their innocence. At the time of the Civil War, chastity was regarded as a virtue, so a woman was expected to put up a fight in order to be believed. If she had no bruises or any kind of trauma to her body, she was regarded with suspicion and believed to have most likely given her consent.

An interesting side note: Sir Matthew Hale was also a judge for witchcraft trials. At least two women were hanged when he presided.

So if a man held a gun to a woman’s head and said he would kill her, and if the woman was scared to death and submitted, that would have counted as consent? And did that actually happen?

An unidentified African-American woman in the Civil War era. Both black and white women were victims of rape in the Civil War.

Unidentified African American Woman, United States, 1860-1870. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. No known restrictions on publication.

Yes to both questions. In one particular case, Private Ennis went to the home of Mary Harris in North Carolina. At gunpoint, he asked the women of the household if either would have sex with him. When they said no, he threatened them.

Mary said she was an “old woman with a heap of children.” The private turned to her daughter, Caroline. He took her to another room and locked the door behind them. At that point, he put his gun down, then raped her.

On the same day, Ennis had robbed another man at gunpoint, then attempted to rob another. The second man was also armed and turned Ennis in to the authorities.

At the court martial, Caroline was repeatedly badgered by Ennis in cross-examination. During the Civil War era, the accused often couldn’t afford an attorney, and there was no right to free representation during this time, so the defendants frequently represented themselves. As a result, a woman often faced intense questioning from her rapist.

Ennis never denied what happened but claimed that Caroline “yielded from fear of death.” He was found not guilty for rape, but guilty on the robbery charges, even though the man offered no resistance during the robbery.

And the age of consent was ten? Are there cases of girls that young who got raped and were deemed to have consented?

The age of consent was ten in most states. Kentucky, Virginia, Indiana, and Iowa set the age at twelve. Arkansas established the age to coincide with a girl’s first period, which tended to be several years later than modern girls.

If the case went to trial, a girl of ten was more likely to be believed than an adolescent or an adult. Many girls’ ages, especially slaves, were not given in the records, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how old some were. So yes, I’ve come across records where young girls were raped and said to have consented. When young girls were involved, the soldiers were found guilty more often, but the girls were still frequently asked questions during the testimony as to whether they had contributed to the act.

In one case of a ten-year-old girl, she was raped at gunpoint. A doctor confirmed she had been raped and feared she might die from blood loss. Yet, at court-martial, she was asked questions that indicated she might have tempted her rapist by touching him. The private was found guilty on several charges in addition to rape and was sentenced to be shot, but most of the charges, including rape, were dropped on a technicality because the locality where the rape had taken place wasn’t listed. In the end, the private escaped to Canada.

What has been the scholarly reaction to your book?

I’ve received a couple of excellent reviews, including one from Choice, but the Civil War historians have pretty much ignored the book. I have a feeling they find the topic of rape in the Civil War uncomfortable.

Thank you, Kim!

Kim Murphy's book, I Would Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War.

Kim Murphy’s book, I Would Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. Book cover image courtesy of Kim Murphy.

 About Kim Murphy:

Award-winning author Kim Murphy has written historical and historical-fantasy fiction. Her published articles consist of a wide range of subjects, from seizures in the Belgian sheepdog to various topics of the 17th and 19th centuries. From her research for her fiction, Kim learned that historians incorrectly assumed rape was rare during the Civil War. Seven years of researching and writing went into her only nonfiction title to date, I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. The title was taken from a rape survivor’s testimony during a court-martial case. Her Civil War ghost stories, Whispers from the Grave and Whispers Through Time, have won several awards, including ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, an IPPY (Independent Publisher Book awards), as well a nomination for RT Reviewer’s Choice award.

Kim Murphy maintains a website at www.kimmurphy.net.








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Mark Twain’s raft trip on the Neckar: truth or tall tale?

The Neckar Valley between Heilbronn and Heidelberg. Here's where Twain's raft trip took place.

The Neckar Valley between Heilbronn and Heidelberg.

Germany’s lower Neckar Valley is Mark Twain country.

This stretch of river, the locals will fondly tell you, inspired Huckleberry Finn. The author came to Germany in 1878 with writer’s block and Huck Finn half finished. Twain’s raft trip down the Neckar River changed everything, at least according to the locals. Because afterward, Twain finished his novel.

But did that raft trip ever take place?

Historians come down on both sides of the question.

Jim and Huck on the raft

E.W. Kemble; illustration from an 1884 edition of Huckleberry Finn. Public domain.

Twain’s raft trip in A Tramp Abroad

Twain’s travel memoir, A Tramp Abroad, covers his 1878 trip to Germany. With Heidelberg as a base, the author made side trips to Baden-Baden, the Black Forest, and several towns along the Neckar. From Heilbronn, a river port north of Stuttgart, he claims to have rafted back to Heidelberg. In fact, no less than six chapters are dedicated to Twain’s raft trip.

According to Twain in chapter 14, he’d intended to hide from Heilbronn back to the Heidelberg. But at Heilbronn’s bridge, he watched raft after raft float under the bridge:

The river was full of longs, — long, slender, barkless pine logs, — and we leaned on the rails of the bridge and watched the men put them together into rafts. These rafts were of a shape and construction to suit the crookedness and extreme narrowness of the Neckar. They were from 50 to 100 years long, and they gradually tapered from a 9-long breadth at their bow-ends.

On a sudden compulsion, Twain abandoned the idea of a pedestrian tour and chartered a raft himself. Twain’s two-day trip back to Heidelberg, writes Peter Messent, was a dress rehearsal for Huckleberry Finn.

The Neckar River and Wilhelm Canal in Heilbronn in 1840 with a log raft to the left.

The Neckar River and Wilhelm Canal in Heilbronn in 1840. On the main part of the river, to the left, you can see a log raft. By A. von Keller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The beautiful Neckar

The raft meandered along at about 2 miles an hour and Twain could enjoy being a tourist without doing the work of walking. His description in A Tramp Abroad sounds idyllic:

Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful, but nobody has understood, and realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on a raft. The motion of a raft is the needful motion; it is gentle and gliding, and smooth, and noiseless; it calms down all feverish activities, it soothes to sleep all nervous hurry and impatience; under its restful influence all the troubles and vexations and sorrows that harass the mind vanish away, and existence because a dream, a charm, a deep and tranquil ecstasy. How it contrasts with hot and perspiring pedestrianism, and dusty and deafening railroad rush, and tedious jolting behind tired horses over blinding white roads!

I’ve boated that stretch of the Neckar and can testify to his statement.

Another 1840 image of the Neckar in Heilbronn, showing one of the bridges. Mark Twain's raft trip might have started here.

Another 1840 image of the Neckar in Heilbronn, showing one of the bridges. Mark Twain’s raft trip might have started here. By Samuel W. Lacey (1786–1859), based on a drawing by Louis Mayer (1791–1843) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Could you even charter a raft in 19th-century Germany?

The 19th century saw plenty of rafts on the Neckar. The timber industry used rafts to transport logs from the Black Forest down steam all the way to the Netherlands. Although the railroad and chain tugs on the rivers reduced the number of rafts by 1878, they were still in use.

But could you charter one?

I asked two German museums dedicated to the regional rafting history and both indicated Twain’s raft trip was theoretically possible. Rafts were still running and they were known to taken on passengers. You can view a photo of a German raft with passengers here.

Could you pilot one?

Twain, however, went a step further in chapter 20.  As the raft approached Heidelberg, Twain decided he could shoot the rapids under the bridge himself. “I went to the forward triplet of logs and relieved the pilot of his pole and his responsibility.” But that was the end of Twain’s raft trip. He stepped off the raft as it reached Heidelberg’s old bridge and the raft crashed and splintered against the pier. The passengers survived; Twain himself fished them out of the water.

That part of the story showcases the author’s humor, not his historical accuracy.

Piloting a raft required a great deal of strength. The untamed Neckar River sliced through the 19th century with rapids and difficult-to-navigate narrow passages. Only the strongest men were allowed to steer. Considering that his livelihood was at stake, it’s inconceivable the pilot would allow an inexperienced tourist to take over. His boss would have held him responsible for the lost logs.

The raft captain from the original edition of A Tramp Abroad (public domain.)

The raft captain from the original edition of A Tramp Abroad (public domain.)

So did Twain really travel the Neckar?

Definitely. In A Tramp Abroad, Twain’s descriptions of Neckar Valley towns like Heilbronn, Bad Wimpfen, and Hirschhorn are detailed and accurate enough he had to have been there. And in Dilsberg, he reported a story about a forgotten tunnel leading from the town well to a place in the woods outside the city walls. An American archaeologist investigating the story discovered the tunnel years later, and it’s now open to the public. How could Twain have known about the tunnel is he hadn’t visited the town?

But on a raft?

Maybe not. The river journey from Heilbronn to Heidelberg in A Tramp Abroad took place on a raft, but in Twain’s diary, Notes and Journals, Twain and his companion boarded a boat in Heilbronn on August 9, 1878. But the diary mentions the boat passing a raft about half a mile below the town of Eberbach. That leaves the truth about Twain’s raft trip a bit of a mystery. I like that. But both sources make it quite clear: The idea of river rafts floated on the surface of Twain’s consciousness during his trip on the Neckar.

Some say that the Neckar inspired one of America’s greatest novels; after he reached Heidelberg, Twain was able to finish chapter 16 of Huckleberry Finn. It’s the chapter in which Huck and Jim, on their raft in the Mississippi, realized they’d already passed Cairo, Illinois and Jim’s one shot for freedom.

But chapter 16 was already completed in 1876, according to Richard Bridgman (pp. 100-101). Twain picked up the manuscript again in 1880. He published Huckleberry Finn in 1885.

Regardless of the plausibility of Twain’s raft trip, it’s clear that river rafts played a prominent role in the author’s imagination. Peter Messent is right. Whether real or not, Twain’s raft trip on the Neckar was a dress rehearsal for Huckleberry Finn. And for that, we can be thankful.

Have you ever rafted a river? What was it like?

Literature on point:

Richard Bridgman, Traveling in Mark Twain  (Berkely: Univ. of California Press, 1987).

Ditmar Hauer, “Auf den Spuren von Mark Twains ‘Bummel durch Europa’ von Heidelberg nach Heilbronn: Mississippi-Lotse auf dem Neckar,Berliner Zeitung (3 August 2002).

Die kräftigsten Flößer steuerten,” Der deutsche Wald kann mehr als rauschen.

Albert Locher, Mark Twain entdeckt Europa (Urtenen, Switzerland: Albert Locher, 2005).

Peter Messent, The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

Roy Morris, Jr., American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2015).

Werner Pieper, Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg: His journey through Germany in 1878 (Löhrbach, Germany: MedienXperimente, 1995).

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain, originally published 1880).

Mark Twain, Notes and Journals vol. 2 (1877-1883) (Berkley: Univ. of California Press, 1975).





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Black Elk as a Ripper Suspect

He was in London, but we can rule out Black Elk as a Ripper suspect.

Black Elk (left) in London. By Elliott & Fry – London, England [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (1887)

Black Elk was a Ripper suspect?

My jaw dropped when I first read about it. How did a Sioux medicine man end up on the suspect list? Native Americans must be among the most exotic – and ridiculous – explanations for the series of murders and mutilations that rocked the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. Nevertheless, Black Elk’s name crops up regularly in discussions about the case.

I’ve said before that I’m opened minded when it comes to Jack the Ripper. I don’t favor one suspect over the other. But with Black Elk, I’ll come out and make an exception. It wasn’t him. No way. He had a great alibi, and historical documents back him up.

Although we can rule out Black Elk as a Ripper suspect with a high degree of certainty, the story of how the popular mind connected him with the world’s most famous serial murders is an interesting piece of history in itself.

Here’s the story.

Black Elk as a world traveler

Outside of the crown prince, Black Elk probably has the most name recognition of any Ripper suspect. North Americans acknowledge him as one of the continent’s greatest religious leaders. The Oglala Lakota participated in the battles of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee and later became a medicine man and holy man. Although he converted to Catholicism in midlife, his biography, Black Elk Speaks, has become a classic of native spiritualism.

But he was more traveled than you might think. Twenty-four-year-old Black Elk participated in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in New York during the winter of 1886-1887. When Buffalo Bill continued to Europe in March 1887, Black Elk went with him. He embarked along with cowboys, sharpshooters, musicians, 96 other Native Americans, and Annie Oakley. Buffalo Bill also brought 15 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 head of Texas steer, 150 horses, and a stagecoach.

Black Elk in England

Native Americans on the voyage to London.

Native Americans in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show on the voyage from New York to London, ca..1886-1891. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.

Over the course of the following fourteen months, Buffalo Bill’s troupe performed in London, Birmingham, and Salford (now part of Greater Manchester), playing colorful scenes of the American west. Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands came to watch. Cowboys lassoed steers and rode bucking broncos, Indians danced, erected teepees, and chased buffalo, and Annie Oakley shot a cigar from her husband’s mouth. The tour’s highlight was Queen Victoria. She requested a private performance on May 11, 1887. Black Elk sang and danced for her, and after the show, even shook her hand.

Then personal disaster struck Black Elk. The Wild West show left Manchester by train on May 4, 1888, for one last show in Hull. From there the troupe sailed back to America. But somehow, Black Elk and three other Native Americans got left behind in Manchester.

On to London and France

The four Lakota Sioux left behind spoke only rudimentary English and would have been in a real fix if they hadn’t run into an English-Lakota interpreter. Buffalo Bill’s group had at least two, Bronco Bill and Yellow-Striped Face, but it’s not clear whether this interpreter came from his troupe or a rival’s. One theory is that the interpreter came from a rival troupe and manipulated the Native Americans into missing their train. In a form of human trafficking, he corralled them to the other show group.

The stranded Sioux traveled to London. There the interpreter helped them find reemployment in another, smaller western show, Mexican Joe’s “Western Wilds of America.” Like Buffalo Bill, Mexican Joe performed with cowboys, Indians, and sharpshooters. Black Elk performed at least once with Mexican Joe before the troupe continued to Paris on June 13, 1888.

Black Elk arrested and interrogated

A policeman arrested and interrogated Black Elk and his companions on their third day in London. He wanted an account of their whereabouts and later let the group go. Black Elk assumed the police blamed them for something that had happened but he never specified, any maybe never even learned, what it was. Some people have speculated that interrogation was part of the Ripper investigation, but as you’ll see below, the timing is all wrong.

When Mexican Joe’s troupe opened in Paris around June 15, 1888, Black Elk was with him. Mexican Joe then toured Belgium, returning to England sometime that autumn. Half a year later, around April 1888, Black Elk fell ill and Mexican Joe dropped him from the troupe’s roster. Buffalo Bill, however, returned to Europe for another tour in May 1889. When Black Elk heard about it, he traveled to Paris. There Buffalo Bill brought him a return ticket and sent him home. Black Elk arrived in New York on June 17, 1889, and from traveled back to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre just 18 months later.

Why Black Elk as a Ripper suspect?

Buffalo Bill's troupe performs for Queen Victoria.

Buffalo Bill’s troupe performs for Queen Victoria. A.C. Corbould, The Queen’s Visit to the Wild West Show at West Brompton, The Graphic, May 21, 1887. The William F. Cody Archive, Buffalo Bill Center of the West and University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Published under a Creative Commons License.

Jack the Ripper terrorized London in the late summer and fall of 1888. He killed at least five victims on August 31, September 8, September 30 (two murders), and November 9. All but one victim was mutilated. Englishmen had trouble believing one of their own could commit such an act and their thoughts turned to the mutilations they’d heard about from the American West. Following the second murder, one newspaper drew an analogy to the recent Wild West performances: the murderer was a ghoul who stalked down his victims like a Pawnee Indian.

Apparently, letters to the editor followed, reporting the stranded Indians from Buffalo Bill’s show. Rumor had it that the Indians were still in London’s East End. They might have been angry about getting stranded and started taking it out on the English.

The Native Americans’ dubious connection to the Ripper case anchored itself in the public imagination. Black Elk, Buffalo Bill, and Mexican Joe feature in a cartoon and film about the Ripper, both called From Hell. Fear and prejudice may have played a role the finger pointing, but to be fair, I should point out that the police also investigated two of Mexican Joe’s cowboys.

 An airtight alibi

And so, as the rumor went, Buffalo Bill’s stranding four Native Americans in Manchester put them in the right place at the right time – in England during the Ripper murders. But it’s not as easy as that. If you track down Mexican Joe’s performance schedule, you’ll see that for all but two of the murders, Black Elk has an alibi as waterproof as a birchbark canoe.

Mexican Joe is harder to track than Buffalo Bill because he tended to advertise with posters, not newspaper ads. Nevertheless, Tom F. Cunningham of the English Westerners’ Society has done an excellent job reconstructing Mexican Joe’s performance schedule through newspaper reviews of his shows. Mexican Joe opened in Paris in June 1888 and then traveled to Belgium to open there in August. He remained there until at least September 21. By October 8, he was probably back in England, because a British paper identified two of his cowboys as Ripper suspects. On October 13, he opened a show in Birmingham, and by November 9, was in Sheffield.

The only time for which Cunningham could not account for Mexican Joe’s location was the period between September 21 and October 13. Two Ripper murders occurred on September 30. But if one person was responsible for the canonical five murders, it couldn’t have been Black Elk. He wasn’t even in the country for the first two, and for the last, he was in another city. And he had a troupe of hundreds to attest to that.

Even though more murders than the canonical five might be ascribed to Jack the Ripper, I’m not aware of any that happened in May 1888, when Black Elk was arrested, interrogated, and released in London. Whatever crime that policeman was investigating, it wasn’t the Ripper killings: officially, they hadn’t started yet. Finding the file for that investigation would make an interesting research project — if anyone in London wants to take it up.

I won’t usually say this about any other suspect, but I will for this one. We can rule out Black Elk as a Ripper suspect. The Oglala Lakota holy man didn’t do it.

Who do you think was the craziest Ripper suspect ever?

Literature on point:

Peter Carlson, Encounter: Buffalo Bill at Queen Victoria’s Command, American History Magazine, Sept. 29, 2015.

Tom F. Cunningham, Black Elk, Mexican Joe & Buffalo Bill: The Real Story (London: The English Westerners’ Society, 2015).

Raymond J. DeMallie, ed. The Sixth Grandfather – Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (Lincoln: Univesity of Nebraska Press, 1985).

John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (William Morrow & Company, 1932).

Souvenir Album of the visit of Her Majesty Queen Victoria to the American Exhibition (1887).

Michael F. Steltenkamp, Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

The Queen at the Show: Victoria Attends Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus,” Washington Post, May 13, 1887.


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