London, 1788. A fiend terrorized the city with his series of crimes. The “London Monster,” as the city dubbed him, didn’t kill, rape, or ignite.
Karen Lee Street has just launched a novel about the London Monster. She joins us today to talk about the true crime history on which she based her story.
Karen is a writer with extensive international experience in feature film script development. She has taught screenwriting at universities and professional training programs throughout Europe. Although born in Philadelphia and now in Australia, Karen has lived in London most of her adult life.
Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster is the first novel in her mystery trilogy. A summary of her novel follows at the end of the post.
Ann Marie: The London Monster was a serial criminal, but not a murderer or rapist. What did he do?
Karen: From 1788 – 1790, over fifty women in London complained of being attacked by a man who was dubbed ‘the Monster’. His victims were primarily attractive young women of comfortable means (with nice clothing) who were slashed across the buttocks with a sharp blade that ruined their skirts and often cut into their flesh. The victims also complained that the Monster abused them verbally. The crimes caused mass hysteria and satirical cartoonists of the day drew images of ladies wearing copper pots to protect their posteriors. It is important to note that in 1790 it was a felony to maliciously cut or deface a piece of clothing while it was worn by another person, a crime that could be punished by hanging or transportation.
Were the London Monster’s crimes unique?
The Monster’s assaults could be labeled piquerism, which is defined as deriving sexual arousal from piercing another person’s body, most often the buttocks, with sharp objects, sometimes to the point of causing death. It is not a terribly common crime and many recorded cases are more brutal and gruesome than the Monster’s exploits. While the nature and number of the attacks suggest that the perpetrator (or perpetrators) might have been a piquerist, the descriptions of the attacks by his victims do not come across as sadistic or murderous, but rather as if he (or she?) were ridiculing the victims. In writing the novel, I had to play profiler and consider what the motive might be. An uncontrollable compulsion — a paraphilia — such as piquerism did not interest me as a motive for my perpetrator. I wished to explore a pre-meditated act driven by emotions that are easier to identify with such as jealousy and the desire for revenge.
How many victims were there?
Over fifty women claimed to have been attacked by the London Monster. Some of these claims did not fit the perpetrator’s modus operandi, however. For example, one woman was scratched on the nose by a pin when she (at invitation) leaned to smell an artificial nosegay. As it had been noted in the press that the Monster’s victims were attractive and these ladies gained a great deal of attention, some false claims were made. For example, Lady Eglantine Wallace stated that she had been accosted by the Monster, but later in court airily admitted that her story was a fabrication, one of her little jokes.
Did London even have a police force in 1788?
The Metropolitan Police was not established until 1829 and up until 1749 law enforcement was conducted by private citizens; thief-takers who pursued wrong-doers for a fee; and night watchmen who were often elderly or recruited from the workhouses. Corruption was a problem and the system was not considered very effective. In 1749, magistrate (and author) Henry Fielding founded the first unofficial British police force: the Bow Street Runners, who were connected to Bow Street Magistrates’ Office in Covent Garden where a group of magistrates headed criminal investigations. The Runners served writs and arrested individuals under the instruction and authority of the magistrates, and they were paid with government funds. The Bow Street Runners did not have a specific uniform, but were permitted to carry a truncheon with a crest to show their authority.
How did they try to catch the Monster?
Victims made formal complaints of being attacked to the Magistrate’s Office — magistrate Sir Sampson Wright was in charge of the London Monster investigation. The Bow Street Runners were given descriptions of the victims’ attacker, but unfortunately these descriptions varied a great deal, which did not make it easy to round up suspects. The Monster’s activities accelerated after the Queen’s birthday ball on 18 January 1790 when six women were accosted and newspapers published incendiary accounts of these attacks. The wealthy John Julius Angerstein became very interested in the Monster’s victims and personally interviewed these ladies, writing down their testimonies and summing up their appearances. Angerstein gathered donations from various gentlemen and advertised a reward of fifty pounds for the capture and an additional fifty pounds for the conviction of the Monster. Posters were put up around London on 29 April 1790 regarding this reward and describing the Monster as about thirty years of age, average in height, rather thin, pock-marked with a large nose and light brown hair. The notice also instructed servants to take notice if they discovered blood on a man’s clothing and cutlers to watch for any man asking to have a weapon sharpened. On 7 May 1790, Angerstein distributed a second poster that noted two culprits might be at work and gave a description of the Monster’s clothing during his various attacks. Vigilantes were formed to patrol the streets at night and one such group wore ‘No Monster’ badges to make it clear to ladies that they were protectors rather than perpetrators; none of these groups were successful in stopping the attacks or capturing the Monster.
One man was convicted and jailed, but you think he was innocent. Why?
First, the descriptions of the London Monster given by his victims varied so wildly. Some journalists posited that there might be two attackers at work or possibly an actor with a facility for disguise. On 13 June 1790, Anne Porter, one of the Monster’s victims, claimed that she saw her attacker and her fiancé, John Coleman, chased after him and persuaded the man she accused to accompany him to the Bow Street offices. The accused did not match the initial description Miss Porter had given of her attacker, but she stuck to her claim and her fiancé Mr. Coleman collected the one hundred pound reward. She married him in April 1791.
The accused had two trials, both of which were farcical, with seemingly little attempt to operate under the supposition of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. The first trial on 8 July 1790 failed to present substantial evidence regarding the accused’s guilt, such as a weapon on his person or at his lodgings, and he was not identified without doubt by most of the victims. Indeed, those who thought him to be the wrong man were not called to testify. His moral character was criticized on the basis of his impoverished living circumstances and for generally being considered a pest by attractive ladies who had suffered his verbal ‘compliments’ in the past. When the accused took the stand, he was roundly hissed by the audience as were his character witnesses and those providing alibis. The jury found the accused guilty, but his sentence was deferred until the opinion of the twelve judges was heard; he was imprisoned in Newgate.
Soon after, Theophilus Swift published a pamphlet The Monster at Large that claimed the accused was innocent and his accusers had been lying. On 10 November 1790, the judges met to discuss whether the accused had committed the felony of willfully cutting clothing; it was decided that his offence did not fall into that arena and a retrial was granted for the misdemeanor of willfully and maliciously cutting a person. At the second trial on 13 December 1790, Theophilus Swift conducted the defense. Unfortunately, this ‘defense’ was highly eccentric and did little to truly assist the accused. He was convicted again and imprisoned for six years in Newgate.
One fictional aspect of your novel is the inclusion of Edgar Allan Poe. What role does he play?
Poe plays sleuth, along with his fictional character the great ratiocinator C. Auguste Dupin, thus adding the element of alternative history. Poe’s grandparents had been actors on the London stage during the Monster’s reign and his grandmother immigrated to America not long before the accused’s release from Newgate. In my story, Poe is sent a collection of letters, allegedly written by his grandparents; these letters suggest they were the true perpetrators of the Monster’s attacks. As the story begins, Poe’s goal is to prove the letters forgeries. He cannot bear the idea that he might come from ‘bad blood’.
Why did you think of using Poe as a character?
I knew that I wanted to do something with the story of the London Monster as the trial scenes in particular had captured my imagination. I was given a collection of Poe’s stories with an introduction that noted that his grandparents were actors in London and that Poe had lived in London for a time as a child. For some reason that stayed with me. I don’t remember the a-ha moment of thinking to use Poe, although I do remember being delighted to discover that the dates worked. I liked the idea of Poe as an investigator who would need to call on the highly objective ur-detective Dupin to help him with his family mystery as Poe could not conquer his emotions. I felt that Poe’s personal history made his reactions to his strange (fictional) inheritance plausible. Poe was orphaned before he turned three and he and his two siblings were sent to different foster families. He expressed great pride in his mother’s career as an actress and I felt that pride would extend to his grandmother who was also a very talented actress. Finding out that she was a criminal would be quite a blow.
Thank you, Karen, for your insights into such an unusual chapter of London’s history.
Here’s the scoop on Karen’s book:
Summer, 1840. Edgar Allan Poe sails from Philadelphia to London to meet his friend C. Auguste Dupin, in the hope that the great detective will help him solve a family mystery. For Poe inherited a mahogany box containing a collection of letters allegedly written by his grandparents, actors who struggled to make a living on the London stage. The mysterious letters suggest that the couple played a more clandestine role as the ‘London Monster’— stalking well-to-do young women at night on the city’s streets, to slice their clothing and derrières.
Poe hopes to prove the missives forgeries; Dupin wonders if they are real, but their content is fantasy. Soon Poe is being stalked by someone who knows far more about his grandparents and their crimes than he does. And then he remembers disturbing attacks made upon him as a child in London … Could the perpetrators be connected?Read More
While Sherlock Holmes honed his forensic skills in Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, real Victorian detectives scoured dark alleys, beer houses, and even doctors’ offices to solve crimes. How did real investigators compare with the world’s most famous fictional sleuth?
Angela Buckley, author of The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada (Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword, 2014), joins us to pull back the curtains on the life of a real Victorian detective. Between 1870 and 1900, Jerome Caminada broke new ground as an investigator to become one of Manchester’s most legendary policemen. Angela also blogs about historical true crime on her website, Victorian Supersleuth.
Why the title, Angela? Was there any connection between Caminada, a Victorian detective, and the fictional Sherlock Holmes?
Angela Buckley: When I began researching the work of Jerome Caminada I soon realised that there were some startling similarities between his work as a detective and the cases of the great Sherlock Holmes. In fact, after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began publishing his stories, Detective Caminada soon became known as ‘Manchester’s Sherlock Holmes’ as contemporary newspaper readers made a connection, so it seemed an appropriate title for the book.
Did Arthur Conan Doyle base Holmes on a real Victorian detective?
It’s well known that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his legendary character primarily on his mentor, Sir Joseph Bell. However, as an avid reader of the contemporary press, in which the cases of real-life detectives were regularly reported, Sir Arthur would have been aware of the more prominent figures, like Jerome Caminada.
How did the Victorian detective differ from the fictional Holmes?
Real Victorian detectives, like Jerome Caminada, investigated a much wider range of crimes and criminals than Sherlock Holmes, although their work was often less glamorous. Detective Caminada’s knowledge of his city would have been far more extensive, and he would have relied more heavily on his contacts on both side of the law. However, Caminada did use many similar strategies to Holmes, including disguise, deduction and keen observation.
Your book is also a portrait of Victorian Manchester. Could tell us what the back alleys and dark streets were like?
In the 19th century, Manchester had some of the worst slums in the country. At the heart of the city was a labyrinth of dark alleys and closed courts, with cramped back-to-back terrace houses with no sanitation or ventilation. A no-go area for respectable people; the rookeries had gin shops, illegal beer houses and brothels, and they housed thieves, con artists and many other shady characters.
What kind of cases did Caminada work on?
Detective Caminada worked on all manner of cases, including pickpockets, charlatans, political agitators and even murderers. A man with a strong social conscience, he exposed many scams that exploited ordinary people, such as the quack doctors who sold fake potions to individuals worried about their health.
How did he display his investigatory genius?
Like Sherlock Holmes, Detective Caminada had excellent powers of deduction, which he displayed most effectively in his signature case, the Manchester Cab Mystery. When a businessman was found dead in a cab, Caminada deduced that his death was linked to illegal prize-fighting in the city and it took him just three weeks to bring the perpetrator to justice.
Terrorism and gang warfare are nothing new. Caminada had to deal with them also. What they were like in Caminada’s time?
Detective Caminada dealt with many organised attacks. He worked undercover for the British government tracking Fenian suspects, during the dynamite campaign of the 1880s, when Irish nationalists targeted public buildings throughout the UK. In Manchester, he tackled gangs of vicious street fighters, known as ‘scuttlers’, who terrorised the streets with violent turf wars. He also faced groups of anarchists, who led protests during periods of unrest.
You mention Caminada acting as a prosecutor and conducting cross examinations. Was it usual for a Victorian detective to assume functions of prosecutor?
The British criminal justice system evolved considerably during the 19th century and in the earlier decades, it was usual for the victim of a crime to act as prosecutor, as few had access to a lawyer, except in capital offences. Later, the state conducted all prosecutions. In the latter half of the century, police courts took more responsibility for trying minor cases and police officers were engaged in the process. When a magistrate decided not to pursue a case, an officer like Caminada could take it further as a private individual, which he did on occasion.
So who was the better detective, Jerome Caminada or Sherlock Holmes?
Great question – predictably I’d have to say Caminada, as he obviously solved ‘real’ cases!!
Thanks so much for joining us, Angela!
How realistic do you think Sherlock Holmes’s cases and investigative techniques were?
Not long after Jack the Ripper terrorized Whitechapel, another serial murderer stalked Ohio. The press dubbed this new killer “Jack the Strangler.”
When a University of Dayton criminal justice instructor discovered his great-aunt was one of the strangler’s victims, his curiosity drove him to the archives. Blowing the dust off old newspaper reports revealed a few surprises. Not only did this case receive international media attention, his family also became intricately involved in the investigation because his great-grandmother found a clue in her daughter’s coffin.
Brian Forschner joins us today to tell us how he discovered the case and to introduce his new book, Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders.
Discovery in the cemetery
I’m not sure what possessed me to take a lunch break that day, maybe it was having taught three intro courses to freshmen in the University of Dayton Criminal Justice Program. I decided to go across the street to the Woodland Cemetery (the Wright Brothers are buried there) and have a sandwich. Knowing I had some relatives buried there, I stopped by the office and rifled through the card catalogue. Under “Forschner” I found grandparents and great grandparents but found an outlier, a 15-year-old Mary Forschner who died on January 23, 1909. I immediately thought “There must be other Forschners in the area. I’ve never heard of her.” Within days I obtained her death certificate and, under “cause of death,” found “strangulation by the hand.” More stunningly, she was my grandfather’s sister. I saw him often when I was growing up! She was never mentioned.
Brian Forschner discovers the “Jack the Strangler” cases
I began searching newspapers around the date she died. I was astounded to find her face filling the front page of newspapers around the country. Not only that, but crime reporters were tying her death to that of several other women, which the New York Times had apparently named the “Jack the Strangler Murders.” Over a period of four years I read hundreds of newspaper articles and editorials in papers around the U.S. with references to some in Europe, searched death certificates, autopsies, and trial records where available. I read the newspapers out at least 9 months after each death to see if the murders were solved. They were all cold cases, police records long destroyed. I had to write a book on this, possibly a series of short stories since these cases had been cold for over 100 years.
Hundreds of crime reporters asking different questions from different standpoints gave me snippets of information about the girls and their cases, enabling me to piece together their personalities. I wanted to tell their stories, as telling their stories would be a way to grant them some justice and show that they were just that, young girls murdered and raped, never allowed to grow up, long forgotten, families forever shamed and socially victimized. My training had been in philosophy and logic at the undergraduate level and human behavior and psychology at the doctoral level. I had been a probation officer and operated a group of halfway houses for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Ohio Department of Corrections, so I felt reasonably well armed to use one of the primary forensic techniques of the time, what some have referred to as “circumstantial logic.” Without eyewitnesses or confessions (forensics was in its infancy), would a reasonable person, given a preponderance of circumstantial evidence, be prepared to convict? This forensic thinking was buttressed by a perfect storm of the literature and press of the time, which painted a picture of the typical criminal, namely as a ruffian or animal, much like Poe did in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”(an orangutan did it!). This view was supported by the quintessential cold case of all time, Jack the Ripper, and, a disciple of Poe’s, Conan Doyle. Doyle showed that even an untrained individual like Sherlock Holmes could solve mysteries by using simple logic and determination. After all, solving crimes was “elementary.”
Clue in the coffin
My editor loved the Jack the Strangler stories, but I wasn’t happy. I wanted to know who did it. It wasn’t until reading about the viewing of Mary Forschner in the parlor of my great-grandmother’s home, when in anguish she was helped to the casket and bent over to kiss Mary goodbye, that it came together. Great grandma immediately was shaken from her sobbing when she noticed that something was missing, something precious! She cried out to all present. Detectives in attendance rushed to the casket. They had missed it in their investigation.
“Aha,” I thought to myself! “How could I have missed it? The other four girls were the same MO, murdered and then raped, souvenirs had been taken, the crime was brazen, in full site of potential witnesses, a crime on the anniversary date of another crime, and I could trace all but one of the girls to the same bus stop.” Yet, it would not be until I came across an article written several years later about an arrest and conviction for an unrelated offense that I found the murderer/rapist.
My verdict is for you to judge. Read Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders. Get to know these girls, their stories, and the shame and disgrace their families endured. Tell me if you agree. A critical clue is in the clasped hand on the cover of the book, Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders © 2016 by Morgan James Publishers.
You can visit Brian Forschner’s website to learn more.
Have you ever discovered old family secrets like Brian Forschner did?
No history of a war is complete if it focuses solely on men. Women’s experiences, at home and on the battlefield, shaped the postbellum world. Women, perhaps more than men, held society together during the war and rebuilt it afterwards.
Giselle Roberts uses diaries and letters to tell documentary stories about women of the American South. She joins us for an interview.
Giselle Roberts is an Honorary Research Associate in American History at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia), and co-editor, with Melissa Walker (Converse College), of the Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South series by the University of South Carolina Press.
You can read more about her biography below, or visit her website here. I’ve added some quotes by American women.
You live in Australia, Dr. Roberts. What got you interested in the American Civil War?
I was nineteen when I read the Civil War diary of Sarah Morgan. I discovered it in my local bookshop one Friday afternoon. For weeks I picked up the book, and put it back on the shelf. I was intrigued, but not entirely convinced it was a story for me. Sarah was a young, white, upper-middle-class woman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her family were slaveholders and she was a loyal Confederate. I wasn’t a historian, and the story didn’t resonate with me as a reader. I hesitated. Then one day, I bought it.
The book was Charles East’s edition of the diary; the first time Morgan’s account had been edited and published in its entirety. I read the first few pages, and I was hooked. I finished the book that weekend.
I was in my first year of an Arts degree, studying Australian politics and reading book after book on the American Civil War. I discovered that La Trobe University’s American history faculty was ranked in the top three in the southern hemisphere, changed my major, and studied under Pulitzer Prize winner Rhys Isaac and acclaimed labor historian, John Salmond. I received my PhD in 2000. I have published three books since then, including the courtship correspondence of Sarah Morgan and Francis Warrington Dawson. After reading Sarah’s Civil War diary, I wanted to know more!
“I only wish that the doctors would let us try and see what we can do!” – Kate Cumming, Confederate nurse
How is a documentary edition different from a monograph?
Documentary historians edit and annotate primary source material to tell a story. Editors can, and do, work with professional sources such as account books or government documents. Others, like myself, work with first person accounts such as diaries, correspondence, editorials, oral history interviews, speeches, or memoirs. Historians studying the twentieth century have a new frontier at their disposal, including email and blogs. Whatever the source, it’s the editor’s job to provide the narrative structure, the genealogical and historical context, and the interpretive framework to allow the reader to navigate, and appreciate, the story.
“We hear nothing, can listen to nothing; boom, boom goes the cannon all the time. The nervous strain is awful, alone in this darkened room.” – Mary Chestnut, southern diarist during the Civil War
What kind of books are in the Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South series by the University of South Carolina Press?
The Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South (WDLS) series publishes documentary editions of letters, diaries, memoirs, editorials, and oral history interviews created by women residing in the American South from the colonial era to the present day.
The series has a strong Civil War collection. We have published the diaries and letters of doctors, plantation mistresses, and young women. One of my favorite books in the series is A Northern Woman in the Plantation South: Letters of Tryphena Blanche Holder Fox, 1856-1876. Tryphena was a teacher from Massachusetts who married a doctor from Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. Her correspondence provides a middle-class portrait of life in the South from the late antebellum period through Reconstruction. It is fascinating indeed.
We have also published several books on twentieth-century women, most notably Melissa Walker’s Country Women Cope with Hard Times, a wonderful collection of oral history interviews with women from eastern Tennessee and western South Carolina. As daughters and wives, they milked cows, raised livestock, planted and harvested crops, worked in textile mills, sold butter and eggs, and practiced remarkable resourcefulness.
We have several exciting book projects in production, including an anthology on the Progressive Era featuring the documentary stories of nine remarkable women.
“Oh mother! you northern people know nothing of the horrors of war…” — Tryphena Blanche Holder Fox, teacher from Massachusetts who married a doctor from Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana
History, especially, military history, is so often a man’s world. How do women’s diaries and letters contribute to our understanding of Civil War history?
Women’s letters and diaries of the Civil War era mostly provide us with a privileged white view of the home front. In the South, which is my area of specialization, white women wrote about their struggles to maintain domestic life in the face of mounting Confederate defeats, Union occupation, the loss of slaves, and a crippling economy of scarcity.
But it’s not the only view we have: there were women on both sides who were spies, soldiers, and nurses. Some women lived with their husbands in military camps, and wrote home about their experiences.
Documentary stories allow us to peek through a window into the random, messy complexity of human experience in another time and place. It’s wonderful to know what women thought about the war effort and nationalism, but I also find the glimpse into their everyday lives most intriguing.
“A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
What are you researching now?
At the moment, my research has moved into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Melissa Walker and I are currently editing a book on the Progressive Era. The thing I enjoy most about this period is the documentary diversity. In the nineteenth century, diaries and letters were overwhelmingly written by privileged white women. By the early twentieth century, we find a growing body of material by African American women, for example. Our new book will feature a range of women from different backgrounds, and that is very exciting. We are working with several contributors who have identified some remarkable documentary stories.
“But alas! nothing that I had ever heard or read had givien me the faitest idea of the horrors witnessed [in the hospital ward].” – Kate Cumming, Confederate nurse
How often to you make it to the United States?
At least once a year. Since I took up the position as co-editor of the WDLS series, I have travelled annually to South Carolina. I love “talking shop” with Melissa and Alex Moore, our wonderful acquisitions editor at USC Press. Of course, no trip to South Carolina would be complete without some time in Charleston, my favorite city in the United States. The Lowcountry is magical – Charleston, Beaufort, and Bluffton make a delightful road trip. Then there is the food. After a day of exploring, I always look forward to sampling the local dishes such as shrimp and grits, and a slice of coconut cake, of course!
What’s your favorite book on the Civil War Era?
There are so many wonderful books! Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Laura Edwards examines the lives of slaves, free blacks, poor whites, and the white elite, and is a comprehensive introduction for those wanting to learn more about women of the South. Nina Silber’s Daughters of the Union provides a wonderful overview of the different struggles that confronted northern women during the war.
Anne Sarah Rubin’s A Shattered Nation is a brilliant examination of Confederate nationalism, and Stephen Ash’s A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865 is an important book and a joy to read.
My favorite documentary editions include Sarah Morgan’s diary, A Southern Woman of Letters: The Correspondence of Augusta Jane Evans, and Lisa Grunwal’s and Stephen Adler’s epic collection, Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present. To make sense of it all, Kimberly Harrison’s The Rhetoric of Rebel Women examines the ways in which the everyday speech of privileged white southern women contributed to the culture of the Confederate home front. It’s a great book.
And, of course, I am looking forward to PBS’s Mercy Street. Anya Jabour, author of Scarlett’s Sisters, worked as a consultant on the series, so we are assured of its historical accuracy.
“Oh! what a luxury it is to weep…” – Augusta Jane Evans, southern author
Giselle Roberts is author of The Confederate Belle (University of Missouri Press, 2003), and editor of The Correspondence of Sarah Morgan and Francis Warrington Dawson (University of Georgia Press, 2004) and A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson, 1871-1883 (University of South Carolina Press, 2012).
Her articles on Sarah Morgan Dawson have appeared in Lives Full of Struggle and Triumph: Southern Women, Their Institutions, and Their Communities (University Press of Florida, 2003), and the South Carolina and Louisiana editions of Southern Women Lives and Times (University of Georgia Press, 2010 and 2016).
Giselle Roberts has published over 60 book reviews in scholarly journals including the Journal of American History, Journal of Southern History, Journal of Women’s History, South Carolina Historical Magazine, and Civil War Book Review.
Which women do you admire for the roles they played during a war?
No, John Wilkes Booth did not break his leg jumping from the balcony after he shot Abraham Lincoln. He probably didn’t even hurt himself. At least not then.
New insights into the Lincoln assassination don’t necessarily require the discovery of documents hidden away in an attic. One researcher demolished the broken-leg-in-the-theater myth with a rather mundane tool: his computer. And his data analysis helped him sift out new facts about Booth’s plots as well.
Michael W. Kauffman, author of American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, actually jumped onto the Ford’s Theatre stage to prove his point. But the heart of his 30-year-long research was his computer. It facilitated daily and hourly analysis of the events to a depth that no other researcher has accomplished before.
Michael W. Kauffman joins us for an interview about one of the greatest crimes of American history. And some of his answers might surprise you.
Ann Marie: One premise of your book is a new analysis of evidence with modern data analysis techniques. How did that provide new insights into the Lincoln assassination?
Michael Kauffman: The computer analysis made a world of difference in the way I thought of the assassination, and particularly in the way the plot developed. By keeping every event anchored to a particular time and place, I was able to get a much better idea of movements and connections among people. I learned to keep everything in context — not looking ahead or anywhere beyond a person’s field of vision at any given time. In this way, the conspiracy unfolded one day (and even one hour) at a time, just as it did in real life.
By selective filtering, I was able to find out who knew (or might know) what at any given time; what they couldn’t possibly know; and what previous events might have inspired or affected certain actions by Booth and the conspirators. In a second or two, I could sort out everything that happened, say, at the Surratt Tavern on a given day. I could also call up everything that happened there that involved a certain person or group of people. That’s how I found out that on March 18, when John Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were hiding the weapons at the tavern, they were almost caught by Atzerodt’s brother, John, who happened to be there at the same time.
Looking back, I was never able to find any account of the plot that actually laid out the conspiracy’s development in detail. Nobody had ever noticed that Booth formed a plot with Arnold and O’Laughlen, then formed a second plot with Surratt and the others. The first two conspirators knew nothing about the rest of them until they all got together at Gautier’s. That’s one reason it was such an explosive meeting. And putting things in a larger context, we can also see how Booth’s ostensible plan to capture Lincoln near the Soldiers’ Home grew into something entirely different right around January 18th. That’s when he moved Arnold and O’Laughlen to another location and started scouting around Ford’s Theatre. It’s no coincidence that the government resumed its exchange of prisoners at about that date as well. Booth no longer had an excuse for capturing Lincoln, but he never stopped plotting.
Having a computer track events was an enormous help because it wouldn’t let me omit anything unless I made a conscious decision to do so. That forced me to give some thought to even the smallest details, and I learned a lot from that exercise.
How long have you been researching the Lincoln assassination?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in Abraham Lincoln, but my thoughts really never turned to the assassination until John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963. It was an electrifying event, and soon afterward I started to see comparisons with the death of Lincoln. That was fascinating, and I read as much as I could find on the topic from that point on. I visited the Lincoln Tomb in 1965 and was absolutely hooked. But probably the turning point was in November of 1969, when I read Jim Bishop’s book The Day Lincoln Was Shot. He laid out the story so clearly and vividly, I felt I knew everything there was to know about the topic. I was already compulsive about writing, and Bishop inspired me to try my hand at writing a full-scale book about the Lincoln assassination. I typed out a couple hundred pages, and was quite pleased with myself until I actually went back and read it from the beginning. It needed work, for sure, but I had become more interested in learning about the case than writing about it. I kept at it, and as soon as I turned 18, I moved to Washington to be near the sources. I assumed I could finish the book in about a year, but it actually took a bit longer than that; the publication date of American Brutus was 30 years to the day after my arrival in Washington.
The short answer: I got serious about research at the end of 1969, and have been at it ever since.
The body of one conspirator went missing for over 100 years. How did that come about? And how was it discovered again?
I’ve always felt that history revolves around the people who took part in it. It’s really all about people, and if we get to know the characters in the story, we can go a long way to understanding how and why they acted as they did. As any genealogist can tell you, gravesites are often the key to unlocking a wealth of information, and I’ve gone to extremes to find and visit the final resting places of all those who figure in this drama.
To that end, I made quite a few trips to Geneva, Florida in search of information about Lewis Powell. This little hamlet is not far from Orlando, and it’s where Rev. George C. Powell and his family settled after the assassination. A few of us (Betty Ownsbey among them) always wondered whether Powell might be buried there. His body had been moved a few times after his execution, and was no longer accounted for. But my trips to Florida turned up very little, and nobody in the family would even talk to me.
It was about 18 years later, in early 1993, that I got a call from Stuart Speaker, a former park ranger from Ford’s Theatre. Stuart was then working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, and had just found a skull with an accession card that identified it as the cranium of a white male, Mr. P____ who was “hung” at Washington on July 7, 1865 for attempting to kill Secretary Seward.
Of course, I paid a visit the next morning, and stood face to face with Powell himself. There was no question in my mind about the identity. Powell had a strikingly asymmetrical jawline, having broken his jaw as a child, and the skull really did look like the man in the photos.
I still had the names and addresses of people in Florida, and I wasted no time in calling Lorraine Yarborough Whiting, the caretaker of the cemetery. She had been quite kind to me on my visits, and I knew that she was well acquainted with me and with the Powell relatives. I got a call back from the relatives in a matter of minutes.
The Smithsonian wanted to verify the identity, so they sent the skull to the FBI Lab, and I supplied them with ten different photos of Powell to help the process. When the results were in, the family wrote and requested that the remains be returned to them for burial. To my surprise, the Smithsonian initially refused. Months went by, and they put forth all kinds of arguments for keeping the skull right where it was, but ultimately they sent it by Fed Ex to Powell’s next of kin, a great grand-niece.
You even participated Lewis Powell’s reburial….
[Lewis Powell’s great grand-niece] called and asked if I would come down for a service at the cemetery on July 7th. My wife and I were expecting a baby within two weeks, so the event was postponed until our daughter was old enough to travel. Finally, on November 11, the family got together with a few friends and heard a nice eulogy by Betty Ownsbey as Louis Powell was buried next to his mother. There were no uniforms, no Confederate flags, and no references to any of the horrors of April, 1865. It was quite dignified.
We never really figured out why the skull ended up at the Smithsonian. It was turned over to them by Alfred H. Gawler, a clerk at the Army Medical Museum. Apparently the museum had acquired it sometime after Powell’s last known resting place, Graceland Cemetery, was disbanded in the 1870s and 1880s. The body had been moved there from Holmead Cemetery when the latter was developed just a few years earlier. Notices had been put in the paper, but apparently the Powells didn’t often read the Washington Star at their home in Florida, so they never claimed the remains when the rest of Holmead’s residents were evicted. (The Washington Hilton occupies the site of the cemetery today.) And Powell wouldn’t have been at Holmead in the first place if not for a public-spirited person or group who agreed to pay for burial there when the Washington Arsenal — site of the execution and first burial — was demolished in 1869. But records are sketchy and they sometimes contradict one another. We only know where Powell’s skull ended up. And what about the rest of him? It’s anybody’s guess. It might have been decomposed too badly to recover, and then again, the Medical Museum may have taken only what they had room to store. I don’t know.
The by-product of this was the discovery of new information from the Powell family, who shared their family treasures with Betty and me.
Your book makes a good argument that the story about Booth breaking his leg when he jumped from the balcony onto the stage at the theater is a myth. How did he really break his leg?
It’s never easy being the one to tear down a good story, and the Revenge of Old Glory was one of those cherished bits of folklore that really doesn’t want to die.
I gave tours of the Booth Escape Route for 30 years or so, and on one of those tours someone asked when the authorities first learned that Booth had broken his leg. I couldn’t say for certain, but I promised to get an answer. Surely, I thought, the people in the audience at Ford’s knew the assassin had hurt himself. He limped across the stage, and by some accounts, barely got out ahead of the pursuers. At least that’s how the story usually went. But as I mulled it over, it occurred to me that in all the notices that went out in the first week after the shooting, I never saw any reference to a possible injury. Everyone was desperate to catch Booth, and the government had published minutely detailed descriptions of him in the papers as well as circulars and handbills. There was no mention of a broken leg, or even a sprain.
Going back to the database, I was struck by the complete lack of evidence about a leg injury. Eyewitnesses said that Booth ran, darted, glided, bounded or hurried across the stage — but he didn’t limp. As he mounted his horse, left foot in the stirrup, the animal pulled out from under him, and it took a tremendous amount of strength and dexterity — all balanced on that one leg — to gain control and ride off. Maybe he was still too pumped up to notice the pain, but it was quite a while before he reached the Navy Yard Bridge, and the sergeant there saw no sign of agitation or agony. He let Booth cross.
It was not until Booth reached the Surratt Tavern that he really shows signs of having injured himself. From that point on, he would tell many people that his horse tripped and rolled over on him, breaking his leg. He never gave any other explanation, but finding himself accused of a cowardly act, he wrote a brief rebuttal in his pocket diary. This was a grossly exaggerated account of the shooting and escape, and almost everything in it has been dismissed out of hand. The only exception is the phrase “in jumping broke my leg.” This has been taken to mean that he broke his leg while jumping out of the box. I suppose that’s what Booth wanted people to think.
In the course of their investigation, authorities gathered statements from many people who had encountered Booth and David Herold in their flight. They paid little attention to the details, and even less where the getaway horses were concerned. But a few things stood out, and they’ve never been contradicted. First, Booth had rented a small bay mare with a very spirited disposition. A few people called attention to her high-strung qualities during the afternoon of April 14th, and Booth always dismissed concerns with a boast about his fine horsemanship. He rode that horse out of Baptist Alley that night, and six hours later, he arrived at Dr. Mudd’s on a different horse. Booth had switched horses with Herold, whose rented mount happened to be noted for its gentleness and ease in the saddle. When Mudd’s farmhands were asked to describe Herold’s horse, they said that it was lame. It had apparently tripped and rolled on its left side, and its shoulder was swollen. The horse limped.
Booth didn’t often tell the truth, but in the case of the broken leg, he seems to have gotten as close as he ever did. He undoubtedly pushed his horse a good deal, and at some point in the darkeness, the horse stumbled and rolled on its side. Booth’s fibula had snapped sideways just a couple of inches above the ankle. It is one of the most common equestrian injuries, but one that has never been associated with a jump from a high place.
As part of your research, you jumped from the balcony to the stage in the reconstructed Ford’s theater. What was that like? Did you hurt yourself?
I actually jumped from a 14-foot ladder on the stage, and it really was no big deal. I’ve spoken with a few actors who actually did make the same jump, and they also reported it was nothing to write home about. The only exception was Jack Lemmon, who made the leap (from a studio replica of the box) on live TV in 1955. Lemmon told me that it “hurt like hell,” but was only sprained.
You tell the sad story of Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, the two people sitting with the Lincolns in the balcony that fateful night. What happened to them after they married and moved to Germany?
The story of Henry and Clara is one of the most tragic episodes connected with the assassination. Henry retired from the army in 1867 and he married Clara the following day (if I remember correctly). They moved into a house on Jackson Place, across from the White House, and eventually had three children.
Henry had a restless spirit — perhaps boredom had set in, but just as likely, he was tormented by his memories of the assassination. At some point he and Clara decided to get away for a while, and they moved to Hannover, Germany. There, on the night of December 23rd, Henry went into a strange fit and Clara (who had seen this sort of thing before) yelled for their nanny to lock the children in their room. They heard screams and a gunshot, and after a period of silence, the nanny opened the door and found Henry and Clara in a heap on the floor. Clara was dead from a gunshot wound, and Henry was badly injured with a self-inflicted knife wound. It was as though he had re-enacted the assassination in some bizarre way.
Henry was taken to an asylum in the village of Hildesheim, where he lived out his days. He died in 1911.
As I always say, the list of Booth’s victims included many people, not just Lincoln and Seward. In the 1970s I contacted a granddaughter of Henry and Clara, and she brought out some family treasures to show me. There were many reminders of those two tragedies, and it occurred to me that their lives came to be defined by what happened in Ford’s Theatre. They could never escape the feeling that they had survived, and that sense of guilt proved too much for Henry to bear. When I contacted Mrs. Hartley, she told me that nobody had ever asked about her grandparents, and she wasn’t even sure of what she might have from them. I couldn’t help thinking that for many years, nobody had dared to bring it up. It was just too unpleasant.
Has anyone ever researched the Rathbone case based on the German archives?
In the early 1990s I gave a bus tour and mentioned the fate of Major Rathbone. A woman on the bus was excited to hear it. She had grown up in Hildesheim, and her mother still lived there. Her mother enthusiastically dug out some old records and newspaper articles, and she translated them for me. Subsequently, much has been written about the Rathbones — most notably, a fine book called Worst Seat in the House, by Caleb Jenner Stephens. And, by the way, I can always recommend a work of fiction on the topic. I think that Thomas Mallon’s novel Henry and Clara is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.
Thanks so much, Mr. Kauffman, for your comments and all the work that went into your fascinating book.
Which part of Michael Kauffman’s research surprised you the most?
Certainly the oddest – and most recent – piece of evidence in the Lindbergh kidnapping is the “table block confession.” Last week attorney Richard Cahill, author of the new book Hauptmann’s Ladder: A Step-by-Step Analysis of the Lindbergh Kidnapping, spoke with us about the case in general. He’s returning this week to tell us about the unusual confession.
The writing in the table top confession was discovered in 1948 by a man renovating a table he had purchased eight years earlier. In 2003, Mark Falzini, an archivist at the New Jersey State Police Museum found it in a box, compared it to the signature in the ransom notes, and made a startling discovery.
Richard Cahill analyzes the confession in his book and concludes it was both a hoax and an important clue. To understand how one piece of evidence can be both, you need to know about the kidnapper’s signature on the ransom notes.
Richard Cahill on the Table Block Confession
Ann Marie: Tell why the kidnapper’s signature was so unusual.
Richard Cahill: The holes in the ransom note were actually part of the “singnature” itself. The signature was an odd symbol consisting of two interlocking blue circles about the size of a half dollar coin. In the oval formed by the blue circles was a red circle about the size of a nickel. Three holes were punched in the symbol with one in the middle of the red circle and the other two just outside the outer circles equidistant from the center hole. Lastly, there were wavy vertical lines inside the outer circles but just outside the inner red circle.
Was the writing actually on the table top or on a block reinforcing the corner of the table?
The writing was not on the outer table. The writing was on a piece of wood used to reinforce the joint.
What did the confession say?
In Hamberg da bin ich gewesen in Samet und in Seide gekleidet. Meinen Namen den darf ich nicht nennen Denn Ich war einer der Kidnapper des Lindberg babys und nicht Bruno Richard
Hauptmann. Der Rest des Lösesgeldes liegt in Summit New Jersey begraben.
In English, “In Hamburg, I wore velvet and silk. I cannot tell you my name because I was one of the kidnappers of the Lindbergh baby. The rest of the ransom money lies buried in Summit, New Jersey.
NSDAP are the initials of the German Nazi party.
The block of wood had holes in it where it had been attached to the table. In 2003, Mark Felzini discovered the holes in the block aligned perfectly with the holes in the ransom note.
Why did you conclude the table block confession was fake?
Four reasons. (1) There is no evidence to show this table even existed in 1932. (2) The message does not appear to be written by a native German speaker. The message suggests the writer thought in English. (3) The timing of the message is odd. If this was intended to be a confession, why hide in a place it might never be found. (4) The signature of the Nazi party is ridiculous. In 1932, the Nazi’s were still trying to gain power in Germany. They would never have used their resources to kidnap Lindbergh’s child. Such a tactic would have been completely foolish and illogical.
Note from Ann Marie: The beginning of the confession is a parody on a German sailor’s chanty:
In Hamburg, da bin ich gewesen,
In Samt und in Seide gehüllt,
Meinen Namen den darf ich nicht nennen,
Denn ich bin ja ein Mädchen fürs Geld.
In my opinion, it shows that while the table top confession was likely not a genuine article, the holes in the ransom notes match the industry standard for these type of tables. The kidnapper used something very similar as a template for the ransom notes.A carpenter would certainly have access to and knowledge of something like this.
Thank you, Richard!
If you enjoyed this interview, take a look at Richard’s book, Hauptmann’s Ladder, on Amazon.