The mysterious fate of Boston Corbett

What happened to the man who shot John Wilkes Booth?

Boston Corbett

Boston Corbett, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

One of the lingering mysteries of the Lincoln assassination concerns Boston Corbett, the man who shot John Wilkes Booth. In 1888, Corbett disappeared into thin air. Michael W. Kauffman, a Lincoln assassination scholar, joins us today with a guest post  on this strange and historical case. Kauffman wrote American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies and contributed a chapter to The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century.

Welcome Michael W. Kauffman!


A historical disappearance

Boston Corbett’s disappearance is one of many mysteries connected to the Lincoln assassination, and it’s one that will probably never be solved. Corbett was last seen in the town of Neodesha, Kansas, where he had gone to visit a friend named Richard Thatcher, whom he had known when both were prisoners of war at Andersonville during the Civil War.

 Boston Corbett after the Civil War

Corbett had drifted from one job to another after the war, dogged by the feeling that he would fall victim to revenge at the hands of John Wilkes Booth’s friends. Celebrity hadn’t suited him well. After a brief and unsuccessful career as a lecturer, he became a minister of the gospel. He was probably a bit too intense for most parishioners, and before long he headed west and took up residence on a grant of land in Cloud County, Kansas. His behavior became increasingly erratic, and in time he came to be regarded as a public menace and a danger to society. But mindful of his status as a national hero, officials in Cloud County came up with a novel way of getting rid of Corbett while appearing to pay him an honor: they arranged to make him an assistant doorkeeper to the state legislature in Topeka! (Keep in mind, they did this because they considered him dangerous.)

Corbett lands in an asylum

It wasn’t long before Boston Corbett wore out his welcome in Topeka. He took offense to some remarks and drew his revolvers in the state house. The men in the white coats came to get him, and after a brief hearing, he was committed to the State Asylum for the Insane.

Apparently, Corbett felt the institution had little to offer, and he availed himself of the first opportunity to escape. He disappeared in short order, and made his way to Neodesha, in the southeast part of the state. There his old war buddy, Thatcher, extended a warm welcome and an invitation to stay a while. But after making some noises about heading for Mexico, Corbett disappeared into the wilderness, and as far as is known, he was never seen again.

Various theories about Boston Corbett

The western frontier was vast and forbidding, and it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what might have happened to Boston Corbett as he made his way south. Starvation, hostile Indians, marauders, and dangerous animals were only a few of the hazards any traveler would have to face in the Old West. Travelling alone was especially dangerous, and the odds of survival in the wilderness were extremely poor. Wild animals would have left little trace of anyone who died in such a vast expanse.

All of which is to say that it probably surprised no one when Corbett failed to materialize in Mexico or anywhere else in subsequent years. Though there were pretenders — most notably a patent medicine salesman in Enid, Oklahoma who was imprisoned for fraudulently claiming Corbett’s pension — the real Boston Corbett was never seen for certain again.

Great Hinckley Fire

But there were stories that suggested otherwise. In September of 1894, a forest fire consumed more than 200,000 acres around the town of Hinckley, Minnesota, and among the more than 400 fatalities was a man identified as Thomas Corbett. That was actually Boston Corbett’s given name, and it didn’t take long for rumors to take root about the death of Lincoln’s avenger in the Great Hinckley Fire. But in truth, this was never more than a rumor, based solely on the name of a man who seemed to be a stranger to the people of Hinckley. Attempts to connect that stranger to the killer of John Wilkes Booth have fallen flat for lack of evidence.

But as a wise old friend once told me, mysteries are a good thing. They give us something to talk about and to keep us interested. If you can supply all the answers, everyone will just get bored and move on to another topic. Nevertheless, if anyone can shed more light on the fate of Boston Corbett, I’d be delighted to hear about it.

Michael W. Kauffman

Author Michael W. Kauffman (Owings) has written a book about John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Assasination titled “American Brutus”. Photo by: J. Henson, courtesy of Michael Kauffman.


Thank you, Michael W. Kauffman!

Which theory do you think is most likely?

If you want to read more about the Lincoln assassination, check out my interview of Michael W. Kauffman.

Michael W. Kauffman also offered a blurb for the back cover of my book, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee:

Death of an Assassin is not only a startling historical discovery but a poignant tale of heroism and redemption. With a marvelous eye for detail, Ann Marie Ackermann has navigated through long-forgotten records on both sides of the Atlantic to unearth a new and complex kind of hero – a brutish, vengeful man who, perhaps out of remorse, was anxious to start a new life and redeem himself in his adopted home. It’s a great story, bolstered by solid research and told by one who is uniquely qualified to bring it to the public.

Click on the link above to order the book.

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Lincoln’s dog Fido: A Faithful Pet Assassinated Like His Master

Lincoln's dog Fido

Lincoln’s dog Fido (1860); public domain.

Two theories on the popularity of the name “Fido”

Fido.

Do you actually know a dog with that name? It’s so cliché no one names their dog Fido anymore. Fido has instead become a generic name for dogs: “Bring Fido on vacation.” “Is expensive dog food really good for Fido?”

How did Fido become so popular that the name became generic?

Dog lovers and historians have advanced two theories. One is that Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido influenced the name’s popularity, the other that is was the Italian dog Fido in WWII. Which theory is right? We’ll look at both against the backdrop of the popular literature of the day to find a clear winner. You might want to have a box of tissues because both of these stories are sad.

Lincoln’s dog Fido: Assassinated like his master

Articles in both Psychology Today and the American Kennel Club attribute the popularity of the name to Lincoln’s dog Fido.

Pharmacy records in Springfield, Illinois indicate Lincoln had a dog already in 1855. He purchased de-worming medication. That dog was probably “Fido,” a yellow lab mix, of whom a few photographs survive. Lincoln decided not to take Fido with him to the White House and left his dog in the care of a friend while he was gone.

A year after Lincoln’s assassination, Fido also met tragedy. A drunken man was sitting on the curb. Fido jumped up him with his dirty paws. In an intoxicated rage, the man knifed the dog. That’s how Lincoln’s dog Fido met his end. Assassinated like his master, said Johnny Roll, a member of Fido’s adoptive family.

Fido’s reputation as the First Pooch, the first presidential dog ever photographed, and as assassinated pet catapulted the name Fido into enduring popularity.

mMonument to the Italian Fido

Tuscanycalling, Dante Square and monument to the Italian Fido, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The Italian Fido: Ever faithful

A book on dog names attributes the popularity of Fido to an Italian dog belonging to Carlo Soriano. Soriano rescued the dog and named him Fido (“I am faithful”). Thereafter Fido waited for Soriano’s bus every day to accompany him home from work. One day during WWII, Soriano was killed in an air raid while at work. Fido continued to wait for his master at the bus stop every day – another fourteen years – until the dog’s death. Fido’s faithfulness received worldwide attention. Italy even erected a statue of Fido to commemorate his faithfulness.

So which dog made the name Fido famous?

If you peruse old newspapers, you’ll find dogs named Fido going all the back to the 18th century. Lincoln’s dog Fido wasn’t the first with that name. After Lincoln’s death, however, the name occurs more frequently in online newspaper searches, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s due to increased popularity of the name or the availability of more newspapers for that time period.

"Fido" appears as a generic name in a mock trial in 1906.

“Fido” appears as a generic dog name in a mock trial in 1906. “Administrator’s Notice,” Mexico Missouri Message (Feb. 22, 1906). Public domain.

An 1875 review of the clerks records of registered dog names a good thermometer reading of the popularity their popularity. Fido was tied for the third most popular, preceded only by Jip and Carlo. Another survey of dog licensing records in Bakersfield, CA indicates that Fido had almost completely dropped out of the list by 1900. Only one person named their dog Fido. A Minneapolis paper of 1901, however, indicates that Fido was still a popular name at a dog show.

By 1906, Fido begins to appear as a generic term for dogs. It was used as the name for a fictional dog in a mock trial. And in 1910, a satirical article about dogs appeared by an author named “Fido.”

Fido as a newspaper author

“Fido” is already writing newspaper articles by 1908. Fido, “There’s Nothing Nowadays Like Being a Flossie Little Dog,” The Spokane Press (July 15, 1908). Public domain.

All that indicates that Fido was popular canine name long before the Italian Fido was even born. Hence, it’s Lincoln’s dog Fido, the assassinated pet, to whom we should attribute the enduring popularity of the name.

 Literature on point:

 Administrator’s Notice,” Mexico Missouri Message (Feb. 22, 1906).

Matthew Algeo, Abe and Fido: Lincoln’s Love of Animals and the Touching Story of His Favorite Canine Companion (Chicago Review Press, 2015).

Dog Names: “The Most Popular of the Pack (1875),” Worcester (Mass.) Gazette via the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (Aug. 24, 1875).

Dorothy Meserve Kuhnhardt, “Lincoln’s Lost Dog,” Life (Feb. 15, 1954).

Man’s Best Friend,” Minneapolis Journal (Dec. 14, 1901).

Laurie Bogart Morrow, The Giant Book of Dog Names (Gallery Books, 2012).

Popular Dog Names in the Early 1900s,” woofreport (April 12, 2017).

Randy Shore, “Names Increasingly Reflect Dogs’ Integration into the Family,” Vancouver Sun (Oct. 189, 2009).

Fido, “There’s Nothing Nowadays Like Being a Flossie Little Dog,” The Spokane Press (July 15, 1908).

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Mary Todd Lincoln’s Castle Ghost in Germany

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln, 1860-1865. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). Public domain.

Germany as a haven after the Lincoln assassination

One of the lesser known aspects of the Lincoln assassination is the aftermath that played out in Germany. All the surviving occupants of the presidential box at Ford’s theater ended up moving to Germany. Mary Todd Lincoln and her son Tad lived in Frankfurt from 1868 to 1870, and Henry Rathbone moved to Hanover with his wife Clara and children in 1882 when the president appointed him U.S. Consul there. [Rathbone then became involved in a true crime himself. He murdered his wife a year later in Hanover – but that will be the subject of another post.]

I enjoy following the Lincoln and Rathbone sojourns in Germany because I live here, speak the language, and can research them. And that’s why a letter from Mary Todd Lincoln about a castle ghost caught my eye. There’s a possible mistake in there that’s leaked out into the biographical literature and I hope to point it out with this post.

Hohenzollern castle on a 19th-c. postcard

Hollenzollern castle on a 19th-century postcard. Was this the haunt of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost? Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.

 

Mary Todd Lincoln in Germany

Mary stayed at the Hotel d’Angleterre in Frankfurt while Tad attended boarding school nearby. By February, Frankfurt had gotten too cold for her and she decided to travel to the Mediterranean. Along the way, she stopped at the spa town of Baden-Baden in the Rhine Valley. Once she reached Nice, France, Mary penned a letter to her friend Eliza Slataper, a member of the Lee family in Virginia:

En route to Nice, I stopped for a day or two at Baden to see a lady from America, who resides most of the time in Europe. We visited a castle near Baden, where the veritable “White Lady,” is said, delights most to dwell, and where Napoleon signed his memorable treaty, in roaming the immense building, I said to our two attendants “have you ever seen her” – to which, of course, they both replied – “We often do.” As you know, Germans are very superstitious, and from the King of Prussia, down to his humblest subject, believe in her frequent appearance.*

The white lady appearing to the Prussian king.

“The white lady appearing to King Frederick I in 1713 shortly before his death.” Lithography by Ludwig Löffler, 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mystery of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost

Who or what was Mary Lincoln’s castle ghost? And where was the castle the white lady haunted? The answer is elusive.

One biography identifies the castle as the Hohenzollern castle in the Province of Hohenzollern. The royal family of Hohenzollern fits nicely to the white lady story. Kunigunde von Orlmünde, a widowed mother, she was engaged to marry another member of the Hohenzollern family, but thought her children came between herself and her fiancé. So she stabbed her children’s skulls with a needle and killed them. Later she sought repentance in Rome and entered a convent, where she died in 1351. According to legend, her ghost appeared throughout history to various members of the Hohenzollern family before they died, including the King of Prussia. Thus, Mary’s mention of the king in her letter appears to be a reference to the white lady of the Hollenzollern dynasty.

But the Hohenzollern castle as the dwelling for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost presents some problems. Several Prussian castles, including Berlin, Kulmbach, Rudolstadt, and Bayreuth, belong to the white lady’s traditional haunts, but I can’t find a reference to her ever spooking the Hohenzollern castle itself.

Hohenzollern castle.

The Hohenzollern castle as it appears today. Pixabay.

Problem of distances

There’s yet another reason why Hohenzollern can’t be the home of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost. It’s too far away. Baden-Baden lies on the west side of the Black Forest. To travel from Baden-Baden, Mary would have had to cross or skirt the Black Forest mountain range from the Grand Duchy of Baden into the Kingdom of Wurttemberg, and from there cross the Neckar Valley to the east and travel up into the Prussian Province of Hohenzollern on the Swabian Alb plateau. That was 44 miles as the crow flies, but at least 68 miles on the road, and three different countries.

Mary and her friend couldn’t have saved time by travelling by train, either. The Zollenalb train line connecting Tübingen to Hechingen (the nearest town to the castle) didn’t open until June 29, 1869, several months later. The women would have had to have completed at least part of the trip by horse and carriage. The journey, then, would have been too long to fit in as a side trip during a one to two day visit to Baden-Baden.

Baden-Baden was a popular tourist destination for Americans in the 19th century.

Baden-Baden was already a popular tourist destination for Americans in the 19th century. Baden-Baden Lichtentaler Allee. (c) Baden-Baden Kur & Tourismus GmbH, with permission.

Napoleonic treaty riddle

Mary’s other clue, that Napoleon signed a treaty at the castle, doesn’t help either. Napoleon, as far as I can determine, never signed a treaty at the Hohenzollern castle nor at any other castle in southwestern Germany. Mary might have been confused on that point. Please correct me if I’m wrong and leave a comment if you know what Mary might mean by  Napoleon’s castle treaty.

Hohenbaden castle

The Hohenbaden castle offers a better location for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost. Pixabay.

Hohenbaden castle and the gray lady

A prime location for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost would have been the Hohenbaden castle right next to Baden-Baden – one of the city’s major tourist attractions – and a very manageable side trip from town. The Hohenbaden castle doesn’t have a white lady, though. It has a gray one. And her story would have been far more intriguing to Mary Todd Lincoln.

The margravine who lived in the castle and became the gray lady after her death was a different kind of a mother than the white lady of the Hollenzollerns. By all accounts, she loved her baby son more than anything in the world. One evening, she wanted to show him his inheritance. She took him up a high tower and held him out over the balustrade to show him all the villages, fields, and farms over which he would one day rule. But he slipped out of her hands and tumbled down the castle walls and cliffs. Panicked, the margravine rushed down all the castle steps to search the ground below the cliffs. Although she had all her servants and maids help her, she never found her little boy’s body again. The margravine died in grief. Now, according to the Baden-Württemberg’s official website for its castles and gardens, she haunts the castle. You can still hear the margravine wailing as the wind whips the crevices in the cliffs, and at midnight, her gray-clad apparition drifts from room to room, her long white hair waving about her face.

Mary, who herself had two sons slip through her fingers into eternity, would have related much more to the mourning gray lady than the murderous white one. Might her memories of Edward and Willie have prompted her questions to her tour guides?

Gray lady in folklore

Although gray lady ghosts aren’t as common as the white ones, they do pop up in 19th-century literature. The gray lady of Caputh is another example, as is Maillais’s “Grey Lady” in Scotland. By 1846, a poem about the gray lady of Hohenbaden appeared in a collection of Baden legends. To give you a taste, I’ve translated the first four lines:

 

Habt ihr gehört von der grauen Frau
Im Bergschloß Hohenbaden?
Bethört von finstrer Macht, dem Gau
War sie zu Schreck und Schaden.**

Have you heard of the lady gray
In Hohenbaden’s cliffside palace?
Bewitched by darkness, she steals away
To spew her fright and malice.

 

The poem underscores the fame of the gray lady by the time Mary visited Baden-Baden in 1869. Today, the castle’s website describes the gray lady as the most famous of the castle’s legends. The ghost could have easily become a subject of the castle tours by the time Mary visited in 1869.

Hohenbaden castle grounds

Did Mary Todd Lincoln walk these grounds? Hohenbaden castle by (c) Yakovlev Sergey, Shutterstock.com, with permission.

Hohenbaden as the better choice

It’s possible that Mary got the color of the ghosts mixed up by the time she reached Nice and wrote her letter. Even the names of the castles are quite similar, Hohenzollern and Hohenbaden. That might have confused her in any conversations or reading on the topic.

Nevertheless, the Hohenbaden castle, for its proximity to Baden-Baden and a ghost story that matches Mary’s letter, offers a far better alternative than Hohenzollern for Mary’s side trip destination and the haunt of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost.

The question of where she thought Napoleon signed his “memorable treaty” remains open and offers a way to solve the riddle of Mary’s destination. My cursory survey of the treaties Napoleon I and III signed didn’t turn up anything in a southwestern German castle. Knowledge, however, is a cumulative and cooperative effort, and perhaps a reader knows more about the topic than I do. Please leave a comment if you can contribute. In doing so, you’ll also augment Mary Todd Lincoln’s biography.

You might also enjoy reading about Mark Twain’s visit to Baden-Baden several years later and his encounter with the Prussian empress or two posts on Frederick the Great, a member of the Hohenzollern dynasty: How Frederick the Great’s Sword Helped Spark the Civil War and The Five Greatest Criminal Trials of History, which covers his judgment in the trial of the miller Arnold.

Literature on point:

Baden-Württemberg, Städtliche Schlösser und Gärten, “Ein Geist im alten Schloss: Die graue Frau,” Altes Schloss Hohenbaden.

Betty Boles Ellison, The True Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014).

Jan von Flocken, “Die weiße Frau – ein Gespenst macht Geschichte,” Welt (Oct. 7, 2007).

**Ignaz Hub, “Die Graue Frau von Hohenbaden,” in Badisches Sagen-Buch II, August Schnezler, ed. (Karlsruhe: Creuzbacher & Kasper, 1846), 180-184.

*Mary Todd Lincoln to Eliza Slataper, Feb. 17, 1869 (in Turner, 26-27).

Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, “Die graue Frau,” Literatur Port (2015) [gray lady of Caputh].

Stephanie Graham Pina, “The Grey Lady,” Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (April 19, 2017).

Justin G. Turner, “The Mary Lincoln Letters to Mrs. Felician Slataper,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 49(1):7-33 (Spring 1956).

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Kate Warne: First Female Detective

Kate Warne was a master of disguise.

Kate Warne was a master of disguise. Photo from Pixabay.

Undercover Female Detectives

Men can do some things better than women. It’s no different in the world of undercover investigation. Men’s strength and ability to infiltrate male society makes men uniquely suited for certain undercover tasks.

But women can do some things better . They can more easily gain the confidence of other women. They’re sometimes better at reading nonverbal signals. In the 19th century, people were less likely to suspect a woman of spying than a man. Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, recognized that. Pinkerton’s became the first detective agency in America to employ female PIs.

Pinkerton Hires Kate Warne

Pinkerton  had only been operating his detective agency for one year when a young widow entered his office seeking a most unusual job, at least for a 19th century woman. Kate Warne wanted to become a detective. Pinkerton dismissed the idea at first, but Warne was persistent. A woman is far better in worming out secrets from other women, she pointed out. A female detective can befriend wives and girlfriends of suspects and charm her way into their confidence. Besides, men tend to become braggarts in the presence of females. Who knows what they might say?

Pinkerton, impressed with her arguments, hired Kate Warne in August, 1856.

Kate Warne helped solve a murder by posing as a fortune teller.

Kate Warne helped solve a murder by posing as a fortune teller. Photo (c) Shutterstock; with permission.

An Expert in Disguises

She was an immediate success. Kate Warne’s had a talent for disguises and could mimic foreign accents. Allan Pinkerton could count on her to slip into any social setting without arousing suspicion.

Her first case dealt with embezzlement in a delivery firm. By befriending the suspect’s wife, Warne gleaned crucial evidence. Combined with evidence obtained by the other detectives, it was enough to convict the thief.

Kate Warne later helped solve a murder case. The murder suspect’s girlfriend, Pinkerton determined, was the type to fall for a fortune teller. Warne disguised herself as a fortune teller and started telling fortunes in the girlfriend’s town. The girlfriend came for a consultation. Armed with confidential information about the girlfriend that Pinkerton’s detectives had obtained, Warne gained the woman’s trust. Convinced that Warne really had powers, the girlfriend confided her secrets, which helped lead to an arrest.

A sketch of the carriage transfer in Baltimore from Pinkerton's 1884 book, The Spy and the Rebellion. Lincoln is depicted wearing a shawl. One of the women was probably Kate Warne.

A sketch of the carriage transfer in Baltimore from Pinkerton’s 1884 book, The Spy and the Rebellion. Lincoln is depicted wearing a shawl. One of the women was probably Kate Warne. Public domain.

Abraham Lincoln Assassination Plot

Kate Warne’s most famous case involved Abraham Lincoln.

In 1861, Pinkerton sent Warne to Baltimore to scout out rumors of a plot to assassinate President-elect Lincoln en route to Washington, D.C. Warne adopted a southern accent, and posing as a belle from Montgomery, Alabama, she charmed her way into Baltimore society. Kate Warne not only confirmed the plot, she could provide new details. Agitators planned to kill Lincoln as he transferred by carriage from Baltimore’s north train station to the south train station.

Lincoln hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to protect him, and part of Pinkerton’s plan was to send Lincoln to Washington, D.C. ahead of schedule. Kate Warne accompanied him. Lincoln abandoned his signature cylinder hat and wrapped himself up in a shawl. Warne played a sister travelling with her “invalid brother,” even embracing him and greeting him as a brother. The rest is history, because Kate Warn successfully delivered the president-elect to Washington, D.C.

Pinkerton hired several female detectives but made Kate Warne their superintendent. Unfortunately, Kate Warne didn’t survive long after the Civil War. She caught pneumonia and died in 1868. No contemporary images survive, and even her true name is unclear. She went by a variety of names ranging from Kate Warne to Kitty Warren. Her cover was so good, in fact, that it is hard to track her down in the archives today.

Whatever her true name was, Kate Warne played a role in American history and did it well.

Which of Kate Warne’s accomplishments impress you the most?

A female detective can do some things better than a male one.

Undercover women can do some things better than undercover men. Morguefile photo.

Literature on point

Allan Pinkerton, The Somnambulist and the Detective; The Murderer and the Fortune Teller (New York: G. W. Dillingham: 1875)

Allan Pinkerton, The Spy and the Rebellion (Toronto: Rose, 1884)

Eve Stephenson, Pinkerton’s Belle: Kate Warne, America’s First Female Detective (2013).

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No-Body Murder Cases: Proof Bristling with Pitfalls

No-body murder cases are the toughest to prosecute.

Blood is a common piece of forensic evidence in a no-body murder case. Photo from Pixabay.

Anatomy of a No-Body Murder Case

This was a prosecutor’s nightmare.

Jessica O’Grady’s made her last cell phone call to her friend Keri Peterson at 11:29 pm on May 10, 2006 in Omaha, Nebraska. The 19-year old was near her boyfriend’s home. At 11:48 pm, she called her boyfriend, and 45 minutes later texted Keri.

No one ever heard from Jessica again.

When Jessica didn’t return home to her roommates and pet cat, her friends consulted with each other and bombarded her cell phones with messages. Jessica never answered. Two days later, Jessica’s aunt checked in with Jessica’s mother, who had no explanation for the girl’s disappearance. Jessica’s uncle called the police. Concern mounted when she failed to show up for work, pick up her paycheck, and didn’t show for a softball game.

In the course of questioning all the people who’d recently been in contact with Jessica, the police paid a visit to the boyfriend. He allowed them to search his bedroom, and when the police flipped his mattress over, they found it drenched with damp blood. There was so much blood the police were certain someone had either died or was in critical medical condition. Luminol showed blood splatters around the room. Further examination showed the boyfriend had tried to cover them up with white paint. DNA testing later proved it was Jessica’s blood in the mattress and splattered around the room. And the boyfriend’s browsing history showed he was studying human arteries the day before Jessica disappeared.

The boyfriend, Chris Edwards, never admitted to doing anything to Jessica. He insisted the blood had a simple explanation: Jessica had her period. You can view a photo of the mattress by clicking here and scrolling down to March 28, 2008.

What do you think? Crime or natural causes?

But where was Jessica? Intensive search efforts failed to recover a body and Edwards remained tight-lipped. Identification of a murder weapon was uncertain.

The prosecutor had a tough decision to make. A no-body murder case is the hardest to prove. And the prosecutor has only one chance. The constitutional double jeopardy clause protects defendants from being tried more than once for the same crime, even if a body is found later. For that reason, many prosecutors prefer to wait for the discovery of a body.

Jessica’s case was once of those rare instances in which a prosecutor went forward with a no-body murder prosecution and secured a conviction. John Ferak’s recent book, Body of Proof, provides excellent background into Jessica’s case if you want to read more. The case became more complicated after the conviction because a detective was convicted of planting evidence in other cases.

Expert testimony can be crucial in a no-body murder case.

Expert testimony can be crucial. Photo from Pixabay.

Trying No-Body Murder Cases

I still remember learning about no-body murder cases in law school. The hard part is proving someone died without a body. A killing is an element of the crime of murder, and the best way to prove a killing is with a dead body. Without the body, there is always a chance the victim could turn up somewhere, alive.

Blood – lots of it – is the usual cornerstone of proof in a no-body murder case, our professor told us. You can couple that with expert medical testimony on how much blood loss would cause a death.

But how do you prove how much blood is in a mattress? Do you have to bore samples throughout the material to see how deep the material is saturated? In Jessica’s case, the defense tried pouring pig’s blood onto the same type of mattress to test how much blood the original mattress had, but getting the blood to saturate in the same pattern and to the same depth is an inexact science.

According to a new book on prosecuting no body murder cases, most evidence of the death fall into one or more of three categories: (1) forensic evidence, like blood loss, (2) a confession to a friend who snitches, and (3) confession to the police. And if it can pull together enough evidence, the prosecution often succeeds in obtaining a conviction. Prosecutor and author Ted DiBiase maintains a website listing 444 non-body murder trials in the USA as of June, 2015, and 80% of them were successful.

Abraham Lincoln successfully tried a no-body murder case.

Abraham Lincoln successfully tried a no-body murder case. Photo from Pixabay.

Abraham Lincoln Tried a No-Body Murder Case

Abraham Lincoln was without a doubt the most famous lawyer to have ever tried a no-body murder case. He and two other lawyers represented Archibald and William Taylor. They were charged with murdering another man.

Like Jessica, the victim had disappeared, and despite an intensive search, no body was found. The attorney general interrogated and plied the defendants’ brother for two days, who denied everything. But finally he gave in under pressure and said the defendants had confessed to the murder. He also offered a fourth category of evidence: eye witness testimony. He said he’d seen the defendants with a dead body. The prosecution thought it had an airtight case, even without a body.

But what Lincoln did next not only proved the pitfalls of any no-body murder case, it also showed the danger of an over-enthusiastic police interrogation leading to a false confession. Lincoln found the victim alive. A man named Myers arrived in Springfield, bringing the victim “in full life and proper person.” The victim suffered from amnesia and could not explain why he had left the defendants and disappeared. But dead he was not, and the judge dismissed the case.

Lincoln later published a short story about his no-body murder case, which might have made him the first true crime author in U.S. history. You can read his story here.

If you were sitting on a jury, what kind of evidence would convince you of a murder even if no body had been found?

Literature on point:

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)

Tad DiBiase, No-Body Homicide Cases (CRC Press, 2014)

John Ferak, Body of Proof: Tainted Evidence in the Murder of Jessica O’Grady? (Evergreen, CO: Wildblue Press, 2015)

Abraham Lincoln, The Trailor Murder Mystery (public domain)

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Abraham Lincoln in the Black Hawk War

"Lincoln protecting Potawatomi" by Unknown - Northern Illinois University; Browne, Francis F. The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: N.D. Thompson Publishing Co., 1886. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Lincoln protecting Potawatomi” in the Black Hawk War. By Unknown – Northern Illinois University; Browne, Francis F. The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: N.D. Thompson Publishing Co., 1886. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Many U.S. presidents came from a military background. Abraham Lincoln was no exception. His brief service as both a captain and a spy in the Black Hawk War was unusual. But it offered some training for his future political life. As far as I know, Lincoln was the only president who had worked in an official capacity as a spy.

How the Black Hawk War Interrupted Abraham Lincoln’s First Campaign

In early 1832, Lincoln announced his first candidacy ever – for the Illinois House of Representatives. His platform focused on river navigation, education, and limiting usury rates. But an Indian chief interrupted Lincoln’s campaign. When Black Hawk crossed into Northern Illinois in April 1832 to repossess tribal lands earlier ceded to the U.S., he sparked a brief conflict known as the Black Hawk War.

"Chief Black Hawk3" by Charles Bird King - McKenney, Thomas Loraine and James Hall. History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes, of the Principal Chiefs. Philadelphia: J. T. Bowen, 1848-1850. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Chief Black Hawk3” by Charles Bird King – McKenney, Thomas Loraine and James Hall. History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes, of the Principal Chiefs. Philadelphia: J. T. Bowen, 1848-1850. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln was already a member of the state militia. Just two days after the Black Hawk War started, perhaps even before news of Black Hawk’s raid reached him, Lincoln attended the spring muster of the 31st Regiment. His company elected him captain. When Governor John Reynolds called up the militia to fight the Black Hawk War a few days later, Lincoln volunteered. He had three short tours of duty.

Lincoln’s Company Elected Him a Captain in the Black Hawk War

The recruits at New Salem formed a mounted company, and for the second time that month, Lincoln was elected captain. He didn’t want to run for captain, but friends grabbed him and pushed him forward. That victory, Lincoln later said, was “a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.”

Lincoln’s company never experienced combat. But twice it came across casualties. On May 15, his company found the scalped corpses of eleven soldiers at Stillman’s run. One week later, the company found mutilated bodies of women and children – also scalped. Lincoln had more burial work than combat work.

Stillman's run monument from the Black Hawk War.

A monument at Stillman’s run mentions Lincoln’s assistance during the Black Hawk War. “Stillman’s Run Site Stillman Valley, IL 01” by Ben Jacobson (Kranar Drogin) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

How Abraham Lincoln Saved an Indian in the Black Hawk War

In the company’s one encounter with an Indian, Lincoln opposed his own men. An old man entered the camp. He is thought to have been a Potawatomi, and the Potawatomi tried to remain neutral in the war. Lincoln’s men took the Indian for a spy and wanted to kill him. But he was carrying a note of safe passage signed by the Secretary of War. Lincoln jumped between his men and the Indian, saying, “Men, this must not be done – he must not be shot and killed by us.” When his company threatened to fight their own captain, Lincoln told it to choose its weapons. His men backed down. One of them later said Lincoln would do justice to all.

The Potawatomi remained neutral during the Black Hawk War.

Shabbona, the Potawatomi chief, remained neutral during the Black Hawk War. “Shabbona (chief)1” by Unknown – [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When Lincoln’s company was mustered out of service at the end of May, he immediately enlisted in another mounted company. The man who mustered him in was none other than Lt. Robert Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter at the outbreak of the Civil War. Lincoln’s work consisted of scouting and burying more victims of an Indiana massacre at Galena.

Abraham Lincoln as a Spy

On June 20, Lincoln officially became a spy in the services of the United States government. He enlisted as a private in Dr. Jacob Early’s Independent Spy Company. His duties involved scouting and carrying messages. When a battle broke out at Kellogg’s Grove on June 25, the spy company was dispatched there the same day. It arrived at sunrise the next morning. Once again, the men in Lincoln’s company encountered victims of the Black Hawk War and buried them. Lincoln described the scene: “The red light of the morning sun was streaming upon them as they law, heads towards us, on the ground, and every man had a round red spot on the top of his head, about as big as a dollar, where the redskins had taken his scalp. It was frightful, but it was grotesque, and the red sunlight seemed to paint everything all over.”

A Black Hawk War monument at Kellogg's Grove.

Another monument recalls Lincoln’s burial of the dead at Kellogg’s Grove. “Kent Il Kellogg’s Grove6” by I, IvoShandor. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln was discharged in July and returned home to continue campaigning for the state legislature. He lost the election, but would run again. In three short months he had made friends in the Black Hawk War who would support his future political career. He learned a little about leadership and his election as captain gave him a foretaste for politics.

What signs of the future president do you see in the captain, private, and spy?

Literature on point

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); quotes on pp. 67-69.

Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission, The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham Lincoln

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