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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Milestones in the History of the Forensic Autopsy

 

A 19th-century autopsy

Anatomy of the heart; And she had a heart! 1890. Enrique Simonet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The history of the forensic autopsy is peppered with names you’d probably recognize. Julius Caesar. Paul Revere. Although you may have not heard of Emperor Charles V himself, you’ve certainly heard of the Holy Roman Empire. And if you’ve read Antonio Garrido’s blockbuster, The Corpse Reader, you know another name: Cí Song.

These people formed important building blocks in the history of the forensic autopsy – now a critical evidentiary tool in murder investigations.

Julius Caesar’s autopsy

First determination of which wound was fatal

The death of Julius Caesar occasioned the first recorded autopsy.

The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini, ca. 1805 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When a group of Roman senators assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 BC, they stabbed Caesar 23 times. But only one wound proved fatal. That was the result of the world’s first recorded autopsy report.

A physician named Antistius examined Caesar’s body. Caesar had stab wounds everywhere – in the face, belly, groin, and arms. Antistius determined one of the two stab wounds to Caesar’s chest had sliced his heart and caused his death.

Today, a medical examiner’s conclusion of which wounds prove fatal play a critical evidentiary role. Prosecutors must prove causation in a murder case – that the defendant’s acts, and not some other factor, caused the victim’s death.

Cí Song and the Hsi Yüan Lu

First surviving textbook on autopsies

Cí Song wrote the Hsi Yüan Lu – “Instructions to Coroners” early 13th-century China. It remained the primary text there for centuries, anchoring its place in the history of the forensic autopsy. A fascinating novel about Cí Song’s life, The Corpse Reader, tells about his rise to the most prominent forensic pathologist of medieval Chinese history.

Cí Song once solved a murder case by analyzing the victim’s wounds. The shape of the cuts indicated the murderer had used a sickle. Song then asked all the farmers to turn in their sickles and noticed that flies were attracted to one of them. It had the scent of blood on it and its owner confessed.

You might call that the world’s first line up. But the witnesses were flies.

Emperor Charles V

First law requiring autopsies in murder cases

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s ground-breaking criminal code of 1532, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, was the first German law that required autopsies in cases of unnatural deaths. That law still applied in 1835 when Mayor Heinrich Rieber, the victim in my book, was murdered in Bönnigheim.

The Carolina didn’t lay down any procedures for autopsies. It only required an external examination of the body and that a physician conduct them. Nevertheless, the new law was an important signpost in the history of the forensic autopsy because it gave a nod to the crucial role physical evidence can play in a murder case.

Rudolf Virchow

First Standardization in the history of the forensic autopsy

Standardization of autopsies first began after 1876 when the German physician Rudolf Virchow – considered the father of modern pathology – published his treatise on autopsy techniques. Prior to Virchow’s time, autopsies followed no regular method. Physicians haphazardly dissected to pursue their own theories of the case. And that limited discoveries. Virchow’s procedures required pathologists to cover more ground – and hence find more clues.

Paul Revere's dental identification of a body was a milestone in the history of the forensic autopsy

Paul Revere’s dentistry tools. By Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine (ncp1331) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Revere

First dental identification

He wasn’t just the horseman in the midnight ride. Paul Revere also rode into the history of the forensic autopsy as America’s first forensic dentist. The silversmith worked on the side as an amateur dentist, creating dentures from animal teeth.

Revere’s friend Dr. Joseph Warren went missing in action after Bunker Hill. Months later, 114 corpses were exhumed from a mass grave of patriots killed in action and examined in the hopes they could be identified. Revere recognized his friend from the set of dentures he’d created from a hippopotamus tusk. He hadn’t been identified after the battle because a musket ball to his face obliterated his facial features. Revere’s identification allowed Warren to receive a hero’s funeral.

Today forensic dentistry plays a crucial role in the identification of bodies. But remember, an American patriot was the first. Dr. Vincent Di Maio and Ron Franscell discuss the case in their great book, Morgue: A Life in Death.

Can you name any other watershed moments in the history of the forensic autopsy?

Literature on point:

Sydney Smith, “The History and Development of Forensic Medicine.” British Medical Journal (March 24, 1951), 599-607.

RJ Parker, Forensic Analysis and DNA in Criminal Investigations (2015).

Vincent Di Maio & Ron Franscell, Morgue: A Life in Death (Picador, 2016).

Tales from the Practice of Medicine: Ancient Chinese Forensic Medicine,” Pure Insight (March 17, 2003).

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Murder of Ambrose Madison, Grandfather of President James Madison

President James Madison was the grandson of Ambrose Madison

President James Madison, by John Vanderlyn (1775–1852) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A slow, lingering death in 1732 made its mark not only in Virginia criminal history, but presidential history as well. The first documented murder in the Orange County, Virginia region was of the grandfather of a U.S. president. But it may not have been a murder at all. The strange death of Ambrose Madison presents a mystery that you might be able to help solve today.

Strange death of Ambrose Madison

Ambrose Madison, the paternal grandfather of President James Madison, was an early landholder in present-day Orange County. He owned several slaves, and they took the blame when Madison began feeling ill around June or July of 1732. He made out his will on July 31, and on August 27, succumbed to his illness. No records of his birth date still exist, but he was at least 36 years old when he died. James Madison Sr., the president’s father, was just nine years old when his father passed.

The poisoning charge

Shortly before Ambrose Madison’s death, two of his slaves, Turk and Dido, along with a neighbor’s slave, Pompey, were cited for “Suspition of Poysoning.” Because the court records have been lost, we don’t know any details about Madison’s symptoms, the type of poison, or evidence for the slaves’ involvement. If the slaves did indeed poison Ambrose Madison, they didn’t use enough or a type to kill him outright. The substance must have been sufficient to damage his organs enough to lead to his slow demise over a period of a couple of months.

The Virginia court tried and convicted Turk, Dido, and Pompey on September 6. Pompey was executed by hanging the next day; Turk and Dido received a whipping. The court deemed their involvement was insufficient to warrant the death penalty.

Was it murder or not?

Ann L. Miller, an Orange County historian, put this case under a magnifying glass in her book, The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison. She examined subsequent cases in which slaves allegedly poisoned their masters.

The other poisoning cases

In the fifteen years following Ambrose Madison’s death, Miller found three other cases in Orange County. On August 19, 1746, a slave named Eve allegedly poisoned the milk of her master, Peter Montague.  He died in December. Eve was convicted and executed.

On August 1, 1748, a slave named Letty allegedly poisoned the “Water, Bread & Meat” of Richard Sims, who died in January after five months’ illness. She was also accused of poisoning fellow slave, Simon, owned by John Grymes, on September 31, 1748, by serving him toxic “Cyder, Water, Bread & Meat.” He died the following April. Letty pleaded not guilty and was acquitted.

The golden thread

Miller points out that all four poisoning cases have similar features: The plantations of the poison victims were all located within eleven miles of each other. All the victims suffered lingering deaths over the period of several months. And the dates of the poisonings were all in summer or early autumn.

Might that point to a botanical cause and natural deaths? Miller raises the question and asks what type of toxic plants grow (or are most potent) in Northern Virginia during those months.

Might white snakeroot have caused the death of Ambrose Madison?

White snakeroot. Sten Porse, Ageratina altissima (2006), Creative Commons.

Milk sickness

The poisonings remind me of the “milk sickness” that killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, in Indiana. White snakeroot plants (Ageratina altissima) containing the poison tremetol killed both the cows that consumed them and the people who drank their milk. White snakeroot does grow in Virginia. But milk sickness victims usually die within a couple of weeks, not months.

Might Virginia have another toxic plant that could have caused these deaths? How common is white snakeroot in Orange County? If you have any knowledge of botany or Virginia flora, I’d love to hear your theories.

Literature on point:

Ann L. Miller, The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison (Orange, Virginia: Orange County Historical Society, 1995)

Douglas B. Chambers,  Murder at Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia  (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi: 2005)

Virginia Botanical Association, “Ageratina altissima,” Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora

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

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Coldest Murder Cases Ever Solved

cold cases

Image by Castleski, courtesy of Shutterstock.

What have been the coldest cases ever solved?

A craveonline article by K. Thor Jensen, “The Longest Cold Cases in History that were Eventually Solved” lists several. At the top of the list stands the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, Illinois. She disappeared on a winter day and her corpse was found a year later. Investigators exhumed her body in 2011 for DNA testing, and amazingly they found DNA that matched to a former suspect. He was arrested and charged in 2012, 55 years after the murder.

In second place for the coldest cases ever solved comes the double murder of two policemen in 1957. They pulled over a car for running a red light in El Segundo, California. The driver shot them both. Advances in fingerprinting technology enabled law enforcement to identify a suspect in 2002, who pled guilty. Forty-five years had passed between the murders and conviction.

A record-breaking cold case from Germany

The case that’s the subject of my book would come in third place on the craveonline list: 37 years between the murder and solution. And it just might hold the record for the 19th century for the coldest cases, back when murders were even harder to solve. It also became 19th-century Germany’s only murder case solved in the United States outside of a confession.

An unknown assassin gunned down the mayor of Bönnigheim, Germany, in 1835, but without any solid leads, the investigation went cold in 1837. A tip from Washington, DC solved the case in 1872. An immigrant from Bönnigheim wrote it. The German prosecutor was able to close the investigation after a forester found corroborating evidence in the archives.

The American letter

The letter that cracked one of the coldest cases ever solved

Frederick Rupp to the City of Bönnigheim, April 29, 1872. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg, E319 Bü 146, with permission

Here you get a preview — the first page of the letter and a translation. It’s written in an old German handwriting called Kurrentschrift, so even if you know German, you might find it hard to read. Don’t worry — there are no spoilers here, because the author first named the assassin on the second page. If you want to know how the letter continues, you’ll need to purchase the book.

Washington, D.C. 29 April 1872

To the highly honored, praiseworthy Mayor
And city council in Bönnigheim, District Authority of Besigheim
Kingdom of Württemberg!

Most Honorable Gentlemen!

I consider it my duty to inform you that after many years and some discrete research, I have finally learned who the heinous murderer of our highly esteemed but unfortunate Mayor Rieber was. [Rieber] was, as far as I remember, shot by a heinous murderer in the autumn of 1834 [corrected to 1835], in the night at 9:45 pm, as he came home from his brother’s inn, the Waldhorn, where he had eaten – he lived next to the palace – while he was opening his door. They offered a huge reward for arresting the murderer, but the entire investigation was fruitless, and as far as I can still remember, several upright citizens, who were innocent, as it now appears, came under suspicion. In order to remove that suspicion from those miserable families, I see it as my sacred duty to report everything to you exactly as I discovered it recently by coincidence.

Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee

My book tells the story of amazing German-American case and its connection to Robert E. Lee. It’s publication date is today – September 1, 2017, and it has received some great reviews. Take a look at it here on Amazon.

Praise for Death of an Assassin

Death of an Assassin book cover

Death of an Assassin book cover, courtesy of Kent State University Press.

“Death of Assassin is an entertaining look at very human characters in a world on the edge of radical change.” — Robert Davis, New York Journal of Books

“An engaging piece of history.” — Tim Gebhart

“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.” — Michael W. Kauffman, author of American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies

“Ann Marie Ackermann has marvelously weaved a story of diverse themes into a single fabric of historical research and investigation. Written in a conversational style and drawing the reader into the web of mystery produces a story of high interest and adventure.” — Anthony Waskie, assistant professor, Temple University, author of Philadelphia and the Civil War

“An Edgar-worthy true crime masterpiece of astonishing investigative skill and irresistible narrative flow. I know the term “must read” is overused, but I’m going to use it again — Ann Marie Ackermann’s new book is a must read!” — Burl Barer, NYT-best-selling author of Murder in the Family and Man Overboard

“A page-turner of historical scholarship, Death of an Assassin takes a little known German cold case murder from 1835 and turns it into an intriguing mystery. Using a style reminiscent of Case Closed, author Ann Marie Ackermann puts you in Bonnigheim when the assassin pulls the trigger and later Mexico, where the fleeing assassin engulfs Robert E. Lee in tragedy, long before Lee ever heard the canon near Appomattox Court House.” — Fred Rosen, author of Murdering the President: Alexander Graham Bell and the Race to Save James Garfield

“In her excellent work, Death of an Assassin, Ann Marie Ackermann has penned a fascinating account of a long-ago murder; a murder that should have remained tucked away somewhere in the dark archived files of history, never again to see the light of day. Thankfully for us, however, the author has not only rescued this strange tale from obscurity, but has brought to light a story that begins with the murder in Germany, and ends up in the pre-Civil War America of Robert E. Lee, where the killer begins an eventful new life.

“With a sharp eye for detail, Ackermann painstakingly reconstructs the lives of the participants from long-hidden facts, and then, having breathed life back into them, paints a vivid literary picture throughout the pages of her riveting book. It’s a tale that will pull you in from the very first page.” — Kevin M. Sullivan, author of The Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History and Custer’s Road to Disaster: The Path to Little Bighorn

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Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter connected to a record-breaking cold case

 

Robert E. Lee's mysterious letter

Detail of Robert E. Lee’s letter. Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers. (c) Virginia Historical Society, with permission.

 

A national mystery

The Virginia Historical Society inherited a national mystery in 1981. That’s when it obtained the deButts-Ely family papers. The collection contains Robert E. Lee correspondence, and among it, a surprising letter from the Siege of Veracruz. In that letter, Robert E. Lee praised an unknown hero. But no one suspected that man was an assassin – the perpetrator in a record-breaking German cold case.

Lee at the Siege of Veracruz

General Winfield Scott masterminded the siege in March 1847 as the opening gambit to his campaign in the Mexican-American War. While General Zachary Taylor remained in northern Mexico, far from the capital, Scott planned an amphibious landing near Veracruz. He wanted to capture the Mexican port city and then march inland, following Cortez’s route from centuries before, to sack Mexico City.

The Siege of Veracruz was Robert E. Lee’s first battle. He directed the fire at an onshore naval battery. A German company from Pennsylvania’s first regiment was assigned to defending it. Eight Americans died at the battery before the U.S. won the siege, and one of those deaths made a profound impression on Lee. On April 11, he put his feelings on paper in a letter to his son Custis:

Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter

There was one poor fellow that behaved nobly. His thigh was broke by a cannon ball & he was laid in a trench at the rear of the battery for security, the balls & shells were flying so thick that he could not be borne away. A bush was stuck over him to keep the sun out of his eyes & all that we could give him was occasionally a cup of bad warm water. The men at the guns were hot & thirsty & drank up the water as fast as it could be brought. It was at some distance & the balls swept over the field & at such a furious rate that the officers would not let the men go for water except when they could not do without it. There the poor fellow lay till evening; when they got a litter & was bearing him off, when a shell fell & burst & a fragment killed him. He laid the whole day with the balls & bombs flying over him without uttering a complaint. His sufferings must have been very great, for the battery kept up a constant & brisk firing & the concussion from the 32 [pounders] & Paixhan guns shook the whole ground & must have pained him terribly. I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man.*

This unknown hero has been a discussion point in the literature. Why would Robert E. Lee balance American military objectives against the life of one man and find them lacking?

But no one, until now, has asked who that man was.

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz, ca. 1848. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

The unknown hero turns out to be a long-sought criminal

A careful comparison of the American casualty list against descriptions of the deaths at the naval battery in primary sources such as logbooks, letters, and a newspaper account from an embedded journalist all point to a German volunteer in the 1st Pennsylvania.

Robert E. Lee couldn’t have known the man’s background. It would have shocked him. The man was the assassin in a record-breaking German cold case – 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved and its only murder ever solved in the USA.

For the first time, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee (Kent State University Press, September 1, 2017) brings these two stories together. It offers American history packaged in international true crime wrapping. You can order the book here on Amazon.

Next week we’ll look at the German case and the letter from America that provided the crucial clue.

Literature on point:

*Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers, Virginia Historical Society.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (New York: Penguin Books, 2009; discusses the letter on p. 173).

Bernice-Marie Yates, The Perfect Gentleman: The Life and Letters of George Washington Custis Lee, Vol. 1 (Xulon Press, 2003; discusses the letter on pp. 92-94).

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Who Killed Constable Cock? American Civil War Veterans in a British Case

Constable Cock, murder victim.

Constable Cock, murder victim. Courtesy of Angela Buckley, public domain.

It was dark.

The clocks on Manchester’s towers were ticking towards midnight on August 1, 1876 when one of the most sensational crimes of Victorian England occurred. A gibbous moon was setting in the west, but you probably wouldn’t have seen it. The night was clouded and trees overhung the lane as 21-year-old Constable Cock picked his way along his beat.

Heading north on Manchester Road in the village of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Constable Cock overtook a law student, John Massey Simpson, who was heading home. They walked together for awhile. At the intersection of West Point, another policeman, Constable Beanland joined them for a brief chat before Simpson started east along Upper Chorlton Road. He only walked about 150 yards when two shots rang out behind him, following a man’s voice: “Murder, murder! Oh, I’m shot!”

Simpson ran back to find Constable Cock on the ground, blood spurting from his chest, and Beanland standing over him, blowing his whistle to alert other policemen on their beats. Nicholas Cock died before he had a chance to say who killed him.

Thus began one of England’s most spectacular murder cases – famous not only for the cold-blooded killing of a police officer, but for a Perry Mason-like twist that later turned the entire case on its head. Constable Cock has never been forgotten in England. Even today, police officers on

Constable Cock has never been forgotten in England. Even today, police officers on beat in Chorlton-cum-Hardy stop by his grave to pay their respects.

An American Civil War connection

Angela Buckley has just published a book on the Constable Cock case, the second in her Victorian Supersleuth series. I won’t give away the twist – it would spoil the book for you – but can say that one of the surprising aspects for me was the connection to the American Civil War.

Buckley’s book covers two sensational Victorian crimes because one influenced the other. A murder in the Fenian Rising nine years before Constable Cock’s murder changed public sentiment. And that influenced the Constable Cock Case. Instrumental in the Fenian Rising and the murder were two Civil War veterans, Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy, who returned to Europe after the war.

Angela Buckley joins us today to talk about the connection between the two cases.

Welcome, Angela!

Angela Buckley, author.

Angela Buckley, with permission.

Colonel Thomas Kelly and Captain Timothy Deasy were both American Civil War veterans, yet they sparked one of the most sensational criminal trials of Victorian Britain. How did that come about?

Following the American Civil War, many members of Irish Republican Brotherhood (also known as the Fenians) returned to their homeland to continue the battle against the British authorities for home rule. Veteran Colonel Thomas J. Kelly was instrumental in planning the Fenian Rising of 1867. When the campaign failed, Colonel Kelly was arrested but later escaped.

Later that year, Kelly was re-arrested in Manchester, along with one of his colleagues, Captain Timothy Deasy. On 18 September, the prisoners were being transported to prison when the police van was attacked by their supporters. Kelly and Deasy were liberated but only after a police officer Sergeant Charles Brett had been shot dead. A massive manhunt followed, which led to the arrest of some 50 Irish men in the city. On 23 November 1867, William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien were hanged for Sergeant Brett’s murder and became known as ‘The Manchester Martyrs’. Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy fled back to the US.

Colonel Thomas Kelly played an important role in the Fenian Rising.

Colonel Thomas J. Kelly, via Wikipedia, public domain.

Were they ever tried themselves?

 No, Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy were never re-captured and both took refuge in the US. Colonel Kelly remained a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in New York and died in the city in 1908. He is buried with his wife in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx.

What kind of a career did the two have in the Civil War?

Timothy Deasy had migrated from Ireland to America with his family in 1847. In 1861, he enlisted in the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, primarily made up of Irish-Americans. He fought in 32 engagements showing considerable gallantry and leadership. Despite being wounded in the Battle of Spotsylvania, Deasy remained in command of his company. At the end of Civil war, he became a captain in the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Thomas Kelly was also a ‘battle-hardened’ veteran of the Civil War. He had emigrated to the US from Ireland in 1851. During the Civil War he served in the 10th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, also an Irish regiment. He was promoted to First Sergeant of C Company in the summer of 1861. Like Deasy, Kelly was badly wounded but continued his service. He attained the rank of captain.

Postage stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Fenian Rising.

Postage stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Fenian Rising. Boris15 / Shutterstock.com, with permission.

How did these two Civil War veterans influence prejudice against the Irish?

The nationalist fervour of both these men was renewed during the American Civil War and, in 1865, they were ready to take arms against the British authorities. This led to a more organised campaign with greater structure and focus. Colonel Kelly took charge of Fenian operations in Manchester and Captain Deasy was stationed in Liverpool. Terror of Irish nationalism and the Fenians was already rife in mainland Britain, and this new campaign sent Victorians of all levels of society into an acute panic, reinforcing their long-held prejudice against the Irish in general.

Your book is about the murder of a Victorian police officer that was sensationalist in its own right. Nevertheless, Kelly’s and Deasy’s actions had a huge influence on the Constable Cock case. How?

Although the murder of Constable Cock took place almost a decade after that of Sergeant Brett, the Fenian uprising in Manchester was still fresh in the minds of the city’s inhabitants. As the prime suspects were three Irish brothers, known locally for their drinking and belligerence, their case was seriously prejudiced by contemporary opinions, despite there being no real proof for such assumptions and only the flimsiest of evidence against them. Furthermore, at that time in Manchester, 25 per cent of convicted criminals were Irish and a third of prisoners in its principal gaol were Catholic. At the Habron brothers’ trial, most of the witnesses for the defence were illiterate Irish co-workers, whose testimonies were discounted.

Lord Justice Lindley presided over the trial for Constable Cock's murder.

Lord Justice Lindley presided over the first trial for Constable Cock’s murder.

A critical piece of evidence in the Constable Cock case dealt with footprint evidence. How advanced were footprint comparisons as a forensic tool in 1876?

By 1876, the identification of suspects through footprint analysis was a fairly common practice used by the British police. However, the methods were still very rudimentary. In this case, the investigating officer, Superintendent James Bent, made impressions with the suspects’ boots next to the footprints near the crime scene and then compared the two – he even had to cover the prints with a cardboard box to preserve them when it started to rain! Despite the absence of any scientific analysis, Superintendent Bent was satisfied that the prints near the spot where Constable Cock was murdered had been made by his prime suspect William Habron. The boot prints were the main evidence on which Habron was tried for murder.

_______________________________________________________

Thank you, Angela!

Who Killed Constable Cock, book cover

Who Killed Constable Cock, book cover, courtesy of Angela Buckley.

Read Angela’s book, Who Killed Constable Cock, to get a completely different view of the evidence.

Literature on point:

Moonrise, Moonset, and Phase Calendar for London, August 1876

August 1876 Moon Phases

Angela Buckley, Who Killed Constable Cock?: A Victorian True Crime Murder Case (Manor Vale Associates, 2017)

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