Watergate burglary of the 19th century
It was 2:00 a.m. on December 14, 1874 when the burglar alarm went off. None of the residents in Holmes van Brunt’s house on Long Island could have known that the clanging alarm would earn its place in the history of burglar alarms. For its connection to a nationally publicized crime and its role in unraveling it, the break-in that night was the Watergate burglary of the 19th century.
Holmes van Brunt heard the alarm in his bedroom and sent his son Albert out to the house next door, where the alarm had been set. He thought maybe the wind had blown open a shutter and triggered the alarm. Albert grabbed a lantern and pistol and walked over. But he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw a light on in the house and shadows passing behind the window. That house belonged to his uncle, the judge, and no one was supposed to be there right now.
If anyone understood the importance of protecting his home, Judge Van Brunt did. His caseload in New York City had included plenty of thefts and burglaries. Now he sat in the New York Supreme Court and heard appeals on such cases. He knew the importance of protecting his vacation house on Long Island against burglary.
So he installed a burglar alarm designed to ring at his brother Holmes’s house next door.
History of burglar alarms
If it surprises you that people used electromagnetic home security systems as early as 1874, you should crack a volume on the history of burglar alarms.
Animals offered the most popular home security before 1700. Watchdogs, geese, and even pigs sounded an alarm if strangers approached a house. In the early 18th century, that started to change. Homes and businesses saw a move to mechanical systems. Tildesley, an English inventor, mechanically linked door locks to sets of chimes. A skeleton key in the lock set the chimes a-ringing and offered a new kind of home security.
The idea spread to the American colonies. In the early 1700s, a bank in Plymouth, Massachusetts earned a place in the history of burglar alarms by installing what was perhaps the world’s first mechanical bank alarm. It used a tripwire that ran from the safe’s door handle to the cashier’s house next door.
By 1852, someone figured out how to harness electricity to fend off burglars. Albert Augustus Pope, a Massachusetts minister, fitted magnetic contacts and metal foil to windows and doors. If someone tried to move them, the system sounded a bell. Edwin Holmes bought Pope’s patent in 1857 and began marketing the electromagnetic burglar alarm in New York City. At first, customers were skeptical about the device, but by 1866, Holmes had already outfitted 1200 homes with an alarm.
Then along came a burglary that showcased the alarm and gave it national publicity.
The Van Brunts confront two burglars
Albert raced back home to tell his father there really was a break-in in the judge’s vacation home next door. Holmes and Albert Van Brunt, together with a neighboring gardener and a second hired man, armed themselves with guns and took positions at the front and back doors. Holmes and the hired man entered the judge’s house from the rear. Holmes then opened the trapdoor to the pantry and discovered two men there. Testimony at the coroner’s inquest indicates the burglars fired first. Team Van Brunt returned the fire and shot two men. One, William Mosher, died at the top of the pantry stairs; the other, Joseph Douglas, made it out to the front lawn before he collapsed. Douglas died three hours later, but not before he made a confession. “It’s no use lying now. I helped steal Charlie Ross…. Mosher knows all about it.”
Testimony at the coroner’s inquest indicates the burglars fired first. Team Van Brunt returned the fire and shot two men. One, William Mosher, died at the top of the pantry stairs; the other, Joseph Douglas, made it out to the front lawn before he collapsed. Douglas died three hours later, but not before he made a confession. “It’s no use lying now. I helped steal Charlie Ross…. Mosher knows all about it.”
“It’s no use lying now. I helped steal Charlie Ross…. Mosher knows all about it.”
Douglas had just confessed to one of the worst crimes of the century: the kidnapping of four-year-old Charlie Ross. In fact, the judge who presided over the trial of one of the burglars’ co-conspirators said it was widely regarded “as the worst crime of the century.” Those words were particularly astonishing in August 1875, when the horror of the Lincoln assassination still held the American public in its grip. Why was the kidnapping of a boy worse than the assassination of the president?
Charlie Ross: snatched from the street
Charlie Ross and his five-year-old brother Walter had been playing in front of their home in Philadelphia on July 1, 1874. They accepted an offer of candy from two men in a horse-drawn carriage and climbed in with them. (The parental admonition not to take candy from strangers is a legacy of the Charlie Ross kidnapping.) The men drove the boys out of town and then to the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, where they let Walter out. Then they rode off with Charlie. Two days later his parents received a ransom note. “we is got him,” it said in broken English, “and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand. you will have to pay us before you git him.” The note demanded $20,000.
Two days later his parents received a ransom note. “we is got him,” it said in broken English, “and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand. you will have to pay us before you git him.” The note demanded $20,000.
That was a first.
America’s first kidnapping for ransom
No criminal had ever demanded ransom in an American kidnapping before. The novelty struck terror in the nation’s heart because it highlighted the vulnerability of its children. Parents feared losing their children more than losing their president. Following Charlie’s kidnapping, Pennsylvania became the first state to make child-snatching a felony. It had only been a misdemeanor when Charlie was snatched.
The legal change came too late to help Charlie. Although the police made some inroads in investigating the case, they never found the boy. You can read more about Charlie’s kidnapping in Carrie Hagen’s fascinating book, “we is got him: The Kidnapping That Changed America (New York: Overlook Press, 2011).
Charlie’s case had one unforeseen effect in the history of burglar alarms. Because the Van Brunt burglary was inextricably entwined with both the novel burglar alarm and a nationally publicized kidnapping, Edwin Holmes received a wave of free publicity for his new product. As newspapers all over the country reported the burglary and confession, readers devoured the story of the burglar alarm and its effectiveness. This was the first case to give the burglar alarm major publicity.
A twist of fate linked the first kidnapping for ransom with the history of burglar alarms. Burglar alarms are still with us. But except for the parental admonition not to take candy from strangers, Charlie Ross has been largely forgotten.
Literature on point:
“Back to Basics: Where Did the Burglar Alarm Come From?” Vintech (2011).
Fass, Paula. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997).
Hagen, Carrie. “The Story Behind the First Ransom Note in American History,” Smithsonian.com (Dec. 9, 2013).
Hagen, Carrie. we is got him: The Kidnapping That Changed America (New York: Overlook Press, 2011).
Lee, Seungmug, “The Impact of Home Burglar Alarm Systems on Residential Burglaries.” Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 2008, ProQuest 3326964.
International Foundation for Protection Officers. The Professional Protection Officer: Practical Security Strategies and Emerging Trends (Elsevier, 2010).
Ross, Nick. Crime: How to Solve It – And Why So Much of What We’ve Been Told is Wrong (Biteback Publishing, 2013)
“The Mystery Solved. The Abductors of Charlie Ross,” Indiana State Sentinel, 22 December 1874.
As the executioner’s sword lobbed the man’s head off in an arching crimson spray, the crowd lunged forward. It wasn’t the sensationalism of a violent death that drew all the people clutching their white handkerchiefs. It was the blood. Bubbling from the criminal’s torso in two scarlet fountains, that blood promised healing power in medical folklore, and the crowd surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs in the magical red fluid. The roots of this medical folklore run deep – through two millennia and various cultures. And its impact on public executions lasted well into the 19th century.
Belief in the healing power of blood dates back to the ancient world. In 11th book of Homer’s Odyssey, the dead, starting with the Thebian Tirsesias, drank the blood of Odysseus’s sacrifice of sheep and it revitalized them. Human blood came into play in the Egyptian medical folklore described by Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia in the 1st century. It was dangerous for the common folk when an Egyptian king caught leprosy, wrote Pliny, because the royalty bathed in warm human blood to treat the disease. Both Pliny and a 1st c. AD colleague, Aretaeus of Cappadocia also recommended consumption of fresh blood from slaughtered gladiators or executed criminals as a cure for epilepsy.
The German physician Gunver Anna Maria Werringloer wrote a recent doctoral dissertation on the public treatment of the executed corpse in the 19th century. Medical folklore was one of the reasons why public executions were so popular, she writes. People thought both human blood and other body parts had the power to heal diseases, but it wasn’t any old blood that would do the trick. It worked best when it came from a healthy person killed suddenly. That drew the ill and infirm to public beheadings. Medical folklore turned the executioner’s block into a public pharmacy; in fact, people viewed the executioner as a healer. And few drops of blood apparently did the trick. People brought handkerchiefs to executions to absorb blood and saved them under their cupboards for good luck.
The practice had theological underpinnings. A 1699 German pharmaceutical handbook pointed out that because man was made in God’s image, his body parts offered healing value.
Germany wasn’t the only country whose folklore valued the blood dripping from the executioner’s block. Shakespeare worked the medical folklore about human blood into Othello: Desdemona treats the pain on Othello’s forehead with a handkerchief stained with the blood of virgins. Werringloer also reports the similar medical folklore in Switzerland, France, Austria, and Sweden: Even up until 1940, many people in these countries considered human blood a cure for epilepsy.
As odd as the practice seems today, it’s not all so different from some aspects of modern medicine. It’s not all so different from blood transfusions, points out medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. The period medical folklore casts a different light on the crowds that gathered to watch public executions. They were all there out of curiosity and sensationalism. The were the sick and dying, looking for another shot at life, they were parents seeking a cure for their epileptic children, they were trying to treat their diseases the best way they knew how.
What medical folklore cures have you heard about?
Literature on point:
Lindsey Fitzharris, “Drinking Blood and Eating Flesh: Corpse Medicine in Early Modern England,” The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice (Feb. 25, 2011).
Noble, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Springer, 2011).
Gunver Anna Maria Werringloer, Vom Umgang mit der Leiche im 19. Jahrhundert: Der Fall der Giftmörderin Christiane Ruthardt und die Tübinger Anatomie (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 2013).
A dead man drinking a cocktail
The blood drained from my upper body. Dr. X stood before me, a cocktail in one hand, very much alive. But Rick had told me he’d died earlier in the year.
Without question, one of the most awkward social situations anyone can encounter is running into someone they thought was dead. My encounter with the living Dr. X happened to me at a Christmas party in the early nineties. I was working as a staff attorney for the Washington State Department of Health and attended its holiday celebration at a hotel in Tacoma.
There stood Dr. X, talking, laughing, breathing.
I’d only known Dr. X as a casual professional acquaintance. So when Rick, a physician friend of mine, told me he had died, I accepted the information with detachment. And I had no reason to doubt it until I saw Dr. X standing there and I felt my face go white. I stifled the most automatic response – “What?! But I thought you were dead!” What would Miss Manners say? I tried to act natural. I shook his hand in greeting. His hand was warm; he was really alive. I politely disengaged myself from Dr. X before my shock betrayed me, secretly glad I was wearing lipstick. Because Dr. X couldn’t see the blood drain from my lips.
How would have you handled this situation?
The walking dead in Amanda Howard’s new book
Because I’ve experienced the dismay of encountering the walking dead before, I felt for some of the people in Amanda Howard’s new book, Rope: A History of the Hanged. She recounts stories of those whose shock must have been much worse. She tells of those who’ve encountered living people declared dead – criminals who survived their hangings and returned to shock the public, or even worse, of the most egregious mistake the judicial system can make. Occasionally, someone found a supposed murder victim alive after a purported murderer had already been hung.
Amanda Howard graciously let me print an extract from her book that tells just that sort of a story. Perry’s case is an English story, but it changed the American legal landscape.
William Harrison, steward to the Lady Viscountess Campden disappeared on August 16, 1660. The 70-year-old man left his home in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire for the two-mile walk to Charringworth to collect rent. He had taken the trip many times before and would always return by evening. When Harrison had not returned by supper, his wife sent a servant, John Perry to look for him but he also went missing.
Perry claimed that he had been afraid of the dark and had returned home for his master’s horse to continue his search well after midnight when the moon was full and illuminated his way. Early in the morning, a mist fell over Charringworth and Perry had become lost, only finding his way when he came upon Edward Harrison, William’s son.
The following day, Mrs. Harrison had sent her son Edward to look for the two men and he came upon John Perry. The servant told Edward that he had no luck finding the elderly gentleman. They visited the homes that William would have visited and found that he had been to some of them.
Perry and Edward Harrison headed back to Campden. On their way, they found a hat, band, and comb which belonged to William. The two men began a search nearby having “suppose[ed] he had been murdered, the hat and comb being hacked and cut and the band bloody, but nothing more could be found.” At this stage, the entire town began a search for the man.
Mrs. Harrison grew suspicious of John Perry and claimed that his whereabouts were suspicious. Perry was interviewed numerous times by the local Justice of the Peace but confessed nothing except for what he had done that evening when Harrison had gone missing. Finally, after a week of questioning, Perry claimed that Harrison had been murdered but he did not know who had done it. He then changed his confession to claim that his mother, Joan, and brother, Richard, had killed the man.416 He claimed that they had killed Harrison, taken his money and hidden his body. Joan and Richard Perry were quickly arrested for the man’s murder and sent to trial.
Though all three pleaded guilty to the murder, the judge refused to accept the plea and neither did the jury. The trial ended without convictions. A second trial, where all three pleaded not guilty, saw them all found guilty of the man’s murder and sentenced to be hanged.
Within the week of the second trial in 1661, the trio were executed.
Joan was hanged first being declared a witch, followed by Richard, then John.
Three years after the Perry family were hanged, William Harrison returned to Campden looking disheveled and drawn. He claimed to have been “carried away beyond the seas.” He claimed that three men on horseback accosted him, made him mount one of the horses and took him away to a place called Deal where he was sold to a ship owner called Wrenshaw. He was then passed to other owners including a surgeon before finding his way back to Campden. Though many doubt his story, it is nonetheless tragic that three innocent people lost their lives for a murder that did not happen.
Perry’s case and the corpus delicti rule
This case tragically illustrates the importance of the corpus delicti rule in preventing wrongful convictions. Corpus delicti means “body of the crime.” In American law, it requires the prosecutor to present evidence that a crime was actually committed even if the defendant confesses; it protects those who confess to imaginary crimes due to coercion or mental illness.
Corpus delicti is what makes it so hard to prove no-body murder cases. In fact, it was this case, the so-called “Perry’s case,” that formed the legal foundations of the corpus delicti rule.
I got off much better than the defendants did in Perry’s case – I only suffered a shock. When I saw Rick again, I let have it. How could he be so careless with the facts and tell me a professional acquaintance of mine had died when he hadn’t? But Rick just shrugged and said he must have made a mistake.
That’s just the point. Errors happen – in private conversations, in the courtroom, and at the end of the noose. When they do, they can turn lives upside down. And some, like Perry’s case, can change the law.
The corpus delicti rule has recently fallen into disfavor. Some courts have abandoned it in favor of a looser corroboration rule, arguing that Miranda rights are sufficient to guard against false confessions. What do you think?
Amanda Howard biography
Amanda Howard is a true crime author, fiction writer and serial killer expert who has written 18 books. This includes ten books on a wide range of true crime cases. She has also interviewed some of the world’s most heinous serial killers over two decades and has collected a vast pool of information on various types of killers, their motives and rituals. Coupled with this are studies of criminology, law and psychology.
Amanda has appeared in many critically acclaimed international documentaries regarding famous serial killers, including Jack the Ripper, The Backpacker Killer, David Birnie as well as acted as a criminal consultant on many more. She authored many journal articles on serial killers as well as been a guest on crime shows on radio, online, television and in print. Amanda has worked as a consultant for many current affairs and news programs in Australia regarding vicious crimes, juvenile murderers, serial killers and sex offenders.
Following on from her successful career as a non-fiction author, she has coupled her knowledge of serial killers to develop a series of novels following the life of a police detective who is an international expert on ritual crimes and ancient societies. The fourth book in the series, Shrouded Echoes will be released in November 2016. She has also released a series of short stories and novellas.
Amanda is also currently studying for her Masters of Arts (Writing) and runs successful YouTube channels: Truly Disturbing, Mystery and History, Botched Executions and Forgotten Brutal Crimes.
Literature on point:
Amanda Howard, Rope: A History of the Hanged (New Holland Publishers, September 2016).
David A. Moran, “In Defense of the Corpus Delicti Rule,” Ohio State Law Journal (2003) 64:817-854. Page 828 discusses Perry’s case.
When bargeman Charles Humphreys and his mate leaned over the gunwale to hook the floating parcel and pull it aboard, the last thing they expected to find inside was a dead baby.
Humphreys had been navigating his barge upstream on the River Thames when he first spotted the brown paper parcel bobbing in the water. He and his mate hooked it as they maneuvered his barge towards the shore near Reading. The men brought the package ashore to a towpath. There the mate tore open the wet packaging – paper and two layers of sodden flannel. An infant’s foot emerged. Leaving his mate to guard the parcel, he ran to town to fetch the police. That police report, on March 30, 1896, became the first clue in a case of baby farm murders. The ensuing investigation not only exposed one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers, with an estimated victim count of 300. It also led to the creation of modern child protection laws.
There can be little doubt that the police have unearthed a case which will prove the most remarkable in the annals of crime for many years past. – Berkshire Chronicle, April 18, 1896.
The package concealed a dead baby girl, aged 6-12 months old, with a ligature around her neck. A local surgeon examined her and confirmed the police’s suspicions. The baby had been strangled. An address on the brown wrapping paper led the police to Amelia Dyer, a woman who made her living as a foster mother – by running a “baby farm.”
As the police investigated her and dredged the Thames for more bodies, the emerging body count and evidence of child abuse appalled the country more than Jack the Ripper’s five murders even had. The baby farm murders revealed a dark underbelly of Victorian society. Period laws made it almost impossible for single mothers – sometimes even widows – to keep their own children. Thousands gave their babies up to foster parents, who charged fees for childcare. A few foster mothers took advantage of the situation. They collected the fees but killed the babies.
Historical true crime author Angela Buckley, who recently published a book, Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders (Victorian Supersleuth Investigates), joins us today for an interview about one of Britain’s most horrific serial killers. I’ve added a few block quotes with additional information.
Welcome, Angela Buckley!
Is “Victorian Supersleuth Investigates” going to be a historical true crime series?
Yes, it’s a series of short true crime cases, which all start with a murder and then follow the investigation as it unfolds, with all the clues, challenges, and obstacles that the detectives encountered. The books are written like crime fiction and are ‘quick reads’– perfect for a true crime coffee break!
Are you planning another book?
My next book in the Victorian Supersleuth Investigates series is Charlie Peace and the Murder of PC Cock. At midnight on 1 August 1876, PC Cock was shot in the leafy suburbs of Manchester. Superintendent James Bent thought he knew who the killer was succeeded in bringing PC Cock’s murderer to justice but, in an astonishing twist, the killer’s real identity was revealed some years later. Charlie Peace and the Murder of PC Cock will be published in spring 2017.
How many babies did Amelia Dyer kill?
It is not known how many babies died at the hands of Amelia Dyer. By the time of her arrest, she had been active as a baby farmer for almost three decades, and most of those children probably perished, perhaps more often from neglect than cold-blooded murder. Although there is no concrete evidence, it is likely that she was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of babies, given the length of time she ran her baby farming business.
According to an article in the Independent, Amelia Dyer killed at least 300 babies. She was probably Britain’s most prolific serial killer.
What was “baby farming”? Was it a common practice?
Baby farmers were the Victorian equivalent of child minders. Also known as ‘nurses’, they advertised in the newspapers to care for infants for a weekly fee, usually five shillings. They also offered a full adoption for a one-off payment. In the cities, it was very common in the late 19th century for married women working in factories to place their children each day with a baby farmer. For single mothers, it was an opportunity to relieve themselves of the burden of an unwanted baby. Sadly, many of the baby farmers neglected the infants in their care; they drugged them with laudanum to keep them quiet, and slowly starved them to death.
How did Victorian law and morals force women to give up their babies?
In the Victorian era, illegitimacy carried a deep social stigma, and single women who fell pregnant were often thrown out of their homes and family and lost their jobs. Many were domestic servants, who lost everything – most of the mothers who gave their babies to Amelia Dyer were in service. There was no social security and no state-run orphanages or no legal adoption system, so single mothers were faced with the prospect of giving up their child in order to survive. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act made the situation even worse, as outdoor parish relief was replaced by the workhouse, in which parents were separated from their children. Some unmarried mothers were so desperate that they even killed their own babies. Others handed them to a baby farmer.
The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act absolved fathers from financial responsibility for children born outside of wedlock. The legislature felt that penalizing men for the children they sired would force them to marry against their will and financial support for unwed mothers would discourage chastity and encourage extortion and perjury. Children became the unintended victims of this law.
Did any parents ever try to reclaim their babies?
Some parents returned to a baby farmer’s each day, after work, to take their children home for the night but for many, it was understood that once they placed their child with a baby farmer for adoption, they would not expect to see them again. I think it was probably quite rare that parents tried to reclaim their child after such an agreement had been made, although it did happen in Amelia Dyer’s case – the parents never found their child, who was likely to have died.
The coroner gave the police two weeks following the discovery of the first body to tie up ends and solve the cases. Were murder cases of the period usually solved so quickly?
In my experience of Victorian criminal cases, it seems quite usual for murders to be investigated and processed quickly through the courts to the final trial. However, most crimes went unsolved and the most common coroner’s verdict was ‘murder by person or persons unknown’. Early 19th-century police records reveal that conviction rates, in general, could be low as 5%. Around the time of the Dyer case, there were several coroner’s inquests into infants found in the Thames, but most were inconclusive and therefore not used as evidence against her.
The more the case is unraveled, the more revolting do the details appear. – Bershire Chronicle, April 18, 1896
Why was it so hard to find enough evidence in the baby farm murders?
Although infant bodies were found in rivers near the places Amelia Dyer lived in the south of England, it was impossible to link them to Dyer without modern forensic techniques and DNA testing. The Victorian police had to rely on circumstantial evidence. Although Amelia Dyer was investigated several times for neglect, after babies died in her care, it was extremely difficult to prove that she had been responsible for their deaths. In Reading, the police found letters in her home, which provided them the links to the victims’ parents so that they could construct a compelling case against her.
This case was huge. The baby farm murders led to the creation of modern child protection laws in Britain. How?
Prior to the 1870s, there were no laws in Britain regulating those who cared for other people’s children. Towards the end of the 1860s, baby farms began to come to the police’s attention and, in 1870, Margaret Waters became the first baby farmer to be hanged for infanticide, after a child in her care died from neglect. This shocking case led to the 1872 Infant Protection Act, which required any person taking in more than one nurse child for more than 24 hours to be registered with the police. However, there were still more infant deaths at the hands of unscrupulous baby farmers, which reached a climax with the conviction of Amelia Dyer in 1896. The 1908 Children’s Act established the framework for modern child protection policies.
Thank you, Angela Buckley!
Sometimes legislation is like a barge working its way upstream on the Thames. It takes society a while to recognize negative effects of its old laws and to navigate a new legal course. Hundreds of infants paid the price for Britain’s misguided attempt to stigmatize single mothers. Amelia Dyer and the baby farm murders led to new legislation to protect children. That is the legacy of this case.
Literature on point:
Angela Buckley, Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders (Victorian Supersleuth Investigates) (Manor Vale Associates, 2016).
Betrayed by her boots
When she pulled the trigger, the last thing Nancy Clem thought about was her boots. In 1868, she and an accomplice murdered Jacob and Nancy Jane Young in a riverside park northwest of Indianapolis. They’d owed the couple money, and she decided murder was the best way to solve the problem. But the “notorious Mrs. Clem” left behind a footprint. That’s what led to her arrest in one of the nation’s most celebrated murder cases until Lizzie Borden swung up her ax in 1892.
A young cowherd found the bodies the next day. Jacob Young had most of his face blown off by a shotgun. Nancy Jane Young had been shot in the temple by a pistol at close range. Something – possibly the gunpowder – caught her crinoline on fire. Her body was still smoking when the cowherd found them. The flesh of her thighs had been burnt off, her bones pulverized, and her intestines spilled out of her charred skin. “Burned to the crisp,” wrote one Indianapolis newspaper.
The Hoosier murder that shocked the nation
The police originally surmised it was a murder-suicide. But a small woman’s footprint and a shotgun purchased the previous day and left at the scene led them to the “notorious Mrs. Clem” (as the papers dubbed her) and her accomplice, William J. Abrams.
The case wrote history. The public was shocked that a woman could commit such a murder. A future U.S. President – Benjamin Harrison – cut his prosecutorial teeth on the case. The notorious Mrs. Clem was his first major trial. The case also showcases the first known use of the financial swindle known as the Ponzi scheme. That was the motive for the murder. But what most shifted the tectonic plates of history was that the case put women’s right to work on trial. In a new book by Indiana University history professor Wendy Gamber, The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), the author navigates both the murder and the societal tsunami it created.
If you’re looking for a conventional true-crime read, this book may not be for you, because the raw facts of history don’t always neatly fit into a narrative arc. Notorious Mrs. Clem slipped through the fingers of justice. Her first trial resulted in a hung jury. She was convicted of second-degree murder in the second trial, but Mrs. Clem appealed and the Indiana Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial. The third trial resulted in a hung jury and the fourth a first-degree murder conviction. Once again, the Indiana Supreme Court reserved and remanded. By then, six years later, most of the witnesses had left the state and the prosecution gave up. That’s not an emotionally satisfying ending to a true-crime book.
Notorious Mrs. Clem as a societal magnifying glass
But Wendy Gamber’s forte is history, and that’s precisely what she does so well in this book. Gamber uses notorious Mrs. Clem’s trials to dissect 19th-century Hoosier culture and values. Notorious Mrs. Clem became the first person to use the Ponzi scheme to bilk clients of their money, Gamber claims. Mrs. Clem borrowed money from her clients, promising to pay it back at attractive interest rates. But the money she paid back was nothing more than funds obtained from new clients. No Ponzi scheme can go on forever. Her debts to the Youngs forced a breaking point.
Notorious Mrs. Clem’s financial trading shocked not only Hoosiers but the rest of the nation. More than just guilt and innocence went on trial: Mrs. Clem made the public question women’s rights to manage their own businesses and keep their own profits. The trials serve as a magnifying glass to illuminate 19th-century ideas about gender against the backdrop of the emerging women’s rights movement. That’s what makes this case so fascinating.
In fact, you might say that the notorious Mrs. Clem left her footprints on history.
Disclaimer: I received an advanced review copy of The Notorious Mrs. Clem in exchange for an honest review.
What surprises you most about the notorious Mrs. Clem — her willingness to murder or her invention of the Ponzi scheme?
A daring jump
The night lights of Vienna swayed 12,500 feet beneath him as Gerald Blanchard perched at the airplane hatch. Once the Schönbrunn Palace came into sight, he signaled the pilot to slow down. Then Blanchard adjusted his parachute one last time. A nighttime jump to a city roof counted among the most dangerous types of skydives, but Blanchard was no ordinary thief. The theft he was about to accomplish – the Köchert Diamond heist – has taken its place among the most daring jewelry thefts ever.
The day before, he’d taken a palace tour. On display glittered Austria’s most famous jewel, the last remaining Köchert Diamond, one of the jeweled stars Empress Elisabeth used to wear in her hair. Blanchard hatched a plan to steal it.
An expert at analyzing weaknesses in security systems, Blanchard lingered behind the tour group, videotaping the room and making preliminary preparations. From the roof, he decided. Whoever planned the palace security system didn’t that method of entry into account.
Blanchard then contacted a friend of his, a German pilot, to fly him over the city that night for the jump. Once inside the palace, he dismantled the display case and switched out the diamond with a replica he’d purchased in the museum shop.
A crime that touched history
He may not have known it, but as his hand touched the diamond, Blanchard’s 1998 crime converged with one of Europe’s greatest 19th-century crimes. The only woman to ever have worn that star, the Empress “Sisi,” fell victim to an assassin’s knife in 1898.
Jennifer Bowers Bahney’s new book, Stealing Sisi’s Star: How a Master Thief Nearly Got Away with Austria’s Most Famous Jewel, masterfully weaves the Köchert Diamond heist and the royal assassination into a compelling story. She joins us today for an interview about both of them.
Interview with Jennifer Bowers Bahney
What is Sisi’s Star and why is it so famous?
Empress Elisabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, loved her ankle-length hair and went to great pains to care for and dress it. She had a personal hairdresser who spent nearly three hours each day braiding it into intricate updos. Once, when Sisi was at the theater, she saw an actress with jeweled stars pinned throughout her hair, and Sisi decided that she would commission her own “hair stars” from the royal court jewel firm, Köchert. The jeweler created 27 ten-pointed stars for Sisi to pin throughout her braids featuring 30 graduated diamonds and a large center pearl set in white gold. (The hair star I write about in the book is known as the Köchert Diamond Pearl). When being painted for her state portrait in 1865 (“Empress Elisabeth in a Star-Spangled Dress” by Franz-Xaver Winterhalter), Sisi wore the stars in place of an old-fashioned tiara. The decision was considered very fashion forward and original.
Why was only one left in 1998?
Sisi actually had several sets of hair stars created, some versions were all diamonds without center pearls. Different sets were bequeathed to relatives (her grand-daughter, Erzsi, received a full set for her wedding after Sisi’s death). After World War I, when the Habsburg monarchy was disbanded, many formerly-titled royals broke down their jewelry and sold the gems piecemeal since they no longer received income from the state. This may have been the fate of many of the stars. There may also be a forgotten set locked away in a vault somewhere in Europe. A private collector who owned the last known Köchert Diamond Pearl lent it to Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna in 1998 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Sisi’s assassination.
You compare the Gerald Blanchard, the man responsible for the Köchert Diamond heist, to James Bond. Why?
Gerald Blanchard is a real genius with the unique ability to size-up security systems and figure out how to successfully dismantle them. He was also one of the first thieves to use modern technology like pin-hole cameras, listening devices and computers to perpetrate his crimes. The Canadian police I spoke to said they had never seen anyone take so much time, effort, and patience to complete his crimes. For the Sisi Star theft, Blanchard said he parachuted onto the roof of Schönbrunn Palace in the dead of night, slipped inside, evaded the motion sensors and security guards, and plucked the star from a weight-sensitive pedestal. To me, his actions played like a James Bond film!
How did you get Blanchard to talk to you about his theft of Sisi’s Star?
I contacted a journalist named Josh Berman who wrote a story on the Sisi Star theft for Wired Magazine. He gave me Blanchard’s email address, which was something like a bunch of random numbers @hotmail.com. I sent an email introducing myself, telling him that I was writing a book, and asking him to contact me. I waited several days and heard nothing back. So, I decided to appeal to his vanity. I sent another email telling him that I spoke to an authority at Schönbrunn who didn’t believe he pulled off the crime the way he said he had; the official thought Blanchard had inside help and wasn’t the “James Bond character” he wanted everyone to believe he was. I told Blanchard that only he could clear this up for me. I got a fairly immediate email back with a phone number saying, “call me.”
What surprised you most about Blanchard?
I think I was surprised by his humanity. He seemed like a very nice, very intelligent person who grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks” and discovered he had a talent for theft. He bought his mother a home with some money he stole when he was a teenager. And he took more jail time later in life so that his accomplices wouldn’t have to serve any. By the end of the Sisi Star caper, all of the Canadian cops seemed to really like him. So, he definitely wasn’t an uncaring psychopath and his crimes never turned violent. But I think he was a narcissist who had to become his own best champion because he didn’t receive the safety and stability he needed as a kid. He had learned to use his extraordinary intelligence and talents to take care of himself.
Was the German pilot ever identified?
Not to my knowledge. Blanchard is trying to get a movie made of his life, so we’ll see if he gives up the pilot in the future!
Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) is often compared to Princess Diana. In what ways were they similar?
Both women were born noble, and were very young and sheltered when they married into top-tier monarchy. Both had a difficult time coping with their mothers-in-law and their new positions in the limelight; they were both considered “difficult” and both suffered from eating disorders. Interestingly, Sisi spent time at Althorp House where Lady Diana would one day grow up. There may have been a portrait of Sisi somewhere on the estate as a gift given during one of her many riding excursions with Earl Spencer, so Diana may have been familiar with Sisi’s reputation as “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
In what ways was Sisi like her Wittelsbach cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria?
Both Sisi and Ludwig considered themselves to be “otherworldly creatures” who were misunderstood by the average people. They loved poetry, theater, and being around other beautiful people. Both suffered from “melancholy,” or depression. Madness in all its forms was said to be the “Wittelsbach Curse.”
What do you like most about Sisi?
This is a tough one. I like her creative mind, her independent spirit, and her originality, but I did not like her selfishness and her refusal to help her husband when he needed her most. He was under tremendous political stress, and there are many “public relations” moves she could have initiated to have bolstered the opinion of the monarchy in the eyes of the people. Concurrently, she could have used her great fame to help the people more — just like Princess Diana did with AIDS patients and land mines. Sisi visited a cholera hospital and a mental ward here and there, but was never known for her “service” to the people. I also think it’s tragic that she didn’t have a better relationship with her children. She rarely interacted with Gisela, who was married off at 16; never tried to understand her son, Rudolf, who committed suicide; and smothered her youngest daughter, Marie Valerie with overwhelming love and guilt. My new book takes a look at Marie Valerie’s life and quotes quite a bit from her diary where she expresses dismay at her mother’s behavior.
How was Sisi assassinated?
Sisi was staying at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, and was walking along the quay toward a steamer ship to her next destination when she was stabbed by an anarchist. Everyone thought she was OK at first, but she slowly bled to death internally. Sadly, Sisi always refused a police escort or bodyguards in her attempt to remain independent. She thought she was traveling incognito, but everyone knew who she was. Also, the anarchist had been simply looking for anyone of royal blood to kill in order to make a statement, and Sisi just happened to cross his path at the wrong time.
What is Blanchard doing today?
Blanchard served his time for the crimes that caused him to turn over the Sisi Star, then changed his name to Rick White and worked as a cable installer for a time in Canada. Today, he seems to travel a lot to Asia and he has a penchant for drones and posting his exploits as Rick White on social media.
Did Austria ever prosecute him for the Köchert Diamond heist?
Austria never prosecuted Blanchard for stealing the Sisi Star, probably because they never had enough evidence against him. In fact, had it not been for the Canadian Police who caught him for another international crime, the star might still be hidden away in a very unlikely hiding spot.
Thank you, Jennifer!
If you want to read how Blanchard avoided the motion detectors and display case alarms in the palace, and how Canadian authorities finally caught him, you’ll need to read the book. I don’t want to give everything away.
Literature on point:
Jennifer Bowers Bahney, Stealing Sisi’s Star: How a Master Thief Nearly Got Away with Austria’s Most Famous Jewel (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015).