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).
Is the witness lying?
It’s an important question for a detective – a train switch that can change the course of the investigation. Modern detectives can rely on lie detectors and subtle clues in body language. They get training based on sophisticated psychological research.
In the 19th century, a detective had to rely on his or her knowledge of human nature. A common technique was to question a witness over and over again to see if the story remained consistent. Detectives still do that today.
But because folklore and superstitions about perjury ran rampant in bygone eras, detectives had to watch out for a whole list of things that would never occur to a modern detective. Witnesses used talismans or charms that excused perjury in the eyes of God – similar to a witness crossing his fingers behind his back. They thought these tricks negated the consequences of lying and absolved a perjurer from any moral and legal consequences. Just as a detective today would question the veracity of a person with crossed fingers behind his back, a 19th century detective had a list of folklore tricks to watch out for; they indicated the witness was lying.
Charms that excused perjury
Hanns Gross, the 19th century Austrian professor and father of criminology, researched folklore about perjury and wrote about it in his landmark handbook for investigators. Austrian detectives put witnesses under oath when they interrogated them, but they needed to keep a sharp eye out for the tricks a witness might use to wiggle out from the weight of the oath. Here are some of them:
The eyes of two European birds, the hoopoe and lapwing, were supposed to bring luck in court. A person carrying them on their chest became “beloved.” In the courtroom, that meant one could escape from the consequences of the oath and lie even if sworn. The eyeballs would help the judge to view the witness’s case favorably.
Bones of one’s own child
Carrying the bones of one’s own deceased child supposedly excused perjury. Gross doesn’t mention how people obtained the bones. My mind doesn’t even want to go there. But the presence of a bone on a witness’s person should have been enough to arouse the detective’s suspicion.
“Pressing” the thumbs is the German equivalent of the English crossing of the fingers; it’s supposed to bring luck. Bending the thumbs during testimony is another variation. Austrian detectives needed to watch out for witnesses employing this trick.
Actions with the left hand
Putting your left hand on your side, making a fist with it, stretching out your left fingers, or holding your left hand backwards supposedly balanced out the right hand’s gestures in taking the oath. Left hand activity signaled possible charms that excused perjury to the astute 19th century detective.
Actions with the mouth
According to folklore, spitting following taking an oath negated the oath. So did a gold piece under the tongue or seven pebbles in the mouth.
Twisting the pants button
Twisting one’s pants button was another one of the charms that excused perjury Hanns Gross encountered. Witnesses did it while taking the oath to nullify its consequences.
Mistletoe in the shoe
Mistletoe is for much more than kissing during the Christmas season. If you put it in your boot, on the sole, when you gave sworn testimony, it protected you from the consequences of your perjury.
The southern Slavic culture, according to Professor Gross, viewed parts of the burial shroud as charms that excused perjury. Carrying the clothing that bound the deceased’s chin, especially if it was still knotted, had magical powers that prevented the court from detecting or punishing perjury. Wearing the part of the shroud that bound the dead man’s feet in our own shoe had the same effect.
Raising the right leg
In the Turkish culture, raising the right leg while taking an oath negated the oath and allowed the person to commit perjury.
Can you add to this list about charms that excused perjury? Or superstitions about lying in general?
Literature on point:
Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s, 1899) 372-373.
Johann Gotthold Kunstmann, The Hoopoe: A Study in European Folklore (Dissertation, Univ. of Chicago, 1938) 14
Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Republic of Turkey, Superstitions
A Little Owl’s cry pierced the night. It rebounded through the neighborhood, and from the other side of the house, a man dressed in black heard it. Lifting his hands to his mouth, he imitated a Yellow-bellied Toad. The man who’d made the owl cry smiled. His lookout was now in place. He slipped through the shadows to the back door, picked the lock, and crept into the darkness of the home.
Criminals using animal calls as secret signals are a recurring theme in literature. “Hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl,” the dwarves told Bilbo when he burglarized the trolls in Tolkein’s The Hobbit. The signal was not only supposed to let the dwarves know if Bilbo was in trouble. Criminals used animals calls to localize and identify each other.
Animal Calls in Criminology
But does the burglar-animal call motif have any basis in history? Definitely, says Hanns Gross, the 19th century Austrian father of criminology.
“Contact calls” consist almost exclusively of animal imitations, especially of those animals that make noises at night. Of course, people committing a robbery in the woods or approaching a home for a burglary don’t call to each other by name or make any noise that would attract attention. An animal call, especially when well imitated, is never suspected, and when the criminals agree in advance [who will make which animal call], the calls are as clearly understood as the names themselves.
The rooster’s crow, the quail’s rhythmic whistling, and near water, frogs or the Yellow-bellied Toad, are all imitated, but owl hoots are the most popular of all. Owls are everywhere, in the woods, fields, mountains, swamps, in isolated areas, and close to human habitation. No one questions the hoot of an owl early in the evening or before dawn; hunters even use hoots in broad daylight when summoning each other in the woods. Although animals don’t fear an owl hoot, men have a superstitious dread of it; on hearing an owl hoot they would sooner stop their ears than watch their pockets. Based on how far apart the accomplices are, a Scops Owl or Little Owl hoot is used…. The Little Owl is used for greater distances.
Animal Calls Indicate Accomplices
Does the practice of criminals imitating animal calls make any difference in a law enforcement investigation? Hanns Gross thought so:
Under the circumstances, this matter can be important. When the question is whether a robbery in the woods or a burglary has been committed by a lone perpetrator or several accomplices, the investigator should ask the witnesses whether they heard an owl hoot shortly before or after the crime. If the answer is yes, the chances are slim it was a real owl hooting at the exact time and place of the crime. Law enforcement should keep their ears open for such sounds.
Do criminals still use animal calls as secret signals today? Who knows? The urban jungle has largely replaced the woods as a favored place to commit a crime, and perhaps other signals have taken their place. But in a residential neighborhood, it might be worth asking if anyone heard an animal cry in the night.
Have you ever heard of a modern crime in which the criminals communicated with animal calls? Or can you offer another example from literature?
Literature on point:
Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Graz. Austria: Leuschner & Lubensky’s, 1899) 278-79 (translation mine).
J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit (London: George Allen & Unwin, 4th ed. 1978) 36.Read More
She left a note for her husband on the table.
It was early in the morning of August 5, 1888, and her husband was still sleeping. She purposely didn’t mention her means of transportation. Bertha Benz just wrote that she and their two sons, Eugen and Richard, had already left to visit Pforzheim, Germany, 90 km (55 miles) away. It wasn’t until Carl Benz (of Mercedes-Benz fame) checked the workshop in his factory that he realized his family hadn’t taken the train.
His new invention was gone.
As one recent German documentary pointed out, Bertha had just committed the world’s first car theft. But this was a true crime we can all stand up and cheer for.
Bertha Benz Made the First Road Trip in the History of the Automobile
What Bertha did was a pioneering undertaking. Her husband Carl was a brilliant engineer and had designed the world’s first automobile in 1885. Bertha believed in the importance of his invention. But Carl didn’t have good business acumen and his product wasn’t going anywhere.
Bertha knew instinctively what every modern business knows today: Marketing a product requires different skills than designing one. The only thing lacking was the definite proof that the vehicle was reliable and could also master long-distance routes. And Bertha had a great marketing idea: She and her sons would drive the car from Mannheim to Pforzheim and show the world what it could do.
Inventing Brake Lining
Bertha Benz and her sons pushed the car out of the workshop and started it only after it was out of Carl’s earshot. Once on the road, the threesome had to conquer novel problems. It made about 9 mph. At 2.5 horsepower, the car wasn’t strong enough to climb steep gradients and they had to get out to push it. Going downhill, the car burnt out the brake shoes, but Bertha knew what to do. She stopped off at a cobbler and asked him to fit the brake shoes with a leather lining. In so doing Bertha Benz became the inventor of brake lining.
World’s First Gas Station
She underestimated how far the fuel would bring them, but it wasn’t a big problem. Pharmacies sold fuel back then. Bertha Benz bought gas several times along the way. She made her first fuel purchase at the Stadtapotheke (City Pharmacy) in Wiesloch, Germany, and it still proudly displays a sign that it’s the first gas station in the world.
In Wiesloch, people gathered around the vehicle to express their amazement. “Holy sandbag,” a green grocer is purported to have yelled out. “That’s a woman up there!”
Bertha and her sons telegrammed Carl along the way to let him know they were alright. They arrived safely in Pforzheim by dusk and returned to Mannheim several days later.
How Bertha’s Drive Changed History
Carl Benz was livid about Bertha’s trip, but he eventually changed his mind. “Following the first shock,” he wrote in his memoirs, he “felt an inner pride.” Bertha’s “test drive” results also presented new engineering challenges. Afterwards, Carl fitted the Benz Patent Motor Car Model III out with a new gear and a better brake. And sales stepped up following Bertha’s round trip to Pforzheim.
The rise of Benz’s motor factory to one of the great automotive manufacturers in the world would scarcely have been imaginable had it not been for Bertha’s courage. Her publicity stunt sounded the prelude to the Mercedes-Benz success story.
Germany now has a Bertha Benz memorial route, marked with these signs, so that drivers can take the same trip Bertha did.
The world’s first automobile a road trip, the world’s first auto theft, and the invention of brake liners. Bertha Benz, the first woman driver, accomplished all three in one trip. Which feat impresses you the most for a 19th century woman?
Literature on point:
Johanna Lutteroth, Bertha Benz’ große Autofahrt, Spiegel Online
Daimler press kit, Bertha Benz and the world’s first long-distance trip in an automobileRead More
If trees could talk, what stories they could tell! This stately giant watches over the path that Bavaria’s King Ludwig II walked only minutes before he died in 1886. It might be just old enough to solve Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery, if only it could communicate with us.
Let me take you along the king’s last walk on the anniversary of his death.
It all happened during an attempt to depose Ludwig II in June, 1886. Bavarian officials arrested king and placed him under custody at the castle Berg on the shore of Lake Starnberg. You can read more about the king’s life, the arrest, and the circumstances of his death here.
A Stroll through the Beech Trees
Ludwig II wanted to take a stroll in the evening of June 13, 1886. Psychiatrist Dr. von Gudden chaperoned him. The two left the castle at shortly after 6:00 pm and followed this path through beech woods south along Lake Starnberg. They were last seen around 6:30 pm.
I took these pictures around 6:30 pm on the anniversary of the king’s death to give you an idea of the setting. Although it was cloudier on the day Ludwig II died, you can still see in these picture how the shadows had begun to lengthen. The birds had also begun their evening chorus. Perhaps the king and the doctor heard the same birdsongs I did: the dizzy, upward spirals of the wood warbler, the chaffinch’s rhythmic chatter, and the rich overtones of the European robin echoing through the trees.
Mysterious Death of Ludwig II
About 900 m south of the castle, Ludwig made a dash for the water. The lakeshore here is only 20-30m from the path. The big question is why the king entered the lake. Either he wanted to escape custody or he intended to commit suicide by drowning himself in the water.
A massive search began when the king and doctor didn’t return as planned at 8:00 pm. Their bodies were found floating in shallow water two hours later. This cross marks the spot where Ludwig’s body was found. His watch had stopped at 6:54 pm and von Gudden’s at 8:00 pm. Exactly what had happened to the king and the physician remain one of Germany’s greatest unsolved mysteries, and the theories range from murder to suicide to accident.
The King of Hearts?
Ludwig II, the patron of Richard Wagner and builder of fairy tale castles, remains Bavaria’s most popular king. Every year his devotees gather for a memorial service on the anniversary of his death. Here are a few photographic impressions.
One of the speakers at the festivities made an interesting assertion: “No other European king has found his way into the hearts of the folk as did Ludwig II.” Do you agree? And if not, which European king would you nominate as the king of hearts?
Literature on point:
Christopher McIntosh, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria (London: I.B. Tauris, 1982)Read More
Germany shocked the law enforcement world in 2010 with an ingenious idea: Why not use turkey vultures to search for dead bodies in murder investigations? Turkey vultures hunt with their sense of smell and scientists say they’re the best sniffers among the raptors. They’re naturally attracted to carrion. They can detect a dead mouse from a mile away and aren’t hindered by rough terrain. Could they be trained to distinguish human from animal bodies, be fitted with GPS devices, and help law enforcement solve cases?
As great as the idea was, it met its demise in the sharp talons of the vulture’s biology. Vultures aren’t sociable. They’re all beaks and claws. They use projectile vomiting to defend themselves, spewing the rancid, corrosive mess up to ten feet. The German researchers couldn’t get them to cooperate and the project was quickly abandoned.
Should Germany have looked at ravens instead?
It’s not that vultures can’t be useful on cadaver searches. Cadaver dog handler Cat Warren admits to keeping an eye on turkey vulture kettles during her searches. But other wild birds offer clues, too. Hanns Gross, the Austrian father of criminology, kept his eye on European vultures and kites, but also on a different carrion-eating genus: the corvids. Ravens and crows. Here’s an example from his 19th century handbook on criminology:
“The body of a murdered woman was once found in the following way: The teachers of the surrounding schools told the children to let them know if they noticed a flock of many crows, ravens, etc., anywhere; some of them made such a report, with the successful result that the murdered person was found.”
I say the Germans were experimenting with the wrong bird species. Shall we take a closer look at the raven?
Ravens are sociable and super smart
Scientists consider corvids the most intelligent birds. They’ve even documented corvids using tools. They’re trainable. A big plus is that they’re affable to humans.
It’s no accident that the raven plays such a prominent role in Norse and American Indian mythology. Ornithologist Bernd Heinrich devotes three chapters in his book, Mind of the Raven, to the raven’s cooperation with other hunters: wolves, polar bears, cats, and humans. There are anecdotes of ravens spotting prey and leading predators to it. Ravens probably learned that large prey, in combination with a hunter, translated into food. As a reward, the ravens got a chance at the leftovers.
In fact, man’s first best friend might not have been the dog. It could have been the raven.
A corvid, canine, and homo sapiens hunting triad?
It may not be an accident, either, that the Norse god Odin took two ravens and two wolves with him on the hunt.
In order to track down the bases for raven mythology, modern anecdotes of interspecies hunting cooperation, and rumors that Eskimo hunters “talk” to ravens, Bernd Heinrich traveled to Inuit villages on the Canadian tundra. He found ravens everywhere, often in close association with the Eskimo dogs.
The Inuit told stories of hunters’ ability to communicate with overflying ravens in bygone times. They used incantations and called out the raven’s name, “tulugaq!” Ravens, they said, indicated the direction of the prey by wing tipping. “And after [the hunters] killed the caribou or the polar bear,” said one elderly Inuit, “they always left the raven the choicest tidbits of meat as a reward.” It wasn’t always the faithful dog, then, that accompanied the ancient hunter. The raven may have been there too.
Where they don’t have humans to help them, ravens are just as happy to work with canines. Research from Yellowstone National Park indicates that ravens are dependent on wolves to kill and open carcasses for them. Heinrich says that points to a relationship with an ancient evolutionary history.
Given that ravens also eat carrion and can spot it from the air, could they be trained to search for human bodies and work in cooperation with cadaver dogs and their handlers? Humans and canines are, after all, two of the raven’s traditional partners.
It’s an idea worth exploring. And it’s a more pleasant one than working with vultures.
Literature on point:
Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013)
Bernd Heinrich: Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds (New York, Harper Collins, 1999). The quote appears on p. 252 of the Harper Perennial paperback edition.
Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (3rd ed., Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s 1899) p.124.Read More