William Tell and his Second Arrow: Murder or Justifiable Homicide?

Reinactment of William Tell's apple shot. Photograph by Mike Mols, shutterstock

Photograph by (c) Mike Mols, shutterstock

No other arrow in history has set so many quills into motion as William Tell’s apple shot. Tell’s composure and courage have thrilled composers and poets alike. Rossini’s overture and Schiller’s dramatization are only two expressions of admiration. The Tell legend may well be the most famous crime story ever told.

But the apple shot was just the first arrow. Tell’s next arrow found a different mark. It flew into the law library, disappearing into a gap between the paragraphs delineating murder and justifiable homicide. Seven hundred years after Tell released that arrow, scholars are still debating whether Tell’s shooting Albrecht Gessler was murder or not.

William Tell refuses to bow to Gessler's hat. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, S. Zickel.

William Tell refuses to bow to Gessler’s hat. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, S. Zickel. Public domain.

Let’s recap the story. Austria sought to dominate Switzerland in the 14th century and set up Albrecht Gessler as the Austrian magistrate of the Swiss city Altdorf. Gessler erected his hat on a pole on the town square and demanded that the townsfolk venerate him by bowing to his hat. William Tell, a resident of a neighboring Swiss town, visited Altdorf in 1307 with his son and refused to take the bow. Gessler arrested him. Because Tell had a reputation as an expert shot with his crossbow, Gessler decided the appropriate punishment would be to have Tell prove his prowess by shooting an apple from his son’s head. He forced Tell in the only manner anyone could ever compell a parent to fire a weapon in his child’s direction: by threatening to kill both if Tell didn’t comply.

William Tell slipped two arrows out of his quiver, and with the first, shot the apple. But Gessler wanted to know why Tell needed a second arrow. “I would have used it to shoot you,” said Tell, “had the first arrow struck my son.” Angered, Gessler had Tell bound and carried to a ship to transport him over Lake Lucerne to a dungeon in Gessler’s castle.

Tell's leap from the boat during the storm.

Tell’s leap from the boat during the storm. Ernst Stückelberg, 1879, public domain.

A raging storm made steering the boat nearly impossible, so the crew unbound Tell to have him help. As the ship passed near the shore, Tell took the opportunity to leap overboard and escape. He then ran to Gessler’s castle and ambushed him in the woods on his way home. Gessler was killed with William Tell’s second arrow. That action sparked a rebellion that led to the birth of the Swiss nation.

William Tell's second arrow causes Gessler' death. Painting by Ernst Stückelberg, 1886. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Gessler’ Death. Gessler is on the horse and Tell in the upper right. Painting by Ernst Stückelberg, 1886. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Some scholars defend Tell, relying on the ancient Germanic rights of Notwehr and Selbsthilfe (self-defense and self-help), rooted in Roman law. But as with modern law, these rights permit self-defense only as long as the threat persists. But William Tell, lurking in the woods to ambush Gessler, could not claim he was still under direct threat.

Others defend Tell with the German Widerstandsrecht, or right to resist an oppressive government. This right, however, is murky. It is perspective, or the outcome of a war, that separates the hero from the villain. No doubt Austria would have considered Tell a traitor had it conquered Switzerland. Nothing illustrates this point as well as John Wilkes Booth’s diary. America’s greatest villain devulged that William Tell was one of his role models for the Lincoln assassination. Booth thought he was relying on the same right. But can we exonerate Tell based on the right to resist and still condemn Booth?

Tell's statue in Altdorf, Switzerland. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

Tell’s statue in Altdorf, Switzerland. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

A modern defense of Tell might center on temporary insanity. Can anyone expect a father who has been forced to shoot an apple from his son’s head, and watch his own child’s emotional turmoil, to function normally in the hours and days following? A lawyer could underpin this argument by painting Gessler’s apple shot coercion as a war crime.

Finally, some critics insist that Tell’s act was pure revenge — an act of premeditated murder. The irony of the Tell story, they say, is that it suceeds in getting the reader to rejoice over Gessler’s death. It makes us feel good about a murder.

What do you think? If you were on a jury and this case came before you, how would you vote? Murder or justifiable homicide?

Literature on point:

Gail K. Hart, Murderous Fathers: Wilhelm Tell and the Decriminalization of Murder; in: Gail K. Hart, Friedrich Schiller: Crime, Aesthetics, and the Poetics of Punishment (Newark: University of Delaware Press 2005)

Hans-Jörg Knoblauch, Wilhelm Tell; in: ‘Schiller Handbuch, Helmut Koopmann, ed. (Stuttgart: Alread Kröner Verlag 1998)

Text (c) 2014 Ann Marie Ackermann


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Call the Police if You Observe Something Suspicious!

police -- morguefile

Call the police about suspicious behavior.

I recently helped solve a crime. All because I knew when to call the police.

bus -- morguefile

Suspicious behavior can occur anywhere. I observed it on a bus.

On the bus, several passengers — about 10 of us — overheard another passenger talking on her cell phone. She mentioned a theft one of her companions had just committed. She even dropped the thief’s name. I surreptitiously observed her group to memorize their physicial features and clothing. As soon as I got home, I reported the conversation to the police and gave a description. I didn’t think anything more about it until I went to orchestra practice several days later. The trombone player who sits behind me works for the police. He told me that on behalf of the entire department, he wanted to thank me for an extremely helpful tip. He couldn’t say more about the case because it is still in investigation, but I learnt that the detective was able to identify the group on the bus.

But that is not my main point. I asked the trombone player how many of the other bus passengers had called the police and was shocked to hear that I was the only one. That is almost upsetting as the original crime.

Why is it, do you think, that people don’t bother to report?

call the police -- morguefile

You are the police’s eyes and ears!

This post is a departure from my usual historical true crime topics, but I feel strongly enough about it to make an exception. It’s my plea to everyone out there to report anything suspicious. Law enforcement would rather have too much information than too little. For everyone out there that ever thought it would be fun to be a detective, please remember that you already are one. The police can’t be everywhere, and we are their eyes and ears in places where they are not present.

Here’s a recent and dramatic example. An observant visitor to an indoor swimming pool in Germany didn’t hesitate to pick up the phone when he observed a man ogling children at the pool. That act that helped solve a murder case. Police searched the voyeur’s apartment and uncovered evidence linking him to a horrible crime. He had abducted a six-year-old on her way to day care, murdered her, and burnt her body. But the police hadn’t yet been able to solve the case. The voyeur was convicted and sentenced to a life term. Who knows if that case would have been solved without that tip from the swimming pool?

When in doubt, please pick up the phone. The Amityville, New York Police Department offers excellent advice on when to call the police. Its website discusses suspicious behavior and the importance of making that call. It’s worth familiarizing yourself a list of behavior that could indicate criminal activity and what details police need most when you report it. http://amityville.com/when-to-call-the-police/

call the police  -- morguefile

911 in North America and 112 in Europe!

Literature on point:

Lebenslange Haft für Alexandras Mörder, http://www.internetcologne.de/cms//artikel.php/8/2306/uebersicht.html/10992/30/uebersicht.html


Text (c) Ann Marie Ackermann 2014; all photos from morguefile photos.

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Law Marries Folklore in the Chicken Coop

A birch broom, functioning as the vintner's bush, signals the opening of a farmstead tavern in Germany.

A birch broom, functioning as the vintner’s bush, signals the opening of a farmstead tavern in Germany.

People love them. Restaurants hate them. And that’s why the law had to step in.

A German vintner's bush tavern in a wine cellar.

A German vintner’s bush tavern (Besenwirtschaft) in a wine cellar.

When a European vintner suspends a bush, broom, or ivy bunch outside his door, that signals the sale of homemade wine and cheap, country food on his farm. The “vintner’s bush” is, according to the American Journal of Folklore, one of the oldest folklore customs still extant. Some people say it dates back to the Romans.

But the popularity of these temporary homestead taverns raises the ire of restaurant owners. To strike a balance between preserving both culture and competition, the law protects the vintners’ age-old right to self-market wine without a restaurant or liquor license, but to keep the vintners from undercutting restaurants, it restricts vintners’ opening periods, seating, and menus. Winemakers must also comply with hygiene regulations, and that has led to some interesting innovations in their dining areas.

A refurbished chicken coop accomodates diners.

A refurbished chicken coop accomodates diners.

Traditionally, a German vintner served up his wine, sauerkraut, and sausages in his own house. Families cleared all the furniture from their living rooms and bedrooms to set up makeshift tables and chairs for their guests. Because few families keep their living quarters clean enough to meet modern hygiene requirements, most vintners renovate and maintain a room exclusively for their guests. Remodeled barns and wine cellars are popular. In the summer, some vintners set up in their gardens. One German winemaker used the knight’s hall in a castle. I once ate in a refurbished chicken coop.

A museum in Lower Austria surveyed vintners for an exhibition about the vintner’s bush. It found that 10% of vintners were using their driveways, 18% a press house or cellar, and 31.5% an addition to their house.

What was the funkiest dining setting you’ve ever experienced?

As for me, I’d have to say the chicken coop.


Some literature on point:

Henry Carrington Boulton, The Vintner’s Bush: A Survival of Twenty Centuries, Journal of American Folk-Lore XV: 40 (1902)

Werner Galler, Buschenschank in Niederösterreich [Bush Taverns in Lower Austria], Sonderausstellung des Niederösterreichischen Landesmuseums 4 (1974)

(c) Ann Marie Ackermann, 2014

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Jefferson C. Davis, Civil War General and Murderer: Interview with Donald A. Clark

Jefferson C. Davis

Jefferson C. Davis, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Part Two: The Offender, Jefferson C. Davis

It was a shot that echoed through Civil War history, but not through the corridor separating North and South. When one Union General, Jefferson C. Davis, aimed a pistol at another Union General, William “Bull” Nelson, and pulled the trigger, the act left historians scrambling for answers for decades to come. How could friction between two officers lead to such violence? And why wasn’t Jefferson C. Davis prosecuted?

Donald A. Clark recently authored the first biography of Bull Nelson. Last week’s blog looked at Nelson’s personality. Today Don will answer my questions about the perpetrator. If you have any questions for Don, feel free to post them in the comment section.

 How did the murder happen?

General William "Bull" Nelson. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

General William “Bull” Nelson. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

On Wednesday September 17, 1862 it appeared certain that Confederate forces were about to attack Louisville when Nelson resumed command of the badly demoralized Army of Kentucky. Days later, Union Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis reported to Nelson and he was ordered to organize a motley group of volunteers into a Home Guard Brigade. Word got around that Davis loathed the assignment and gossiped endlessly about Nelson. On Monday September 22, 1862 Nelson called Davis into his office and asked for an accounting. Davis used “about” in place of specific answers, and that led to an obnoxious confrontation with Nelson who ordered Davis to leave the city and report to the commander at Cincinnati.

Davis returned to Louisville on Saturday, September 27, 1862 and he made no effort to report to Major General Don Carlos Buell or Nelson. About 8:00 a.m. Monday, September 29, Davis was “in shirtsleeves, without a hat, and greatly agitated” when he confronted the similarly attired Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House Hotel. The five foot seven inch Davis weighed about 120-25 pounds and he brashly demanded that the burly Nelson apologize for the manner in which he relieved him of duty. Nelson refused and Davis flipped a waded calling card into his face. Nelson slapped Davis on the side of face with the back of his hand, called him a coward, and headed back up the stairway.

The rough-edged Davis came from an agrarian background that still embraced a deeply complex code of honor that called for the defense of one’s standing among peers. He also knew a court could not restore a demeaned position, but the shedding of blood might accomplish that end. Davis went over to lawyer Thomas W. Gibson and that old friend from the Mexican War loaned him a pistol. During that brief interlude, Nelson returned to the top the short stairway leading down into the lobby. Davis rushed over to the landing and told Nelson to prepare himself. In the next instant Davis shot the unarmed Nelson in the heart. The mortally wounded Nelson staggered back, climbed to the second floor, and collapsed. He was pronounced dead 8:30 a.m. Davis was under arrest in his room on the 4th floor.

Who was Jefferson C. Davis?

As a 19-year old, Jef (his preferred name) Davis served the Mexican War and was promoted to sergeant. His gallant actions at Buena Vista led to receiving a commission as a second lieutenant of artillery in the regular army in June 1848. Davis was a first lieutenant at the surrender of Fort Sumter in 1861 and in August of that year he commanded the Twenty-second Regiment of Indiana Volunteer Infantry as a colonel. Davis subsequently commanded a division as a brigadier general.

Staff officers under Davis admired his nerve and the enlisted men either feared or admired him for killing “Bull” Nelson. Jefferson C. Davis died of pneumonia in 1879 having never attained rank of major general of volunteers, a position he dearly coveted.

How did he get away with a homicide committed in front of witnesses?

Jefferson C. Davis shooting Bull Nelson

Jefferson C. Davis shooting Bull Nelson, New York Illustrated News, public domain

On the way to the Battle of Perryville, Major General Don Carlos Buell, Commander of the Army of the Ohio, asked General of the Army Henry Halleck to see that Davis was “immediately” tried by the courts or sent before a military commission. Two staunch supporters of Nelson were killed at Perryville, Buell was subsequently relieved of command, and no one had the courage to take up the cause of a tyrant that was being severely ridiculed by the press.

General Horatio Wright released Davis from close arrest on October 13, 1862. Wright then concluded that the killing had been done in self-defense and he inexplicably dismissed the matter because he had received no specifications and charges against Davis. On Tuesday, October 21, 1862, it was reported: “Gen. Jeff. C. Davis, who killed Gen. Nelson, has been released from arrest, and ordered to report for duty at Cincinnati.” Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase wrote President Abraham Lincoln on Thursday, October 23, 1862, “Under no circumstances . . . can . . . the killing of one officer by another, —be passed over without the arrest and trial of the offender.”

The press had already drawn one great lesson from this affair. There was an enormous public hatred for military tyrants and that animosity far outweighed the influence of those who supported them. The fourth estate was also buoyed by the belief that President Lincoln would not push for a military court martial because that would go against public opinion. On Monday, October 27, 1862, the Jefferson County Grand Jury in Louisville issued an indictment for manslaughter. Davis was released on $5,000 bond, and on Wednesday, October 29, Special Orders No. 90 called for him to join the newly formed Army of the Cumberland as a division commander. The manslaughter indictment went on and off the docket until May 1864 when it was stricken with leave to reinstate.

Did dueling and its associated sense of honor contribute to the failure to prosecute the case?

Author Donald A. Clark

Author Donald A. Clark

The press corps was composed of men who were sympathetic to the outlawed Code Duello and those men had a huge role in making it seem Davis “had to do it.” In St. Louis, the Evening Bulletin rudely declared: “Opinion of the Press on Gen. Nelson’s Homicide —’Served him Right.’“ In New York, the World very wrongly informed its audience that Nelson was a tyrant who had “no friends to mourn” him; and his passing “can barely atone for the wrong and injury he has inflicted.” The Indianapolis Journal told readers the basis for the fatal difficulty with Davis came from “language that no decent man will use to a dog.” Davis told a friend that as a member of “the regular army . . . not to resent an insult of that kind would make me . . . be as the dog that sleeps under my father’s floor.” As aide to Governor Oliver P. Morton stated it Davis had done nothing he “would have deserved to be shot himself.” It is no wonder that at the turn of the century the Boston Globe used that mindset in telling readers “the virtue of civil institutions” should not be judged by the indifference given to this particular aberration because “Public opinion in Kentucky recognized such encounters between gentlemen and officers as affairs of honor.”

The New York Times said the crime of murder requires a “swift and relentless penalty” and it was deeply regretted that Nelson’s “rude and offensive personal deportment” will in all likelihood “exempt . . . his killing from the usual regrets and sympathies.” The Cincinnati Times believed that Davis was justified and the editorial wrongly characterized Nelson an unqualified tyrant who had contributed nothing to the war effort. That paper (and others) reflected the feelings of a people who were out of patience with a poorly executed war effort. That paper believed “military power must be exercised in the same spirit as the principals upon which our government is based . . . . people . . . will not allow themselves to be subjected to the ways of a despotic power. When a citizen of the United States becomes a soldier, he willingly surrenders some of that freedom . . . . but by no means does it make him a mere dog in the hands of superiors . . . . Under civil law, an intelligent and honorable judge would agree that the shooting was reasonable under the circumstances. However, if the final military decree should prove different, it will not overcome public sentiment for a man who was wrongly pushed beyond his endurance.”

General James B. Fry addressed a different perspective in stating the “cruel customs” of military service did not justify the action taken by Davis because soldiers “are not only protected by the civil code, but the more stringent military code, to which they are pledged by the oath of office, and by duty to their country.” The influence of Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton was very significant and Buell believed the “fine Italian hand of Morton” sowed “seeds of mischief “that undermined the “authority of the general government.” The Lincoln administration yielded to political expediency and that enabled the unrepentant Davis to live his life as if he was exempt “from the usual regrets and sympathies” that come with taking the life of another.

The unmarried Nelson was survived by two brothers and a sister and the long discarded practice of “blood money” could not atone for the crime.

Section 228 of the outdated 1891 Constitution of Kentucky remains a great embarrassment, because it still requires that officials swear or affirm that “I being a citizen of the state, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within the State or nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as a second in carrying a challenge nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.”

Duels among United States Army and Navy officers were not uncommon in the 1840s and military homicides in the Civil War were likewise a problem. Some of the better known are:

Nelson1862 Davis murdered Nelson without being called to answer for the crime.

1863 Dr. George Peters murdered Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn and he was eventually exonerated.

Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest shot and killed Lt. Andrew W. Gould in a running gun battle and nothing was done.

Lt. Col. William D. Bowen shot and killed Col. Florence M. Cornyn during a court recess and he was exonerated at his own court-martial because Cornyn was perceived in much the same way as Nelson. (I did an article on this)

Confederate Maj. Gen. John S. Marmaduke killed Maj. Gen. Lucius M. Walker in a duel.

 Thanks, Don!

Literature on point:

Donald A. Clark, The Notorious “Bull” Nelson: Murdered Civil War General (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press 2011).

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