Ötzi, the Alpine Iceman: How Modern Forensic Science Unveiled a Stone Age Murder


The Iceman is examined

Ötzi the Iceman gives up his secrets. (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter

It was a perfect murder.

Well, almost.

The victim’s body lay undetected for over 5,000 years, and even after it was discovered, it took a decade for scientists to realize they were dealing with a murder victim. Forensic analysis of the Iceman not only pulled back the curtains on a Stone Age murder cover-up, it also showcased just how far back the long arm of modern forensic science can reach.

The Iceman was found here

Site of Ötzi’s discovery. A pyramid marks the place where Ötzi was found. (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/L. Aichner

Discovery of the Iceman

It was on a sunny, late summer afternoon on September 19, 1991 that two German hikers decided to take a shortcut. Helmut and Erika Simon had been descending from the Finail peak in the Ötztal Alps near the Austrian-Italian border when they left the footpath to traverse a plateau beside a rocky gully with glacial meltwater. The glacier’s retreat had only recently revealed the gully. In 1922, when the Austrian-Italian border was established, the gully lay under 20 meters of snow and ice. Picking their way through the rocks, the Simons noticed something brown on the floor of the gully. They approached to inspect it, and to their horror, realized it was the head and shoulders of a human corpse jutting out of the ice and water. Helmut snapped a picture and the couple hurried down the mountain to notify the police.

The Iceman's clothing

This reconstruction of Ötzi shows some of his clothing. (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter

Austrian police and mountain rescuers were at the scene the following day, but recovery was difficult. In order to free the corpse from a gully full of running meltwater, the men had to work underwater. They worked for four days before they could hack the corpse out of the ice. A helicopter flew the body, along with pieces of clothing and equipment that emerged in the ice water, down the mountain. A hearse then transported it to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck, Austria, where the frozen man’s equipment raised a few eyebrows. The Austrians called in an archaeologist. It was an axe that caught the expert’s attention. Based on its make, he immediately dated the find as “at least four thousand years old.” Thus began a historical and media sensation. Ötzi (“Ertsie”), as the media dubbed him, turned out to be the oldest well-preserved mummy in the world. Radiocarbon dating confirmed the archaeologist: Ötzi lived between 3,350 and 3080 B.C.

Clues to the Iceman’s Life

Archaeologists were able to paint some of Özti’s biography with broad brush strokes. Pollen analysis indicated he lived south of the mountains and died in the late spring, probably in June. His clothing – a bearskin cap, leggings, loincloth, shoes, and cape – were well suited to cold and high altitudes, so the Iceman probably planned his trip up the Alps. And the equipment he brought with him – tools and a primitive first-aid kit – suggested he was on a long journey. Ötzi’s copper axe represented rare, valuable, state-of-the-art technology for the cusp of the Bronze Age, suggesting that the Iceman was a person of high status in his culture.


Modern forensic techniques, however, gave the Iceman a megaphone to announce to the world he had been murdered. Computer tomography revealed an arrowhead in Ötzi’s left shoulder in 2001. Someone had shot him from behind. That shot was no accident. Hunters of the Middle Stone Age favored the left shoulder as a target for a deadly chest shot.

Ötzi had brain injuries

Red blood cells in Ötzi’s brain indicate bleeding and brain injury. (c) Marek Janko, TU Darmstadt; courtesy of South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology


Scientists had overseen the arrowhead because the shaft was missing: Some theorized the archer had yanked it out to cover up a murder. But Ötzi also had a skull fracture, and red blood cells present in his brain tissue suggested resulting brain damage. Although both the arrow and fracture were mortal wounds, pathologists concluded the fracture was the immediate cause of death. Did the archer also hit Ötzi on the head? Or did Ötzi injure his head when he collapsed after the arrow shot? The answers aren’t clear.


Why was the Iceman up at an elevation of over 10,000 feet in the first place? A group of hospital pathologists discovered a critical clue in 2003. Ötzi had a recent defensive wound, only a few days old, in his right hand. The “cut in his hand shows a battle before the Iceman died,” says the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where Ötzi is now housed. Was he fleeing from an enemy?

Last Meal

Maybe not. Analysis of Ötzi’s stomach showed he ate a large meal of Alpine goat meat directly before his death – gastric emptying times indicate the meal was within two hours of his death. Would he have taken the time to hunt and cook if he were fleeing for his life? But pollen analysis of the intestinal contents offers another clue. He had been down in the valley only twelve hours before his death. He must have spent his last hours hoofing it up the mountain.

Ötzi was injured by an arrow

An arrowhead is an unusual murder weapon today, but wasn’t during the Stone Age.

Iceman Wasn’t Transported After Death

Theories that Ötzi might have been murdered in the valley and then carried up to the mountain for burial have been refuted. The corpse would have then shown more signs of decomposition; in particular, the blood clots that had formed in its wounds would have been damaged. Ötzi died on site in the Alps. It’s possible, though, that the murderer shoveled snow over the Iceman after the murder to conceal his crime.

No Foreign Human DNA

Both the corpse and clothing have been examined for foreign human DNA, but to date, nothing has been found. Information about the identity of the murderer remains a mystery. Blood was found on his grass cape and bow, but proved to be animal blood.

Ötzi carried this axe.

Ötzi’s copper axe might be a clue to his murder. (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/foto-dpi.com


Questions about motive are the most difficult, but the copper axe might offer a clue. The archer didn’t steal it, so robbery was not a motive. But the axe must have represented status, and a power struggle might have driven someone to release the arrow. That could be why the valuable axe was left with the body: Anyone carrying the axe after Ötzi had disappeared might have been accused of murder in his community.

Future research will certainly offer some more answers. We will never know all of them. But not even the Queen of Cold Cases can hide all its clues from modern forensic science.

Which discovery about Ötzi surprises you the most?

Literature on point:

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology website

Dirk Husemann, Tod in Neandertal; Akte Ötzi; Tatort Troja: Die ungelösten Fälle der Archäologie (Stuttgart: Theiss 2012)

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Abraham Lincoln: True Crime Author

Abraham Lincoln was also a true crime writer

Abraham Lincoln, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain

Who knew?

Abraham Lincoln picked up his pen not only to scratch out the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. He also wrote poetry and true crime.

His one true crime short story, published in the Quincy Whig in April 1846, is based on a case he handled as a defense attorney. Lincoln’s client never paid him for getting him off on a murder charge, so Lincoln found another way to make money off the case. This story has a delightful twist at the end you’re not likely to forget. Since the story is now in the public domain, I’ve reproduced it for you below.

Lincoln’s true crime story is all the more relevant in 2014 because the author of a letter found in the walls of Lincoln’s Springfield home was identified this year. In 1987, during renovations of the house, a damaged, half-eaten letter to Lincoln was found in a mouse nest in the walls. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum announced in January that Andrew Johnston, editor of the Quincy Whig, wrote it on March 10, 1846. It was Johnston’s nephew, George Pickett, who led the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.

In the mystery letter, Johnston addressed Lincoln’s poetry, not his true crime story. Lincoln had written Johnston on February 24, 1846 to say he was working on a poem, so the timing fits. Lincoln submitted “My Childhood Home” in April, 1846, the same month his true crime story appeared. Johnston published “My Childhood Home” in 1847.

Here’s Abraham:


A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder by Abraham Lincoln

(also known as The Trailor Murder Mystery)

In the year 1841, there resided, at different points in the State of Illinois, three brothers by the name of Trailor. Their Christian names were William, Henry and Archibald. Archibald resided at Springfield, then as now the seat of Government of the State. He was a sober, retiring, and industrious man, of about thirty years of age; a carpenter by trade, and a bachelor, boarding with his partner in business–a Mr. Myers. Henry, a year or two older, was a man of like retiring and industrious habits; had a family, and resided with it on a farm, at Clary’s Grove, about twenty miles distant from Springfield in a northwesterly direction.

—William, still older, and with similar habits, resided on a farm in Warren county, distant from Springfield something more than a hundred miles in the same North-westerly direction. He was a widower, with several children.

In the neighborhood of William’s residence, there was, and had been for several years, a man by the name of Fisher, who was somewhat above the age of fifty; had no family, and no settled home; but who boarded and lodged a while here and a while there, with persons for whom he did little jobs of work. His habits were remarkably economical, so that an impression got about that he had accumulated a considerable amount of money.

General George E. Pickett; Library of Congress Prints & PHotographs Divison  LOT 4213 [item] [P&P]

Confederate General George E. Pickett; Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Divison LOT 4213 [item] [P&P]

In the latter part of May, in the year mentioned, William formed the purpose of visiting his brothers at Clary’s Grove and Springfield; and Fisher, at the time having his temporary residence at his house, resolved to accompany him. They set out together in a buggy with a single horse. On Sunday evening they reached Henry’s residence, and staid over night. On Monday morning, being the first Monday of June, they started on to Springfield, Henry accompanying them on horseback. They reached town about noon, met Archibald, went with him to his boarding house, and there took up their lodgings for the time they should remain.

After dinner, the three Trailors and Fisher left the boarding house in company, for the avowed purpose of spending the evening together in looking about the town. At supper, the Trailers had all returned, but Fisher was missing, and some inquiry was made about him. After supper, the Trailers went out professedly in search of him. One by one they returned, the last coming in after late tea time, and each stating that he had been unable to discover anything of Fisher.

The next day, both before and after breakfast, they went professedly in search again, and returned at noon, still unsuccessful. Dinner again being had, William and Henry expressed a determination to give up the search, and start for their homes. This was remonstrated against by some of the boarders about the house, on the ground that Fisher was somewhere in the vicinity, and would be left without any conveyance, as he and William had come in the same buggy. The remonstrance was disregarded, and they departed for their homes respectively.

Up to this time, the knowledge of Fisher’s mysterious disappearance had spread very little beyond the few boarders at Myers’, and excited no considerable interest. After the lapse of three or four days, Henry returned to Springfield, for the ostensible purpose of makings further search for Fisher. Procuring some of the boarders, he, together with them and Archibald, spent another day in ineffectual search, when it was again abandoned, and he returned home.
No general interest was yet excited.

On the Friday, week after Fisher’s disappearance, the Postmaster at Springfield received a letter from the Postmaster nearest William’s residence, in Warren county, stating that William had returned home without Fisher, and was saying, rather boastfully, that Fisher was dead, and had willed him his money, and that he had got about fifteen hundred dollars by it. The letter further stated that William’s story and conduct seemed strange, and desired the Postmaster at Springfield to ascertain and write what was the truth in the matter.

Lincoln's house in Springfield, Illinois. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division,  LC-F81- 2118 [P&P]

Lincoln’s house in Springfield, Illinois. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-F81- 2118 [P&P]

The Postmaster at Springfield made the letter public, and at once, excitement became universal and intense. Springfield, at that time, had a population of about 3,500, with a city organization. The Attorney General of the State resided there. A purpose was forthwith formed to ferret out the mystery, in putting which into execution, the Mayor of the city and the Attorney General took the lead. To make search for, and, if possible, find the body of the man supposed to be murdered, was resolved on as the first step.

In pursuance of this, men were formed into large parties, and marched abreast, in all directions, so as to let no inch of ground in the vicinity remain unsearched. Examinations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed. All the fresh, or tolerably fresh graves in the graveyard, were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disintered, where, in some instances, they had been buried by their partial masters.

This search, as has appeared, commenced on Friday. It continued until Saturday afternoon without success, when it was determined to despatch officers to arrest William and Henry, at their residences, respectively. The officers started on Sunday morning, meanwhile, the search for the body was continued, and rumors got afloat of the Trailors having passed, at different times and places, several gold pieces, which were readily supposed to have belonged to Fisher.

On Monday, the officers sent for Henry, having arrested him, arrived with him. The Mayor and Attorney Gen’l took charge of him, and set their wits to work to elicit a discovery from him. He denied, and denied, and persisted in denying. They still plied him in every conceivable way, till Wednesday, when, protesting his own innocence, he stated that his brothers, William and Archibald, had murdered Fisher; that they had killed him, without his (Henry’s) knowledge at the time, and made a temporary concealment of his body; that, immediately preceding his and William’s departure from Springfield for home, on Tuesday, the day after Fisher’s disappearance, William and Archibald communicated the fact to him, and engaged his assistance in making a permanent concealment of the body; that, at the time he and William left professedly for home, they did not take the road directly, but, meandering their way through the streets, entered the woods at the North West of the city, two or three hundred yards to the right of where the road they should have travelled, entered them; that, penetrating the woods some few hundred yards, they halted and Archibald came a somewhat different route, on foot, and joined them; that William and Archibald then stationed him (Henry) on an old and disused road that ran nearby, as a sentinel, to give warning of the approach of any intruder; that William and Archibald then removed the buggy to the edge of a dense brush thicket, about forty yards distant from his (Henry’s) position, where, leaving the buggy, they entered the thicket, and in a few minutes returned with the body, and placed it in the buggy; that from his station he could and did distinctly see that the object placed in the buggy was a dead man, of the general appearance and size of Fisher; that William and Archibald then moved off with the buggy in the direction of Hickox’s mill pond, and after an absence of half an hour, returned, saying they had put him in a safe place; that Archibald then left for town, and he and William found their way to the road, and made for their homes.

Abraham Lincoln's front parlor

Front parlor of Lincoln’s house in Springfield, originally published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1861. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division LC-USZ62-123628

At this disclosure, all lingering credulity was broken down, and excitement rose to an almost inconceivable height. Up to this time the well-known character of Archibald had repelled and put down all suspicions as to him. Till then, those who were ready to swear that a murder had been committed, were almost as confident that Archibald had had no part in it. But now, he was seized and thrown into jail; and indeed, his personal security rendered it by no means objectionable to him.

And now came the search for the brush thicket, and the search of the mill pond. The thicket was found, and the buggy tracks at the point indicated. At a point within the thicket, the signs of a struggle were discovered, and a trail from thence to the buggy track was traced. In attempting to follow the track of the buggy from the thicket, it was found to proceed in the direction of the mill pond, but could not be traced all the way. At the pond, however, it was found that a buggy had been backed down to, and partially into the water’s edge.

Search was now to be made in the pond; and it was made in every imaginable way. Hundreds and hundreds were engaged in raking, fishing, and draining. After much fruitless effort in this way, on Thursday morning the mill dam was cut down, and the water of the pond partially drawn off, and the same processes of search again gone through with.

About noon of this day, the officer sent for William, returned having him in custody; and a man calling himself Dr. Gilmore, came in company with them. It seems that the officer arrested William at his own house, early in the day on Tuesday, and started to Springfield with him; that after dark awhile, they reached Lewiston, in Fulton county, where they stopped for the night; that late in the night this Dr. Gilmore arrived, stating that Fisher was alive at his house, and that he had followed on to give the information, so that William might be released without further trouble; that the officer, distrusting Dr. Gilmore, refused to release William, but brought him on to Springfield, and the Dr. accompanied them.

On reaching Springfield, the Dr. re-asserted that Fisher was alive, and at his house. At this, the multitude for a time, were utterly confounded. Gilmore’s story was communicated to Henry Trailor, who without faltering, reaffirmed his own story about Fisher’s murder. Henry’s adherence to his own story was communicated to the crowd, and at once the idea started, and became nearly, if not quite universal, that Gilmore was a confederate of the Trailors, and had invented the tale he was telling, to secure their release and escape.

Excitement was again at its zenith.

About three o’clock the same evening, Myers, Archibald’s partner, started with a two-horse carriage, for the purpose of ascertaining whether Fisher was alive, as stated by Gilmore, and if so, of bringing him back to Springfield with him.

On Friday a legal examination was gone into before two Justices, on the charge of murder against William and Archibald. Henry was introduced as a witness by the prosecution, and on oath re-affirmed his statements, as heretofore detailed, and at the end of which he bore a thorough and rigid cross-examination without faltering or exposure. The prosecution also proved, by a respectable lady, that on the Monday evening of Fisher’s disappearance, she saw Archibald, whom she well knew, and another man whom she did not then know, but whom she believed at the time of testifying to be William, (then present,) and still another, answering the description of Fisher, all enter the timber at the North West of town, (the point indicated by Henry,) and after one or two hours, saw William and Archibald return without Fisher.

Abraham Lincoln published a true crime story in 1846

Earliest known photograph of Lincoln, taken in 1846 or 1847, at about the time his true crime story was published. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Divison

Several other witnesses testified, that on Tuesday, at the time William and Henry professedly gave up the search for Fishers body, and started for home, they did not take the road directly, but did go into the woods, as stated by Henry. By others, also, it was proved, that since Fisher’s disappearance, William and Archibald had passed rather an unusual number of gold pieces. The statements heretofore made about the thicket, the signs of a struggle, the buggy tracks, &c., were fully proven by numerous witnesses.

At this the prosecution rested.

Dr. Gilmore was then introduced by the defendants. He stated that he resided in Warren county, about seven miles distant from William’s residence; that on the morning of William’s arrest, he was out from home, and heard of the arrest, and of its being on a charge of the murder of Fisher; that on returning to his own house, he found Fisher there; that Fisher was in very feeble health, and could give no rational account as to where he had been during his absence; that he (Gilmore) then started in pursuit of the officer, as before stated; and that he should have taken Fisher with him, only that the state of his health did not permit. Gilmore also stated that he had known Fisher for several years, and that he had understood he was subject to temporary derangement of mind, owing to an injury about his head received in early life.

There was about Dr. Gilmore so much of the air and manner of truth, that his statement prevailed in the minds of the audience and of the court, and the Trailors were discharged, although they attempted no explanation of the circumstances proven by the other witnesses.

On the next Monday, Myers arrived in Springfield, bringing him the now famed Fisher, in full life and proper person.
Thus ended this strange affair and while it is readily conceived that a writer of novels could bring a story to a more perfect climax, it may well be doubted whether a stranger affair ever really occurred. Much of the matter remains in mystery to this day. The going into the woods with Fisher, and returning without him, by the Trailers; their going into the woods at the same place the next day, after they professed to have given up the search; the signs of a struggle in the thicket, the buggy tracks at the edge of it; and the location of the thicket, and the signs about it, corresponding precisely with Henry’s story, are circumstances that have never been explained. William and Archibald have both died since—William in less than a year, and Archibald in about two years after the supposed murder. Henry is still living, but never speaks of the subject.

It is not the object of the writer of this to enter into the many curious speculations that might be indulged upon the facts of this narrative; yet he can scarcely forbear a remark upon what would, almost certainly, have been the fate of William and Archibald, had Fisher not been found alive. It seems he had wandered away in mental derangement, and, had he died in this condition, and his body been found in the vicinity, it is difficult to conceive what could have saved the Trailors from the consequence of having murdered him. Or, if he had died, and his body never found, the case against them would have been quite as bad, for, although it is a principle of law that a conviction for murder shall not be had, unless the body of the deceased be discovered, it is to be remembered, that Henry testified that he saw Fisher’s dead body.


Would you feel comfortable having Abraham Lincoln as your defense attorney?

Literature on point:

Jennifer Tapley, Lincoln’s mystery letter written by Quincy Whig editor in 1846, http://www.wgem.com/story/24356487/2014/01/03/lincolns-mystery-letter-written-by-quincy-whig-editor-in-1846

Library of Congress Virtual Programs & Services, Lincoln as Poet, http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/prespoetry/al.html

Mike Henry, What They Didn’t Teach You in American History Class (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield 2014)

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Live Burial: Murder or Negligent Homicide? An Interview with True Crime Author Corinna Müller

Corinna Müller wrote about a a live burial in the 17th century.

Corinna Müller, a German true crime author, has written about a live burial in the 17th century. With permission.

His parents assumed he was dead.

The grave digger did too. Well, maybe. If he thought it was strange that the corpse of the six-year-old child, two days after his purported death, vomited and hadn’t yet entered rigor mortis, he didn’t do anything about it. He buried the boy anyway. Grave diggers back in 1607 weren’t well educated – the community shepherd usually doubled as the town grave digger – and might not have been familiar with medical signs of vitality. Four children were buried that day in Murrhardt, Germany, and as was often the custom, they were buried together in one grave. After he lowered all four caskets, one on top of another, the grave digger heard it: pounding that sounded like it was coming from the inside of one of the coffins below him.

A six-year-old boy was buried alive in this cemetery in Murrhardt, Germany, 400 years ago.

A six-year-old boy was buried alive in this cemetery in Murrhardt, Germany, 400 years ago.

What happened next could have only one explanation. Fear of Wiedergänger, malevolent zombies who returned from the dead to exact revenge on the living, was rampant in 17th century Germany. The grave digger quickly shoveled a layer of dirt between himself and the threat and dashed to the nearest pub to tell about his narrow escape from the undead. Within hours, a local church official heard the story and was alarmed.  He didn’t share the grave digger’s superstitions and ordered an immediate exhumation to rule out a live burial.

Townsfolk rushed to the cemetery and dug out all four coffins. The first three contained children who were clearly dead, but not the fourth. The fourth boy’s head was bleeding from fresh wounds. He’d apparently been hitting his head against the inner coffin walls. When a public officer placed a feather under the boy’s nose to see if he was still breathing, the feather moved. Then the boy’s eyes flicked open.

The people carried the boy to a nearby chapel, but the stress of his underground ordeal had been too much. He soon expired. He had been buried for eight hours. The grave digger was arrested and imprisoned in a tower to await trial.

But a trial for what?

This case threw down a gage to Germany’s criminal code, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina. Heralded as revolutionary when it was first enacted in the 16th century, it recognized mitigating factors justifying milder sentences.  For the first time, a judge could take age, illness, mental state, and other factors into account. Children, for instance, could be exonerated based on their age. Whether or not the grave digger committed murder or negligent homicide by burying a child alive depended on his ability to form intent. But intent to kill presumed awareness the victim was living. And that awareness, in turn, depended on his education and superstitions. Were they mitigating factors?

Murrhardt, Germany’s live burial provided the basis for the first of five short historical true crime stories in Corinna Müller’s new book, Verurteilt [Convicted]. I recently interviewed her, in German, and present the highlights below in English.


Corinna Müller's book Verurteilt. Courtesy of the Sutton Verlag.

Corinna Müller’s book Verurteilt. Courtesy of the Sutton Verlag.

Ann Marie Ackermann: Frau Müller, when I started your story about the live burial in Verurteilt, I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. And in the middle of the story, I noticed that I could hardly breathe. That’s how exciting it was.

Corinna Müller: That’s exactly how I felt when I first read the court file in the archives. That poor child! Eight hours underground…. And he came so close to being saved. I knew as soon as I read it I knew I needed to publish his story.

AMA: Were live burials a frequent occurrence in the 17th century?

CM: I’m afraid they occurred regularly. Württemberg, for instance, did not mandate medical examination of a body prior to burial until 1833. But to the extent that an accidental live burial was a crime, it was one that was very rarely detected. This case was one of the rare ones we know about. Judicially, it trod the boundaries of the legal definition of criminal homicide. Did the grave digger commit a crime or not? And if so, which one? This case was not only factually exciting, it was legally exciting.

AMA: You take on true crime cases in both your books that fall outside of the usual purview of the genre. Your stories also have to do with suspects who are exonerated, pardoned, or receive mitigated sentences.

CM: Law enforcement and the criminal justice system aren’t only there to arrest and convict. They are also there to exculpate innocent people and to find the appropriate punishment. I try to bring out all the facets of the justice system and strike the same balance in my true crime stories that law enforcement might see in practice. In fact, I recently published an article about a witch trial in which the defendant was found not guilty. My first book features another witch trial, from 1629. The defendant had cooked a skull because she thought it would bring the father of her children back from the dead. She was banished from her town, but not put to death. Banishment was still a severe punishment for a widow with children – who outside of town would accept a widow with two children? – but the court showed leniency. Literature on witch trials is obsessed with convictions and abuses of the system, and it is all too easy to overlook the successes. Often the old legal system operated quite fairly. I want to bring that out, along with the human drama and culture inherent in those stories.

The grave digger was jailed for eight days in this tower in Murrhardt, Germany.

The grave digger was jailed for eight days in this tower in Murrhardt, Germany.

Murrhardt’s live burial was one of those cases in which the 400-year-old German judiciary recognized grounds for leniency. Duke Friederich reviewed the case and decided that the eight days the grave digger had already spent in prison, awaiting trial, sufficed as punishment. The crime was at most negligent homicide. Had the court found him guilty of murder, it would have meant the death penalty.

Corinna Müller and I are sitting in a café in southern Germany, across from a baroque palace and small reflecting pool, sipping tea under the glow of Christmas lights. She speaks quietly, but her gestures and facial expressions broadcast a multi-tiered passion for historical crime.  If the three elderly gentlemen seated next to us are disturbed by our conversation about live burials and witch trials, they don’t show it. When we offer them the brownies served with our tea (alas, we are both allergic to the ingredients), the men pilfer them gleefully.

AMA: Your legal analyses of a centuries-old criminal code are fascinating.

CM: So many people associate the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina with torture and witch trials and fail to see how progressive it was in comparison to prior medieval German criminal law. The CCC was a tidal wave of fresh water that washed out the injustices of the old system. It exonerated children and the mentally ill. It allowed for mitigated sentencing. Torture was allowed in the interrogation of witnesses, yes. Of course I don’t condone it. But most people don’t realize that under the CCC, torture could only be used if very strict requirements were met. Those reforms were incredibly liberal for their time.

AMA: Yes, but it was so easy for the officials administering torture to abuse the system.

CM: There are abuses in every system, unfortunately. But I have yet to find a documented case of an official abusing the CCC’s torture restrictions in Württemberg. [Württemberg is a state in southwest Germany.]

Corinna Müller's first book. Courtesy of the Verlag Regionalkultur.

Corinna Müller’s first book. Courtesy of the Verlag Regionalkultur.

AMA: What were the restrictions?

CM: Probable cause was one: Concrete evidence that the suspect committed the crime, such as witness testimony or the suspect’s having been caught in the act, was a prerequisite to interrogation under torture. Then the CCC limited the duration of torture to one hour, and it could repeated only once. Neither leading questions nor yes-no questions were allowed. And if the court didn’t have outside witness testimony to corroborate a confession under torture, it was necessary for the suspect to reaffirm the confession while not under torture. That was to rule out admissions made just to avoid the pain. Physical or mental handicaps as well as pregnancy or having an unweaned baby rendered a suspect ineligible for torture.

AMA: Before you starting writing true crime, you used to work for the police force.

CM: Yes, for the “Kripo,” or  Kriminalpolizei, as a detective. I processed crime scenes – homicides, drug cases, sexual offenses, and the like. Suicides as well. It included all the work involved after patrol officers made the initial response to a crime scene.

AMA: How did the detective become a true crime writer?

CM: I had to quit the police force due to health reasons, and in my new-found free time started researching genealogy. I attended a genealogy conference and someone gave a speech about a witch trial. It fascinated me. The speaker then asked me to help research a historic criminal case, and I got hooked. And that led to my first true crime publication.

Eid des Stadtschäfers (Municipal shepherd's oath)

A sample of old German handwriting that any historical true crime writer in Germany has to learn to read. Courtesy of the Stadtarchiv Nürtingen.

AMA: What was the hardest part about the switch?

CM: Learning how to decipher the old German handwriting was a challenge! That took awhile. Several archivists helped me, and with practice, I can read it fairly well now. In addition, the language and vocabulary have changed. And many historic legal documents also used Latin.

AMA: Does any of your law enforcement experience transfer to your historical research and writing?

CM: If anything, it would be a detective’s approach or mindset. In law enforcement, I didn’t stop asking questions of the evidence, the witnesses, and of myself until I felt like I’d gained a complete understanding of the case. I try to do the same with my research material. Curiosity is my motor.

AMA: Thank you, Fr. Müller!

How would have you decided this case if you were Duke Friedrich and had the last say?

Books by Corinna Müller (unfortunately available only in German):

Verurteilt: Historische Kriminalfälle aus Alt-Württemberg [Convicted: Historical Criminal Cases from Old Württemberg] (Erfurt: Sutton Verlag 2014)

Um Kopf und Kragen: Historische Kriminalfälle der Frühen Neuzeit im heutigen Württemberg [When Your Life is on the Line: Historical Criminal Cases of the Early Modern Era within the Current Boundaries of Württemberg] (Ubstadt-Weiher: Verlag Regionalkultur 2011)


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An Ode to the Borowitz Collection


Borowitz Collection

Exhibit at the Borowitz Collection; courtesy of Kent State University Libraries; Special Collections and Archives.

Where can you find the greatest number of true crime titles under one roof?

Laura James, attorney and true crime author, recently posted a blog about the Borowitz collection at Kent State University. Albert Borowitz himself published about true crime history. I’ve read some of his work, and his analysis of Friedrich Schiller role in midwifing the birth of the genre in Germany has won my undying recognition. This post originally appeared on Laura’s site “CLEWS: Your Home for Historic True Crime.” Clicking on the permalink below the post will take you directly to her site.


Here’s Laura James:

(The Borowitz Collection is the greatest private true crime library ever amassed. This year the current owner, Kent State University, geared up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the donation of the entire ensemble. In addition to all kinds of special events, the university put together a catalogue for a special exhibit of the gems of the collection. They asked me to write an introduction for the catalogue, which pleased me to no end, so this is what I came up with to introduce Albert Borowitz and his books.)

* * * 

Albert Borowitz

Albert Borowitz; courtesy of Kent State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives

Thanks to the lawmakers and the industry of our criminal courts and mass printers, more or less careful records of murder and mayhem and their aftermath have been kept for ages. But true crime publications tend to be as short-lived as their subjects. Recognizing their value, Albert Borowitz, one of the great true crime historians and connoisseurs of this age, spent decades of his life amassing the largest known private library in the theme, a collection of true crime books exceeding ten thousand volumes, some going back to the 1600s. In doing so, the multilingual American lawyer managed to save generations of stories from several continents, rescuing many books and hundreds of old crime broadsides from extinction, with no other copies left in existence. Now ensconced at Kent State University , it is an awesome trove for researchers and a gift to true crime mavens.

One must envy the energy and passion of anyone who can collect ten thousand of anything, let alone these stories. True crime certainly has its critics. Everyone has personal preferences. And there are fads and poor examples in every genre. But what elevates this particular ensemble is Borowitz’s impeccable taste. There’s not a lot on the professional criminal class (the Mafia, for example) because their motives are simple, brutish, and uninteresting. There’s not all that much on modern serial killers, either (compared to the prodigious output of such stories in the last few decades). Borowitz thinks serial sex killers are “boring.” Now that we have them figured out, we know their motives and patterns of conduct; there is no mystery to examine, no unanswered question left, and Borowitz tells us our time is better spent elsewhere.

The Borowitz collection is also exceptional for its depth of legal scholarship. For it is in essence a law library, part of a long tradition among attorneys and judges of collecting case studies (and handsome books). As thankful members of an organized and lawful society, attorneys in particular are compelled by principles of stare decisis to know the past, which forms our common law. In that sense, studying criminal cases is for some of us a moral and legal imperative. That it can also be an enjoyable process should go without saying.

Blood & Ink by Albert Borowitz; courtesy of Kent State University Press

Blood & Ink by Albert Borowitz; courtesy of Kent State University Press

These true crime stories do more, though. They also feed a common hunger for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This ancient oath has been taken over this or that holy book for more than two thousand years. Today, the oath (or affirmation, for secularists) still carries a threat of imprisonment, because the truth is so valuable. Truth means reliability, certainty. And when we get to the truth, we can answer hard questions. Criminal law teems with characters who have been captured, as in amber, by sworn testimony. For the psychologists and sociologists (armchair and otherwise), true cases are rife with answers to the riddles of human conduct and questions of responding to it. Some of us purists even snub fiction and all the figments of crime novelists. Made-up characters and fancied circumstances contrived by a single mind cannot begin to rival the complexity of human conduct. Truth is indeed stranger.

It is often when an elusive truth should be knowable — when the evidence is abundant, the record extensive — that we are most driven to find an answer, and that is reflected in this collection. As true crime fans know, reading one book can draw you more deeply into the literature until you’ve read all there is to read about a particularly mesmerizing matter and you can sit back, sated, and contemplate the question at hand knowing you’ve learned all there is to learn of it. As Borowitz himself has said, “in the study of crime, as in life, the puzzle goes on forever.” We see Borowitz’s research trails in these shelves, share some of his fascinations, and recognize that he has dug deeper and found more in every instance.

Included in his collection are more than 250 volumes on the eternal mystery of Jack the Ripper. Lizzie Borden takes up an entire shelf with more than forty titles to her name. Jesse James has sixty books, going back to 1880. The Praslin murder, a worldwide sensation in 1847, is here represented by twelve extremely rare and quite valuable books in both English and French. Other priceless, one-of-a-kind, historically significant treasures are too many to list.

Terrorism for Self-Glorification

Terrorism for Self-Glorification by Albert Borowitz; courstey of Kent State University Press

The collection has continued to grow in a quarter century by acquisition and donation. Beyond the bookshelves are cultural artifacts worthy of the time of scholars as well as the morbidly curious. They include such items as a hangman’s hood, a poison ring, Staffordshire figurines of the murderous Mr. and Mrs. Manning, and the private papers of author Leo Damore, the reporter who broke the story of Chappaquiddick. One can take such things as the sign of a healthy culture; totalitarian states are quick to suppress true crime stories and the paraphernalia that often accompanies them. Those of us who know better celebrate the literature of true crime, which has time and again proven its value those of us who actually recognize and embrace it as the parent of innumerable works of art.

Borowitz will continue to earn accolades from his fellow enthusiasts long into the future not only for his own remarkable achievements in the genre but for his generosity in sharing his collection with the public. To think that a single person acquired all these books, read them all, and indexed them all in Blood & Ink is to know that Albert Borowitz is the legal guardian genius of the genre, and the Borowitz Collection is in and of itself a work of art.

(c) Laura James August 02, 2014; reblogged with permission | Permalink

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Birth of the “Forensic Kit” or “Murder Bag”

forensic kit

Sherlock holmes and the open safe; OSTILL/istockphoto.com

Sherlock Holmes had his magnifying glass. A modern detective will bring things like evidence tags, fingerprint kits, and latent bloodstain reagents.

What did a 19th-century detective pack into his forensic kit to bring to a crime scene?

Hanns Gross, father of criminology

Hanns Gross (sometimes spelled Hans Gross), the Austrian father of criminology. Public domain.

Let’s ask Hanns Gross (1847-1915), an Austrian who established forensic science as an academic discipline. Gross studied law and worked as a detective (Untersuchungsrichter) before founding the first university institute of criminology. His Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Handbook for Criminal Investigation), a field book for criminal investigators that was published in 1893, caused a global tsunami in police work, washing away outdated techniques. Gross integrated science and psychology into criminal investigations. He also developed the field of crime scene photography. In translated form, the Handbook became a standard work worldwide.

In the Handbook, Gross lists the items a detective should keep packed in his forensic kit in order to be ready to process a crime scene at a moment’s notice. The list is long, but here are some of the important contents:

  • paper for taking notes
  • pen and pencil, ink
  • ruler or measuring tape
  • pair of compasses for measuring minute distances
  • pedometer for measuring distance in paces
  • transparent paper for tracing outlines, drawings, and blood splatter
  • plaster to make casts
  • test tubes for samples of stomach contents of dead bodies to test for arsenic
  • candles for illumination during nighttime investigation
  • crucifix for the purposes of putting a dying witness under oath for a statement
  • directional compass to provide orientation for the detective’s sketch of the crime
  • bars of soap, not only for washing, but for taking impressions of small items like keys
  • brush for cleaning debris out of a footprint before taking a cast
  • magnifying glass
  • tape, to which small traces of evidence adhere
  • candy for calming children and inducing them to make statements
  • first-aid kit, for victims or the detective himself
 Hanns Gross recommended that detective pack candy into his "murder bag" to induce children to give statements.

Yum, old fashioned candy! Hanns Gross recommended investigators bring candy to the crime scene. It can induce children to give statements.

 Which of these items seem old-fashioned? And which were ahead of their time? Do you think anything’s missing?

forensic kit

Hanns Gross’ depiction of a detective bag to contain the forensic kit. Public domain.

Because Hanns Gross developed criminal investigation photography, I was surprised not to see a camera on his list. He might have included that in later editions of his book.

(c) Text Ann Marie Ackermann 2014


Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (Graz, Austria: Leuschner & Lubensky’s Universitäts-Buchhandlung 1899)

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