Why historical true crime is gaining ground as a subgenre

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Photo from Pixabay

True crime has been a vibrant American genre for decades, and within the past few years, it has given birth to a subgenre. Historical true crime books are up and coming.

Historical True Crime in the Publishing Industry

How do you measure the pulse of a new subgenre? One artery to feel is the publishing industry. Both Kent State University Press and the History Press in South Carolina now feature true crime history series. Sutton Publishing (United Kingdom) does as well. Sutton offers not only an English series, called Sutton True Crime History, but a German one, Historische Kriminalfälle, through its German subsidiary, the Suttonverlag.

If you’d like meet a couple of the authors with those publishing houses, here’s your chance! I previously introduced one of Sutton’s German authors, Corinna Müller, in an interview about a boy who was buried alive. I’ve also blogged about Kent State University Press author Richard Cahill and his book on the Lindbergh kidnapping.

morguefile shadows

Morguefile photo

There are a number of independently published historical true crime books, and two series are worthy of mention. Jason Scott Morrow founded Historical Crime Detective, through which he’s published three historical true crime books. I’ve read one of them and found it quite well written.

Richard O. Jones, a seasoned journalist who claims to have found evidence in the archives that one of his ancestors was a murderer, started a delightful series of regional historical true crime short stories called Two Dollar Terrors. Each costs two bucks and details an Ohio crime. Even if you’re not from Ohio, Jones’ stories are worth reading for his exquisite writing.

Historical true crime as a emerging genre.

Photo from Pixabay

Historical True Crime Blogs

Blogs are another great place to press your two fingers and feel the genre’s pulse. My blog focuses on historical true crime in both the United States and Germany, with occasional splashes of Civil War stories and Mark Twain’s travel experiences in Germany. There are several other great historical true crime blogs you can check out. One of the most popular is Laura James’ CLEWS, with a draw-your-pistols old Western flavor. Her site has been dormant for several months, but Laura emailed me this week to say she had technical problems and his planning to kick the site back into the playing field.

Jason Scott Morrow also blogs about historical true crime at Historical Crime Detective. A great blog for 19th century murder in the United States is Robert Wilhelm’s Murder by Gaslight. It has a delicious Victorian flair. Wilhelm has also published books on historical true crime, one of which is currently waiting in my “to read” pile. The online Crime Magazine also offers a series on historical crime.

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Photo from Pixabay

Crime vs. History

So why is the subgenre gaining popularity? Might it be the crossover into the history genre, which picks up additional readers? It’s quite possible that a reader who eschews true crime might read a historical true crime book due to an interest in the particular time period. And for some, true crime might be the fun-to-read packaging for a history lesson.

Another reason might be because the blood has long dried. The genre breathes the dust of the archives more than the scent of gunpowder. Historical true crime offers a softer alternative to the sometimes sensationalist, gory, modern true crime books. Readers might have more emotional distance because of the passage of time, giving them a different reading experience. The appeal of historical true crime might be something more than just emotional shock.

One highlight of any true crime book is sleuthing along with the detective while you’re reading. Historical  investigations might be easier to understand than modern investigative techniques. Who can understand two expert witnesses arguing about the validity of the new generation of DNA tests, for instance? Historical, easy-to-follow criminal investigations might shift the book’s appeal to the intellectual puzzle of solving the crime with traditional techniques.

What do you think attracts readers to historical true crime?

Coming up next: my favorite historical true crime stories. Some might surprise you.

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Hoots, Crows, and Whistles: Criminals Using Animals Calls as Secret Signals

Little Owl calls were among the common animal called imitated by criminals.

European criminals liked to imitate the Little Owl. Little Owl from Pixbay, public domain.

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.

A burglar picking a lock.

Burglary. Pixbay, public domain.

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.

The trolls were turned to stone in The Hobbit.

The trolls were turned to stone in The Hobbit. Photo from Pixbay, public domain.

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.

A rooster? That's among the animal calls no one suspects.

A rooster? That’s an animal call no one suspects. Photo from Pixbay, public domain.

 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.

Owl calls. Gross at p. 278.

Hanns Gross reduced two animal calls popular among criminals to musical notation. Both are Little Owl calls. The first is a whistle and used for shorter distances. The second is a cry and 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:

Yellow-bellied Toad; one of the animal calls criminals used.

Near water, criminals liked to use the Yellow-bellied Toad croak. Yellow-bellied Frog Bombina variegata (Marek Szczepanek); Creative Commons license http://bit.ly/1E2Iv9D

 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?

European Common Frog

European Common Frog.

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.

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Tower Keeper of Bad Wimpfen: Blanca Knodel Keeps a Medieval Profession Alive

Blanca Knodel, tower keeper of Bad Wimpfen.

Blanca Knodel, tower keeper of Bad Wimpfen.

Blanca Knodel is standing on her “balcony” and the wind whips her hair. The wind isn’t surprising. Her balcony is a walkway around a set of turrets 105 feet above the ground. Blanca Knodel is a tower keeper in the German city of Bad Wimpfen, and wind, stairs, and stunning views are part of her job.

Bad Wimpfen claims to have the longest continuing tradition of a live-in tower keeper in all of Germany, in part for tourism, and in part to keep a medieval profession alive. The tower keeper lives in a 570-square foot apartment right below the balcony. Although Blanca Knodel is the city’s first female tower keeper, she isn’t the only one in Germany. Münster also has a female tower keeper.

Bad Wimpfen's Blue Tower, where the tower keeper lives.

Bad Wimpfen’s Blue Tower, where Blanca Knodel lives. You can see two windows to her apartment below the level of the turrets. Courtesy of the city of Bad Wimpfen.

According to Bad Wimpfen’s homepage, the tower is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The cost is 1.50€ per person, and you pay 134 steps above the street, at the door to the tower keeper’s apartment.

Blanca Knodel talks of her life above the city, Mark Twain’s visit to Bad Wimpfen, and how to get a free beer.

Interview with the Tower Keeper

Ann Marie: How long have you been at the job, Frau Knodel?

Blanca Knodel: Nineteen years.

How did you get it?

I belong to one of the oldest families in Baden-Württemberg. I love the Blue Tower, and my grandmother’s sister even used to live here in the tower keeper’s apartment. When my predecessor became ill, I covered for him. Eventually I took over with my three children.

Frau Knodel hands me a pamphlet. It says Bad Wimpfen has complete personnel records for its tower keepers going back to 1626. The records before that time were destroyed in the Thirty Years War, but sporadic documentation surviving from the 14th century indicates the city had a tower keeper who lived continually in the tower.

My job might even go back to the 13th century.

The tower keeper used this speaking tube as a megaphone to warn the city below.

The tower keeper used this speaking tube as a megaphone to warn the city below.

What were the tower keeper’s duties in the Middle Ages?

To watch out for enemies and fires and to raise the alarm. Also to toll the hours.

Did the tower keeper have any crime-prevention functions? If someone raised the hue and cry, for instance, would the tower keeper look for the fleeing criminal from above and let the town know where to look?

Probably not; that was more the job of the night watchman. If a crime happened at night, it would be really hard to spot a fleeing criminal in the darkness from way up here.

They didn’t have street lamps back then….

No, they didn’t!

The tower keeper's view over the Neckar River.

The view from the kitchen over the Neckar River.

What are the tower keeper’s job duties today?

I have primarily public relations duties – selling tickets and giving information to tourists visiting the tower.

Are there any advantages to being the tower keeper?

Yes! I’m so high above everything else; it is so quiet and peaceful. I have a tremendous view. And all my visitors are friendly. People climb the 134 steps to my apartment only if they really want to see me. I get absolutely no solicitors!

The view from the living room over the church.

The view from the living room over the church.

And the disadvantages?

Carrying my groceries. The tower does have a small elevator just for groceries, but it starts at the third floor and ends one floor below my apartment. So that means I have to haul my groceries up several floors. The worst part is carrying up cases of beer. On the days I go shopping, I offer a free beer to anyone who helps carry a case up the stairs.

The tower keeper has to operate the small elevator by hand.

The tower keeper has to operate the small elevator by hand.

Even to American tourists?

Yes, of course! I usually go shopping on Wednesdays, so come by and see if you can help me with my beer….

Check for cases of beer when you enter the tower. Frau Knodel usually puts a note on them and you are welcome to carry one up.

How often do you get American tourists?

Regularly. The Blue Tower isn’t a secret tip. It appears in the guide books and I get guests of all nationalities.

Bad Wimpfen has two towers, both named after their original roof color. The Blue Tower, where the tower keeper lives, is the tall tower in the center. The red tower is the smaller, square tower on the left.

Bad Wimpfen has two towers, both named after their original roof color. The Blue Tower, where the tower keeper lives, is the tall tower in the center. The red tower is the smaller, square tower on the left. Courtesy of the city of Bad Wimpfen.

Mark Twain visited Bad Wimpfen in 1878 and sketched one of the towers. Would you say this picture is of the Blue Tower or the Red Tower?

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, public domain

Bad Wimpfen’s tower. Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, public domain.

That looks like the Red Tower. By 1878, the Blue Tower already had its present form – with the turrets. But I don’t know why Mark Twain made the Red Tower leaning. Was he thinking of the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

It may have just been one of Mark Twain’s jokes. He wrote that this picture was just a copy. He says he gave the original to the mayor of Bad Wimpfen.

(Laughing) If Mark Twain gave a picture to our mayor, believe me, I would know about it. If Bad Wimpfen had a Mark Twain picture in its archives, I would know.

You can’t always believe what Mark Twain says! But on the other hand, Twain wasn’t famous yet in Germany. If you were the mayor, and if a tourist who was a nobody gave you this picture of your town, would you keep it?

Okay, I get your point. No!

A view of Bad Wimpfen from the top of the Blue Tower.

A view of Bad Wimpfen from the top of the Blue Tower.

You also have a pet cat. How has it adjusted to living in the tower? Does it ever go out?

My cat’s outdoor territory is the tower itself. In the mornings, before all the tourists come, it patrols the stairs and hunts silverfish and spiders.

There aren’t any mice in the tower?

Not that I know of.

Bad Wimpfen’s Blue Tower also has a music tradition.

Yes! Every Sunday at noon, from April to October, musicians play a hymn from the four sides of the tower. Bad Wimpfen has been doing that for at least a century.

The long way down.

The long way down.

What are your most interesting memories of living in the tower?

I have an upright piano in my apartment. It took four men seven minutes to carry it all the way up the tower. Once they got it into my apartment, I told them they brought the wrong piano.

What?! It wasn’t the piano you ordered?

Well yes, actually it was, but I was just trying to joke with them. They didn’t think I was funny at all.

The oldest guest who ever visited me was 95 years old. I shared a glass of wine with him at the top, and afterwards he used to call me every half year to tell me he would never forget the experience.

I won’t forget the experience either, Fr. Knodel. Thanks so much for the interview.

What would you enjoy about the job if you were a tower keeper?

Coming soon: more about Mark Twain in Bad Wimpfen and all the funny things he had to say about it.

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Bertha Benz: How the World’s First Car Theft Jump Started the Auto Industry

Bertha Benz, public domain.

Bertha Benz, public domain.

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.

Wanted: Bertha Benz for Grand Theft Auto

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.

The Benz Patent Motor Car Model III, which Bertha drove.

The Benz Patent Motor Car Model III, which Bertha drove. Public domain.

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 with her sons Eugen and Richard during the long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim with the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1888. Reconstructed scene (push-starting the car) on celebrating the 100th anniversary of the motor vehicle’s first long-distance journey.

Bertha Benz with her sons Eugen and Richard during the long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim with the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1888. Reconstructed scene (push-starting the car) on celebrating the 100th anniversary of the motor vehicle’s first long-distance journey. Courtesy of the Daimler Corp.

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.

Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard during their long-distance journey in August 1888 with the Benz Patent Motor Car. Contemporary portrayal of filling up at the pharmacy in Wiesloch, the “world’s first gas station.”

Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard during their long-distance journey in August 1888 with the Benz Patent Motor Car. Contemporary portrayal of filling up at the pharmacy in Wiesloch, the “world’s first gas station.”
Courtesy of the Daimler Corp.

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.

"The 'Stadtapotheke' is famous as the 'first gas station in the world.' Bertha Benz bought gasoline here for the first time in 1888 on her drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim."

“The ‘Stadtapotheke’ is famous as the ‘first gas station in the world.’ Bertha Benz bought gasoline here for the first time in 1888 on her drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim.”

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.

The world's first gas station: Wiesloch's Stadtapothe today.

The world’s first gas station: Wiesloch’s Stadtapothe today.

 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.

Signs for the Bertha Benz Memorial Route between Mannheim and Pforzheim.

Signs for the Bertha Benz Memorial Route between Mannheim and Pforzheim.

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 automobile

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