A Year and a Half in Review: My Top Ten Historical Crime Posts

The top ten:

After one and a half years of blogging about historical crime cases, the New Year offers a great opportunity to look back at crimes that fascinated my readers the most. These were the most popular:

Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Gibson & Co., 1870; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.

1. New Discoveries about the Lincoln Assassination: Interview with Author Michael W. Kauffman. No, John Wilkes Booth did not break his leg jumping from the balcony after shooting Lincoln. Computer analysis of all the data in the one of the most famous historical crime cases ever offers new insights, and Michael Kauffman explains them. This is an author who was so committed to researching the assassination he jumped from the balcony in Ford’s Theater himself.

Ötzi is examined

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

2. Ötzi, the Alpine Iceman: How Modern Forensic Science Unveiled a Stone Age Murder. Historical crime at its best, because murder cases don’t get any colder than this! Someone killed the iceman 5000 years ago. Modern scientists have pieced together the iceman’s last moments with analysis of his head injury, the arrow that shot him, and a defensive wound.

Jefferson C. Davis shooting Bull Nelson

Jefferson C. Davis shooting Bull Nelson

3. Jefferson C. Davis, Civil War General and Murderer: Interview with Donald A. Clark. The Civil War had its own historical crime cases. In this one, one general killed another. Clark, who authored a new book about Bull Nelson, the murder victim, talks about the crime and the murderer.

Ludwig II

Ludwig II portrait by Carl Theodor von Piloty, public domain

4. King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Murder, Accident, or Suicide? This is Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery. What happened to the builder of fairy tale castles and the patron of Richard Wagner? Bavaria’s monarch took a walk in 1886 and was found later that evening drowned in a lake. Murder, accident, or suicide? Here are the facts, and you can decide.

Raven in Yellowstone

Raven in Yellowstone National Park by Christopher May; shutterstock_283227410

5. Ravens as Partners for Cadaver Dogs? Ravens, according to biologists, have a symbiotic hunting relationship with both humans and canines. Since ravens eat carrion, might law enforcement be able to use them to work with dogs in a team? This post contains some fascinating facets about the raven-dog-man friendship that you probably never knew.

The Poe Toaster left cognac and roses

The Poe Toaster left cognac and roses. These were probably left by an imitation toaster. By Midnightdreary (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 6. Poe Toaster: Might a Bavarian Group be Responsible? Every year for decades, a mysterious figure has left cognac and roses at Edgar Allen Poe’s grave. The Poe Toaster’s identity has long been a mystery, but a Bavarian group has hinted responsibility. The motive is linked to King Ludwig II and his mysterious death.

Human remains detection team Cat Warren and Solo at work.

Human remains detection team Cat Warren and Solo.

7. Volunteer Cadaver Dog Handlers: Might You and Your Dog Make a Good Detective Team? This is an interview with New York Times bestselling author and cadaver dog handler Cat Warren. She talks about training her dog and what it’s like to search for a body. Most American cadaver dog handlers are volunteers, and she invites you to consider whether you and your dog might have the right aptitude.

Jolly Roger against storm clouds

Jolly Roger, (c) Lizard, shutterstock_100276868, with permission

8. Pirate Flags: Ten Things You Probably Didn’t Know. Historical crime meets romantic legend in this post. Are historical pirate flags black or red? What did the colors mean? Did they really have the skull and crossbones? Here’s why sailors were more frightened of red pirate flags than black ones.

Wanted poster for the Lindbergh baby, public domain.

Wanted poster for the Lindbergh baby, public domain.

9. New Twists on the Lindbergh Kidnapping: An Interview with Author Richard Cahill. The Lindbergh kidnapping is one of America’s most haunting crime cases. Richard Cahill is an attorney and has studied this case for twenty years. The insights in his new book contained some surprises for me, so I interviewed him for this blog post.

A sperm whale attacks the Essex.

Drawing of the whale attack by Thomas NIckerson, one of the survivors of the Essex. Public domain.

10. Drawing Straws in the Lifeboat: Noble Sacrifice or Murder? The book and movie In the Heart of the Sea popularized the true story of a whale sinking a ship in 1820. It was the basis for Moby Dick. The sailors survived by drawing straws in the lifeboats and eating each other. Did they face legal action when they returned to port? And how does the law judge such an extreme situation?

Honorable mentions for two historical crime posts

Two other posts deserve honorable mention for the attention they received:

It's a rare case in which a dog solves a murder.

Can those eyes tell you what they’ve seen? Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

A Dog Solves a Murder: A True Story from Spain. This post about a 19th century Spanish dog that solved a murder attracted the attention of a television producer who interviewed me about it on Skype. I’m still crossing my fingers that this post will find its way into a documentary!

Statue of the German poet Friedrich Schiller in front of the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden; Axel Lauer, shutterstock

Statue of the German poet Friedrich Schiller in front of the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden; Axel Lauer, shutterstock

French and German Origins of the True Crime Genre. No, Truman Capote did not invent the true crime genre. A Frenchman did in the 18th century and caught Friedrich Schiller’s attention. Schiller promoted the new genre and added a few stories of his own. Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, liked this post. He tweeted me to say he hadn’t known this history and thanked me for posting it.

Happy New Year, and I raise my glass to our historical crime reading adventures for 2016!


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Jane McManus Storms vs. John L. O’Sullivan: Who coined “Manifest Destiny?”

Jane McManus Storms might have coined the phrase Manifest Destiny

“Westward the course of destiny/Westward ho!/Manifest Destiny” by John Gast 1872, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Manifest Destiny

It’s impossible to read a history book covering the two decades preceding the Civil War without encountering this phrase. And for good reason: Manifest Destiny shaped American politics in the 1840s and propelled the United States into the Mexican-American War, the results of which led to the Civil War.

Manifest Destiny is the belief that the United States had a divine mandate to occupy the continent from coast to coast. But who coined the term? That’s the subject of an academic debate.

In 1927, a historian names Julias Pratt decided to track that question down. He traced the first use of the phrase back to an article in the August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review. The piece, called Annexation, discussed the annexation of Texas and maintained that England and France were The United States’ true enemies, “thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence….” Because the article was unsigned, Pratt assumed John L. O’Sullivan, the editor, had written it.

Who was John L. O’Sullivan?

John L. O'Sullivan

John L. O’Sullivan, Harper’s Weekly, public domain.

O’Sullivan (1813-1895) was a lawyer and political journalist who founded the Democratic Review. As editor, he published political essays by prominent authors. O’Sullivan was at the peak of his career when the article containing “manifest destiny” appeared. One month later, he hired editors to take over his position while he travelled to Europe. He returned in late December, and a month later, in January 1846, the paper’s investors fired him.

Later in 1846, O’Sullivan moved to Cuba, from where he agitated for Cuban independence. That landed him in front of an American jury on charges of violation of the Neutrality Act, but the jury couldn’t reach a unanimous decision. President Pierce later appointed John L. O’Sullivan as a diplomat to Portugal. Thereafter he had trouble finding a job. He died in poverty in New York from a bout of influenza.

Another Theory

In 1999, Linda S. Hudson advanced a new theory in her Ph.D. dissertation: It wasn’t John L. O’Sullivan who coined the term “Manifest Destiny,” but a female journalist, Jane McManus Storms. Hudson conducted a computer-assisted textual analysis of material known to have been written by O’Sullivan and Storms and compared them to the anonymous Annexation article in which the term “manifest destiny” first appeared.

"A war president. Progressive democracy," wielding a sword entitled Manifest Destiny.

“A war president. Progressive democracy,” wielding a sword entitled Manifest Destiny. An 1848 political cartoon. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

The results were statistically significant. O’Sullivan’s writing had a 41.5% similarity to Annexation, whereas Storm’s 79.6%. Women writers of the era typically published anonymously. That’s why the article was unsigned, explains Hudson. Hudson also points out Storm’s intense interest in the Texas question – she had lived in Texas and purchased land there. O’Sullivan, on the other hand, was preparing to chase the woman he eventually married to Europe, and in August 1845, his mind probably wasn’t on politics, but on love.

Hudson went on to become a professor of history and published a biography of Storms called Mistress of Manifest Destiny. Her conclusions have found some acceptance. The recently published Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War also credits Jane McManus Storms with coining the phrase “manifest destiny.”

But acceptance is not universal. Robert D. Sampson, a John L. O’Sullivan biographer, points to the pitfalls in computer-aided textual analysis and questions whether a program designed to analyze late 20th century texts can validly be used to assess mid-19th century texts, especially since rules of grammar hadn’t then been formally established. Most importantly, Sampson contends Hudson used a text as a basis for O’Sullivan’s writing that his mother had written.

Sampson’s concerns are valid. They are signposts for further research on the question of authorship. At the very least, the academic debate introduces us to a little-known American journalist whose life was so adventurous, it’s interesting to read about her whether she wrote Annexation or not.

manifest destiny cartoon

“The modern Gilpins. Love’s labor lost,” an 1848 political cartoon. A man wielding a sword entitled “annexation” says to another “Clear the road. Don’t you see we are fulfilling or manifest destiny?” Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Jane McManus Storms

Jane McManus Storms (1807-1878) was an editor and journalist who publised 100 columns in various American papers, along with 20 journal articles and book reviews, and 15 books. She usually published anonymously or under the name “Montgomery.”

But her life gets really interesting in the Mexican-American War. Think Bond.

Jane Bond.

Storms’s knowledge of Spanish and Latin America convinced President Polk to send her along with a New York editor and a Catholic bishop to Mexico City in January 1847 on a secret mission to negotiate a peace treaty. They entered Mexico from Cuba to arouse less suspicion. From Veracruz they traveled to the capital, only to find it on the cusp of civil war. During this period, Storms wrote reports for the editor’s newspaper in New York. She was the only American war correspondent working from behind the Mexican lines.

When fighting broke out in Mexico City, the secret agents fled. Jane McManus Storms left before the men did, taking a hazardous 200-mile trip to Veracruz, where General Winfield Scott of had started a siege. Storms met with Scott, advised him of the political turmoil in the capital, and suggested a route the U.S. Army could take there. Scott ended up following her route in his conquest of Mexico City.

Storms later married and lived in both Texas and the Dominican Republic. Her death was spectacular as her life. She drowned when the steamer she was taking to San Domingo sunk in a storm. Two sailors who survived later spoke of Storms facing her death with resignation.

There are no known images of Jane McManus Storms. Someone with the same last name has her husband (Cazneau), however, had posted an image on the Find a Grave Site.  Storms was known to have a dark complexion and violet eyes.

What do you think of the two theories about who coined “manifest destiny?”

Literature on point:

Linda S. Hudson, “Jane McManus Storm Cazneau (1807-1878): A Biography,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Univ. of North Texas, 1999

The Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013)

Tom Reilly, War with Mexico! America’s Reporters Cover the Battlefront (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010)

Robert D. Sampson, John O’Sullivan and His Times (Kent: Kent State Univ. Press, 2003)

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The Dog Stole It! Two Famous Cases of Animal Thieves

Shoes are an intriguing object for some animal thieves.

Shoes are an intriguing object for some animal thieves. Morguefile photos.

Animal Thieves in Germany

Not another shoe gone! Where two sneakers had been sitting on the back patio the night before, now there was only one.

In 2009, the people of Föhren, Germany were scratching their heads about a spate of strange thefts. Germans customarily wear house shoes inside their homes. And when they come inside from the back door, they often leave their street and garden shoes outside.

But somebody was taking them overnight.

Smelly sneakers, muddy hiking boots, rubber garden boots, slippers, steel-capped leather workmen’s boots, and even flipflops: they were all disappearing, one shoe at a time. The older the shoes were, the more likely they were to go missing. Nobody calls the police about a missing old tennis shoe. But after 120 shoes vanished, the residents of this small town of barely 3,000 had a mystery on its hands. Who would want old smelly shoes? Were some kids playing a prank?

Nobody thought of animal thieves.

Meet "Imelda Marcos," one of the most famous animal thieves. Morguefile photos.

Meet “Imelda Marcos,” one of the most famous animal thieves. Morguefile photos.

It was a forester, not the police, who solved the crime spree. Deep in the woods, underground. He discovered a fox den with a trove of 86 shoes, and 32 more shoes in a nearby quarry. The shoes had teeth marks all over them. They had made great chewing toys for the fox kits. Scientists even had an explanation. Sweat is salty, and the foxes may have found licking those old shoes a good source of dietary salt. That’s why the old shoes were the most popular.

You can view a photo of the fox’s shoe collection here.

The town collected the shoes and tried to return the footwear to its rightful owners, but that didn’t stop Imelda Marcos – as the townsfolk now nicknamed the vixen – from striking again. Föhren had to learn to keep its shoes inside. Imelda is now legend in Germany. But do other countries have stories of animal thieves?

Paris sure does.

Animal Thief in France

Paris had two major diamond heists in 1827.

Paris had two major diamond heists in 1827. A dog was responsible for one of them. Morguefile photos.

One of its cases even made it into a 19th century true crime anthology. The theft occurred in November 1827. Only a month before, on October 19, thieves had stolen the diamonds of one of France’s popular actresses, Mademoiselle Mars, in one of the most famous diamond heists of history. The thieves were caught two weeks later, so that left people scratching their heads when Paris experienced yet another diamond heist on November 11. Had they caught the right thief? Or was there a ring of jewelry thieves out there nobody knew about?

Madam Aymar, who owned a library reading room, noticed at 3 pm on Sunday, November 11, that her diamonds were gone. Missing were a pair of earrings, a solitaire, and two diamond belt buckles. Aymar’s daughter reassured her she had last seen them sitting on the furniture and swore she didn’t take them. Nobody else but a messenger and two children had visited the room during the critical time period, and Madam Aymar was sure none of them had taken her precious stones.

She had no idea who took them. And she didn’t think of animal thieves right away.

Dogs can be animal thieves

Hi Mom! You wouldn’t believe what I just ate! Morguefile photos

After several hours of fruitless searching, it occurred to her that she’d seen the hunting dog of one of her patrons wander into the reading room. That dog had a reputation for eating everything in sight. The librarian shared her concern with her patron and asked him if he would lend her his hunting dog. She would give it laxatives, and, for the lack of a better way to put it, continue her investigation.

What kind of canine laxatives did Paris have in 1827? Madame Aymar fed the dog rotten hay, along with lots of food to get the digestive system moving. Her therapy had the desired result, but it took the poor dog four days to pass a chestnut shell. When the librarian pried it open, there were all her diamonds.

The great canine diamond heist was most certainly, according to the anthology, the talk of all Paris.

Dogs can be animal thieves.

Who? Me? Morguefile photos.

Do you know of any cases involving animal thieves?

Literature on point:

Hitzig, ed., “Der Hund als Dieb,” Annalen der deutschen und ausländischen Criminal-Rechts-Pflege, vol. 2 (Berlin: Ferdinand Dümmler, 1828) 113-114.

Imelda Strikes Again: Thieving Fox Amasses 120 Shoes,” Spiegel Online (June 10, 2009).

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