What could induce a woman in 1846 to trade her needlepoint for a rifle? The Mexican-American War began and several women, disguised as men, enlisted. Women’s places in society were restrictive back then. The gentle sex played supporting roles and stayed in the background. Nevertheless, history records women pushing against societal constraints by shedding their dresses and donning a soldier’s uniform.
In most cases, it was love that induced them to do it. They followed a man into the war.
Passing the physical exam
And in most cases, the U.S. Army caught them at the outset — during the physical exams required for enlistment. Military regulations required the volunteers to strip naked for the exam. This step allowed the army doctor to check for deformities hidden by clothing. They also checked for the telltale tattoos “D” or “HD,” signifying a deserter or habitual drunkard. But in the rush of getting the volunteers off to war, doctors didn’t always comply. In one case, the physicians examined an entire regiment fully clothed. [McCaffrey, 23-24]
And that’s how a few women slipped through.
The most famous enlisted woman in the war might have well been fictional, but I’ll start with her. In the next post, I’ll introduce some of the other women who served in the war … and whose stories are accepted.
How Eliza Allen Billings enlisted
Eliza Allen Billings, a purported female soldier of the Mexican-American War, wrote a bestselling book about her experiences after the war, but most historians doubt her existence. Billings might be a pseudonym and the story a fictional adventure.
Eliza Allen, a 20-year-old from a wealthy family in Eastport, Maine, fell in love with William Billings, a Canadian immigrant and day laborer beneath her class. When her parents forbid them to see each other again, he volunteered for the Mexican-American War. Eliza, in her grief, found inspiration in two women who’d previously fought in American wars – Deborah Sampson in the Revolutionary War and Lucy Brewer in the War of 1812. She sheared her hair, donned men’s clothing, and negotiated an enlistment under the name George Mead without a physical examination.
The lovers reunite
Unfortunately, Eliza didn’t make it into William’s company, which was now full. She couldn’t find William, even after they arrived in Mexico, but she knew he was there. They served under General Winfield Scott and survived the Siege of Veracruz, but both were wounded at Cerro Gordo. It was in the hospital at Cerro Gordo where she found William again. The two recuperated together and spent the rest of the war together. But Eliza maintained her cover. William never recognized his lover, and in fact, told “George” of his undying love for Eliza.
After the war, William and “George” followed the gold rush to California, traveling by ship around Cape Horn. Eliza still maintained her cover. The two struck it rich at a Californian stream (40 thousand dollars worth of gold!) and returned to the East Coast, where to William’s great surprise, Eliza revealed herself. Eliza’s parents, so relieved at the return of their daughter, now allowed them to wed.
The premise of this little bestseller was that parents should not interfere in their children’s choices of partners. But one’s fantasy has to do quite a bit of gymnastics to accept the idea that William, despite a couple of years of intimate life with “George,” never recognized his lover. Nevertheless, the book was such a success Eliza Allen Billings published a sequel in 1856, a brief biography of her mother.
Did Eliza Allen Billings really exist?
Historians have not been able to document William’s or Eliza’s existence. Recently, Shelby Harriel, an expert on female soldiers in the Civil War, made an attempt to track down the couple’s muster roll cards. There are no cards for a William Billings or George Mead among the Maine volunteers. She did find a record of a William Billings getting married in Eastport, Maine on Sept. 4, 1848, directly following the war. But his spouse was a Francis E. Richardson, not Eliza Allen. And according to the narrative, William and Eliza would have been in California at that time anyway. To be doubly certain, one would have to check Canadian records, since it’s possible the couple moved to William’s native land.
Eliza Allen Billings might not have been real, but other female soldiers in the war were. I’ll introduce them in the next post.
Despite its feminist streak, Eliza’s book became a bestseller. Why do you think people liked this story?
Literature on Point:
Eliza Allen Billings, The Female Volunteer; or, The Life and Wonderful Adventures of Miss Eliza Allen, a Young Lady of Eastport, Maine (Philadelphia, D. Rulison, 1851)
Eliza Allen Billings, The nobleman’s daughter, being an authentic and affecting narrative of the life and trials of Mrs. Sarah E. Allen, mother of Eliza Allen, the brave volunteer of Mexico … Written by Eliza Allen, author of the “Female volunteer.” (Philadelphia, D. Rulison, 1856)
James M. McCaffrey, Army of Manifest Destiny: The American Soldier in the Mexican War: 1846-1848 (New York University Press, 1992)
Shelby Harriel, “They fought in the Mexican War, too!” (blog post, July 1, 2015)
Spence Tucker et al., eds., The Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013) s.v. “Billings, Eliza Allen,” “Women, U.S.”
June 13, 2016 marks the 130th anniversary of Bavaria’s greatest unsolved mystery: the baffling death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. How did the fairy tale king – the builder of Neuschwanstein and the patron of Richard Wagner – die?
Many Bavarians say he was murdered. Their claim is controversial, but it doesn’t hurt to look at the evidence to see why people think that. I’ll present their claims and offer a few comments without taking sides. You can decide for yourself.
A death shrouded in mystery: how did it happen?
King Ludwig II fell victim to political intrigue. Back then, the only way to get rid of a king was to have him declared insane. Historians still debate whether he the king really did suffer from a psychiatric illness. Nevertheless, Bavarian ministers had the renowned psychiatry professor Bernhard von Gudden pronounce the king unfit to rule the country in a lengthy expert opinion dated June 8, 1886. They deposed Ludwig on June 10 and set up his uncle as regent. On June 12, a commission arrested him in Neuschwanstein and transferred him to the Berg castle on the nearby Lake Starnberg.
The Bavarian ministers had already transformed the castle into a one-person insane asylum – with locked doors and barred windows. Dr. Gudden became Ludwig’s treating psychiatrist and controlled his contact with the outside world.
In the evening of June 13, the king took a walk on the lakeshore in the accompaniment of Dr. Gudden. When they didn’t return as promised at 8 p.m., a search party scoured the lakeshore. Two searchers and the fisherman Jakob Lidl went out by boat and found the bodies of both the king and the doctor floating in shallow water around 11 pm. The doctor’s body, with a broken fingernail and scratches and bruises on his face, showed signs of a struggle. According to both a doctor’s report made that night and the king’s autopsy, Ludwig’s body had no visible injuries other than a scrape on the knee. The autopsy found no water in his lungs.
No autopsy was performed on the doctor, but because he was floating, we can presume his lungs weren’t filled with water. Drowning victims sink once that happens, especially when bogged down by waterlogged clothing and shoes. Here you can find a sketch of the bodies in the water.
That’s the official government’s version, at least. The death of King Ludwig II occurred when he rushed into the lake to commit suicide by drowning and Dr. Gudden tried to stop him. In the ensuing struggle, the king killed the doctor, waded out to drown in deeper water, drowned, and then floated back to shore.
Why do many Bavarians attribute the death of King Ludwig II to murder?
Here are eight reasons.
Witnesses sworn to secrecy
The fisherman Jakob Lidl and all the other people involved in the search party were sworn to secrecy. A Bavarian minister asked them to take oaths never to tell what happened that night, not even to a priest. That was an unusual step if there was nothing to cover up, many Bavarians feel. Some of the people found a way to circumvent the oath. They didn’t say anything about it, but they wrote something about it. And if what they wrote is true, we have to rewrite history.
Lidl’s secret diary
Jakob Lidl, from whose boat the bodies were found, committed to his diary his memories about the death of King Ludwig II. After his death, the diary passed on to his heirs. In 1960, one of those heirs, Martin Mertl, told the Ludwig researcher Albert Widemann what Lidl had told him privately years ago: The king wanted to flee on that fateful night and Lidl waited for him on the shore with his boat. But when the king climbed into Lidl’s boat, someone shot him in the back and killed him instantly. Fearing for his life, Lidl pushed the corpse out of the boat and paddled home.
Mertl gave Widemann a page from Lidl’s diary, and Widemann had a handwriting expert compare the handwriting to Lidl’s known handwriting. The expert, in a report dated May 27, 1961, concluded the diary was authentic. On Mertl’s death, Lidl’s diary disappeared, frustrating further research efforts. But Widemann had photographed the two sides of the diary page, and they have since been published, along with the handwriting analysis.
On that diary page, Lidl wrote that Ludwig and Gudden hadn’t been engaged in a physical struggle. The footprints in the muddy bottom of the lakeshore were faked the following morning. A fisherman, Lidl wrote, used a pole with wooden shoes to create the scene of a struggle on the lake bottom.
Rudolf Magg, a local physician who examined the dead king before he was transferred to Munich for autopsy and burial, may have also left behind written material. Another physician, who treated Magg’s daughter Anna, contacted Widemann to say he had once seen a document written by Magg in Anna’s home.
Magg’s purported protocol said he wanted to clear his conscience in his old age. His report on his examination of the deceased wasn’t true. The Bavarian ministry had ordered him to write that. In truth, Magg wrote, the king had bullet entry wounds in his back.
The physician who reported having read Magg’s protocol, however, wished to remain anonymous. Following Anna Magg’s death, it wasn’t found. The lack of physical evidence makes it difficult to assess not only the protocol’s veracity but its existence.
Statements from the House of Wittelsbach
Nevertheless, other witnesses have claimed Ludwig was shot. The statement that gives me the most pause comes from a member of Ludwig’s family. Prince Joseph-Clemens von Wittelsbach, Ludwig II’s nephew, reportedly told the Bavarian tabloid Bild München he knew the king had been shot and his shirt sported two bullet holes. In addition, a third shot killed the doctor. The newspaper purportedly published the statement on either March or June 8, 1986.
I haven’t been able to find the article online, and question why other media never picked up the story if it were at all credible. If anyone knows something more about the nephew’s statement, please comment!
Widemann claims the existence of a partially sworn statement by another member of the House of Wittelsbach, Prince Konstantin. The prince said he was aware of bullet holes in the king’s coat, jacket, vest, and shirt.
What does “partially sworn” mean? Does that mean Konstantin swore to the truth of only parts of his statement? If so, why not all of it? Did he swear to the part about the bullet holes? Was this statement published anywhere? And where is the original? It’s difficult to assess that evidence.
Coat with bullet holes
Another member of the House of Wittelsbach, Countess Wrnba-Kaunitz, claimed to have possessed the coat Ludwig wore at the time of his death. Numerous witnesses state the countess showed them the coat, and more specifically, two bullet holes in the back. Two of them have even made sworn statements. Gertrud Untermöhle signed an oath that she visited the countess in 1952. When their conversation turned to the death of King Ludwig II, the countess sprung up and said she had something to show Gertrud. It was a gray coat. It had two bullet holes in the back with black edges. Also under oath, Detlev Untermöhle (Gertrud’s son?) claimed he and his mother visited the countess around 1957 when he was ten. The countess said she would show them the truth about the death of King Ludwig II. She pulled a gray coat out of a chest and showed them two bullet holes in the back.
The coat disappeared after the countess and her husband died in a house fire in 1973. Without physical evidence, it’s impossible to say whether the gray coat really belonged to the king. If he was really murdered, why didn’t the conspirators destroy the evidence? Had any of the witness seen blood on the coat? Those questions remain unanswered.
The sketch of the blood
Did an artist also leave behind evidence? Professor Siegfried Wichmann, an art historian, world-renowned expert on 19th-century paintings, and chairman of the Bavarian State Museum, said in a 2009 article that art appraisals for private clients are part of his job. In 1967, someone brought him a sketch of three faces and asked him to assess its authenticity. On the right, it showed a man in shock looking at the face in the middle, apparently of a dead man. The man on the right is in tears and also looking at the dead man. Three names were written on the back of the painting, “S. von Löwenfeld” (Ludwig’s personal physician, who was also present at the king’s autopsy), “Ludwig II,” and “Hornig.”
Professor Wichmann concluded the middle face showed King Ludwig II in death and that the Bavarian painter Hermann Kaulbach had sketched it. What surprised Wichmann was the blood. Kaulbach’s sketch showed blood trickling out of the dead king’s mouth – indicative of a firearm injury to the chest, not drowning. Although Wichmann lost contact with the original owner, he had the sketch photographed according to appraisal protocol and archived the photograph. Wichmann believes King Ludwig II was murdered, and this sketch was Kaulbach’s method of leaving the evidence behind. You can see Wichmann’s photograph in this article.
His curiosity piqued by the Kaulbach sketch, Wichmann began researching the death of King Ludwig II. When the estate of Dr. Schleiss von Löwenstein, the personal royal physician depicted in the sketch, went to auction in an estate sale, Professor Wichmann decided to buy it. Inside the cover of one of Dr. Schleiss’s books, Professor Wichmann found a handwritten statement about the circumstances of the death of King Ludwig II.
According to that statement, Dr. Schleiss was concerned about the king’s safety and traveled to the Castle Berg, where the king was imprisoned, on the day Ludwig died. He went in the accompaniment of the artist Hermann Kaulbach and two brothers named Hornig. Realizing, once they arrived, that something strange was afoot, they rushed down the lakeshore. But they arrived minutes too late. King Ludwig II was dead. He had been shot in the back, and Dr. Gudden was on the shore, changing the king’s clothes and trying to stop the blood flow from the fatal wounds. When discovered, Dr. Gudden rushed at them with a syringe. In the ensuing struggle, the Hornig brothers strangled the psychiatrist. Kaulbach, who had sketching material with him, began sketching the king’s face at the lakeshore and finished later that night after the corpses had been brought to a boathouse. Conspirators then invented the story about the king killing the doctor and the king’s suicide by drowning.
If this version is true, neither the king nor the doctor was found floating in the water. Dr. Gudden was part of a conspiracy to assassinate the king and cover it up. But to what extent can we trust the handwritten statement Professor Wichmann found? Did he have any handwriting analysis done to prove Dr. Schleiss wrote it?
Crime scene analysis: double dry drowning
The crime scene account of finding the corpses floating in the water, if true, raises a question about the official explanation of the death of King Ludwig II. Drowning victims, once their lungs fill up with water, usually sink, especially when weighted down by wet clothes and shoes. But there’s an exception. In “dry drowning,” the victim’s larynx goes into spasm and shuts off the airway, suffocating the victim. A fresh, floating corpse can be the victim of dry drowning. But dry drowning accounts for only 10-15% of all drowning cases. It’s so rare, in fact, that marine police recommend that if a corpse doesn’t sink, law enforcement should consider another cause of death, like heart attack. Or murder.
This call for further investigation doubles in volume when we find two corpses floating next to each other. Statistically, double dry drowning is possible, but with an occurrence rate of only 1-2%, an investigator would be advised to rule out other causes of death first. Nothing in the official investigation into the death of King Ludwig II does that.
Weighing the evidence
With a disappearing diary, protocol, and coat, some of the evidence is like a paper Neuschwanstein. The castle collapses every time you poke it. On the other hand, the page from Jakob Lidl’s diary and the statement Professor Wichman found both have more probative value; we at least have some physical evidence. I’d like to see some further research, especially a handwriting analysis on Dr. Schleiss’s purported statement.
What do you think? You can vote below. And if you have anything to add to the discussion, please comment!
Literature on point:
Rosemarie Fruehof, A King’s Murder on Canvas: Artwork Provides Evidence of Ludwig II’s Murder, Epoch Times (September 10, 2009)
Peter Glowasz, Wurde Ludwig II. erschossen? (Berlin: Peter Glowasz Verlag, 1991)
Gary Haupt, Drowning Investigations, Missouri Water Patrol
Christopher McIntosh, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria (London: I.B. Tauris, 1982)
Alfons Schweiggert & Erich Adami, Ludwig II. Die letzten Tage des Königs von Bayern (Munich: MünchenVerlag 2014)
Conny Neumann, Fresh Doubt About Suicide Theory: Was “Mad” King Ludwig Murdered? Spiegel Online International (November 7, 2007).
Tony Paterson, Murder mystery of mad King Ludwig, Independent (November 10, 2007)
Albert Widemann, Hintergrund zum Tod von Ludwig II. (1994)
An Interview with Author Karen Odden
Law and medicine have had an uneasy marriage.
Sometimes jurisprudence, with a red rose in its teeth, drops on its knees before its lady, asking her to provide crucial expert testimony upon which the outcome of a trial hinges. At other times, it chastises and punishes its partner. The recent case of Michael Jackson’s physician, who faced criminal charges for malpractice, offers an extreme example, but it’s not a new one. The relationship goes back for centuries, and manslaughter charges for medical malpractice pepper the 19th century record.
To understand that relationship, sometimes it helps to look back.
Karen Odden, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on topics related 19th century medical jurisprudence — representations of Victorian railway disasters in medical, legal, and popular literature, joins us today for an interview on the rocky Victorian courtship between the two professions. She focused on the emerging concept of trauma in railway disasters and worked her research into a new novel, A Lady in the Smoke. Odden’s story combines Victorian romance and mystery: The heroine must solve a crime to win her love. And that crime is all wrapped up in 19th century medical jurisprudence.
A pivotal point in the plot of your novel, A Lady in the Smoke, involves manslaughter charges against a doctor for medical malpractice in 1874. What did the doctor do?
In my novel, Sir Lewis Solmes feels justified in accusing a surgeon of this criminal charge because he claims that a railway surgeon was willfully ignoring common practice in refusing to bleed his patient, who died.
Sometimes medical malpractice crosses the line and becomes a crime. What can you tell us about the history of medicine and its intersection with criminal law?
The notion of medical malpractice had been around for a long time—the first recorded case occurred in 1374, involving a mangled hand—as had the notion of “moral culpability,” which depends in part on the notion that a reasonable person recognizes the proper thing to do in a given situation. By the 1870s, there was plenty of public discussion about whether medical men were criminally culpable in cases of death, and whether medical men or the legal courts should have the final word on that. The difficulty was that medical men in the 1870s were operating with insufficient and evolving knowledge—and so the “proper” treatment wasn’t always clear. However, by the late-19th century, there were cases in which doctors were accused and convicted of criminal medical malpractice. For example, in 1889, a scalpel-happy surgeon in Brooklyn was accused and convicted of manslaughter by gross negligence.
According to your book, 19th century medical jurisprudence experienced a surge in the 1850s-1890s. Physicians appeared before the courts in significant numbers to testify about railway-related injuries. Was this the first time the courts had to deal with medical testimony?
Actually, no. In the 1840s, there were trials concerning insanity that brought medical men in significant numbers into the courts for the first time. In some ways, those trials at mid-century, which both shaped and responded to “lunacy reform,” required the significant first wave of medico-legal discourse; the railway injury cases demanded the second.
Tell us about the insanity defense.
The insanity defense became a medico-legal issue around the mid-nineteenth-century. There were several underlying causes for this. In the first third of the 1800s, English courts began to rely more on medical evidence generally; and beginning in the 1830s, medical men and scientists were starting to describe brain function in the way they described other bodily systems.
Then, several critical events in the 1840s brought lunacy reform to the forefront of social concerns. In 1843, Daniel M’Naghten, believing the Prime Minster was out to kill him, tried to kill the PM and shot his secretary instead; following this shocking public event and the murder trial, the M’Naghten Rule was established, which declared that a person could not be found guilty if he was in such a state at the time of committing the crime as to not know what he was doing, or to know what he was doing but not know that it was wrong.
In 1845, two acts—the Lunatics Care and Treatment Act and the Lunatics Asylum Act—anchored a trend toward treating the insane rather than shunting them to the workhouses or prisons. The term “criminally insane” evolved, suggesting both a judicial verdict and a medical diagnosis. (For more on this fascinating subject, see Roger Smith’s book, Trial by Medicine: Insanity and Responsibility in Victorian Trials.)
How did the railway trials affect the law?
In a somewhat parallel process, the new medico-legal category of what some called “railway spine,” later called “traumatic injury” (and still later, PTSD) emerged out of the railway trials. Evolving notions about the body and injury, together with new and shocking events (railway accidents) and new Acts in the late 1840s and 1850s contributed to create a situation where evolving medical jurisprudence had to be tested in courts of law.
And how did the medical profession influence the legal system?
In 1858, the Medical Act joined together apothecaries, apprentice-trained surgeons, and university-trained physicians into one profession. It was an uneasy alliance, to say the least, with medical men pecking at each other in newspapers and pamphlets and the Lancet. Some medical men pleaded for a stop to the squabbling, recognizing that it was only undermining their professional authority to be arguing in public about prognoses and treatments. But the arguments went on—and after 1846, when Lord Campbell’s Act made it possible for individuals to sue the railway companies for injuries, medical men started to appear in the courts to testify about injuries that could not be seen. The problem was that under existing medical jurisprudence, a plaintiff could not obtain money unless an injury was “organic”—that is, locatable in a specific organ. General nervousness, for example, didn’t count.
So sympathetic medical men such as John Eric Erichsen (the mentor of my fictional railway surgeon, Paul Wilcox) wrote books that attempted to prove both that railway accidents existed on a continuum with other accidents (like falling off a horse, say) and that they were unusual in that sometimes they caused injuries that couldn’t be seen. Erichsen and others sometimes located the injury in the spine, positing that the “shaking” of the spinal cord that occurred in railway accidents caused small lesions or cuts in it, which then caused secondary symptoms. Naturally, the spinal cord in a live plaintiff wasn’t available for examination in the courtroom. So the testimony of medical men was crucial in helping the juries to imagine the injury.
In what way did the railway trials shape 19th century medical jurisprudence?
Railway trials were important to the evolution of the medical profession as a whole because they provided a public venue where medical men could raise their public profile and assert their authority. These trials were often sensational dramas, complete with moans and groans, and many of them were reported in the newspapers. So the visibility of the trials was multiplied many times over by the popular press.
How did the role of circumstantial evidence evolve during the 19th century?
Circumstantial evidence found its footing in the 19th century. Under Roman law, conviction of a serious crime required the testimony of two witnesses, and circumstantial evidence was suspect. But by the 19th century, advancements in science gave the courts new respect for indirect evidence, like the bloody handprint on the wall, the footprints in the sand, the smoking gun. New laws allowed courts to based convictions on circumstantial evidence alone, especially in continental Europe.
And how did that affect the railway trials?
The railway injury cases went right along with this trend. A successful case from a plaintiff depended upon what medical men called “objective symptoms” that could not be feigned but, taken all together, proved an internal, invisible injury. These included heightened blood pressure, a mottled look to the skin, unusual pupil dilation, irregular heartbeats, fever, and so on. “Subjective symptoms” — those that were described by a patient — were not proof enough of injury because a patient could lie about ringing in the ears, or headaches, or a sore neck—and there was sufficient financial motivation to do it! In 1865, one plaintiff asked for £23,000 ($2.2 million in today’s money)! He only won a portion of that, but you can see why victims were eager to go to court; why there were plenty of cases of malingering; and why railways increasingly kept medical men on staff, to serve as defense witnesses in these cases.
One of my favorite anecdotes was about a medical man in America named Wharton Sinkler who in 1908 brought a poker into the courtroom; if a plaintiff complained of lack of feeling or paralysis in a limb, he would use it to test their truthfulness. I wasn’t quite truthful myself, inserting him into my 1874 novel, but he was too good to leave out!
Thank you, Karen!
About the author:
Karen Odden is the author of A Lady in the Smoke: A Victorian Mystery (Alibi/Random House), published in March 2016. Her interest in the Victorian era and specifically railway crashes goes back to her New York University doctoral dissertation, which explored how the medical, parliamentary, and literary representations of railway disasters helped to create a discourse out of which Freud and others fashioned their ideas of “trauma.” Karen has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, New York University and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She has contributed essays and chapters to books and journals, including Studies in the Novel, Journal of Victorian Culture, and Victorian Crime, Madness, and Sensation; and she has written introductions for Barnes and Noble’s editions of books by Dickens and Trollope. Prior to earning her Ph.D. in English, she worked as an Editorial Assistant at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and McGraw-Hill and as a Media Buyer for Christie’s Auction House in New York. She is a member of SCBWI and Mystery Writers of America; and she serves as an Assistant Editor for Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP). Karen lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband, her two children, and her ridiculously cute beagle, Rosy. She is currently at work on her next novel, set in 1878 London, called Down a Dark River. Visit her website at www.karenodden.com.