Death of an Assassin: The Murder Case that Broke All the Rules

On May 19, the Gaithersburg Book Festival will witness a world true crime record being broken when a German mayor pays a 146-year-old reward for solving a murder of his predecessor in 1835. It will go to the American descendants of the man who cracked the case in 1872.

That will be only the last of the records this case has broken. The murder, detailed in the award-winning book Death of an Assassin, also made history for these records:

  • 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved, with 37 years between the murder and solution
  • Its only murder solved in America outside of a confession
  • The birth of forensic ballistics, which was first used in this case

Swenson Book Development recently interviewed me about Death of an Assassin and graciously gave me permission to reblog it on my site.

The Case That Spanned an Ocean – An Interview with Ann Marie Ackermann

Audrey Schultz   |   April 17, 2018

Originally posted on the Swenson Book Development Website

If you’re a history lover or a fan of good mysteries, then Ann Marie Ackermann’s novel Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee is the book for you. This historical true crime novel details the story of a case that breaks several records, including coldest case ever solved, and intertwines both German and American history. Now, in large part because of the novel and its author Ann Marie Ackermann, another record is set to be broken next month in Gaithersburg, Maryland: the oldest reward for solving a murder case ever paid.

Bönnigheim's mayor paid a 183-year-old reward for solving a murder

Kornelius Bamberger, Bönnigheim’s mayor in 2018, paid a posthumous 183-year-old reward for solving a murder to the tipster’s American descendants.

May 19 at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, Ann Marie Ackermann, accompanied by the current mayor of Bönnigheim, Germany, Kornelius Bamberger (pictured above), and Gaithersburg Mayor and Book Festival Founder Jud Ashman, will present the 146-year-old reward to the descendants of the man who provided the tip that solved the case. As explained on the Gaithersburg Book Festival website, “Frederick Rupp, a German immigrant in Washington, D.C., provided the crucial tip in 1872 that solved the murder, but the reward was never paid after the city council minutes recording the decision to offer the prize were misfiled and archived.”

Death of an Assassin has been awarded a bronze IPPY for the True Crime category. Conducted annually by the Independent Book Publisher Awards, the IPPY honors the best independently published titles from around the world. Congratulations to Ann Marie Ackermann.

In light of all this exciting news, I had the chance to interview Ann Marie Ackermann for Swenson Book Development, and I am thrilled to share it with you.

Ann Marie Ackermann, author of Death of an Assassin

Death of an Assassin author Ann Marie Ackermann

Swenson Book Development: What was your favorite part about writing this historical true crime story?

Ann Marie Ackermann: The discoveries I unearthed in the archives just floored me. When I first started researching, I thought I was just going to write a about a small-town murder for my local German historical society in Bönnigheim. But the case was so much bigger than anyone thought. This was 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved and its only case solved in the USA: A German immigrant in Washington, DC provided the decisive tip 37 years later. I tracked the assassin’s flight to the United States to escape justice in Germany, only to discover that Robert E. Lee had written a letter about him without knowing his past history of crime. Lee’s praise turned the assassin into a symbol of the costs of the Mexican-American War, but his identity has been a mystery to Americans. So this case solves mysteries on both sides of the Atlantic!

SBD: Extensive research went into writing Death of an Assassin. What did your research process look like?

AMA: I spent loads of time in the German archives and needed to learn to read the old German handwriting. The archivists were extremely helpful.

I did fly twice to Philadelphia to visit the archives there, but ended up hiring Gail McCormick, a talented Washington, DC archivist, to help me with research at the National Archives and Library of Congress. It was just too expensive for me to fly over the ocean every time I had a question. The material she found helped identify the German assassin as the object of Lee’s admiration.

Death of an Assassin cover

Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee, courtesy of Kent State University Press.

SBD: How did your experience as an attorney with a focus on criminal and medical law come into play while writing this book?

AMA: Two things shape a criminal investigation: the law of criminal procedure and the forensic technology available to the detective. Those two aspects guided me in my research and analysis. And they bore fruit: I was able to show that the detective in this case was the first to use forensic ballistics. That’s another record right there!

My background in medical law gave me lots of experience reading autopsy reports, so it was really fun to read one from 1835. A cardiologist friend of mine helped me pick it apart and put it under the microscope of modern medicine. In some ways the doctors in 1835 were surprisingly modern; other aspects of their practice were oh-so-quaint.

SBD: What would you say was your biggest obstacle in writing and researching for Death of an Assassin?

AMA: Learning to read the old German handwriting! I’m so glad I did, though, because it opened so many doors in my research. The investigative file in this case alone is almost 800 pages. I couldn’t rely on friends and archivists to read it for me. When I got to the point I could read it myself, I unearthed so many interesting aspects of the case.

SBD: One of the things I enjoyed most about your book was getting to read from the perspective of historical characters, particularly Robert E. Lee, which made history come alive for me as a reader. What was it like as an author delving into the minds of historical characters like Robert E. Lee?

AMA: I’m so glad my book brought history alive for you! My hope, in writing Death of an Assassin, was that the true crime format would get some people reading about past events who wouldn’t otherwise have been interested. And from the feedback I’ve been getting from readers, it sounds like I reached that goal.

To delve into the minds of historical characters, I tried to use as many primary sources as possible. What did they themselves write about the events? And what did the people who were with them have to say? I tried to use that technique not only to put the reader into a historical character’s mind, but also to place the reader in the din of the battle scene at the climax of the book.

I also wanted to show there’s more to Robert E. Lee than just the Civil War. Even if the United States had never fought the Civil War, history books would still remember Lee for his accomplishments in opening the St. Louis harbor and in the Mexican-American War. Because the Civil War overshadows those parts of American history, they’re somewhat obscured. My research taught me new things about that period, and if this story opens people’s eyes to broader aspects of antebellum history, I’d be pleased.

Robert E. Lee's letter

Detail of Robert E. Lee’s letter. Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers, in which he discusses the heroic death of the German assassin. (c) Virginia Historical Society, with permission.

SBD: You moved from the United States to Germany in 1996. What was the transition like? How is life in Germany different from life in the United States?

AMA: The transition wasn’t too difficult. I’m German-American, already had blood relatives here, spoke the language, and of course I had my German husband. I’d describe the transition as an adventure, but it was one that taught me what it means to be American. Living in another culture is like holding up a mirror to better see your own.

Wherever I live, I try to look for the positive aspects, and I’ve come to appreciate Germany for its excellent education and health care system. I’ve enjoyed raising my children here. But I miss the United States too.

SBD: Next month at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in Maryland, you get to present a long-lost reward to the American descendants of the man who provided the tip that solved this record-breaking case. What are you most looking forward to about this experience?

AMA: Payment of the 146-year-old reward will bring closure to this case and pull a 19th-century story right into the present.

The city of Bönnigheim is applying for a Guinness World Record title for the oldest reward for solving a murder ever paid. If Guinness grants the title, the town of Bönnigheim and I will be popping so many champagne bottles you’ll probably hear us over in the United States. What could be a better way to draw a spotlight onto the town and my book? It’s an author’s dream, really, and I’m so glad my legwork on the reward is coming to fruition. I’ve been working a couple of years to make the reward happen.

Now I’m most looking forward to meeting the descendants – the flesh and blood embodiments of one of the characters I wrote about. They will be the focal point of the ceremony in Gaithersburg, and if they ever decide to visit Bönnigheim, they’ll be received as the descendants of a town hero.

The letter that cracked one of the coldest murder cases ever solved

The 1872 letter that cracked the case. Frederick Rupp to the City of Bönnigheim, April 29, 1872. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg, E319 Bü 146, with permission

SBD: What are your writing plans for the future?

AMA: So many Germans want to read this book too. Before I tackle a new project, I’m going to be assisting with the translation.

After that I have a couple of ideas in mind – more historical true crime in Germany, and a history of a European food and wine tradition that dates back to the Romans. I’d love to visit all the European countries that still follow the tradition, taste their wares, and put together a coffee table-like book of a pan-European custom.

Oh, and my kid still wants me to publish the bedtime stories I told him as a child. So there are lots of ideas.

Image credits:

1. Bürgermeister (Mayor) Kornelius Bamberger. Credit: Courtesy of the city of Bönnigheim, Germany.
2. Ann Marie Ackermann. Credit: Inge Hermann.
3. Death of an Assassin book cover. Credit: Kent State University
4. Detail of Robert E. Lee’s April 11, 1847 letter to his son, Custis. This section discusses the assassin from Bönnigheim. Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society. deButts-Ely family papers.
5. Letter from Frederick Rupp with the tip that solved the case. Credit: Courtesy of Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Branch Depository Ludwigsburg, Germany; StAL E 319 Bü 146.

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Catching a Crook in the Bad Ole Days: Interview with Jan Wiechert

Böse Alte Zeit by Jan Wiechert.

Böse Alte Zeit by Jan Wiechert. Courtesy of the Gmeiner Verlag.

Criminal investigations in the 17th and 18th centuries differed from the ones we know today. Forget the police. They didn’t exist yet. Superstition played a big role. City and castle walls helped entrap crooks; citizens pitched in with the chase.

Jan Wiechert and the Bad Ole Times

In fact, historical true crime cases make an exciting way to learn local history. That’s what archivist Jan Wiechert thinks. And he doesn’t think the “good ole times” were necessarily good. He selected a handful of intriguing crimes from the dusty pages of Hohenlohe Central Archiv in Neuenstein and created an anthology appropriately dubbed “Bad Ole Times” (Böse Alte Zeit, Gmeiner Verlag, 2017).

Jan Wiechert’s stories offer so much drama I didn’t realize, until I finished the book, how much history I’d painlessly picked up. Is there a more fun way to learn history than a true crime format? Wiechert doesn’t think so and joins us for an interview today to show why.

An interview in German follows the English version. Ein Interview auf Deutsch folgt der englischen Version.

Interview with German true crime author Jan Wiechert

Archivist Jan Wiechert brings history alive through crime stories.

Archivist Jan Wiechert brings history alive through crime stories. (c) Thomas Gburek, with permission.

There weren’t any police in the 17th century. How were criminals investigated and caught?

Often the normal citizens had to look for the criminal when someone committed a crime. In cities, a magistrate or bailiff drummed the people together; in villages is was the mayor who organized a patrol. Of course, the crook often slipped through their fingers, but when he was caught, it was the citizen’s duty to detain him securely and to deliver him up the authorities.

What role did superstition play in the administration of justice?

The belief in the effects of inscrutable, magic powers played a significant role in every part of the people’s everyday life. During the period of the witch trials, it had dramatic consequences for criminal justice issues. In history films, the witch hunter is usually an evil, ruthless, and fanatical brute. Without brushing aside the victim’s suffering, you also have to try to be fair to the persecutors. They believed in the tangible intervention of the incarnate devil in the world of man – that was as self-evident for them as it is for us to believe the light will go on when we flip the switch.

What were the best investigative techniques of the 17th and 18th centuries?

For lack of scientific knowledge, criminal investigations essentially evolved from interrogations, through which torture was employed under certain circumstances. I find it interesting that in cases of doubt, the technique of confrontations was often used. Instead of saying to the suspect: “The witness XYZ said something different!” one simply brought the suspect and witness together and interrogated them together.

Can you compare the 17th and 18th century warrants of apprehension with the wanted posters of the Wild West?

In the 16th and 17th century, wanted posters were usually handwritten and directed to the authorities of surrounding regions. Sometimes a messenger was sent with the poster, who collected signatures on paper or even seals to show he was really at a certain location, so we can reconstruct his route today. That changed in the 18th century, especially with the advent of bands of robbers and thieves. From this time period there exist printed wanted posters with all the information about the person sought that could be hung up or – sometimes even from the church pulpit – read out loud.

City gate in Iphofen, Germany

Want to commit a crime in a medieval walled city? You better think about how to escape the city walls. City gate in Iphofen, Germany

How did city and castle walls help to catch criminals?

It could indeed be helpful to have a city wall when you knew a criminal was located in the city. You could simply close the gates and step up the controls before you started the search. But for the authorities, the protective factor was more important. To a certain extent, medieval walls were useless as a military defense against firearms, but they could keep thieves and tricksters from sneaking in.

If you were Jean Travenier – the young thief in your book – how would you have escaped justice after you had climbed over the castle walls?

Travenier – nice that you’re referring to my favorite criminal – actually did everything right in that he traveled as quickly as possible to another territory. The multitude of small German states worked as a real advantage for fugitives. That he was nevertheless caught was just bad luck: bad luck that he was seen on the run, bad luck, that the city of Schwäbisch Hall cooperated so quickly and well with the earls of Hohenlohe, and bad luck, that he fell asleep above the table at the inn. But no wonder: He had already fun 30 kilometers that day. I can’t begrudge him his escape.

Thief Jean Travenier escaped over the Langenburg castle walls after stealing some jewels.

The Langenburg castle. Thief Jean Travenier escaped over these walls after stealing some jewels. By Martin Zeiler – Scan eines Orginal Buchs durch, Public Domain, 1 January 1656.

You sold out of the first edition of your book after only four months….

Yes, I was pleasantly surprised. Obviously my plan was to tell social and daily stories to a regional market, through the principle that “crime sells,” and in a colloquial, non-academic language without the readers shuddering with the memories of their history classes.

Are you planning another book?

Just  one? A half bookcase is swirling around inside my head and in the Hohenlohe Central Archives, many exciting stories are slumbering that desperately need to be told. The next book will appear in mid 2018 and it will delve deeply into a murder case that occurred in 1777 in Langenburg.

Thank you, Jan Wiechert!

If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like Medieval City Structure and True Crime History. That post’s about how city walls affected criminals ability to escape.

Interview mit Jan Wiechert auf Deutsch


Es gab im 17. Jahrhundert keine Polizei. Wie wurde Straftäter ermittelt und erwischt?

Wenn ein Verbrechen bekannt wurde, mussten oft die normalen Bürger nach dem Täter suchen. In Städten trommelte der Vogt oder Amtmann seine Leute zusammen, in Dörfern war es der Schultheiß, der eine Streife organisierte. Oft ging der Täter natürlich auch durch die Lappen, aber wenn er gefasst wurde, war es die Pflicht der Bürger, ihn sicher zu verwahren und an die Obrigkeit auszuliefern.

Welche Rolle spielte der Aberglauben in der Justiz?

Der Glaube an das Wirken undurchschaubarer, magischer Kräfte spielte im gesamten Alltag der Menschen eine bedeutende Rolle. In Fragen der Strafjustiz hatte das, besonders in Zeiten der Hexenverfolgung, dramatische Auswirkungen. Im Historienfilm ist der Hexenjäger meist ein böser, skrupelloser und fanatischer Unmensch. Ohne das Leid der Opfer herunterzuspielen, muss man auch versuchen den Verfolgern gerecht zu werden. Sie glaubten an das konkrete Eingreifen des leibhaftigen Teufels in die Welt der Menschen – so selbstverständlich, wie wir daran glauben, dass das Licht angeht, wenn wir den Schalter drücken.

Was waren die besten Ermittlungstechniken der 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts?

Mangels naturwissenschaftlicher Kenntnisse bestanden Ermittlungen im Wesentlichen aus Befragungen, bei denen unter bestimmten Umständen die Folter eingesetzt wurde. Interessant finde ich, dass man in Zweifelsfällen oft auf das Mittel der Konfrontation setzte. Statt dem Angeklagten zu sagen: „Der Zeuge XY hat aber etwas ganz anderes gesagt!“ führte man ihn einfach mit dem Zeugen zusammen und befragte sie gemeinsam.

Kann man die Steckbriefe der 17. und 18. Jh. mit den “Wanted”-Postern des wilden Westen vergleichen?

Im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert waren Steckbriefe meist handschriftlich und an die Obrigkeit umliegender Gebiete gerichtet. Manchmal wurde ein Bote mit dem Brief losgeschickt, der sich auf dem Papier unterschreiben oder sogar siegeln ließ, dass er wirklich an einem bestimmten Ort war, so dass man heute noch seine Route rekonstruieren kann. Im 18. Jahrhundert, vor allem mit dem Aufkommen von Räuber- und Diebesbanden änderte sich das. Aus dieser Zeit liegen wirklich gedruckte Steckbriefe mit allen Angaben zu den gesuchten Personen vor, die ausgehängt oder – manchmal sogar von der Kirchenkanzel aus – vergelesen werden konnten.

Wie halfen Stadt- und Burgmauern dabei, Straftäter zu fangen?

Es konnte schon hilfreich sein, eine Stadtmauer zu haben, wenn man erfuhr, dass sich ein Straftäter in der Stadt befand. Man konnte schlicht die Tore verschließen und die Kontrolle verstärken lassen, bevor man sich auf die Suche machte. Für die Obrigkeit war die schützende Funktion aber wichtiger. Mittelalterliche Mauern waren zur militärischen Verteidigung gegen Feuerwaffen zwar einigermaßen nutzlos, aber sie konnten das Einschleichen von Dieben und Gaunern verhindern.

Wenn Sie Jean Travenier — der junge Dieb in Ihrem Buch — gewesen wären, wie wären Sie der Justiz entkommen, nachdem Sie über die Burgmauer kletterten?

Tavernier – schön, dass Sie auf einen meiner Lieblingsverbrecher anspielen – hat eigentlich alles richtig gemacht, indem er sich so schnell wie möglich in ein anderes Territorium begeben hat. Die deutsche Kleinstaaterei war für Flüchtige eben ein echter Vorteil. Dass er doch gefasst wurde war reines Pech: Pech, dass er auf der Flucht gesehen wurde, Pech, dass die Stadt Schwäbisch Hall so schnell und gut mit den Grafen von Hohenlohe kooperierte und Pech, dass er über dem Wirtshaustisch eingeschlafen ist. Aber kein Wunder: er war an diesem Tag auch schon 30 Kilometer gelaufen. Ich hätte ihm die Flucht jedenfalls gegönnt.

Sie haben nach vier Monaten schon die erste Auflage ausverkauft….

Ja, das hat mich positiv überrascht. Offenbar ging mein Plan auf, durch regionalen Bezug, das Prinzip „Crime sells“ und eine etwas lockere, unakademische Sprache Sozial- und Alltagsgeschichte vermitteln zu können, ohne dass die Leute mit Grausen an ihren Geschichtsunterricht zurückdenken.

Planen Sie noch ein Buch?

Nur eines!? In meinem Kopf schwirrt ein halbes Bücherregal herum und im Hohenlohe-Zentralarchiv schlummern noch viele spannende Geschichten, die dringend mal wieder erzählt werden müssen. Das nächste Buch wird Mitte 2018 erscheinen und sich intensiv mit einem Mordfall beschäftigen, der sich 1777 in Langenburg zugetragen hat.

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