Fanny Workman: American Adventurer in Germany

Fanny Workman in Bayreuth.

Fanny Workman in Bayreuth. Courtesy of Cathryn J. Prince.

Fanny Workman refused to conform. That refusal developed into what Germans call a “red thread” – the common theme that explained much of her life (1859-1925), and in particular, her record-breaking adventures.

As the daughter of a Massachusetts governor, she eschewed the finishing schools expectations for the young women of the time and took up mountain climbing as a hobby. As U.S. citizen, she refused to conform to the role of an American wife and moved with her husband to Germany. When the couple vacationed, they selected the bicycle as their means of travel and broke several cycling records. But that wasn’t enough. Fanny Workman went on to smash several mountain climbing records – even records held by men. But the scientific community’s refusal to recognize a woman’s accomplishments propelled her into another arena. Fanny Workman became active in the woman’s liberation movement and advocated for women’s suffrage.

Interview with Cathryn J. Prince

Cathryn J. Prince’s new biography of Fanny Workman, Queen of the Mountaineers: The Trailblazing Life of Fanny Workman, not only rivets the reader with adventure in parts of the world most of us will never visit. It also highlights the strength of one woman’s character – and how she changed the world. Cathryn J. Prince joins us today to talk about the exploits of a German-American worth remembering.

Welcome, Cathryn J. Prince!

Cathryn Prince, author of a new biography of Fanny Workman.

Cathryn J. Prince, author. Courtesy of Cathryn J. Prince.

 What records did Fanny Workman break?

In 1906 when Workman summited Pinnacle Peak at 23,500 feet she set the altitude record for women. Her record remained unbroken until 1934.

She actually broke the record (her own) twice before. She also held the record for bivouacking two consecutive nights above 19,000 feet – during a storm no less. She cycled the length of India from south to north. Additionally, she was the first woman to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris.

 How did she influence the popularity of bicycle road trips in Europe?

After the birth of her second child, Siegfried, Workman decided it was time to try bicycling, which was still new. At first she cycled around the streets near her home in Dresden. Once she felt confident she ventured further out across Germany. She wrote an article, “Bicycle Riding in Germany” for Outing magazine. It highlighted both the virtues of cycling for ones’ health and how cycling was a popular pastime for Germany’s men and was fast becoming popular among women. She described the rules of the road. She also stressed that cycling allowed one no small measure of independence.

In time she and her husband took months long bicycle trips through Germany, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, India and present-day Vietnam. She wrote about each of these adventures. Those books delighted arm chair travelers and encouraged people to embark on their own adventures.

Why did she and her husband choose to live in Germany?

After the deaths of their fathers the couple decided to decamp for Europe. They had become enamored with the continent after spending several holidays hiking in Switzerland and Germany. They relished the idea of indulging their shared tastes in literature, art, and music. Beyond that, Workman, who was fluent in French and German, believed settling abroad would allow her room to shape a new identity and afford her more independence to live her life as she saw fit, rather than under what she thought would be constant scrutiny back home in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Queen of the Mountaineers cover

Queen of the Mountaineers cover, courtesy of Cathryn J. Prince.

Did you research any German sources for your book?

 This was the first book I’ve written in a while where I didn’t use German language sources for research. I used French, Swedish and English.

How did her knowledge of German and French spread her reputation as an adventurer?

Her language skills helped her gain access to some of the most prestigious geographical and explorer societies, such as the Royal Geographic Society of London, whose past members included Charles Darwin, Richard Francis Burton, and David Livingstone. Workman addressed audiences throughout France, including Lyon and as previously mentioned she spoke at the Sorbonne. Her fluency allowed her to be interviewed by the local press as well.

What difficulties did Fanny Workman encounter in her adventures?

 There were so many! When she cycled there were the punctured tires, sometimes as many as three in one day. In the Himalayas there was the weather, burning sun to subzero temperatures, the constant threat of injury and death, and the need to have to bring every single item with them. One has to do that now of course, but in her day there was no lightweight, weather resistant gear or dehydrated food.

And then there was the sexism. On the mountain there were recalcitrant guides who did not like working for a female leader, there were customs officers and boat captains who thought exploring was the domain of men. Off the mountain there were professional societies who didn’t believe women should be given the same due as men.

Did Fanny Workman ever become a victim of a crime?

 On two separate occassions, while cycling through Algeria, robbers ambushed Workman and her husband. But she kept a pistol in a pocket sewn on the inside of her skirt and so when the men tried to rob and beat the couple she brandished the pistol and the men retreated.

Fanny Workman holding a paper with the headline, "Votes for Women."

Fanny Workman holding a paper with the headline, “Votes for Women.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographsy Division.

What role did she play in women’s liberation?

When the Royal Geographic Society hesitated at the idea of her addressing its members because she was a woman she was not deterred. She took it as a challenge and became the second woman to address the Royal Geographic Society of London. When guides and porters on the mountain balked at her leadership she ignored the sexism and turned her attention to the tasks at hand, proving them wrong.

Workman held that women should live a life that was right for them not the life society deemed correct. While for Workman that meant marriage, motherhood and pursuing her passion, which she turned into her career, she understood other women might feel differently. Workman’s achievements are undoubtedly impressive, yet, I think the real message underpinning her story is how she navigated and bucked tradition, living a life with purpose and determination.

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Zoigl: The Beer, the Star, and Germany’s Best Kept Secret

Zoigl beer

Zoigl beer

It has got to be one of Germany’s best kept secrets. Not just the six-pointed star hanging in front of the house, but the homebrewed beer the star represents. The Zoigl tradition has almost gone extinct in Germany, and if you want to experience it, you need to travel to the Oberpfalz (Upper Palantinate) in Bavaria. But what an experience will await you! Some of the best beer you’ve ever tasted, super homemade meals at reasonable prices, and a slice of German culture that dates back to the Middle Ages.

An example of a Zoiglstern or Zoigl star. Brewers use them as a pub sign.

An example of a Zoiglstern or Zoigl star.  Brewers use them as a pub sign.

Zoigl beer

In a custom related to the German Strausswirtschaft and the English alestake, Germans in the Oberpfalz display a six-pointed star – the Zoiglstern – when homebrew is available for sale. Then the brewer will throw open the doors to a Kommunbrauhaus (community brewing house) and invite guests in for food and foaming glasses of amber that taste better than anything you can buy in a store. This beer is bottom-fermented (brewed with different yeast strains at cooler temperatures and over a longer period of time) and unfiltered. Because they compete with restaurants, Zoigl brewers can only open for a few weeks at a time, usually 14 days to 4 weeks. They’re usually open on a rotating schedule.

Another star.

Another star.

Dining on the premises of a community brewing house offers a cozy feeling you don’t often get in a restaurant. Germans love Zoigl brewing houses for their intimate atmosphere. A survey of guests revealed the following reasons for their visit: cheap beer, affordable meals, and the chance to chat with total strangers, often on a “du” (instead of the formal “Sie”) basis.

Yet another example of a brewer's star incorporated into a pub sign.

Yes another example of a brewer’s star incorporated into a pub sign.

Where to find a brewer

Finding an open community brewing house can be tough unless you know where to look. Only 20 brewers still have the right to brew Zoigl beer, and they live in only a few German towns:


Falkenberg (Oberpflaz)





You can check an online calendar to see which ones are open when.

The Zoigl star

The oldest depiction of a brewer's star dates back to the 15th century.

The oldest depiction of a brewer’s star dates back to the 15th century. Unknown artist, Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 1. Nürnberg 1426–1549, public domain.

The Zoigl star looks just like the Star of David. But the its history reveals a totally different symbolism. The star has long been associated with alchemy and brewing. A popular theory is that one triangle represents the three medieval elements necessary for brewing, fire, water, and air, and the other the three ingredients in beer, water, malt, and hops.  Traditionally, a white star means pale ale and a red one dark ale. The stars told an illiterate medieval public when homebrew was available. The word Zoigl, in fact, derives from the German verb “zeigen” (to show).

Have you ever visited a Zoigl brewing house in Germany? What did you think?

My last example of a Zoigl star. I have to stop writing my blog now because just thinking about Zoigl beer is making me drool.

My last example of a star. I have to stop writing my blog now because just thinking about Zoigl beer is making me drool.

Literature on point:

Adolf F. Hahn, Der Zoigl: ein echer kerniger Oberpfälzer (self-published book by a Zoigl brewer, 2007)

Andreas Kassalitzky, Zoigl – Vom Ausschuss zum Kultgetränk

Martin Stangl, Das Buch vom Zoigl (Weiden: 2008)

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German Ax Murderer in America

Recent recent reveals a serial ax murderer was active a century ago.

Recent recent reveals a serial ax murderer was active a century ago. © zef art,, with permission.

June 1912 marks the 107th anniversary of a murder so gruesome it gave rise to urban legend. You’ve probably heard the story. Someone hid in an attic and snuck down to butcher an entire family during the night. It really happened. With an entire family of eight murdered and no solid suspect, the Villisca Ax Murders of June 10, 1912 counts among 20th century America’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

A previously unknown serial killer

The Man from the Train, book cover, courtesy of Scribner.

The Man from the Train, book cover, courtesy of Scribner.

But the story is even bigger and more shocking than we realized. New research reveals the Villisca ax murderer was a serial killer. The ax murderer might have been one of America’s most prolific killers, according to a new book and a 2018 finalist for the prestigious Edgar Award for Fact Crime. “This is no pure whodunit, but rather a how-many-did-he-do,” wrote the Buffalo News in a review of The Man from the Train (Scribner, 2017).

Author and baseball statistician Bill James and his daughter Rachel tackled the case by scouring old newspaper accounts. They identified a long list of factual patterns – called “signatures” by detectives – that pointed to a single perpetrator in a number of similar crimes. As the cases they discovered broadened in both number and geographical scope, one factual pattern explained the ax murderer’s mobility: He used the train to travel around the country, kill families, and escape unnoticed. The ax murderer usually committed his crimes within a mile of a railroad.

Journalists and detectives wore the typical blinders of their time: They focused on a regional, not a national, story. The ax murderer wreaked calamity across the country, and due to his new-found mobility on the railroads, the country wasn’t even aware until the end of his American crime spree.

The ax murderer was probably a hobo.

The ax murderer was probably a hobo. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.

Using newspapers to identify the ax murderer

 Not only do Bill and Rachel James make a sound argument that many cases between 1898 and 1912 are connected, they make a convincing case they found the killer. Bill told Rachel to try to find the killer’s first crime, because he was then most likely to have made a mistake. She did. And he had made a mistake. A witness identified the ax murderer as Paul Müller (spelled Mueller in American documents), an immigrant from Germany (possibly Austria), but he slipped through law enforcement’s fingers.

The ax murderer enjoyed a peak of activity in 1911-1912 and then suddenly stopped. Rachel James thinks that’s because he knew law enforcement had become aware of him and his use of the trains. She thinks he moved back to Europe.

A connection to Hinterkaifeck?

Paul Müller’s background raises a fascinating international correlation. My German readers will know Hinterkaifeck – as Germany’s most notorious unsolved murder and the basis for Andrea Maria Schenkel’s prize-winning debut crime novel, Tannöd, in 2006. Not even ten years after Villisca, an ax murderer dispatched a family of six on an isolated Bavarian farm called Hinterkaifeck on March 31, 1922. Those murders bear many of the signatures of the American ax murderer: an ax as the murder weapon, wounds on the head, stacking the bodies, covering the bodies with hay, and different treatment of a young, female victim. You can view a photo of the original crime scene here.

Some common signatures of Hinterkaifeck and the American ax murderer 

Railroad tracks.

Railroad tracks. Pixabay, with permission.

  1. Entire family murdered
  2. Nighttime
  3. Ax
  4. Murderer used a weapon he found at the scene
  5. Blunt side of the ax (Hinterkaifeck – screw sticking out caused holes in the heads)
  6. Young girl’s body treated differently
  7. Bodies stacked
  8. Bodies covered
  9. Isolated house
  10. Within walking distance from train station

Railroad signature in the Hinterkaifeck murders

Hinterkeifeck memorial.

Hinterkeifeck memorial. Andreas Keller [Copyrighted free use, via Wikipedia]

Rachel James writes that to the best of her knowledge, the Hinterkaifeck murders occurred within a mile of a railroad, but she can’t be sure, because she couldn’t find the precise location of the farm. I live in Germany and speak the language fluently, so I was able to find it and clarify this question.

The Hinterkaifeck farm buildings were demolished in 1923, but a memorial stands on the location. You can find the memorial in Google Maps or Google Earth by entering “Hinterkaifeck Andachtsstaette.”

Fortunately, Germans have already thought about the railroad in connection with the murder. You can find a map of the old rail lines from 1922 posted online, as well as a list of distances and the old train schedule.

The closest the train track came to the Hinterkaifeck farm in 1922 was at the Edelhausen train station, 1.8 miles away as the crow flies, but if you took the existing foot path, it was 2.6 miles. That distance, perhaps a little more than in the American murders, isn’t great enough to rule the American ax murderer out.

That gives Germany a brand new, intriguing suspect.

Interview with author Rachel James

Rachel James joins us for an interview today to talk about her research and conclusions.

Hobo riding atop a box car.

Hobo riding atop a box car. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.

What clued you into the fact that the murders at Villisca were not the perpetrator’s first?

That was actually pretty well established by the time Dad and I came on the scene. Even people in 1912 were aware that this was happening regularly; he was called Billy the Ax-Man at the time. In more recent years, there was some scholarship on the pattern that we relied on when we began this book. The most notable pieces of research were the documentary Villisca: Living With A Mystery and a research paper by Beth Klingensmith written for an MLS degree in 2006, which detailed the pattern found in the crimes. When I came on as a research assistant, Dad had already found another crime outside of those patterns – the 1909 Meadows murder, which is the first chapter of the book. So we were on our way in that sense.

How did you go about researching other ax murders around the country?

I used for all my research. It’s an incredible resource on the world’s worst website, and it was super frustrating and I couldn’t have done it without them.

At first, I just looked for axe murders right around the time of the Meadows murder. There were not many, because he wasn’t active then. Once I started poking around earlier in the decade, I found tons more. Once we had too many to keep track of in our heads, I began to research more systematically. I would go through every month from January 1890 to December 1920, searching for the phrase “family murder”, and then I would look for his hallmarks.

How could you tell if the Man from the Train perpetrated the other ax murders? I.e., what were the hallmarks of his crimes?

A whole family murdered in the middle of the night with the back of an axe without any clue as to the culprit would be the first thing I look for. That’s not common at all. With most of the crimes I looked at, the murder was committed by a member of the family, or was committed during the day. There are a few cases that fit this profile that we don’t believe he committed – i.e. the black family murders of 1910 and 1911 in Louisiana and Texas – but those are rare exceptions.

Further confirmation was provided by the presence of his idiosyncrasies at the scene. If the bodies were moved, if the windows and doors were covered and locked tight, if the back rather than the blade of an axe was used, if the chimney of the lamp was removed, if mirrors were covered…. if we had more than one of these elements, we became pretty sure. There’s a long list of 34 signatures that we list near the end of the book.

How did you find the crime you consider his first?

I was looking at another crime in New England around 1900. At the end of a newspaper article, there was a reference to the Newton family in 1898. I googled it, and come to a book on Google Books about police history in Massachusetts. They had a description of the crime that ended in the identification of Paul Mueller, and the information that he was last seen headed for the train. At that point, I had enough information to find the newspapers I was looking for, and I stayed up until 3 AM finding everything I could.

What emotional reaction did you have?

Train track.

Train track; Pixabay, with permission.

It was disorienting! I wasn’t expecting to find the actual first crime, so it was an unbelieving feeling that I could have found it, and so quickly – only a couple months after I started working for Dad.

Did you take the Servant Girl Annihilator/Midnight Assassin ax murders in Austen, Texas (1884-1885) into consideration?

That was a little beyond our scope. We were pretty confident that the Newton crime was his first because of his relationship to the family and because of some key differences between that crime and his later crimes. Furthermore, the Man from the Train was pretty specific about attacking families, not individuals. However, since the targets were primarily black and the crimes happened in Texas, I would be interested in exploring the connection between the Servant Girl Annihilator murders and the attacks on black families in Louisiana and Texas 25 years later.

Why do you think the Man from the Train might have been the ax murderer of Hinterkaifeck in Germany?

We’re not sure about that one at all, but it’s interesting, right? The fact that Paul Mueller was German or Austrian, the profile of the family, the secrecy and efficiency of the crime, and the use of an axe all correspond with these American crimes. It’s just an idea, a bit of guidance for future researchers.

Thank you, Rachel James!

 You might also enjoy reading:

 Villisca Ax Murders (a guest blog by Cal Scoonover with a discussion of the original evidence)

Tramp Signs: Secret Symbols of Criminals and Vagabonds (a discussion of the secret symbols hobos used a century ago, especially in Europe)

Literature on point

 Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James, The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery (Scribner, 2017).

Peter Leuschner, Der Mordfall Hinterkaifeck: Spuren eines mysteriösen Verbrechens (apus-Verlag, 1997, rev. ed. 2007).

Reviews of The Man from the Train

“Truly spectacular . . . The book shines when we get to see the Jameses’ thinking. Like the recent Netflix documentary ‘The Keepers,’ it’s fun to watch these amateur detectives solve a puzzle. And solve it they do — after 400 pages, when Rachel discovers the killer’s first crime way back in 1898. Did they get it right? I’m pretty sure they did. Either way, the final twist in the story—set 10 years after the Villisca murders on the other side of the Atlantic—gave me chills.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

 “Impressive . . . an open-eyed investigative inquiry wrapped within a cultural history of rural America.”
Wall Street Journal

 “Bill James, with his daughter, Rachel, has done something truly extraordinary.  Not only has he solved one of the most tantalizing mysteries in the annals of American crime–the sensational case of the 1912 “Villisca Axe Murders”–but he has tied it to a long string of equally savage, though completely obscure, atrocities.  The result is his discovery of a previously unknown serial killer who roamed–and terrorized–the country a century ago.  Brilliantly researched and written in James’ snappily conversational style, The Man From the Train is a stunning feat of detection, an un-put-downable read, and a major contribution to American criminal history.”—Harold Schechter, author of The Serial Killer Files and The Mad Sculptor

 “[A] suspenseful historical account . . . The strength of the book hangs on [the authors’] diligent research and analysis connecting crimes into the closing years of the 19th century. Even those skeptical at the outset that one man was responsible for so much bloodshed are likely to be convinced.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Agatha Christie: Murder Mystery Comet with a True Crime Tail

Agatha Christie, author of Murder on the Orient Express. Mario Breda, Agatha Christie,

Agatha Christie and the Orient Express. (c) Mario Breda,

Agatha Christie — she wrote murder mysteries; we all know that. But this is probably what you didn’t know: Agatha Christie was also a pharmacist and the medical descriptions in her books were so accurate they actually saved lives. They even helped a solve real murders. I usually only blog about true crime, but for Agatha Christie I’m making an exception. Her books were so good they spilled over into real life. She’s a murder mystery comet with a true crime tail.

Hercule Poirot was Christie's first detective.

Hercule Poirot was Christie’s first detective. Pixabay.

Agatha Christie, author and pharmacist

Not long before she became an author, during World War I, Agatha Christie trained as a nurse and then a pharmacy assistant. Two years later, she published her first murder mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). It introduced Hercule Poirot and featured a death by strychnine poisoning. A number of her following books centered on poisonings.

Thirty-eight books later, when World War II interrupted her life, and Christie stopped writing and worked in the pharmacy of the University College Hospital in London. She started publishing again the year before the war ended. In the end, she published more that 65 detective novels.

Agatha Christie monument

Agatha Christie monument, Pixabay.

The pharmacist’s poisons

So many of those novels featured poison they attracted the attention of Uwe Künzler, a pharmacist in Berlin. He published an academic article about the poisons in Agatha Christie’s novels in 1999. Two years later, a German forensic pathologist, Benno Rießelmann, followed suit with a manuscript about Christie’s poisonings from a forensic, pathological, and toxicological perspective. And across the ocean, a pharmacist in Texas published an entire book on the topic, The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie, in 2011. His book features a 76-page list of all the compounds involved in Christie’s plotlines and analyses the 30 poisonings in her books.

Poison, one of Christie's most popular murder weapons.

Poison, one of Christie’s most popular murder weapons. Pixabay.

Poisons and medicines, that became poisons in Christie’s hands

Here are some of Christie’s most popular poisons, just to give you a (literary) taste:


A toxin from the monkshood plant. It appears in two of Christie’s novels.


A highly poisonous chemical element. Arsenic appears in no less than nine of Christie’s books.


Atropine isn’t a poison, but rather a medication used to treat several different kinds of poisonings, such as from pesticides. Agatha Christie uses it as a plot point in two of her novels.


Barbiturates are sedative drugs that can produce death in an overdose. They’re featured in thirteen of Christie’s murder mysteries.

Chloral hydrate

Chloral hydrate is a sedative and hypnotic drug, but don’t overuse it! In the hands of the wrong person, it can become a murder weapon, as three of Christie’s novels show.


A stimulant and popularly abused drug, cocaine appears in two of Christie’s books.


Derived from the foxglove plant family, digitalis became popular as a medicine for heart patients, but its popularity has been declining due to safety concerns. Agatha Christie employed digitalis as a murder weapon in six of her novels.


An opiate and well-known pain medication, morphine becomes a poison in Christie’s hands. She features this drug in seven books.


This drug derives from the African Calabar bean. Missionaries in what is now Nigeria noticed that people there used the bean as an ordeal poison to test defendants accused of witchcraft. Curious, the missionaries sent the beans to Great Britain, where physostigmine was isolated. Although highly poisonous, it does have some medical applications. Christie featured this unusual drug in two books, including Poirot’s last case.


A cardiac medication similar to digitalis. Just don’t use too much, like the murderers did in two of Christie’s novels.


We all know this one. This colorless, odorless compound is a common ingredient both in rat poison and murder mysteries. Christie employed strychnine in five of her own mysteries.


Thallium is a metal and chemical element. It used to be popular as rat poison, but many countries have prohibited it due to its popularity as a murder weapon. Christie used it only once, in The Pale Horse (1961), but this one plotline had the most impact on the real world. Her book helped solve real murders and save several lives.

Poisoned powder -- Whodunnit?

Poisoned powder — Whodunnit?, Pixabay

The Pale Horse and poisoning cases

Copycat crimes have always been an unwanted side effect of murder mysteries. Someone might get an idea from a book and try it in real life.

On the flip side of the coin are “copycat” detectives and health care practitioners, who read an accurately-written novel like Agatha Christie’s, learn something from it, and employ that knowledge in real life. That’s precisely what happened with The Pale Horse. It contains an in-depth discussion of thallium poisoning symptoms – vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, and nervous symptoms such as lethargy, numbness, black-outs and slurred speech. Some readers put that to good use.

In one case, a 19 month-old girl whose illness the doctors couldn’t diagnose owes her life to a nurse who had been reading The Pale Horse. She was admitted to the hospital, where a nurse told the attending physician she recognized the symptoms from Agatha Christie’s book. Testing confirmed thallium poisoning and the child could be saved. Her parents had been using thallium sulfate to kill cockroaches at home.

Smoking poison

ADragan,Smoking poison,

The Pale Horse and true crime

But it wasn’t just accidential poisonings the book solved. Ten years after the publication of The Pale Horse, in 1971, Bovingdon, Hertfordshire experienced a spate of poisonings. Workers at a  photographic equipment company fell ill; two even died. Two things alerted law enforcement to thallium poisoning. One worker suggested it to a visiting health inspector, and the forensic pathologist on the case had read The Pale Horse and recognized the pattern. The pathologist was even able to find the metal in the ashes of one of the cremated victims by means of atomic absorption spectrometry. The perpetrator turned out to be Graham Young, the worker who had suggested thallium poisoning. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1975, The Pale Horse helped crack another case. A woman in South America wrote Agatha Christie a letter. She recognized thallium poisoning in a woman whose husband had been trying to poison her. “Of this I am absolutely certain,” she wrote, “that X, had I not read The Pale Horse, wouldn’t have survived.”

Why true crime fans should read Agatha Christie

True crime fans are wont to complain about crime fiction. At the top of their list is inaccuracy. Inaccurate scenarios in the fields of medicine, police procedure and courtroom procedure turn off readers who have some knowledge of those fields. But if you, as a true crime fan and want to select a murder mystery, let it be one of Agatha Christie’s. She’s so accurate she’s made her mark on the real world of true crime.

Miss Marple, one of Agatha Christie's detectives

Lazarenka Sviatlana, Miss Marple,

Have you read any of Agatha Christie’s books? If so, which ones? And what did you think?

Literature on point

John Emsley, “The poison prescribed by Agatha Christie: Thanks to the mystery writer, the deadly properties of thallium sulphate have become common knowledge,” Independent (20 July 1992).

Michael Gerard, The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie (Univ. of Texas Press, 2011)

Uwe Künzler, “Mit Arsen und Schwesternhäubchen. Aus der Giftküche der Agatha Christie,” Deutsche Apothekezeitung (1999)

Agatha Christie Limited, “The Pale Horse,” The Home of Agatha Christie (2009).

Benno Rießelmann and Volkmar Schneider, “Giftmore in den Kriminalromanen von Agatha Christie – Anmerkungen aus rechtsmedizinischer und toxilogischer Sicht” (manuscript, 2001).

Meghan Ross, “5 Pharmacist Facts about Agatha Christie,” Pharmacy Times (2015)

Sächsiches Apothekenmuseum Leipzig, Arzneimittel in todsicher Dosis: Die Pharmazeutin Agatha Christie (2003)

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Enduring Allure of Jack the Ripper

An Interview with Ripperologist Richard Jones


Richard Jones is a world-renowned Jack the Ripper expert.

Richard Jones, a world-renowned Jack the Ripper expert. Courtesy of Richard Jones.

Jack the Ripper: What makes the case so fascinating? Some people say it’s the Sherlock Holmes aspect: a riddle and investigation methods everyone can follow. Other people say it offers a window into the history of everyday people like no other genre can. And others say it’s just good old Victorian fear.

How does a “Ripperologist” and Jack-the-Ripper tour guide in London view the case?

One of best-known “Ripperologists” (experts on Jack the Ripper), Richard Jones, joins us today for an interview. He’s been conducting tours of the darker side of London history since 1982, most notably with a nightly Jack the Ripper walk around the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Jones has written several books on the Whitechapel murders (Uncovering Jack the Ripper’s London and Casebook Jack The Ripper) as well as books on Charles Dickens (Walking Dickensian London) and on the myths legends and ghosts of the British Isles. He has also written and produced a documentary on the case “Unmasking Jack the Ripper) and have appeared on several History and Discovery Channel programmes discussing the Whitechapel murders and Victorian crime.

For other posts on Jack the Ripper suspects, see Francis Thompson as a Ripper Suspect: An Interview with Richard Patterson and By the Hand of Another: Jack the Ripper’s Victims.

You are an internationally acclaimed expert on Jack the Ripper. How did you get started?

My start in the field of Ripper studies came about quite by accident. In 1982, I started doing tours of London, mostly angled towards the history of the City. In the course of my research, I began exploring the streets of Whitechapel and, inevitably, the Jack the Ripper case kept cropping up.

To that point, I honestly knew very little about the case. But, on looking into it and visiting archives and libraries, I suddenly realised what a wealth of social history the case actually afforded. From that point on I was hooked.

What does historical true crime offer as a genre that you can’t get in modern true crime books?

It struck me at the time I started researching the tours, and it is something that still fascinates me today, that for a brief period in 1888 the attention of the World’s media was focused on a very small part of east London, and the newspaper reports of the people in that area – police, members of the public, and, of course, the victims – are there for us to look at and read, thus affording us an unrivalled opportunity to almost go back in time and live the terror of the crimes as that terror evolved.

So, in short, researching historical true crime and exploring original sources make us eyewitnesses of long ago events.

Page one of the Dear Boss letter, which has been mistakenly attributed to Jack the Ripper.

Dear Boss letter, page 1. Public domain.

Tell me one thing about Jack the Ripper most people don’t know.

He never existed!

There was most certainly a serial killer – in fact, there were probably several serial killers – in London in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s. But the name Jack the Ripper was actually unrelated to these, as it was, in fact, the signature on the infamous “Dear Boss” letter, which was sent to a London news agency in late September 1888.

The police made the mistake of releasing this letter to the public and the newspapers gave it wide circulation, to the extent that, by the end of October, 1888, and into the modern age, the man responsible for the crimes became known as the none existent killer “Jack the Ripper.”

Page 2 of the Dear Boss letter contains the infamous "Jack the Ripper" signature. Public domain.

Page 2 of the Dear Boss letter contains the infamous “Jack the Ripper” signature. Public domain.

Are there any common misconceptions about Jack the Ripper?

Sadly, there are many misconceptions about the Ripper. However, perhaps the most persistent one is the image that we have, thanks largely to film and television portrayals of him, as wearing a top hat and swirling cape and carrying a shiny black bag.

The real murderer, whoever he (or she) was, would have been someone who fitted into the district in which the murders were committed.

This folklore image of The image of Jack the Ripper with a swirling cape and top hat is nothing more than folklore.

This folklore image of The image of Jack the Ripper with a swirling cape and top hat is nothing more than folklore. Image by Dave Scar, Shutterstock.

In your opinion, can the case ever be solved this late in the game?

Unless some long-lost documents or evidence turn up then I don’t think that the case can now be solved. Virtually all the police evidence has long since disappeared or been destroyed, So, from the perspective of suspects the police at the time might have had, we are dependent on the, often contradictory, recollections, musings and memoirs of police officers in their retirement.

Has any new evidence been discovered in the past 50 years?

With DNA testing on an alleged shawl of one of the victims, the case has entered the age of modern criminology. The methodology used on the shawl has been subject to debate.

With DNA testing on an alleged shawl of one of the victims, the case has entered the age of modern criminology. The methodology used on the shawl has been subject to debate. Image from Pixabay.

“New” evidence is discovered on an almost yearly basis. Whether it is useful or accurate evidence is debatable. The most recent example of this is the excitement generated by the DNA on Catherine Eddowes supposed shawl. The newspapers had a field day with this, announcing that DNA had finally solved the mystery. But, unfortunately, it had done no such thing.

Firstly, the testing methods were questionable.

Secondly, it is doubtful that it was a shawl, and it is almost certain that Catherine Eddowes possessed no such garment, since the City of London Police, in whose jurisdiction her murder occurred, logged every item that was found in Mitre-square (the scene of her murder) and they make no mention of a shawl being present at the murder scene.

Finally, even if we do accept that the shawl was a shawl, that it did belong to Catherine Eddowes, and that the DNA of Aaron Kosminski was found on it, it wouldn’t prove that he was the murderer, simply that his he had had contact with her.

Do you have a favourite suspect? Who? Why?

My “favourite” suspect is Michael Ostrog. Not because I think that he was Jack the Ripper, but because he almost certainly wasn’t.

We have an almost complete record of his criminal career from the mid-1860’s right through to the late 1890’s and he was a lot of things – a conman, a cheat, a fraudster – but he was most certainly not homicidal.

He, therefore, demonstrates an important point about Ripperology – that it is possible to build a case against anybody and make it seem plausible.

As for a favoured suspect, I would have to go with Aaron Kosminski. not because of the DNA evidence, but simply because he was the favoured suspect of the two highest ranking officers on the case, Robert Anderson and Donald Swanson, and since they knew the evidence against all the suspects at the time, we have to take their opinion seriously.

Of course, we have the problem that we don’t still have any of the evidence that led them to their conclusions.

Just what is it about this case that makes it so intriguing?

By 1889, a period newspaper was already poking fun at the number of suspects.

By 1889, a period newspaper was already poking fun at the number of suspects. Tom Merry, Puck, 21 Sept. 1889, public domain.

I think that it remains unsolved is what makes the case so intriguing. Plus, it was long enough ago to make it “safe” .i.e, we are not directly threatened by it. Also, it gives us that window through which we can look back on an intriguing period in Victorian history and in police and criminal history.

What do you offer on your Jack the Ripper Tour?

Our Jack the Ripper tour is conducted almost along the lines of a Crime Scene Investigation. Participants are encouraged to question things, to discuss things and to form their own opinions about the case. It is, accordingly, done at a relaxed pace, with plenty of interaction between the walkers and the guide.

How can we book a tour with you?

It is best done through our website.

That sounds like fun! Thanks for joining us, Richard Jones.

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