Greengages: Mark Twain and the Sweetest Fruit of Germany

A bowl of greengages.

A bowl of greengages.

He put up a fine luncheon for us and added to it a quantity of great light-green plums, the pleasantest fruit in Germany…. Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

 

Greengages

Anna Pavord, writing for the British newspaper Independent, calls them “most ambrosial of all tree fruit.”

David Karp describes them as “the best fruit in the world” in the New York Times.

Mark Twain traveled to Germany in 1878 and tried them at his hotel in Heilbronn, where he dubbed them the “pleasantest fruit in Germany.”

With respect to sweetness, all three authors have a point. Greengages taste like honey. Long considered one of the sweetest fruits, the green plums enjoy a delectably “noble” reputation in Germany. Germans call them the “queen of the plums.” David Karp measured their sugar content in France with his refractometer and obtained a value, 30.5, that nearly went off the scale.

Greengages on a branch.

Greengages on a branch.

Hard to grow

You’ll have a hard time finding fresh greengages in America. They’re difficult to grow. Rain can make them split open. It’s expensive to pick the fruit. And they don’t produce regularly – greengage trees will sport a bumper crop one year and the next, for no apparent reason, grow only a few plums. And to make it worse, you should really leave them on the tree until they’re ripe. They taste best fresh off the tree.

Popular in Europe, but not America

Greengages originated in the Middle East. France has had them since the 15th century. In both Germany and France, the fruit is named after Queen Claude (d. 1524): Reine-Claudes, Reineclaude, or Reneklode. She must have liked the light green plums as much as Twain did.

The fruit came to England in the 17th century. The man who introduced them, Sir William Gage of Suffolk, also lent them his name.

Greengages were once popular in the United States, but farmers found them too difficult to grow. They have almost vanished from the American orchards and tables. Across the ocean, however, greengages surfed a juicy wave of popularity in the 19th century – at the time Mark Twain tried them in Heilbronn. In fact, German markets of the 18th century often forbade all other plum varieties outside of greengages and mirabelles. The other varieties were thought to be unhealthy.

Greengages.

Greengages. Photo from Pixabay, with permission.

 Pleasantest fruit of the summer?

Summer begins this week, and after that the plum season will soon be upon us. Keep your eyes open for the queen of the plums at the marketplace and offer yourself a treat Mark Twain once enjoyed. One taste might transport you to ambrosial heaven.

Have you ever had the opportunity to try a greengage? If so, what did you think of the taste?

 

Literature on point:

Karl Günther Barth, “Die Königin der Pflaumen – ein fast vergessene Sorte,” Hamberger Abendblatt (2 August 2014).

Rudolf Habs & L. Rosner, Appetitlexikon (Insel Verlag 1982).

David Karp, “A Finicky Fruit Is Sweet When Coddled,” New York Times (1 Sept. 2004).

Anna Pavord, “Plum job: A juicy guide to greengages and plums,” Independent (12 August 2011).

Reineclaude,” Lebensmittel Warenkunde (2017).

Reneklode aus Oullins, Manufactum

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, ch. 14 (public domain).

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Mark Twain’s “A Dying Man’s Confession”: Truth or Tall Tale?

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

God! how delicious the memory of it!—I caught him escaping from his grave, and thrust him back into it. – Mark Twain, “A Dying Man’s Confession,” in Life on the Mississippi

 Murder and revenge.

These two themes form the warp and weft in “A Dying Man’s Confession,” the most memorable short story in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. The story spans the globe. It starts a murder in Arkansas during the Civil War and ends in one of the creepiest buildings of Germany history: the Leichenhaus (literally: corpse house) or waiting mortuary. And it contains a forensic method that was very modern for its time.

But are there any kernels of truth in Twain’s story?

 A bit of background: the German Leichenhaus

Waiting halls for the dead sprung up throughout Germany in the 19th century, in part due to societal fears of premature burial, and in part due to the medical profession’s argument that decomposition constituted the only sure sign of death.  Bodies were laid out in the mortuary halls, in their coffins and covered with shrouds, to await that one sure medical sign before burial. Flowers decked the coffins to offset the odor.

To prevent someone from being buried alive, the mortuary attached rings and cables to the hands of the presumptive dead. If a hand moved, a bell would sound and alert a mortuary attendant, trained to give first aid.

Munich's Leichenhaus

The Munich Leichenhaus. Garner’s Magazine, 1833 (public domain).

 Twain in the Munich Leichenhaus

Munich’s Leichenhaus was one of the most famous. Open to the public, it quickly became a tourist attraction. Mark Twain visited on Jan. 4, 1879. His impressions unnerved him:

 Toward the end of last year, I spent a few months in Munich, Bavaria…. One day, during a ramble about the city, I visited one of the two establishments where the Government keeps and watches corpses until the doctors decide that they are permanently dead, and not in a trance state. It was a grisly place, that spacious room. There were thirty-six corpses of adults in sight, stretched on their backs on slightly slanted boards, in three long rows—all of them with wax-white, rigid faces, and all of them wrapped in white shrouds. Along the sides of the room were deep alcoves, like bay windows; and in each of these lay several marble-visaged babes, utterly hidden and buried under banks of fresh flowers, all but their faces and crossed hands. Around a finger of each of these fifty still forms, both great and small, was a ring; and from the ring a wire led to the ceiling, and thence to a bell in a watch-room yonder, where, day and night, a watchman sits always alert and ready to spring to the aid of any of that pallid company who, waking out of death, shall make a movement—for any, even the slightest, movement will twitch the wire and ring that fearful bell. I imagined myself a death-sentinel drowsing there alone, far in the dragging watches of some wailing, gusty night, and having in a twinkling all my body stricken to quivering jelly by the sudden clamor of that awful summons!*

 The experience sparked a short story.

 A Dying Man’s Confession

“A Dying Man’s Confession,” which climaxes in the Munich Leichenhaus, begins in Arkansas during the Civil War.  A German on his deathbed, whom Twain supposedly met during his Munich travels, narrates the story. He lived in Napoleon, Arkansas with his wife and daughter during the war. But one night, during a burglary, the narrator was chloroformed and his family murdered. One burglar was missing his thumb and was the nicer of the two. His accomplice committed the murder; the thumbless man could only protest.

The burglary was interrupted when the burglars’ company arrived and the captain asked for water; the burglars left with their comrades. The poor narrator found his wife and daughter murdered – along with an important clue: a piece of paper with a thumbprint in their blood. When the narrator discovered that a Captain Blakely and Company C had come through that night, he decided to track down the murderers.

In disguise as a fortune teller, the narrator followed Company C and found a German private missing a thumb. He started telling fortunes, but required his clients to provide their thumbprints first as means for interpreting their future. By careful comparison, he discovered one print that matched the print from his house. The print belonged to another German private, Franz Adler. The narrator tried to murder him and thought he was successful.

 In Munich’s Leichenhaus

The narrator returned to Germany and years later began working as a watchman in the Munich Leichenhaus. There the unconceivable happened.

 Two years ago—I had been there a year then—I was sitting all alone in the watch-room, one gusty winter’s night, chilled, numb, comfortless; drowsing gradually into unconsciousness; the sobbing of the wind and the slamming of distant shutters falling fainter and fainter upon my dulling ear each moment, when sharp and suddenly that dead-bell rang out a blood-curdling alarum over my head! The shock of it nearly paralyzed me; for it was the first time I had ever heard it.

 I gathered myself together and flew to the corpse-room. About midway down the outside rank, a shrouded figure was sitting upright, wagging its head slowly from one side to the other—a grisly spectacle! Its side was toward me. I hurried to it and peered into its face. Heavens, it was Adler!

 Adler had survived the narrator’s murder attempt in Arkansas and had also returned to Munich. The narrator refused all first aid and let Adler sink back and die in his coffin.

He ends his “Dying Man’s Confession” with the observation:

 It is believed that in all these eighteen years that have elapsed since the institution of the corpse-watch, no shrouded occupant of the Bavarian dead-houses has ever rung its bell. Well, it is a harmless belief. Let it stand at that.

Interior of the Munich Leichenhaus

Interior of the Munich Leichenhaus. William Tebbs, Premature Burial and How It Can Be Prevented (1905, public domain).

 Truth or Tall Tale?

With Mark Twain, you can’t always tell. Franz Adler and his death in the Leichenhaus are certainly products of Twain’s imagination. But that begs the question of whether any of the bodies in the waiting mortuary ever did come back to life.

Jan Bondeson, a professor at the University of Wales College of Medicine has tracked down stories of premature burial, and in particular, folklore about “resurrections” in the Munich Leichenhaus. He followed the few stories about ringing bells and bodies sitting up in their coffins to their sources, only to find the 19th-century version of fake news.

In the course of the 19th century, how many people did the German waiting mortuaries actually save?

Zero, says Bondeson.

That’s right, none. The 19th-century physician’s diagnosis of death was pretty accurate.

By the 1890s, Germany made the decision to remove the alarm systems from its mortuaries. And we can safely say that Twain’s depiction of Adler ringing his bell crossed the line into the highly improbable.

Scene from "A Dying Man's Confession" by Mark Twain

The narrator waits for Adler to die. Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1833, public domain, via Project Gutenberg).

 Fingerprint identification

But one aspect of “A Dying Man’s Confession” was remarkably accurate and state-of-the-art. Experts had just begun to discuss fingerprinting as a method of identifying suspects. In 1858, Sir William James Herschel, Chief Magistrate in India, began using fingerprints to validate signatures on contracts and noticed you could really use the fingerprints to tell people apart. By 1877, the American Journal of Microscopy published a review of a lecture by Thomas Thompson, who suggested fingerprints could be used to identify murderers. In 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds published an article in Nature claiming fingerprints could be used to identify people.

Twain published Life on the Mississippi in 1883.

The first fingerprint identification in a criminal case was made in 1892 in Argentina.

Hats off to Mark Twain for including such an innovative technique in his short story! In fact, “A Dying Man’s Confession” might be the first murder mystery to use fingerprinting as a forensic tool.

You might also enjoy:

Mark Twain’s Raft Trip on the Neckar: Truth or Tall Tale?

Mark Twain and the Secret of Dilsberg, Germany

 Literature on point:

Jan Bondeson, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear (New York: Norton, 2001).

The History of Fingerprints.

William Tebbs, Premature Burial and How It Can Be Prevented (London: Swan, Sonnenschein & Co, 1905).

*Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, chapter 31 (public domain).

Mark Twain, Notes and Journals, vol. II (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975) (mention of the Munich Leichenhaus visit on p. 256).

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Lady Lucie Duff Gordon – First Female True Crime Author in English?

Lucie Duff Gordon at age 15.

A sketch by a school friend of Lucie Duff Gordon, aged 15 (c. 1836, public domain).

A man who murdered his lover on his wedding day. A serial killer who lured girls into his house with the promise to show them their future husbands in a magic looking glass. The first intentional use of a dog to search for a cadaver. Lady Lucie Duff Gordon (1821–1869) translated these stories from German to English and published them in 1846. Her anthology, Narratives of Remarkable of Criminal Trials, includes fourteen stories and her own preface.

And that might make her the first female true crime author in the English language.

Engel Christine Westphalen

Portrait of Engel Christine Westphalen by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829, public domain).

Engel Christine Westphalen: First female true crime writer in the world

Across the North Sea in Germany, another woman author helped carry the true crime torch. In fact, Engel Christine Westphalen (1758-1840) might have been Lucie Duff Gordon’s role model. Westphalen was probably the first female true crime writer anywhere. She competed in the genre against the famous German poet, Friedrich Schiller, whom scholars today consider a father of modern true crime.

Westphalen, however, raised Goethe’s ire. Johann Wolfgang Goethe (Faust, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Erlking), a vanguard of Weimar classicism, had laid down some rules for German literature: Fiction was an acceptable topic for female authors, but not true crime. Goethe assigned true crime to the genre of historical tragedy, a male-only genre.

Westphalen broke the rules by publishing a tragedy in 1804 about Charlotte Corday, the murderer of Jean Paul Marat in the French Revolution. When Goethe found out she wrote it, he erupted and took a shot at her underwear. “The worthy author of this tragedy of Charlotte Corday would have better spent her time knitting a warm underskirt for the winter than meddling this drama,” he said. Westphalen ignored Goethe and later won an award for her writing. You can read more about Westphalen and her Corday tragedy here.

Goethe and Schiller.

Goethe and Schiller. Pixabay.

Brief history of the true crime genre

The true crime genre has French and German origins. Friedrich Schiller (Ode to Joy, William Tell) helped launch true crime as a modern genre.  Although he wasn’t the first author to write about crime, crime stories before his time were simple moralistic tales designed to scare the reader from treading from the path of righteousness. Schiller offered something new. Schiller and his French counterpart Gayot de Pitaval offered a psychological analysis of the criminal and focused on the motive. That’s the demarcation that separates modern true crime from the old-fashioned, moralistic crime tales. For that reason, scholars consider Schiller a father of the modern true crime genre.

Death of Marat.

The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), public domain.

True crime genre in the English language

If you define the true crime genre as a psychological analysis of the offender and his or her motives, the jump from French and German to English came later. Plenty of crime stories appeared in the English literature before Schiller and Pitaval worked their changes, but they appeared in the old-fashioned form of moralistic stories in pamphlets, the penny press, and ballads. Perhaps due to Schiller’s influence, respectable English authors began taking an increasing interest in crime tales. Thomas De Quincy published the satirical Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts in 1827, Charles Dickens A Visit to Newgate in 1836, and William Thackeray Going to See a Man Hanged in 1840.

I can’t, however, find another female author among them, either in the modern form of the genre or in the older, moralistic one. For that reason, I propose Lucie Duff Gordon as a candidate for the first female true crime author in the English language.

Lucie Duff Gordon, c. 1851.

Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon by Henry W. Phillips (c.1851).

Lucie Duff Gordon

Lucie Duff Gordon (1821–1869) was the only child of John Austin, a professor of jurisprudence at the University of London, and Sarah Austin, a German to English translator. In 1827, Lucie’s family moved to Germany so her father could study the German literature on jurisprudence. She attended a German school and became fluent in the language. It’s quite possible she became acquainted with Engel Christine Westphalen’s works in Germany.

Lucie became an avid reader, and following her return to England, she always read books with an eye towards the possibility of translating them. In 1840, she married Sir Alexander Cornwall Duff Gordon. Around the same time, Lucie Duff Gordon started publishing her first translations. Her fourth translation was the Narrative of Remarkable Criminal Trials.

Narrative of Remarkable Criminal Trials

The Narrative was Lucie Duff Gordon’s anthology of crime stories from the Bavarian judge and legislator, Paul Anselm Ritter von Feuerbach. Feuerbach spearheaded the legislative reform to repeal Bavaria’s version of the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, a 300-year-old criminal code of the Holy Roman Empire. Bavaria passed Feuerbach’s new criminal code in 1813. Much of Germany later followed suit, basing their new codes on Feuerbach’s reform.

In her preface, Lucie Duff Gordon praised Germany’s criminal justice system. She suggested that Bavaria’s slow and thorough approach to trials resulted in lower rate of false convictions of innocent men than in England. The English, she suggested, would be wise to look across to the continent and learn something from the Bavarians.

Lucie Duff Gordon went on to write and publish her own works. Her most famous were Letters from Egypt (1865) and Last Letters from Egypt (1875).

 Do you know of any female true crime authors in the English language prior to 1846? Knowledge is a cooperative effort, and perhaps a reader knows of another author.

 Literature on point

Pamela Burger, “The Bloody Origins of the True Crime Genre,” JSTOR Daily (August 24, 2016).

P.J.A. Feuerbach, Aktenmäßige Darstellung merkwürdiger Verbrechen, (Giessen: Heyer, 1828).

Lady Duff Gordon, Narrative of Remarkable Criminal Trials (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1846).

Gail K. Hart, Freidrich Schiller: Crime, Aesthetics, and the Poetics of Punishment (Newark: University of Delaware Press 2005)

Jeffrey L. High, Schiller’s Literary Prose Works: New Translations and Critical Essays (Rochester, New York: Camden House 2008)

Stephanie Hilger, “The Murderess on Stage: Christine Westphalen’s Charlotte Corday (1804),” in Women and Death 3: Women’s Representations of Death in German Culture since 1500 (Clare Bielby & Anna Richards, eds.) (Rochester, NY: Camden House 2010) 71-87.

U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Most Horrible and Shocking Murders: True Crime Murder Pamphlets” (2010).

Gordon Waterfield, Lucie Duff Gordon in England, South Africa and Egypt (E.P. Dutton & Company, 1937).

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Consitutio Criminalis Carolina: Your Rights in a Torture Chamber

Time travel.

Time. Image from Pixabay.

The dangers of time travel

You have to admit you’ve at least thought about it before. What would it be like to fly back in time with a time machine?

What would you want to see? The dinosaurs? The life of Jesus Christ? A historical event you’ve been researching and have lingering questions about?

No matter which trip you select, it would be fraught with danger. The dinosaurs might snack on you. You could get caught in a war. If you plan to visit Renaissance Europe and walk around in your jeans and T-shirt, snapping pictures with your cell phone, you can plan on getting arrested. And in case you get marched into the torture chamber, you probably have no idea what your rights would be.

So just in case you find a time machine in grandpa’s attic and contemplate a trip back a few centuries in time to Europe, you’ll want some advice about the legal system – and your legal rights in the torture chamber.

I’m here to help you.

Time machine.

Stylized steampunk metal collage of time counting device. (c) donatas1205, via Shutterstock.com.

Judicial torture

First, some basic concepts.

Judicial torture – that means torture as a method of collecting evidence and not as a method of punishment – grew out of the Greek and Roman legal systems. By 1252, Pope Innocent IV approved its use in Roman-canon law. That meant it could be used in church procedures (think Inquisition).

When you set the dials on your time machine, your best country to visit, from a judicial perspective at least, would be England. Of all the European countries, England did not adopt Roman-canon law. Instead, it used a jury. Although the English juries evolved over time from investigating bodies to the modern juries we know today, they avoided the judicial torture of continental Europe. In all probability, the members of your English jury would figure out how to turn on your cell phone and get the fright of their lives. But they couldn’t put you on the rack to find out more about it.

As more modern legal systems began to replace the trial by ordeal in continental Europe, judicial torture found acceptance. In fact, people may have found torture not very different – or even a step up from – the medieval ordeals. Trial by ordeal was an ancient religious-judicial procedure to let God decide the case. It meant subjecting the suspect to a dangerous event, e.g. submersion in water. The court interpreted the suspect’s survival as God’s intervention to prove their innocence. Roman-canon law, then, represented an improvement. It increased your chances of surviving a trial.

Torture chamber with rack.

Torture chamber with rack. (c) Ozgur Guvenc, via Shutterstock.com.

Constitutio Criminalis Carolina

Now set the location dial on your time machine to the Holy Roman Empire and the year to 1532. That’s when Emperor Charles V enacted the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, landmark legislation for criminal law. How is it that this statute, with an awful reputation so often associated with witch trials, actually advanced individual rights?

The Constitutio Criminalis Carolina incorporated many facets of Roman-canon law, but went ever further in balancing the state’s need for an investigation against individual rights. For the first time, a suspect in a criminal investigation had at least some rights against the excesses of the judicial system. The Constitutio Criminalis Carolina also contained some seemingly modern insights – it was the first law to distinguish between first and second-degree murder.

One small stroke from Charles’s pen, one giant leap for individual rights.

Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, front page.

Constitutio Criminalis Carolina. Cover page to a 1577 edition. Imprint: Frankfurt am Main, Johannem Schmidt. Verlegung Sigmund Feyerabends, 1577
By amtliches Werk (Scan from the original work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Your rights under the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina

So what would have happened if you started walking around the Holy Roman Empire, snapping pictures, and got arrested? Here’s a small litany of your rights.

No torture without probable cause.

There had to be sufficient suspicion against you before the state could torture you for evidence. A “half-proof” was usually required. That meant half the evidence required to convict you. For example, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina required two eyewitnesses or an eyewitness and a confession as full proof, so one eyewitness who claimed you committed the crime counted as a half proof and counted as probable cause for judicial torture.

No leading questions!

No leading questions! (c) Everett Collection, via Shutterstock.com.

No leading questions.

Leading questions in the torture chamber can lead to false confessions. Charles V recognized that as early as 1532. So the Constitution Criminalis Carolina banned leading questions. An interrogator could ask what kind of weapon was used in a murder, but not if it was a knife. He could ask where the body was hidden, not if it had been dumped in the local mill pond. And he could ask what your cell phone is supposed to do, but not if it’s an instrument of witchcraft.

The interrogator tried to elicit information only the perpetrator could know – a technique used today in modern law enforcement to weed out false confessions – and leading questions only got in the way.

Of course, it was difficult to enforce the rule. But many in many cases, the court gave the interrogator written questions ahead of time. And since the Carolina also required witnesses to be present in the torture chamber, it might have been more difficult to get around the prohibition against leading questions than many assume.

Corroboration of a confession.

Even if you did confess, the court couldn’t use that against you without corroboration. Pain might lead a witness to say anything. So if you confessed to something specific only the perpetrator could know, let’s say dumping a body in the local mill pond, the court would require the investigator to check it out.

That’s exactly what happened in a murder-robbery case in Germany’s Rhine Valley in the 18th century. When an accessory to the crime reported that the principals dumped the body in a pond, the investigators were required to dredge it. They couldn’t find the body. Normally, then, there wouldn’t have been enough evidence to convict the accessory. In this case, the court did convict the accessory but based on other evidence.

Compensation if tortured illegally.

Here’s a good one. If you could prove you were examined under torture in violation of the law, you were entitled to compensation. Section 20 allowed you to sue the officials who tortured you illegally. Section 20 also eliminated any defense on the officials’ part based on your having waived your rights.

Safe time traveling

Of course, I hope you’re never subjected to torture and that you enjoy your time travels without any legal entanglements. Despite its advances in individual rights, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina remains abhorrent for its use of torture. Thankfully, Europe abolished torture by the beginning of the 19th century.

The assassination in my book offers some interesting time traveling in this respect. The Kingdom of Württemberg, where the murder took place, abolished torture in 1809. The murder was in 1835. But Württemberg didn’t get around to abolishing the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina until 1843! That means the assassination in my book was one of the last great crimes investigated under the centuries-old law. And it also means that the investigator had to try to prove the case under the old evidentiary system of proof requiring two witnesses or one witness and a confession. Württemberg didn’t recognize circumstantial evidence until 1839 when it adopted a new criminal code.

No wonder, then, that the solution to this case came from America!

You can pick up my book, Death of an Assassin, and enjoy some safe time traveling. And I promise the dinosaurs won’t eat you.

Prehistoric times. Image from Pixabay.

Literature on point:

Clemens-Peter Bösken, Das Ende der grossen rheinischen Räuber- und mörderbande: Der Düsseldorfer Sicehenprozess von 1712 (Erfurt: Sutton Verlag, 2011).

Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (partial translation)

John H. Langbein, Prosecuting Crime in the Renaissance: England, Germany, France (Harvard Univ. Press, 1974).

John H. Langbein, Torture and the Law of Proof: Europe and England in the Ancien Régime (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977).

Wolfgang Schild, “ ‘Von peinlicher Frag’: Die Folter als rechtliches Beweisverfahren,” Schriftreihe des mittelalterlichen Krimminalmusuems Rothenburg o.d.T., Nr. 4 (1999).

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Dorothy Kilgallen: Crime Reporter as a Murder Victim?

Mark Shaw's book on the mysterious death of Dorothy Kilgallen.

Mark Shaw’s book on the mysterious death of Dorothy Kilgallen.

The night before she died, Dorothy Kilgallen participated in the television show “What’s My Line” and correctly guessed the contestant’s occupation. The young woman sold dynamite.

Kilgallen, a crack investigative and crime reporter, was sitting on a stack of dynamite herself – her research on the JFK assassination. Before the new day broke, it cost Kilgallen her life. That’s what Mark Shaw thinks. He recently published a new book, The Reporter Who Knew Too Much: The Mysterious Death of What’s My Line TV Star and Media Icon Dorothy Kilgallen. Based on several years of research, the book offers new evidence that’s never been revealed before.

Finally, an investigation – 51 years later

Did DorothyKilgallen’s knowledge of the JFK assassination lead to her murder? Shaw’s book has convinced the Manhattan DA’s Office to open an investigation into Kilgallen’s death – 51 years later!

Mark Shaw joins us today to tell us why.

A former criminal defense attorney and legal analyst for CNN, ESPN, and USA Today for the Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson and Kobe Bryant cases, Mark Shaw is an investigative reporter and the author of 20+ books whose latest is The Reporter Who Knew Too Much.  You can learn more about the book by clicking on the book title or watching Mark Shaw’s book-signing presentation.

Welcome, Mark Shaw!


Most people know Dorothy Kilgallen as a “What‘s My Line” panelist, but she was equally well known as a crack investigative and crime reporter. What famous crimes did she cover?

Dorothy Kilgallen at the Sheppard trial.

18 Nov 1954, Cleveland, Ohio, USA — Original caption: Newsman gather around Wm. J. Corrigan at the courthouse today to discuss the Sheppard trial. Dorothy Kilgallen (L) seems to be doing most of the talking. Woman in the center is unidentified. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS; courtesy of Mark Shaw.

In addition to her What’s My Line? fame, Dorothy covered many of the most famous criminal cases of the 29th century, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, the Profumo Scandal in England, the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder trial, the Lenny Bruce 1st Amendment case and most importantly, the Jack Ruby trial.

Her columns won her a few significant enemies….

Dorothy was a woman of the truth and her New York Journal American column, syndicated to more than 200 newspapers across America, could make or break the career of a celebrity and this led to her having enemies that included most prominently singer Frank Sinatra. When she ridiculed him for the “bimbos” and “has-been” girlfriends he paraded around with, he responded by calling her “the chinless wonder,” making fun of her appearance. He also sent a fake tombstone to her office.

How influential was she as a reporter?

There is not a media personality today who can match the journalistic career that Dorothy enjoyed for nearly three decades. Besides being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, she was arguably the most trusted reporter in the world which permitted her the best sources for her stories. This led to an astounding number of “scoops,” including being the first reporter who expose JFK’s affair with Marilyn Monroe and later, being the only reporter to interview Jack Ruby at his trial and then expose his Warren Commission testimony before it was to be released. During her era, people got most of their news from newspapers and she was, as the New York Post proclaimed, “The most powerful female voice in America.”

What stance did Dorothy Kilgallen take on the JFK assassination? And how might that have been connected with her death?

Dorothy launched an 18-month investigation of the JFK and Oswald assassinations and without doubt, it is the most extensive investigation of those events in history. She was there when it all happened and at the Ruby trial so she is a true eyewitness to history. In the fall of 1965, she was about to include her belief that the assassinations were simply “Mafia hits” start to finish based on motive, that New Orleans Don Carlos Marcello had masterminded the assassinations based on revenge against the Kennedy’s. As November arrived, she was getting ready to complete a book for Random House exposing the truth and those threatened by it could not let her live.

John F. Kennedy, whose assassination Dorothy Kilgallen was investigating.

John F. Kennedy. By White House Press Office (WHPO) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Do you think she was murdered?

The official cause of death, accidental due to a combination of an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol is flawed based on the primary evidence presented in the book. She certainly did not commit suicide and that leaves murder as the logical choice as to how she died. This said, since this book is true crime murder mystery, readers should make up their own minds based on the book content and watching the more than 50 videotaped interviews with those who knew her best at www.thedorothykilgallenstory.org.

Did her JFK assassination research file disappear with her death?

Yes, this is one of the many mysteries connected to Dorothy’s death that readers around the world have debated through the more than 175 Amazon reviews and emails I have received from both the US and countries such as Japan, Australia, and even Iceland. I’m pleased to say the book is in its 6th printing with a film in development in LA that will focus on Dorothy’s life and times, and her death.

Wow! Congratulations. I want to see the film when it comes out.

Mark Shaw.

Mark Shaw, with permission.

Was the file ever found again?

No, but I believe it still may be out there somewhere and recently fresh evidence has been forwarded to me by a person close to Dorothy’s family as to the possible whereabouts of the file. We are following up on that information.

How would Kilgallen’s murderer have known where to look for the file? Didn’t she die on a different floor of the house than the floor where she kept her file?

Dorothy never made a secret of her intention to expose the truth about the JFK and Oswald assassinations and this contributed to her death. It was common knowledge that she always kept the file close to her and shared it with no one but as November 1965 neared, she told her hairdresser Marc Sinclaire that she was “afraid for her life and for her family,” and a second hairdresser Charles Simpson that “if the wrong people knew what I know about the JFK assassination, it would cost me my life.” They did know, and it did cost her her life.

If I were in Dorothy Kilgallen’s shoes, I wouldn’t have left my file around the house without having made copies for protection. I’d have put one copy in a safe deposit box, for instance, and given another copy to my attorney with instructions what to do with it in the case of my untimely demise. Is there any indication that she took those precautions? She took a trip to Switzerland before her death and at least one acquaintance thought she had a safe deposit box there. Has anyone checked to see if a Swiss safe deposit box might hold a copy of the file?

You have to remember that there were no copy machines back then and so it would have been a carbon copy that might have been in existence. This said, there is no credible evidence that any copy of the file existed. There is also no credible evidence that she took any copy to Switzerland or gave a copy to anyone.

Dorothy Kilgallen with other What's My Line panelists.

NEW YORK, NY – 1960s: (L-R) The panel of judges along with the host of What’s My Line? Arlene Francis, John Charles Daly, Dorothy Kilgallen (right), and Bennett Cerf pose for a portrait circa 1960’s in New York, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images), courtesy of Mark Shaw.

Tell us about the new investigation into Dorothy Kilgallen’s death.

After I requested that NYC District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. investigate Dorothy’s death (not re-investigate since there was no investigation in 1965 despite a staged death scene and other evidence pointing to a homicide), the NY Post reported that the DA had opened an investigation into her death 52 years later. I have subsequently been working with the DA’s office by forwarding fresh evidence that will assist with the investigation but I’d like to see the investigation proceed more quickly than it has since as the victim of a homicide, Dorothy has rights and I am fighting to make sure she gets the justice she deserves that was denied her so many years ago.


Thank you, Mark Shaw!

Do you think a new investigation is warranted, 51 years later? Please comment below.

More books by Mark Shaw

Mr Shaw has also written The Poison Patriarch, Miscarriage of Justice, Beneath the Mask of Holiness, Melvin Belli: King of the Courtroom, Stations Along the Way, and Down for the Count. He has penned articles for The New York Daily News, USA Today, Huffington Post and the Aspen Daily News, which he co-founded. More about Mr. Shaw, who lives in the San Francisco area, may be learned at markshawbooks.com and Wikipedia (Mark William Shaw).

Literature on point:

Susan Edelman, “Manhattan DA’s Office probing death of a reporter with possible JFK ties,” New York Post (Jan. 29, 2017).

Mark Shaw, The Reporter Who Knew Too Much: The Mysterious Death of What’s My Line TV Star and Media Icon Dorothy Kilgallen (Post Hill Press, 2016).

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