Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter connected to a record-breaking cold case

 

Robert E. Lee's mysterious letter

Detail of Robert E. Lee’s letter. Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers. (c) Virginia Historical Society, with permission.

 

A national mystery

The Virginia Historical Society inherited a national mystery in 1981. That’s when it obtained the deButts-Ely family papers. The collection contains Robert E. Lee correspondence, and among it, a surprising letter from the Siege of Veracruz. In that letter, Robert E. Lee praised an unknown hero. But no one suspected that man was an assassin – the perpetrator in a record-breaking German cold case.

Lee at the Siege of Veracruz

General Winfield Scott masterminded the siege in March 1847 as the opening gambit to his campaign in the Mexican-American War. While General Zachary Taylor remained in northern Mexico, far from the capital, Scott planned an amphibious landing near Veracruz. He wanted to capture the Mexican port city and then march inland, following Cortez’s route from centuries before, to sack Mexico City.

The Siege of Veracruz was Robert E. Lee’s first battle. He directed the fire at an onshore naval battery. A German company from Pennsylvania’s first regiment was assigned to defending it. Eight Americans died at the battery before the U.S. won the siege, and one of those deaths made a profound impression on Lee. On April 11, he put his feelings on paper in a letter to his son Custis:

Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter

There was one poor fellow that behaved nobly. His thigh was broke by a cannon ball & he was laid in a trench at the rear of the battery for security, the balls & shells were flying so thick that he could not be borne away. A bush was stuck over him to keep the sun out of his eyes & all that we could give him was occasionally a cup of bad warm water. The men at the guns were hot & thirsty & drank up the water as fast as it could be brought. It was at some distance & the balls swept over the field & at such a furious rate that the officers would not let the men go for water except when they could not do without it. There the poor fellow lay till evening; when they got a litter & was bearing him off, when a shell fell & burst & a fragment killed him. He laid the whole day with the balls & bombs flying over him without uttering a complaint. His sufferings must have been very great, for the battery kept up a constant & brisk firing & the concussion from the 32 [pounders] & Paixhan guns shook the whole ground & must have pained him terribly. I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man.*

This unknown hero has been a discussion point in the literature. Why would Robert E. Lee balance American military objectives against the life of one man and find them lacking?

But no one, until now, has asked who that man was.

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz, ca. 1848. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

The unknown hero turns out to be a long-sought criminal

A careful comparison of the American casualty list against descriptions of the deaths at the naval battery in primary sources such as logbooks, letters, and a newspaper account from an embedded journalist all point to a German volunteer in the 1st Pennsylvania.

Robert E. Lee couldn’t have known the man’s background. It would have shocked him. The man was the assassin in a record-breaking German cold case – 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved and its only murder ever solved in the USA.

For the first time, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee (Kent State University Press, September 1, 2017) brings these two stories together. It offers American history packaged in international true crime wrapping. You can order the book here on Amazon.

Next week we’ll look at the German case and the letter from America that provided the crucial clue.

Literature on point:

*Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers, Virginia Historical Society.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (New York: Penguin Books, 2009; discusses the letter on p. 173).

Bernice-Marie Yates, The Perfect Gentleman: The Life and Letters of George Washington Custis Lee, Vol. 1 (Xulon Press, 2003; discusses the letter on pp. 92-94).

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Lincoln’s dog Fido: A Faithful Pet Assassinated Like His Master

Lincoln's dog Fido

Lincoln’s dog Fido (1860); public domain.

Two theories on the popularity of the name “Fido”

Fido.

Do you actually know a dog with that name? It’s so cliché no one names their dog Fido anymore. Fido has instead become a generic name for dogs: “Bring Fido on vacation.” “Is expensive dog food really good for Fido?”

How did Fido become so popular that the name became generic?

Dog lovers and historians have advanced two theories. One is that Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido influenced the name’s popularity, the other that is was the Italian dog Fido in WWII. Which theory is right? We’ll look at both against the backdrop of the popular literature of the day to find a clear winner. You might want to have a box of tissues because both of these stories are sad.

Lincoln’s dog Fido: Assassinated like his master

Articles in both Psychology Today and the American Kennel Club attribute the popularity of the name to Lincoln’s dog Fido.

Pharmacy records in Springfield, Illinois indicate Lincoln had a dog already in 1855. He purchased de-worming medication. That dog was probably “Fido,” a yellow lab mix, of whom a few photographs survive. Lincoln decided not to take Fido with him to the White House and left his dog in the care of a friend while he was gone.

A year after Lincoln’s assassination, Fido also met tragedy. A drunken man was sitting on the curb. Fido jumped up him with his dirty paws. In an intoxicated rage, the man knifed the dog. That’s how Lincoln’s dog Fido met his end. Assassinated like his master, said Johnny Roll, a member of Fido’s adoptive family.

Fido’s reputation as the First Pooch, the first presidential dog ever photographed, and as assassinated pet catapulted the name Fido into enduring popularity.

mMonument to the Italian Fido

Tuscanycalling, Dante Square and monument to the Italian Fido, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The Italian Fido: Ever faithful

A book on dog names attributes the popularity of Fido to an Italian dog belonging to Carlo Soriano. Soriano rescued the dog and named him Fido (“I am faithful”). Thereafter Fido waited for Soriano’s bus every day to accompany him home from work. One day during WWII, Soriano was killed in an air raid while at work. Fido continued to wait for his master at the bus stop every day – another fourteen years – until the dog’s death. Fido’s faithfulness received worldwide attention. Italy even erected a statue of Fido to commemorate his faithfulness.

So which dog made the name Fido famous?

If you peruse old newspapers, you’ll find dogs named Fido going all the back to the 18th century. Lincoln’s dog Fido wasn’t the first with that name. After Lincoln’s death, however, the name occurs more frequently in online newspaper searches, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s due to increased popularity of the name or the availability of more newspapers for that time period.

"Fido" appears as a generic name in a mock trial in 1906.

“Fido” appears as a generic dog name in a mock trial in 1906. “Administrator’s Notice,” Mexico Missouri Message (Feb. 22, 1906). Public domain.

An 1875 review of the clerks records of registered dog names a good thermometer reading of the popularity their popularity. Fido was tied for the third most popular, preceded only by Jip and Carlo. Another survey of dog licensing records in Bakersfield, CA indicates that Fido had almost completely dropped out of the list by 1900. Only one person named their dog Fido. A Minneapolis paper of 1901, however, indicates that Fido was still a popular name at a dog show.

By 1906, Fido begins to appear as a generic term for dogs. It was used as the name for a fictional dog in a mock trial. And in 1910, a satirical article about dogs appeared by an author named “Fido.”

Fido as a newspaper author

“Fido” is already writing newspaper articles by 1908. Fido, “There’s Nothing Nowadays Like Being a Flossie Little Dog,” The Spokane Press (July 15, 1908). Public domain.

All that indicates that Fido was popular canine name long before the Italian Fido was even born. Hence, it’s Lincoln’s dog Fido, the assassinated pet, to whom we should attribute the enduring popularity of the name.

 Literature on point:

 Administrator’s Notice,” Mexico Missouri Message (Feb. 22, 1906).

Matthew Algeo, Abe and Fido: Lincoln’s Love of Animals and the Touching Story of His Favorite Canine Companion (Chicago Review Press, 2015).

Dog Names: “The Most Popular of the Pack (1875),” Worcester (Mass.) Gazette via the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (Aug. 24, 1875).

Dorothy Meserve Kuhnhardt, “Lincoln’s Lost Dog,” Life (Feb. 15, 1954).

Man’s Best Friend,” Minneapolis Journal (Dec. 14, 1901).

Laurie Bogart Morrow, The Giant Book of Dog Names (Gallery Books, 2012).

Popular Dog Names in the Early 1900s,” woofreport (April 12, 2017).

Randy Shore, “Names Increasingly Reflect Dogs’ Integration into the Family,” Vancouver Sun (Oct. 189, 2009).

Fido, “There’s Nothing Nowadays Like Being a Flossie Little Dog,” The Spokane Press (July 15, 1908).

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Who Killed Constable Cock? American Civil War Veterans in a British Case

Constable Cock, murder victim.

Constable Cock, murder victim. Courtesy of Angela Buckley, public domain.

It was dark.

The clocks on Manchester’s towers were ticking towards midnight on August 1, 1876 when one of the most sensational crimes of Victorian England occurred. A gibbous moon was setting in the west, but you probably wouldn’t have seen it. The night was clouded and trees overhung the lane as 21-year-old Constable Cock picked his way along his beat.

Heading north on Manchester Road in the village of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Constable Cock overtook a law student, John Massey Simpson, who was heading home. They walked together for awhile. At the intersection of West Point, another policeman, Constable Beanland joined them for a brief chat before Simpson started east along Upper Chorlton Road. He only walked about 150 yards when two shots rang out behind him, following a man’s voice: “Murder, murder! Oh, I’m shot!”

Simpson ran back to find Constable Cock on the ground, blood spurting from his chest, and Beanland standing over him, blowing his whistle to alert other policemen on their beats. Nicholas Cock died before he had a chance to say who killed him.

Thus began one of England’s most spectacular murder cases – famous not only for the cold-blooded killing of a police officer, but for a Perry Mason-like twist that later turned the entire case on its head. Constable Cock has never been forgotten in England. Even today, police officers on

Constable Cock has never been forgotten in England. Even today, police officers on beat in Chorlton-cum-Hardy stop by his grave to pay their respects.

An American Civil War connection

Angela Buckley has just published a book on the Constable Cock case, the second in her Victorian Supersleuth series. I won’t give away the twist – it would spoil the book for you – but can say that one of the surprising aspects for me was the connection to the American Civil War.

Buckley’s book covers two sensational Victorian crimes because one influenced the other. A murder in the Fenian Rising nine years before Constable Cock’s murder changed public sentiment. And that influenced the Constable Cock Case. Instrumental in the Fenian Rising and the murder were two Civil War veterans, Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy, who returned to Europe after the war.

Angela Buckley joins us today to talk about the connection between the two cases.

Welcome, Angela!

Angela Buckley, author.

Angela Buckley, with permission.

Colonel Thomas Kelly and Captain Timothy Deasy were both American Civil War veterans, yet they sparked one of the most sensational criminal trials of Victorian Britain. How did that come about?

Following the American Civil War, many members of Irish Republican Brotherhood (also known as the Fenians) returned to their homeland to continue the battle against the British authorities for home rule. Veteran Colonel Thomas J. Kelly was instrumental in planning the Fenian Rising of 1867. When the campaign failed, Colonel Kelly was arrested but later escaped.

Later that year, Kelly was re-arrested in Manchester, along with one of his colleagues, Captain Timothy Deasy. On 18 September, the prisoners were being transported to prison when the police van was attacked by their supporters. Kelly and Deasy were liberated but only after a police officer Sergeant Charles Brett had been shot dead. A massive manhunt followed, which led to the arrest of some 50 Irish men in the city. On 23 November 1867, William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien were hanged for Sergeant Brett’s murder and became known as ‘The Manchester Martyrs’. Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy fled back to the US.

Colonel Thomas Kelly played an important role in the Fenian Rising.

Colonel Thomas J. Kelly, via Wikipedia, public domain.

Were they ever tried themselves?

 No, Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy were never re-captured and both took refuge in the US. Colonel Kelly remained a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in New York and died in the city in 1908. He is buried with his wife in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx.

What kind of a career did the two have in the Civil War?

Timothy Deasy had migrated from Ireland to America with his family in 1847. In 1861, he enlisted in the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, primarily made up of Irish-Americans. He fought in 32 engagements showing considerable gallantry and leadership. Despite being wounded in the Battle of Spotsylvania, Deasy remained in command of his company. At the end of Civil war, he became a captain in the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Thomas Kelly was also a ‘battle-hardened’ veteran of the Civil War. He had emigrated to the US from Ireland in 1851. During the Civil War he served in the 10th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, also an Irish regiment. He was promoted to First Sergeant of C Company in the summer of 1861. Like Deasy, Kelly was badly wounded but continued his service. He attained the rank of captain.

Postage stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Fenian Rising.

Postage stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Fenian Rising. Boris15 / Shutterstock.com, with permission.

How did these two Civil War veterans influence prejudice against the Irish?

The nationalist fervour of both these men was renewed during the American Civil War and, in 1865, they were ready to take arms against the British authorities. This led to a more organised campaign with greater structure and focus. Colonel Kelly took charge of Fenian operations in Manchester and Captain Deasy was stationed in Liverpool. Terror of Irish nationalism and the Fenians was already rife in mainland Britain, and this new campaign sent Victorians of all levels of society into an acute panic, reinforcing their long-held prejudice against the Irish in general.

Your book is about the murder of a Victorian police officer that was sensationalist in its own right. Nevertheless, Kelly’s and Deasy’s actions had a huge influence on the Constable Cock case. How?

Although the murder of Constable Cock took place almost a decade after that of Sergeant Brett, the Fenian uprising in Manchester was still fresh in the minds of the city’s inhabitants. As the prime suspects were three Irish brothers, known locally for their drinking and belligerence, their case was seriously prejudiced by contemporary opinions, despite there being no real proof for such assumptions and only the flimsiest of evidence against them. Furthermore, at that time in Manchester, 25 per cent of convicted criminals were Irish and a third of prisoners in its principal gaol were Catholic. At the Habron brothers’ trial, most of the witnesses for the defence were illiterate Irish co-workers, whose testimonies were discounted.

Lord Justice Lindley presided over the trial for Constable Cock's murder.

Lord Justice Lindley presided over the first trial for Constable Cock’s murder.

A critical piece of evidence in the Constable Cock case dealt with footprint evidence. How advanced were footprint comparisons as a forensic tool in 1876?

By 1876, the identification of suspects through footprint analysis was a fairly common practice used by the British police. However, the methods were still very rudimentary. In this case, the investigating officer, Superintendent James Bent, made impressions with the suspects’ boots next to the footprints near the crime scene and then compared the two – he even had to cover the prints with a cardboard box to preserve them when it started to rain! Despite the absence of any scientific analysis, Superintendent Bent was satisfied that the prints near the spot where Constable Cock was murdered had been made by his prime suspect William Habron. The boot prints were the main evidence on which Habron was tried for murder.

_______________________________________________________

Thank you, Angela!

Who Killed Constable Cock, book cover

Who Killed Constable Cock, book cover, courtesy of Angela Buckley.

Read Angela’s book, Who Killed Constable Cock, to get a completely different view of the evidence.

Literature on point:

Moonrise, Moonset, and Phase Calendar for London, August 1876

August 1876 Moon Phases

Angela Buckley, Who Killed Constable Cock?: A Victorian True Crime Murder Case (Manor Vale Associates, 2017)

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Dying Declaration: Judicial Musket Fire in the Boston Massacre

Dying declaration.

jorisvo, Stained glass window depicting an old man of his deathbed, surrounded by family. Stained glass window in the German Church in Stockholm, Shutterstock.

It’s perhaps fitting that one of the most controversial hearsay exceptions was first used in one of the most controversial trials of United States history. The muskets the British soldiers fired in the Boston Massacre found their marks in American patriotism. The massacre became a watershed event in American history – one of the events that incited the American Revolution.

A statement defense attorney John Adams introduced into evidence also echoed through the hallways of judicial history. The Boston Massacre trials marked the first time the American history the dying declaration was used as evidence.

What is the dying declaration? Why is it so controversial? And what role did it play in the Boston Massacre?

The dying declaration as a hearsay exception

Hearsay is one of those boundary stones that demarcate the law of evidence. It consists of an out-of-court statement, made by anyone other than a defendant, offered into evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Courts exclude hearsay because it isn’t as reliable as court testimony – it isn’t made under oath and isn’t subject to cross-examination. The jury can’t judge the declarant’s demeanor.

But there are lots of exceptions. One of them is called the dying declaration.

Here’s how the Federal Rules of Evidence define the dying declaration. State rules of evidence are similar.

Rule 804. Hearsay Exceptions: Declarant Unavailable

 

(b) Heasay Exceptions: The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule if the declarant is unavailable as a witness:

….

(2) Statement Under Belief of Impending Death. In a trial for homicide or in a civil action, a statement a statement that the declarant, while believing the declarant’s death to be imminent, made about its cause or circumstances.*

Not a deathbed confession

Note the difference.

A declarant must have made a statement about the cause of what he or she believes to his or her impending death. Some states require that the declarant actually died before allowing the statement into evidence.

Courts consider dying declarations reliable enough to overcome the hearsay rule: A dying person doesn’t have reason to lie, and a statement about the cause of death might be the only evidence available. Think of it as giving the dead a say in court.

When a person clears their conscience on their deathbed, however, and confesses to a crime, law enforcement can use that to help close a case, but it can’t be admitted into evidence.

Shakespeare and the dying declaration

The dying declaration dates all the way back to 1202 – the reign of King John. And that’s perhaps fitting, because Shakespeare includes a dying declaration in his play King John (Act V, scene 4):

Have I not hideous death within my view …
What in the world should make me now deceive,
Since I must lose the use of all deceit?
Why should I then be false, since it is true
That I must die here and live hence by truth?

Dying declaration and the confrontation clause

The possibility that some people might lie on their deathbed makes the dying declaration controversial. In a 2004 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court called many of the traditional hearsay exceptions into question: The lack of opportunity to cross-examine the declarant can violate the confrontation clause of the Constitution. The Court hasn’t specifically addressed the dying declaration, but its future is now in the air.

Boston Massacre

Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre (1770, public domain), via Wikipedia.

Dying declaration in the Boston Massacre

As a 34-year-old lawyer, the future President, John Adams, defended the British soldiers. The job guaranteed unpopularity with the American patriots, but Adams felt it was his ethical duty to offer representation. He did a good job, too. Most of the soldiers were acquitted, and for the other two, Adams could reduce the crime down to manslaughter.

Critical to his defense was the dying declaration of Patrick Carr, one of the victims. This testimony constituted the first use of the dying declaration in the American colonies. In violation of colonial law, two British soldiers had fired on a mob of Americans when the soldiers felt threatened. Carr’s deathbed statement to his doctor goes to the cause of his death and indicates a lack of premeditation – an element of murder.

Here is John Adams in the courtroom, examining the doctor on the stand:

John Adams

John Adams, Second President of the United States, Gilbert Stuart [1823, Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Testimony of Dr. John Jeffries

Q. Was you Patrick Carr’s surgeon?

 

A.  I was in the company of others. I was called that evening about eleven o’clock to him…. Dr. Lloyd, who was present, turned round to me and said Jeffries, I believe this man will be able to tell us how the affair was, we had better ask him: I asked him then how long he had been in King-street when they fired? he said he went from Mr. Field’s when the bells rung, when he got to Walker’s corner, he saw many persons coming from Cornhill, who he was told had been quarrelling with the soldiers down there, that he went with them as far as the stocks, that he stopped there, but they passed on: while he was standing there he saw many things thrown at the Sentry. I asked him if he knew what was thrown? He said he heard the things strike against the guns, and they sounded hard, he believed they were oyster shells and ice; he heard the people huzza every time they heard anything strike that sounded hard: that he then saw some soldiers going down towards the Custom House, that he saw the people pelt them as they went along, after they had got down there, he crossed over towards Warden and Vernon’s shop, in order to see what they would do, that as he was passing he was shot, that he was taken up and carried home to Mr. Field’s by some of his friends. I asked him whether he thought the soldiers would fire; he told me he thought the soldiers would have fired long before. I then asked him whether he thought the soldiers were abused a great deal after they went down there; he said he thought they were. I asked him whether he thought the soldiers would have been hurt if they had not fired; he said he really thought they would, for he heard many voices cry out, kill them. I asked him then, meaning to close all, whether he thought they fired in self-defense, or on purpose to destroy the people; he said he really thought they did fire to defend themselves, that he did not blame the man, whoever he was, that shot him. This conversation was on Wednesday. He always gave the same answers to the same questions every time I visited him.

 

Q.  Was he apprehensive of his danger?

 

A.  He was told of it. He told me … he was a native of Ireland, that he had frequently seen mobs, and soldiers called upon to quell them…he had seen soldiers often fire on the people in Ireland, but had never seen them bear half so much before they fired in his life…

 

Q: How long did he live after he received his wound?

 

A. Ten days.

 

Q.  When had you the last conversation with him?

 

A.  About four o’clock in the afternoon, preceding the night on which he died, and he then particularly said, he forgave the man whoever he was that shot him, he was satisfied he had no malice, but fired to defend himself.**

Justice Oliver gave the following instruction to the jury:

This Carr was not upon oath, it is true, but you will determine whether a man, just stepping into eternity, is not to be believed; especially in favor of a a set of men by whom he had lost his life.***

John Adams’s legacy

John Adams later confided to his diary that his representation of the British soldiers was one of the most important things he’d ever done in his life:

The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.****


You might also like: The Five Greatest Criminal Trials of History. It also goes into the witch trials John Adams so despised.

What do you think? Should dying declarations be allowed as evidence?

Literature on point:

****John Adams, diary, March 5, 1773 (public domain).

Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004).

*Federal Rules of Evidence.

***Frederic Kidder & John Adams, History of the Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770 (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1870).

Liang, B. A. and Liang, A. C., Lies on the Lips: Dying Declarations, Western Legal Bias, and Unreliability as Reported Speech, Law Text Culture , 5, 2000.

Douglas Linder, “The Boston Massacre Trials.” Jurist (July 2001).

**Trial of the British Soldiers (Boston: William Emmons, 1824).

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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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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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