Regiswindis: Murder, Myth, and the Maiden

Regiswindis: Detail from a painting from an unknown artist from about 1480.

Regiswindis is found dead in the Neckar River. Detail from a painting from an unknown artist from about 1480. A copy is in the Regiswindis Church in Lauffen am Neckar. Public domain.

Regiswindis: Murder of an Innocent — Deutsche Übersetzung folgt

 She was only seven years old, so the story goes.

Regiswindis, the daughter of Count Ernst in the German town Lauffen am Neckar, grew up in her father’s castle. That’s where her nurse threw her down the castle cliff in May 839 AD. The nurse allegedly did it as revenge for Ernst’s rough treatment of her brother, another household servant. The murder became legend. Legend became folklore and the folklore influenced the local culture for centuries.

Regiswindis’s murder counts among the most spectacular murders of the Early Middle Ages in Germany’s Neckar Valley. And it certainly involved one of the youngest victims.

It’s fascinating to trace the crime through the centuries. How did a single medieval crime shape a town?  What role did Regiswindis play in religion and politics? Just how does she affect life today?

Regiswindis: The Legend

The nurse's brother getting whipped.

The nurse’s brother getting whipped. Detail from a painting from an unknown artist from about 1480. A copy is in the Regiswindis Church in Lauffen am Neckar. Public domain.

Various versions of the murder circulate in the literature. The most popular one – the one you’ll find on Wikipedia – tells how Count Ernst whipped one of his grooms for carelessness. The groom’s sister, the nurse, took revenge by strangling Regiswindis and throwing her charge down the castle cliff into the Neckar River.

Three days later, her body washed up on the river bank. Regiswindis had a peaceful countenance and her arms were stretched out like the crucified Christ. She was buried in the churchyard. Shortly thereafter, Hunbert, the bishop of Wurzburg, built a chapel to her memory and had Regiswindis interred there.

Four centuries later, in 1227, the bishop of Wurzburg canonized Regiswindis. The foundations of the Regiswindis church in Lauffen were laid, and her remains were moved to a stone sarcophagus in the church. In the early 16th century, the bones of Regiswindis were moved to a costly silver casket, which the government confiscated during the Battle of Lauffen during the Reformation. Not long after, her remains were lost, but probably received a Christian burial.

The banks of the Neckar where Regiswindis was probably found.

The banks of the Neckar where Regiswindis was probably found.

Regiswindis: An Expert Weighs In

 Dr. Otfried Kies, an expert on the Regiswindis murder, joins us today to separate fact from fiction. Dr. Kies has a Ph.D. in history, wrote his dissertation on Regiswindis, and has continued to update his research. I’m including his answers in the original German below; here is an English translation.

Eine deutsche Übersetzung findet man unten.

Welcome, Dr. Kies!

Dr. Otfried Kies, a Regiswindis expert.

Dr. Otfried Kies, a Regiswindis expert. With permission.

Did Regiswindis really exist? Is there any historical evidence?

The oldest documentation of Regiswindis was only a few years after her death around 840 AD, for example, “Re­gin­sindæ marti­ris et virgi­nis” in the Zür­cher Co­dex Rhenaugiensis CXXVIII (about 860), Kal. Reichenauer Kalendarium from 980, and in a document from King Heinrich II dated 1003, “sancta Re­gin­suint­dis.”

According to legend, the nurse threw Regiswindis down these castle walls/cliffs. The Regiswindis Church now stands where the castle once stood.

According to legend, the nurse threw Regiswindis down these castle walls/cliffs. The Regiswindis Church now stands where the castle once stood.

Are those documents credible?

Because her existence is mentioned in many documents and from places so far away from each other, there’s no doubt Regiswindis really lived and her father Ernst administered the royal fiefdom in Lauffen. Whether all the details of the legend are true is another question. The legends of the saints have their own visual vocabulary when it comes to the rationale for their sanctity.

In the course of time the Regiswindis legend has developed its own myths. For instance, she is said to have lived in the island castle in the Neckar. That castle, however, was built under the rule of the Salian Kaisers over a hundred years after the saint’s death. The royal court that her father Ernst administered was where the churchyard, with the Regiswindis church stands – which still looks something like a castle. You can’t see the remnants of the court anymore, but the site’s layout still tells us where it was.

Likewise, the completely unfounded myth – which tour guides still promulgate – is an assertion dating back to the late Middle Ages that Regiswindis came from Nordgau and is a great-granddaughter of Charlemagne. There are no credible sources to back that up, but only modern assertions based on the actual existence of a Countess Regiswind and the frequent occurrence of the name Ernst in Franconia (usually following the episode in Lauffen). But “Regiswind” was even more popular in the 9th century as a name in the entire Roman Empire than the name Kevin is in the Federal Republic of Germany today.

Lauffen's island castle, now serving as the city hall, was not the location of the murder. It was built a century after Regiswindis died.

Lauffen’s beautiful island castle, now serving as the city hall, was not the location of the murder. It was built more than a century after Regiswindis died.

Is Regiswindis the youngest of the German saints?

 She is at least among the youngest of the saints. There are indeed several child saints of the same age. The seven-year-old Saint Veit, whose relics were brought from France to the Abbey of Corvey, later had a shrine in the Veit Cathedral in Prague. The seven-year-old Margaretha was found drowned n Pforzheim on July 6, 1267 and canonized. Her alleged Jewish murderer was broken on the wheel on July 15, 1267, the name day for both Margaretha and Regiswindis. In both cases, the recently founded Dominicans wanted to create a religious movement.

Why was Regiswindis considered a martyr?

The painting of the nurse holding a knife at Regiswindis's throat.

The painting of the nurse holding a knife to Regiswindis’s throat. The original is on the side of her shrine and probably dates to the Middle Ages. Public domain.

Her martyrdom consisted of the nurse having murdered her, in that she strangled Regiswindis and then sunk her in the Neckar or drowned her there. Two accounts of Regiswindis (a picture on the side wall of a stone shrine in the chancel of the church and a keystone outside on the “Mount of Olives,” where she is showing a knife as an attribute), lead to the conclusion that some later sources viewed her death as a stabbing. The legend doesn’t mention that. Perhaps the word trucidare, which is used in connection with her death and means “kill,” but also “massacre,” led to this interpretation.

Can a child become a saint?

In the Middle Ages, children were first considered capable of a deliberate martyrdom – willingly sacrificing their lives for the sake of Christ – starting at the age of seven. There was always some doubt whether a child like Regiswindis could be a martyr of the faith. The Regiswindis legends tackle this doubt. It supposedly wasn’t the nurse herself who killed Regiswindis, but Satan. He poisoned the nurse’s soul because he was angry that the child’s baptism had removed her from his reach. Thus, the baptism led to the murder.

The Regiswindis shrine in the church, where her casket used to reside. It was stolen during the Reformation.

The Regiswindis shrine in the church, where her casket used to reside. It was removed during the Reformation.

 To what extent was the canonization of Regiswindis and political maneuver of the church and government?

 The origin of the Regiswindis cult was probably begun simultaneously by the clerics and lay people in Lauffen. The horrid murder of the girl by her nurse and teacher (nutrix, paedagoga) shocked the people back then just as much as it would shock us today.

The bishop in charge is supposed to have opposed the canonization for a long time – probably due to the “inflation” of possible saints at the time. The repeated warning of an angel, which became violent at the end, allegedly changed his mind. Even the church noticed that the possession of a saint’s relics would facilitate the development of the religious life in Lauffen. At the time, Old Württemberg had only one other relic in the form of a complete body, that of St. Walpurgis. In contrast, the nobility – her father hailed from the imperial nobility –  quickly recognized how valuable a saint for her family and other nobles could be, because that would place the entire family under the protection of God. For this reason, many (unmarried) women from noble houses were canonized.

What did people hope to gain by canonizing Regiswindis?

 The veneration of the saints was a strong tradition during Carolingian times; the real presence of the relic immediately assured the worshippers of the intercession of the saint before God. Because Christianity was not yet fully anchored among the populace, the occurrence served as an “advertisement” of the church for the new faith. Later, Regiswindis simply became an asset with which one could earn money – the faithful from everywhere donated a lot of money in gratitude for the saint’s intercession.

A beautiful, innocent noble who dies young: Is that a recipe for myth-making?

 You can’t deny that completely, because the unfortunate death of an innocent child deeply touched people no matter what time period they lived in. Beyond a doubt, the local population found it especially painful that a murder tore the young daughter of their ruling noble from them.

But you also can’t unreservedly affirm it, either. It has to do with the position women of various ages had in the consciousness of the time. Basically, during the time that Regiswindis was born and died in Lauffen, virgins (including young girls from the age of seven) and (rich) widows, who made the pious donations and led exemplary lifestyles, were held in high esteem. Being a wife didn’t provide justification for canonization. The church basically considered sexual activity, even within the context of marriage, a “stain.” The “Virgin” Mary, who was also a mother, was praised because she remained “unstained” (immaculata) in spite of the birth of Jesus.

Does the fascination for Regiswindis have something in common with the English fascination for Shakespeare’s Ophelia or Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”?All three were beautiful young women who found their deaths on a river.

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais, ca. 1851, public domain.

 I’d say unequivocally no. The high Middle Ages could also be very gay and sensuous. That was related to piety of the times. The courtly love of the troubadours and minstrels was a product of the cult of the Virgin Mary – whose veneration was transferred to living, beautiful women, even if they were (officially) unapproachable.

However, in Shakespeare’s Ophelia (1609) and even more so in “The Lady of Shalott” (1833), the fascination isn’t the “virginitas-virginity” which plays such a large role in the religious veneration of the virgin and martyr Regiswindis (virgo et martyr), but rather the opposite, the pronounced erotic effect that emanates from the “young woman languishing for love.”

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888, public domain.

Both young women, the Lady and Ophelia, have a sensuous beauty and unfulfilled love: “She hath no loyal knight and true, The Lady of Shallot.” The paintings John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) did to illustrate the ballad breathe this sensuality.

Shakespeare’s Ophelia dies, like the Lady of Shalott (in spite of her heartache), not as a victim of another’s crime or as a martyr of her faith. An (intentional) accident caused her death, as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude explains (Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7). She wove a (wedding) garland of “crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples.” A branch broke and caused her to fall into the water. Her clothing, weighted by the water, pulled her under. Her heartache expresses itself in the “old tunes,” or ancient songs/meolodies, that she sings while dying. The famous painting by John Everett Millais of Ophelia found drowned from the years 1851-1852 showed the same “sweet sensuality” that distinguished the Lady of Shallot and even Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust.

How has Regiswindis influenced the culture of Lauffen am Neckar?

The ornate beauty of Lauffen's Regiswindis Church. The church profited from its status as a pilgrimage destination.

The ornate beauty of the interior of Lauffen’s Regiswindis Church. The church profited from its status as a pilgrimage destination.

 Probably all saints of the Early Middle Ages, provided that their cult won recognition, have had a pronounced significance for the towns in which their remains were buried. Culturally, as well as economically, people made donations to the church of pilgrimage to save their souls. That promoted art and artists: Stonecutters and masons, painters, organ builders, and woodcutters transformed the church into something pleasurable for the senses. Pastoral care gave birth to Lauffen’s school system around the end of the 15th century. In order to lure pilgrims, the transportation infrastructure of roads had to be held open; bridges and inns had to be created. The already bustling road to the trade fairs to the north was supported by a ferry that initially belonged to the church. Later the authorities constructed a bridge, whose use was free for women and clerics. Inns sprang up on both banks of the Neckar. That stimulated trade, crafts, and markets. Even in a purely economic sense, the church became the center of the community. Following the Reformation (since 1534), the Regiswindis Church continued to be maintained and renovated, even though the cult had died out.

Even after the Reformation, the people in Lauffen were said to have hired their maids on the name day of Regiswindis as a warning about unfaithfulness to their employers. But the tales also tell that this tradition could put strange ideas into the servants’ heads. This might be an error of historians who didn’t know that the name days of Regiswindis and Margaretha, a “handmaid of the Lord,” one of the patron saints of maids, were on the same day in some regions of the kingdom.

How does Regiswindis live on today?

If you encounter difficulties on Lauffen's waters, the Regiswindis rescue boat just might pick you up. It's operated by the DLRG, Germany's water rescue organization, in Lauffen.

If you encounter difficulties on Lauffen’s waters, the Regiswindis rescue boat just might pick you up. It’s operated by the DLRG, Germany’s water rescue organization, in Lauffen. Photo courtesy of the Lauffen DLRG.

In Lauffen today Regiswindis symbolizes all the children and young people who are and have been victims of domestic and military violence, abuse, and exploitation. This propaganda has usurped Regiswindis – in that it has named a wine for her. Nevertheless, a portion of the profits for this wine goes to children’s charities. Regiswindis’s name as one of the rescue boats of the DLRG (Germany’s water rescue organization) is seen as a fitting gesture in memory of her death. As the name of one of the preschools, Regiswindis is an obvious reference to the duty of adults to nurture and protect children.

Today there are well over 50 versions of the legend: From the oldest surviving text of 1429, that has been handed down in a handwritten form and printed using an old form of handwriting, to accounts of the modern internet age that are to some extent intolerable, dishonorable, and without any scholarly knowledge of the legend and early medieval history.

The research necessary to provide an in-depth treatment of the legend, using many medieval documents (also with ancillary issues, such as the ancestry of the family, conditions of the time, and parallel events) has been undertaken; nevertheless, no one has showed an interest in publishing the work. My dissertation on the topic, as well as a small and extensively updated private publication, have sold out, but one can still obtain the dissertation in the university libraries like Heidelberg’s.

Many thanks, Dr. Kies!

Can you name any other murders that are still remembered 1200 years after the fact?

Literature on point:

Otfried Kies, Regiswindis: Das Mädchen aus Lauffen (Lauffen, Brackenheim, 2017, 2nd ed.).

Illustration of the Regiswindis chapel next to the church.

Illustration of the Regiswindis chapel and sarcophagus next to the church. Colorized wood engraving, 1866, public domain.

Interview auf Deutsch: Regiswindis von Lauffen am Neckar

Existierte Regiswindis tatsächlich? Welche historischen Beweise gibt es?

Die ältesten Erwähnungen von R. finden sich bereits wenige Jahrzehnte nach ihrem Tod um 840 n. Chr. in Heiligenkalendern und Gebetsverbrüderungen, z. B. „Reginsindæ martiris et virginis“ im Zürcher Codex Rhenaugiensis CXXVIII (um 860), dann im Reichenauer Kalendarium von 980. In einer Urkunde König Heinrichs II. von 1003 wird sie als „sancta Reginsuintdis“ erwähnt.

Sind diese Zeugnisse glaubhaft?

Dass in so vielerlei Schriften und an so weit auseinander liegenden Orten ihre Existenz ernsthaft bezeugt wird, lässt keinen Zweifel daran, dass Regiswindis wirklich gelebt hat und ihr Vater Ernst das Königslehen in Lauffen verwaltete. Ob alle Details der Legende wahr sind, ist eine andere Frage. Die Heiligenlegenden haben ihre eigene Bildsprache, wenn es um die Begründung des Heiligseins geht.

Im Laufe der Zeit haben sich um die Legende der Regiswindis eigene Sagen gebildet. So soll sie auf der Inselburg im Neckar gelebt haben. Die aber wurde unter den salischen Kaisern erst über ein Jahrhundert nach dem Tod der Heiligen errichtet. Der Königshof, den ihr Vater Ernst verwaltete, lag da, wo heute der immer noch burgartig wirkende „Kirchhof“ mit der Regiswindiskirche liegt. Spuren dieses Hofes sind nicht mehr zu sehen, verraten sich aber immer noch im Grundriss der Anlage.

Ebenso eine völlig unbegründete Sage – die aber von Gästeführern sehr gern wiedergegeben wird – ist die seit dem späten Mittelalter verbreiteten Behauptung, Regiswindis stamme aus dem Nordgau und sei eine Urenkelin Karls des Großen gewesen. Dafür gibt es keine glaubhaften Zeugnisse, sondern nur moderne Behauptungen, die sich auf die tatsächliche Existenz einer Gräfin Regiswind und das häufige Vorkommen des Namens Ernst (meist nach der Lauffen-Episode) in Franken stützen. Aber „Regiswind“ war im 9. Jahrhundert als Name im ganzen Römischen Reich häufiger als heute der Namen Kevin in der Bundesrepublik.

Ist Regiswindis die jüngste unter deutschen Heiligen?

Sie ist zumindest einer der jüngsten Heiligen. Es gibt tatsächlich einige gleich alte Kinderheilige. Der siebenjährige Hl. Veit, dessen Reliquie im 9. Jahrhundert von Frankreich nach Kloster Corvey gebracht wurde, fand später im Veitsdom zu Prag seine Verehrungstätte. Die gleichaltrige Margaretha wurde am 6. Juli 1267 in Pforzheim ertränkt aufgefunden und heiliggesprochen. Ihre angeblichen jüdischen Mörder wurden am Margarethen- oder Regiswindistag, dem 15. Juli 1267, gerädert. Das Datum verrät, dass ganz gezielt zwischen Regiswindis und Margaretha ein Bezug hergestellt wurde. In beiden Fällen wollten die kurz zuvor gegründeten Dominikaner eine religiöse Bewegung bewirken.

Worin bestand das Martyrium?

Ihr Martyrium bestand in der Ermordung durch ihre Amme, die sie erwürgt und nach der Tat im Neckar versenkt oder aber dort ertränkt haben soll. Zwei Darstellungen der Regiswindis (ein Bild an der Seitenwand eines Steinschranks im Chor der Kirche und ein Schlussstein außen am „Ölberg“, wo sie ein Messer als Attribut zeigt) lassen vermuten, dass manche Spätere ihren Tod als durch Erstechen erfolgt ansahen. Die Legende weiß davon nichts. Vielleicht hat das Wort „trucidare“, das im Zusammenhang mit dem Tod verwendet wurde und die Bedeutungen „töten“, aber auch „hinmetzeln“ hat, zu dieser Deutung geführt.

Kann ein Kind heilig werden?

Kinder wurden im Mittelalter ab dem siebten Lebensjahr als fähig zum bewussten Martyrium – der Opferung ihres Lebens um Christi willen – angesehen. Doch gab es immer Zweifel daran, ob ein Kind wie Regiswindis „Glaubenszeuge“ sein könnte. In der Legenda von Regiswindis wird dieser Zweifel abgewehrt. Nicht die Amme war es eigentlich, die Regiswindis tötete, sondern der Satan. Der hatte die Seele der Amme vergiftet, weil er zornig darüber war, dass das Kind durch die sofortige Taufe seinem Zugriff entzogen wurde. So kam es wegen der Taufe zum Mord.

Inwieweit war die Heiligsprechung Regiswindis ein politisches Manöver der Kirche und des Adels?

Der Kult der Regiswindis wurde ursprünglich wohl von Laien und Klerikern in Lauffen zugleich begonnen. Die grausame Ermordung des Mädchens durch ihre Amme und Erzieherin („nutrix, paedagoga“) erschütterte die Menschen damals so sehr, wie sie uns heute erschüttert.

Der zuständige Bischof soll sich längere Zeit – wohl wegen der damaligen Inflation an allen möglichen Heiligen – einer Heiligsprechung widersetzt haben. Erst die mehrfache, zum Schluss sogar gewalttätige Mahnung eines Engels brachte ihn dazu. Auch in der Kirche merkte man, dass es für die Entwicklung des Kirchenlebens in Lauffen günstig war, eine Heilige als Reliquie zu besitzen. Es gab ja ohnehin nur eine einzige andere vollständige Körperreliquie im alten Württemberg, die der heiligen Walpurgis. Dagegen erkannte der Adel bald – ihr Vater stammte aus dem Reichsadel – wie wertvoll eine Heilige für die Familie und den Adel überhaupt sein konnte, weil sie die ganze Familie unter den Schutz Gottes stellte. Aus diesem Grund wurden damals viele (unverheiratete) Frauen aus Adelshäusern heiliggesprochen.

Was versprach man sich von der Heiligsprechung?

Die Heiligenverehrung war zur Zeit der Karolinger sehr stark. Man glaubte, die Realpräsenz der Reliquie sichere den Anbetenden unmittelbar die Fürsprache der Heiligen vor Gott. Das Christentum war noch nicht völlig in der Bevölkerung verankert. Darum diente das Geschehen auch als „Werbung“ der Kirche für den neuen Glauben. Später war Regiswindis für viele einfach ein Kapital, das viele Zinsen brachte – die Gläubigen von überall stifteten ja zum Dank für die Fürsprache viel Geld.

Eine schöne, unschuldige Adlige, die jung stirbt: Ist das ein Rezept für Mythisierung?

Man kann das nicht ganz verneinen, denn der unglückliche Tod eines unschuldigen Kindes hat Menschen zu allen Zeiten besonders bewegt. Und zweifellos war es für Ortsbevölkerung besonders schmerzlich, dass ein Mord die junge Tochter des adligen Herrn hinwegriss.

Aber man kann es nicht uneingeschränkt bejahen. Es hängt auch damit zusammen, welche Stellung Frauen verschiedenen Alters im Bewusstsein der Zeit einnahmen. Grundsätzlich wurden in der Zeit, als Regiswindis in Lauffen geboren wurde und starb, Jungfrauen (also auch kleine Mädchen ab sieben Jahren) mit verdienstvollem Tod und (reiche) Witwen, die fromme Stiftungen machten und einen vorbildlichen Lebenswandel führten, hoch verehrt. Ehefrau zu sein, begründete keinen Anspruch auf Heiligsprechung. Hieraus spricht die Auffassung der Kirche, dass sexuelle Betätigung, selbst in der Ehe, grundsätzlich eine „Befleckung“ sei. An der „Jungfrau“ Maria, die ja schließlich auch Mutter war, wurde demgemäß gepriesen, dass sie trotz der Geburt Jesu „immaculata = unbefleckt“ gewesen sei.

Hat die deutsche Faszination für Regiswindis etwas mit der englischen Faszination für Shakespeares Ophelia oder Alfred, Lord Tennysons „Die Lady von Shalott“ gemeinsam?

Das würde ich völlig verneinen. Das hohe Mittelalter konnte zwar sehr lebenslustig und sinnenfroh sein. Dies hing sogar mit der Frömmigkeit zusammen. Der Minnekult der Troubadoure und Minnesinger ist eine Frucht des Muttergotteskultes um Maria – deren Verehrung wird dabei auf die lebendige schöne, wenn auch (offiziell) unnahbare adlige Dame übertragen.

In Shakespeares „Ophelia“(1609) und mehr noch in der „Lady von Shalott“ (1833) ist es nicht die „virginitas-Jungfräulichkeit“, die in der religiösen Verehrung der Jungfrau und Glaubenszeugin Regiswindis („virgo et martyr“) eine so große Rolle spielt, sondern geradezu das Gegenteil, die starke erotische Wirkung, die von der „nach Liebe schmachtenden jungen Frau“ ausgeht.

Beide junge Frauen, die Lady und Ophelia, sind von sinnlicher Schönheit und voll unerfüllter Liebe: „Sie hat keinen treuen Ritter, der zu ihr hält, die Lady von Shalott = She hath no loyal knight and true, The Lady of Shalott.“ Die Bilder von John William Waterhouse (1849 – 1917) zu der Ballade atmen ganz diese Sinnlichkeit. Shakespeares Ophelia stirbt wie die „Lady von Shalott“ (trotz seelischer Qualen) nicht durch ein handfestes Verbrechen anderer und als Opfer ihres Glaubens. Ihren Tod verursachte, wie in „Hamlet“ (4. Aufzug, 7. Szene) Hamlets Mutter Gertrude erzählt, ein (gesuchter) Unfall. Sie flicht am Bach einen (Braut-)Kranz von „Hahnfuß, Nesseln, Maßlieb, Kuckucksblumen“. Ein brechender Ast lässt sie ins Wasser fallen. Ihre vom Wasser schwer gewordenen Kleider ziehen sie hinunter. Ihr seelischer Schmerz drückt sich aus in den „old tunes = alten Weisen“, die sie im Sterben singt. Das berühmte Bild der ertrunken aufgefundenen „Ophelia“ von John Everett Millais aus den Jahren 1851-1852 zeigt an ihr die gleiche „süße Sinnlichkeit“, die die Lady von Shalott und auch das deutsche Gretchen in Goethes „Faust“ auszeichnet.

Wie hat Regiswindis die Kultur von Lauffen am Neckar beeinflusst?

Wohl alle frühmittelalterlichen Heiligen haben, wenn sich ihr Kult durchsetzte, eine sehr starke Bedeutung für die Gemeinde, in der ihr Leib beerdigt war, gehabt. Kulturell wie wirtschaftlich. Menschen machten im Mittelalter zur Rettung des Seelenheils Stiftungen an die Wallfahrtskirche. Dies förderte die Künste und Künstler: Steinmetze und Maurer, Maler, Orgelbauer, Holzschnitzer und Goldschmiede machten Wallfahrt und Kirche nicht nur erbaulich für die Seele, sondern auch zu einem sinnlichen Vergnügen. Aus der Seelsorge erwuchs gegen Ende des 15. Jahrhunderts das Lauffener Schulwesen. Um diese Pilger und Stifter anzulocken, hielt man Verkehrswege offen, schuf Brücken und Unterkünfte. Der ohnehin belebte Verkehrsweg zu den nördlich gelegenen großen Handelsmessen wurde durch eine Fähre gefördert, die anfangs der Kirche gehörte. Später errichtete die Herrschaft eine Brücke über den Neckar, deren Benutzung für Frauen und Kleriker frei war. An beiden Ufern des Neckars entwickelten sich Wirtshäuser. Das befruchtete Gewerbe, Handel und Märkte. Der Heiligentag, der 15. Juli, wurde zu einem mehrtägigen Fest und Markt. Die Kirche wurde auch rein wirtschaftlich zu einem Mittelpunkt der Gemeinde. Die Regiswindis-Kirche wurde nach der Reformation (seit 1534) weiter gepflegt und erneuert, als der Kult längst abgeschafft war.

Es wird (nach der Reformationszeit!) erzählt. man habe in Lauffen am Regiswindis-Tag die Mägde neu angestellt, um sie vor Untreue gegen die Arbeitgeber zu warnen. Allerdings oft mit dem Zusatz, dass dieser Brauch die Dienstboten erst auf eigenartige Gedanken bringen könnte. Dies mag ein Irrtum der Historiker sein, denen nicht bekannt war, dass die Heiligentage der Regiswindis und der Margaretha, als „Magd des Herrn“ eine der Schutzpatroninnen der Mägde, in manchen Reichsteilen zusammenfielen.

Wie lebt Regiswindis weiter?

Im heutigen Lauffen symbolisiert Regiswindis all die Kinder und jungen Menschen, die Opfer von häuslicher und kriegerischer Gewalt, Missbrauch und Ausbeutung werden und geworden sind. Die Werbung hat sich des Kindes bemächtigt – indem sie einen Wein nach ihr benannte. Doch geht ein Teil des Gewinns dieses Weins an Hilfe für Kinder. Regiswindis‘ Name als der eines Rettungsbootes der DLRG ist eine schöne, auf den Anlass des Todes bezogene Geste anzusehen. Auch als Name eines Kindergartens ist Regiswindis ein klarer Bezug zur Pflicht der Erwachsenen, Kinder zu fördern und zu schützen.

Heute gibt es weit über 50 verschiedene Fassungen der Legende: Von dem bisher ältesten erhaltenen Text von 1429, der in einer handschriftlichen und einer nach einer alten Handschrift gedruckten Fassung überliefert ist, bis zu teilweise unerträglich unwürdigen und ohne Kenntnis der Legende und der frühmittelalterlichen Geschichte verfassten Darstellungen des Stoffes in der jüngsten Internet-Zeit.

Die erforderliche gründliche Behandlung des Legendenstoffes, unter Benutzung vieler mittelalterliche Dokumente (auch zu Nebenfragen, wie der Herkunft der Familie, den Zeitbedingungen, parallelen Ereignissen) ist abgeschlossen; doch hat sich bisher niemand bereitgefunden, diese Arbeit zu veröffentlichen. Die darüber verfasste Dissertation und eine kleine, erheblich erweiterte Privatauflage sind vergriffen; die Dissertationsschrift ist in Universitätsbibliotheken, z.B. Heidelberg, einzusehen.

Danke, Dr. Kies!


Otfried Kies, Regiswindis: Das Mädchen aus Lauffen (Lauffen, Brackenheim, 2017, 2nd ed.).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audrey Schultz   |   April 17, 2018

Originally posted on the Swenson Book Development Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Marie Ackermann, author of Death of an Assassin

Death of an Assassin author Ann Marie Ackermann

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

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

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

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

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

Death of an Assassin cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert E. Lee's letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SBD: What are your writing plans for the future?

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

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

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

Image credits:

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

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

Böse Alte Zeit by Jan Wiechert.

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

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

Jan Wiechert and the Bad Ole Times

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

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

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

Interview with German true crime author Jan Wiechert

Archivist Jan Wiechert brings history alive through crime stories.

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

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

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

What role did superstition play in the administration of justice?

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

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

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

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

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

City gate in Iphofen, Germany

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

How did city and castle walls help to catch criminals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you planning another book?

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

Thank you, Jan Wiechert!

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

Interview mit Jan Wiechert auf Deutsch


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

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

Welche Rolle spielte der Aberglauben in der Justiz?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planen Sie noch ein Buch?

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

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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 /, 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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Death of a Texas Ranger: Interview with Author Cynthia Leal Massey

Real quick now: What are the first things that come to your mind when you think of the Texas frontier?

Cowboys? Check.

Rangers? Check.

Indians? Check.

Mexicans? Check.

But how about paleontologists? Did you think about them, too?

Fossil hunters tended to stick to the background, picking their way through the Texas bone beds, but they were very much part of the frontier. Texas was a magnet for 19th-century collectors. Universities and museums on the east coast, even in Europe, hired them to augment their collections. Mix the paleontologists up with the usual cast of characters and you sometimes had a great recipe for violence and murder.

In her book, Death of a Texas Ranger (2014), Cynthia Leal Massey successfully stirs a paleontologist into the frontier murder recipe. Her book deals with what was once the coldest case on the San Antonio court docket (37 years to case closure!) and features all the traditional characters listed above. The culinary result was a winner. Death of a Texas Ranger took the 2015 Will Rogers Silver Medallion Award for Best Western Nonfiction and the 2015 San Antonio Conservation Society Publication Award.

Cynthia Leal Massey joins us for an interview today. Welcome, Cynthia!

Cnythia Leal Massey, author of "Death of a Texas Ranger."

Courtesy of Cynthia Leal Massey.

Death of a Texas Ranger actually chronicles two homicides, one of a Ranger in 1873 and another of a postmaster in 1878. Tell us first how the Ranger died.

On the morning of July 9, 1873, Minute Men Texas Ranger Troop V of Medina County was breaking camp at a site in northwest Bexar County, Texas, near the settlement of Helotes, getting ready for a scout. Private Cesario Menchaca came out of the bushes and confronted Sgt. John Green (a German immigrant originally born Johann Gruen). After a few tense words, Sgt. Green moved toward Menchaca, who had a rifle in his hands, and Menchaca shot him, killing him on the spot.

John Green’s company was a colorful mixture of Texans, Germans, and Mexicans. Did Germans and Mexicans often serve as Rangers?

During the early days of the Ranger companies, Mexicans did serve in a sort of multicultural unit; however, it was not the norm. The Ranger company that John Green served in was composed of ranchers and farmers from northwest Bexar County and southeast Medina County. A mixture of Germans, Mexicans (or Texicans), and Anglos, lived in this region. These men had something in common–they wanted to protect their families and their livestock.

John Green, murder victim in "Death of a TExas Ranger."

John Green, ca. 1869. Courtesy of Shirley Sweet.

Menchaca fled to Mexico. The U.S. and Mexico already had an extradition treaty at the time of the killing. Why didn’t it help Texas extradite Cesario Menchaca from Mexico?

Apparently, no one was able do the work necessary to get the extradition paperwork together.

How did the Green homicide end up becoming the coldest case on the San Antonio court docket?

The United States has no statute of limitations on murder. The 1873 indictment charge was murder, so by necessity, it moved forward on the docket, despite no activity in his apprehension. In 1897, Deputy Will Green, the victim’s son, petitioned the court for a new Bill of Indictment, since the sitting judge was eager to remove old cases from the docket. Deputy Green was successful and with a new bill of indictment and case number, the murder case remained on the docket. However, because of circumstances regarding the outcome of the extradition request, the case remained on the docket until Menchaca’s death in 1910, 37 years from the initial indictment.

turtle fossil

A fossil of the extinct turtle Baena arenosa from the Green River Formation, Wyoming, USA estimated to be fifty million years old. Professor Leidy also collected fossils of this species. By (c) Linnas,, with permission.

How did a turtle fossil lead to a fossil hunter killing the postmaster?

Gabriel Wilson Marnoch, a frontier naturalist, lived in Helotes. He was a neighbor of the Green family and was allegedly involved in the Green killing. Marnoch collected specimens and fossils and mailed large boxes of his finds to scientific institutions around the country. He was a frequent visitor to the Helotes Post Office, where Carl “Charles” Mueller was postmaster. In the spring of 1877, Marnoch received correspondence from Professor Joseph Leidy of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, indicating that one of Marnoch’s packages to him, which contained “turtle remains,” had arrived in a state of “ruins.” Marnoch confronted the postmaster about the mishandled package, demanding recompense, which elicited bad feelings on both sides. This ignited what came later.

In Death of a Texas Ranger, you write that post-Civil War Texas was a magnet for paleontologists. Why?

The mid-nineteenth century is often referred to as the Age of Darwin, a nod to British naturalist Charles Darwin, who in 1859 and 1871, respectively, published his seminal scientific works, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.  Texas was still very much a frontier, with virgin landscape, and those interested in the natural sciences descended upon Texas in troves. According to Samuel Wood Geiser, author of Naturalists of the Frontier, “several hundred men of science labored in Texas in the pioneer days.” Marnoch’s father, Dr. George Frederick Marnoch, a graduate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh, was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and likely shared a medical class with him. Gabriel mentioned this many years later, saying that he’d had “considerable correspondence” with Darwin and fellow naturalist Thomas Huxley, although said letters have yet to surface.

Gabriel Marnoch and wife.

Gabriel Marnoch and his wife Carmel Trevino (ca. 1919). Courtesy of Cynthia Leal Massey from her book, Helotes, Where the Texas Hill Country Begins.

Gabriel Marnoch collected for Professor Edward Drinker Cope at the Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Cope’s feud with paleontology Professor Othniel Marsh of Yale is now the stuff of legend. Can you tell us about their clashes?

There are several good books about the feud between Cope and Marsh. In a nutshell, the paleontologists were involved in something now called “The Bone Wars.” This was a period of intense fossil hunting and discovery in the mid-nineteenth century. Trying to outcompete each other, they resorted to spying, counter-spying, bribery, theft and even destruction of bones to remain “on top.” Marsh’s charges of errors, distortion, and fraud against Cope and the professor’s countercharges were published in the spring and summer of 1873, in The American Naturalist, which Cope finally purchased in 1877 to stop further allegations from being published.

Cliff chirping frog.

Cliff Chirping Frog, Marnoch’s great scientific discovery. By Dawson at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons,) CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.

How did Marnoch help cement Cope’s reputation?

Marnoch hosted Cope in Helotes and other Texas environs on a two-week quest for new fossils in the fall of 1877. After that, Marnoch, whom Cope hired as a field correspondent, began sending specimens to the paleontologist. Marnoch discovered several new specimens, one a frog that Professor Cope said was “a new genus of Cystignathididoe.” Cope gave the cliff chirping frog the scientific name Eleutherodactylus (Syrrhophus) marnockii, in honor of his field correspondent. A few other Marnoch discoveries named by Cope: the Texas Banded Gecko, Short-Lined Skink, and the Barking Frog.

Why were the murder charges against Marnoch dismissed?

Marnoch killed the postmaster in March 1878. He was indicted for murder on April 4, 1878. In November of that year, the jury could not agree on a verdict and a mistrial was declared. At his second trial May 17, 1879, the jury convicted him of murder in the second degree and sentenced him to confinement in the penitentiary for twenty years. His attorneys kept him out of prison while they appealed his murder conviction and the appeals court remanded his case back to the district court for a new trial. The judge believed that the jurors weren’t given appropriate directions regarding self-defense. His lawyers were able to get continuances due to their inability to recall several important witnesses who’d moved out of the country. The murder case was finally dismissed in 1887.

How did John Green’s son try to reopen his father’s case decades later?

In 1897, Deputy Will Green learned that the 37th District Court of Bexar County was reviewing old cases on the docket and that caused him to seek a new indictment. The original indictment for murder against Cesario Menchaca was filed in October 1873. Deputy Green was able to assemble several of his father’s old Ranger comrades before a new Grand Jury, and was successful at obtaining a new indictment on May 26, 1897. This enabled him to seek and obtain an extradition requisition from the Governor of Texas.

Death of a Texas Ranger book cover.

Death of a Texas Ranger. Courtesy of Cynthia Leal Massey.

Thanks, Cynthia!

A fascinating twist at the end of the book concerns a discovery about the paleontologist. He may be had more to do with the death of a Texas Ranger than Will Green originally thought. But I won’t spoil the ending for you – you need to read the book yourself.

Cynthia Leal Massey is working on a screenplay adaptation of Death of a Texas Ranger, and with luck, we might get to see it out the big screen. Fossils and felonies should make a great mix. I’ll be there if the film comes out. If you go too, grab an extra large bag of popcorn and come sit with me.

Literature on point:

Cynthia Leal Massey, Death of a Texas Ranger: A True Story of Murder and Vengeance on the Texas Frontier (Guilford, Connecticut: TwoDot, 2014).

Charles H. Sternberg, The Life of a Fossil Hunter (1st ed. Henry Holt & Co., 1909, reprint, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990) [Another account of a 19th-century paleontologist collecting for Cope, in part in Texas; considered a classic among paleontologists].

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Interview with Author Hank Garfield, Descendant of President James Garfield

President James Garfield

President James Garfield. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

The lives of our forefathers send ripples through the generations, shaping who we are today. If one of those forefathers happened to be a U.S. President, he shaped both national and familial history. And if that forefather was assassinated in office, his surviving family carried an extra burden of grief and shock.

 Four U.S. Presidents were assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. Of those, only two – James Garfield and John F. Kennedy – have living descendants today. Hank Garfield, a descendant of President Garfield, joins us today to talk about his forefather, family legacy, and life today.

 Charles Guiteau, a disappointed office-seeker, shot and injured President Garfield at a Washington, D.C. train station on July 2, 1881. He died several weeks later, on September 19, as a result of his injuries. In a previous blog post, I interviewed author Fred Rosen, an author of a new book about the Garfield assassination. Rosen claims Garfield’s physician, Dr. Bliss, deliberately killed Garfield, committing second-degree murder, and that Alexander Graham Bell preserved the clues. Hank Garfield wrote the foreword to Rosen’s book.

Hank Garfield, descendant of President James Garfield

Hank Garfield with the Washington, D.C. memorial to President Garfield in the background. Courtesy of Hank Garfield.

Hank, you are a descendant of President Garfield. Just how are you related to him?

I’m the great-great-grandson of the president. He had four sons, and they all had sons, and so forth, so there are a lot of Garfields running loose in the USA.

Did the assassination still affect your family several generations later? If so, how?

I don’t know that the assassination affected my family at all within my lifetime. It’s an interesting conversation starter, but it also leaves people with the misguided impression that we have Kennedy-esque connections and wealth, which we don’t.

You actually got to meet one of the Kennedys at school. What was that like? Did you ever talk about either family’s history?

That would be Michael Kennedy, RFK’s son. We were in the same class at St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire. He was small, athletic, charming, and much more worldly than I was. Our circles of friends overlapped a little. We played backgammon and had a conversation that went along the lines of “You’ve got the Garfield chin, and I’ve got the Kennedy nose.” We both liked the TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Some Secret Service agents came to school and followed him around for a couple of weeks when there was a threat against the family. He was killed in a skiing accident when he was about forty. I remember seeing it on the news in California.

Note: The Kennedy Hank Garfield means was Michael LeMoyne Kennedy (1958-1997). He died went he hit a tree while playing football on skis on December 31, 1997 in Aspen, Colorado.

Did your family have any stories or memorabilia about President Garfield?

I honestly can’t remember any. I have a silver cup that Lucretia Garfield (the President’s widow) gave to my grandfather in 1903, when he was a boy. Their names are inscribed on it. I’m not sure how it came to be in my possession.

You are an author. What kind of books do you write?

I’ve published five novels under the name Henry Garfield but am now writing as Hank Garfield. I’m shopping a long novel called A Sprauling Family Saga, which is what it is, and I also write baseball science fiction.

Tartabull's Throw, a novel by Hank Garfield.

Tartabull’s Throw, one of Hank Garfield’s novels. Courtesy of Hank Garfield.

Does your family history have an influence on your writing?

I guess I like to write with large ensemble casts; perhaps growing up with a large extended family had something to do with that.

In your foreword for Fred Rosen’s book, you state that President Garfield was one of the few scholars to occupy the White House. On what do you base that?

There’s a persistent legend that he could write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other. I’m not sure I believe this. But his mother put great stock in education, believing it was the way for him to escape the poverty of living in a fatherless household on the Ohio frontier (His father died when he was very young). He is also credited with an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem. He seems to have had a curious mind that moved in many directions. Most true scholars exhibit this kind of interest in a broad range of subjects. They used to be called Renaissance men, an allusion to Da Vinci, I guess.

Pythagorean Theorem

Pythagorean theorem: a2 + b2 = c2. Did you know that President Garfield came up with a new proof? By en:User:Wapcaplet [GFDL  or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

 Might the Garfield legacy have inspired you to write?

I grew up in a household full of books. A couple of them were about my great-great grandfather. His son Harry (my great-grandfather) became president of Williams College, the President’s alma mater. My parents were teachers and readers. In the summer we lived without TV. I was always encouraged to read. That, above everything else, inspired me to write.

What do you do now?

I write novels and teach creative writing at the University of Maine. Lately I’ve been working in the genre of baseball science fiction. I also write a weekly blog called Slower Traffic ( about living without a car in a rural state. I haven’t owned a car in ten years. It’s the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept.

John Cabot.

John Cabot in traditional Venetian garb by Giustino Menescardi (1762). A mural painting in the ‘Sala dello Scudo’ in the Palazzo Ducale. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of your books, The Lost Voyage of John Cabot, is a historical novel. What inspired you to write about the Age of Exploration?

Well, I love books, and I love boats. My father had a small schooner. I don’t remember not knowing my way around a small sailboat. Today I own a 25-foot sloop and a couple of dinghies. I’m fascinated by the lasting legacy of that time: why the Brazilians speak Portuguese and the Quebeckers speak French, but some Portuguese words creep into Canadian French because of the interactions between New World explorers. In 1983 I was working for a game company in California, and we were looking for mysteries in different genres that we could make into game scripts. John Cabot disappeared on his second voyage to America. I wrote a script in which the player sets out to search for him. The company went under before it could be produced, but it was a great starting point for a book.

Note: John Cabot (c. 1450-1500) was a Venetian explorer who sailed to mainland North American in 1497. Historians consider him to be the first European to visit the North American mainland since the Norse settlement of Vinland.

 Do any of your other books touch on crime?

My first novel, Moondog, is a classic whodunit, in which a Holmes and Watson team lead the reader on a search for a murderer. Only the murderer is a werewolf. But the structure is basic: a series of murders that the reader is invited to solve along with the protagonist. From a review by Gahan Wilson, the New Yorker cartoonist: “[Moondog] moves along in the classic pattern and follows the rules; the twist Garfield’s given to it is to have the action take place in convincing Steinbeck country amidst Steinbeckian folk, all of whom are quite well-realized and true to the master’s leanings.” Obviously I was flattered by the comparison, as I was by the mention of Carl Hiaasen in a review of the sequel, Room 13. They are two of my favorite writers.

Thanks, Hank Garfield, for joining us!

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