German Ax Murderer in America

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

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

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

A previously unknown serial killer

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

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

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

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

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

The ax murderer was probably a hobo.

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

Using newspapers to identify the ax murderer

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

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

A connection to Hinterkaifeck?

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

Some common signatures of Hinterkaifeck and the American ax murderer 

Railroad tracks.

Railroad tracks. Pixabay, with permission.

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

Railroad signature in the Hinterkaifeck murders

Hinterkeifeck memorial.

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

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

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

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

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

That gives Germany a brand new, intriguing suspect.

Interview with author Rachel James

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

Hobo riding atop a box car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you find the crime you consider his first?

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

What emotional reaction did you have?

Train track.

Train track; Pixabay, with permission.

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Rachel James!

 You might also enjoy reading:

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

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

Literature on point

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

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

Reviews of The Man from the Train

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

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

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

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

Read More

Enduring Allure of Jack the Ripper

An Interview with Ripperologist Richard Jones


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Boss letter, page 1. Public domain.

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

He never existed!

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

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

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

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

Are there any common misconceptions about Jack the Ripper?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firstly, the testing methods were questionable.

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

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

Do you have a favourite suspect? Who? Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you offer on your Jack the Ripper Tour?

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

How can we book a tour with you?

It is best done through our website.

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

Read More

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.).

Read More

Stolen Clothing: The Bather’s Nightmare

Clothing left on a tree beside a river where someone may be skinny dipping.

Clothing left on a tree beside a river where someone may be skinny dipping. Photo by (c) Tim Large, Shutterstock, with permission.

Stolen clothing. Does the greatest fear of every skinny dipper ever haunt you? Is a bather’s stolen clothing is just a TV trope? Or do you worry about someone stealing your clothes when you take a dip in the pool or lake?

Maybe you should.

A German politician and his stolen clothing

Take Alexander Gauland for example. The far-right German politician popped into a lake outside Berlin on May 30, 2018 to take a swim.  Someone pilfered his clothing while he was in the water, forcing him to walk with the police to the police station in what Reuters reported to be his underwear. Witnesses saw the thief, who hasn’t yet been caught, and reported that he yelled out a political statement when he fleeced Gauland of his raiment.

Okay, this theft was politically motivated. But if you take a naked romp through history, you’ll find stolen clothing at public baths coming up again and again in the annals of true crime. The Romans even had a special name for clothing thieves at the watering hole: balnearii, or sometimes fures balnearii.

Stolen clothing and the law throughout the centuries

People bathing at a public bath.

Bathers (ca. 1889). Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The baleanarii of ancient Rome

That’s balnearius, singular, balnearii, plural. They even appear in Black’s Law Dictionary:

Balnearii: In the Roman law, those who stole the clothes of bathers in the public baths. 4 Bl. Comm. 239.

Apparently the Romans took a very dim view of being forced to walk down the street naked, because the pilfering clothing was a capital crime. That’s right. Balnearii received the death sentence if caught. If you were lucky, you just got condemned to the mines. Greece had balnearii too and also punished them with execution.

One scholar calls those responsible for the stolen clothing the “scourge” of the bathing establishments throughout the Roman Empire. [1] Apparently, it happened a lot.

The curse tablets of Bath

Roman curse tablet. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.

Curse tablet. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons. The tablet curses a woman in the hope that her life, mind, memory, lungs, and liver will get all mixed up.

But of course the clothing thieves were hard to catch. How can you tell if someone else is wearing your toga when most of the togas looked alike? Romans who lost their clothing to thieves at the public baths resorted to defixiones, or curse tablets made of lead. In this Roman version of the voodoo doll, bathers cursed the thieves who swiped their garments. Archaeologists have discovered a number of curse tablets at the Aquae Sulis, the ancient public bath of Bath in southwest England. Because the curse writers mentioned their items of stolen clothing, we have an idea what the thieves walked off with. Two tablets detail the loss of a caracalla, or cape. Thieves also liked to take sandals, rings, and coins. The curse tablets were read out loud and displayed publically, so there was always some hope that the description of the stolen clothing would help someone recognize it and thus solve the crime.

The Sachsenspiegel to the rescue

Coins and rings were one thing, but a lot of those capes and sandals looked alike. Pity the poor person who accidently took the wrong item of clothing and then got caught! Stolen clothing wasn’t always intentional.

Germans accumulated enough experience with unintentional stolen clothing to make a special legal exception. When the Holy Roman Empire codified its customary law in the 13th century into a ground-breaking law book called the Sachsenspiegel, it addressed the unwitting appropriation of clothing at the public bath.

Stolen clothing in the Sachsenspiegel.

Stolen clothing in the Sachsenspiegel. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Heidelberger Sachsenspiegel, Cod. Pal. germ. 164, p. 29v. Creative Commons License.

This picture, from an illustrated version of the Sachsenspsiegel, shows a a man in green, on the right, leaving the public bath. The accompanying text clarifies the situation:

Whoever carries away another’s sword or clothing or basin or razor from the public bath, in the assumption that the items were his, … and doesn’t hide them, because he thinks they’re his, and takes an oath to that effect, the person [from whom the items were taken] may seize them or file a lawsuit for their return.

Apparently the cloak, sword, basin, and razor (yup, that item in his right hand is a Medieval shaving apparatus) in his possession don’t belong to the man in green. Which means that one of those guys with the leafy luffa sponges is going to have an embarrassing walk home. At least the unintentional thief doesn’t have to face the mines or the executioner!

What if you found the unintended thief out in the public wearing your clothes? The Sachsenspiegel doesn’t say whether you can seize them right away, in public, leaving the thief stipped and naked. The code probably invisioned a judicial seizure. But it sure would be tempting.

Enjoy your summer!

Pool, Pixabay.

Pool, Pixabay.

Summer isn’t over yet. Keep your clothing safe when you visit the beach or the public pool. But just in case your stuff gets stolen and you have to walk home naked, know that you’re not alone. Thousands of people before you walked this walk of shame; so many, in fact, that the crime of stolen clothing received special treatment in the law books. You will become part of history.

Have you ever had anything stolen from you at the pool or beach?

Literature on point:

[1] Blümner, H., Die römischen Privataltertümer, Handbuch der klassischen Altertums-Wissenschaft IV, 2, 2 (München, 1911), 433.

Maria Dobozy, The Saxon Mirror: The Sachsenspiegel of the Fourteenth Century (Philadelphia, Univ. of Penn. Press, 1999).

Heiner Lück, Der Sachsenspiegel (Darmstadt: WBG, 2017).

Bronwen Riley, Journey to Britannia: From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall, AD 130 (London: Head of Zeus, Ltd, 2015).

Avi Selk & Rick Noack, “‘Not a swimming place for Nazis”: A far-right lawmaker had his clothes stolen at the lake.” Washington Post, June 6, 2018.

J.D.H. Tenne, Die Lehre vom Diebstahl (Berlin: Rücker & Püchler, 1840).

Wild, J. (1986). “Bath and the Identification of the Caracalla.” Britannia, 17, 352-353.

Read More

New Evidence on Rasputin’s Murder

An Interview with Russian Historian

Margarita Nelipa

Grigorii Rasputin

Grigorii Rasputin (1864-1916); public domain.

Grigorii Rasputin: Russian mystic, counselor to the imperial family, and murder victim. Apart from the execution of the Romanov family in July 1918, the murder of Rasputin in December 1916 is Russia’s most famous murder case. So famous, in fact, that his life is now celebrated in song and legend.

If there was ever a true crime author to tackle the Rasputin case, Margarita Nelipa is it. She can speak and read Russian fluently. She has both legal and medical training. She gained access to Russian files never before published in the West and used her training and experience to analyze Rasputin’s autopsy report. The result? A new book, Killing Rasputin, that offers Western readers information that’s never been published before in English. With over 1800 footnotes, mostly to primary sources, makes this one of the most academically grounded books on Rasputin.

What really happened to the Siberian strannik (religious pilgrim) who befriended the imperial family, sought to comfort the hemophiliac heir to the throne, Alexei, and was later found frozen and murdered in a river? Margarita Nelipa joins us for an interview and inserts her scalpel between truth and myth.

Interview with Margarita Nelipa

Margarita Nelipa

Margarita Nelipa, with permission.

What information in your book Killing Rasputin hasn’t been published in English before?

Where do I begin? When you glance at the Bibliography and Endnotes sections at the back of the book, you will find that most of the references come from 100-year old Russian language sources. Few of those sources have been used in the West and fewer still cited in studies that focus on Grigorii Rasputin’s life. Since I approached Rasputin’s murder as a cold case, that circumstance alone sets my book apart from the standard biographies or crime thrillers published in Russia and in the West.

Living in Australia as a Russian historian is, as you can imagine, rather problematic as far as physically accessing documents. However, I overcame that sense of remoteness after firstly gaining access then visiting the Helsinki University Library as well as travelling to Russia to examine the two crime scenes just as the investigators had in 1916. Thanks to the freer publishing of books and the slow opening of the archives in post-communist Russia in addition to the internet, I was able to collect everything I needed. For this book, I accumulated a large volume of previously ignored material, which I drew together, translated what I needed, to reveal a multilayered story.

New biographical material

My book comprises three parts, the first being a biographic study that is followed up with the political and social events that brought together the co-conspirators who were directly involved in murdering Rasputin.  Here I reveal several new facets of Rasputin’s life, which are accompanied with the first-time publication in the West of the photograph that shows (in part) Grigorii’s Birth Certificate and death notice. I am the first to verify that Rasputin first entered St. Peterburg in 1904. Another example of new material is my accessing of the Russian Orthodox Church’s secret Consistory Investigation (begun in 1907 and terminated in 1917) file. The panel of clerics who examined Grigorii Rasputin’s purported membership in the prohibited Khlyst sect – an accusation, I should point out here, that continues to be used against him to this day. Using the emperor and empress’ diaries and similar sources, I clarify the real nature of Rasputin’s association with the imperial family.  From the published 1912 medical records and telegrams sent to the imperial (Alexander) palace, I introduced new information and at the same time, dispelled the popular notion that Rasputin’s alleged intervention was a spiritual happening.

New cold-case analysis

The second component involves my step-by-step investigation of the cold case murder; and the third part discusses the connection between Rasputin’s brutal murder and the advent of the February Revolution that follow, the Emperor’s abdication, and the ensuing collapse of the Empire. Few biographers have gone outside the books written by Rasputin’s murderers, Vladimir Purishkevich and Felix Yusupov. I believe that the widespread reliance upon those sources, masks the facts to a great degree, though to be fair, not all that they divulged, can be discounted as fiction. I am the first person to point out the similarities and differences as to how these co-conspirators “recalled” their participation in the murder on 16/17 December 1916. However, that stepping stone inspired me to piece together more probable scenarios. To achieve that objective, I waded through the accounts written by the principle investigators, including General Arkadii Koshko, the Head of Criminal Court Investigations in Russia in addition to that of the principle prosecutor from the Petrograd District Count, Sergei Zavadsky and the Chief of the Petrograd Okhrana, General Konstantin Globachev. Their recollections not only afforded a balance about the course of events but also added new perspectives to this murder case.

I was the first to publish the full of set 1916 police eye witness depositions, most of the police photographs related to the case (with application of my own descriptive inserts) and central to my thesis, the pathologist’s autopsy report.

New political analysis

Furthermore, to provide the political perspective that is entwined with this case, I used several key speeches that are to be found in the 1912 and 1916 Duma’s (akin to a Legislature) Stenographic Records – speeches that caused public opinion to turn against the imperial throne, the empress and by association, Rasputin. My use of newspaper and journal articles that were published in St. Petersburg (that was re-named Petrograd in 1914) during the early part of the twentieth century are also first-time inclusions.

Rasputin's corpse, showing the bullet hole in his forehead.

A photograph of Rasputin’s corpse, showing the bullet hole in his forehead. Public domain.

I am the first person to translate and have published the statements of former imperial government personalities that were chronicled by Alexander Blok (the author) during the proceedings of the Provisional Government’s 1917 Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry. Numerous, diaries, letters and memoirs penned by key persons particularly those left by Grand Dukes Nikolai Mikhailovich and Andrei Vladimirovich are other sources that most historians in this field tend to overlook when it comes to writing about Rasputin. They revealed crucial information that proved that I was following the right path. It was Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich’s words that gave me the icing on the cake. Trained in law and along with his friendship with Victor Sereda, the special investigator at the Petrograd District Court, Andrei Vladimirovich revealed key forensic details that answered two questions. The Grand Duke described the bullet that was discharged and entered Rasputin’s back. It was also the only bullet that was recovered during the autopsy of Rasputin’s body. The significance of that bullet became apparent when I compared that information with the 1916 forensic photograph of Rasputin’s forehead. What I deduced is original work on my part. Giving scientific reasons in the book, I can reveal here that the bullet that passed through Rasputin’s forehead left a distinct measurable indentation that proved beyond doubt that a jacketed bullet was fired from a Russian weapon. My quest was complete. I had established that the recent eagerness to implicate a British agent firing his British military issued weapon was based on fiction.

“It has often been necessary for me … to conduct various difficult and unpleasant autopsies. I – am a person with strong nerves…, I have seen sights. But seldom did I have to experience such unpleasant moments, such as during this terrifying night.” – Professor Dmitri Kosorotov, the pathologist who conducted Rasputin’s autopsy, translated by Margarita Nelipa for Killing Rasputin

Does that information change traditional explanations of what happened to Rasputin?

Yes, it certainly does. By providing the translation of Professor Kosorotov’s published 1917 article, the reader will discover contradictions that dismiss the long-held myths that Rasputin was poisoned or had drowned. I can add that my photographic evaluations also dispel the myth that Rasputin was blessing himself prior to his death. My book explains why the murder was planned in the first place and once it was committed, what happened to his corpse. Few realize that not only was the corpse exhumed, but that it was cremated in the furnace that was located at the University that is located on the outskirts of Petrograd.

Most today believe that the three co-conspirators got away with their crime, however, given that few looked beyond the crime, they failed to see that the Emperor, as the final arbiter, did indeed use his autocratic authority to discipline both noble co-conspirators (Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Felix Yusupov) to the extent the imperial criminal law allowed. This complex legalistic scenario may be read in the third component of the book. It fact I believe it goes a long way to solving why and how the crime was planned, who was involved behind the scenes as I define “the mastermind” and then finally committed by willing co-conspirators who happened to be of high standing in Russian society.

Unconquerable, like a granite cliff” – Alexander Sprididovich

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna with Rasputin, her children and a governess.

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna with Rasputin, her children and a governess. Public domain.

Just what did Rasputin mean to the Empress (Alexandra Fyodorovna)?

Rasputin was a semi-literate peasant who developed the ability to utter simple thoughts about life matters and preach his faith. It was his religious commitment in a manner not seen in St. Petersburg society and his knowledge concerning the scriptures that were factors which the pious empress valued most. Rasputin brought her piece of mind when most needed. Nevertheless, there was another aspect about Rasputin, which to my mind was uncomplimentary. He gave the empress the impression that he was able to alleviate her son’s periodic hemophilic episodes through the power of prayer.

Essentially, Rasputin caused her to accept him as her son’s savior especially following his near-death event in 1912. Except it must be said, this time the alleged healing happened vicariously by means of forwarding telegrams! Remarkably, people still credit this myth. The head of the Okhrana at the Alexander Palace, General Alexander Spiridovich described their association rather differently, whereby Alexandra Fyodorovna’s reliance on Rasputin was “unconquerable, like a granite cliff”.

“Ra ra Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen” – Boney M, Rasputin

Did they really have an affair like so many Russians hypothesized?

Absolutely not! Sadly, this wretched myth, as evaluated in my book was created by one person who wanted to disgrace Rasputin. This scandalous rumor was passed onto to the public to tarnish the dignity of the Russian empress and with that the Crown. Behind closed high society doors, the ensuing gossip was a treacherous matter! Yet, those, including the sovereign, who knew how the imperial court ran day-to-day remained silent. What the gossipers ignored was the fact that all visitors were under the surveillance of the palace security, no matter who they were.  Rasputin and the empress were never alone together.

No one has the right to commit murder” – Tsar Nikolai II

Several of the people involved in the murder were nobles. How did that hinder the investigation?

Since the sovereign was the only person who had the legal capacity to close the case, several members of the extended Romanov family including the sovereign’s mother, Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna, pleaded for him to stop any action (Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich’s arrest and expected exile to Persia) simply because he was one of their own. Others in the extended family considered that Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich’s participation was “a patriotic act” and thus any form of punishment must not be considered. This term created by Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna (then a nun and also the empress’ sister) may be read in the letter she sent to the sovereign.

Maintaining a wall of familial defiance, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich’s father, G. D. Pavel Alexandrovich (son of Alexander II) along with a group of other grand dukes confronted the sovereign face-to-face. Furthermore, sixteen Romanovs, co-signed a petition, pleading for compassion. In the meantime, Grand Duke Gavril Konstantinovich approached Justice Minister General-Procurator Nikolai Dobrovolskii so that he would view the matter “favorably” to “soften Dmitri’s involvement.”

Hiding behind the shield of imperial birthright?

Two of the three co-conspirators who were directly involved with Rasputin’s murder were of noble blood. One, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich was the first cousin to Nikolai II, the other, Count Felix Yusupov (the younger), was a wealthy aristocrat who married into the Romanov family. Once the crime was committed, they presupposed that the Grand Duke’s imperial birthright would shield them all from prosecution. Nevertheless, their presumption proved to be naïve.

Meantime, other ways to stall the investigation process were also played out. Given Yusupov’s wife’s (Princess Irina Alexandrovna and the emperor’s niece) imperial birthright, that circumstance precluded the police and court prosecutors from conducting a proper investigation of the first crime scene. The investigators could not enter the Yusupov Palace and thus they were unable to examine the large rear courtyard (where on the night, Dmitri Pavlovich’s vehicle was waiting to transport Rasputin’s corpse). Believing that no forensic evidence would be found in the small front courtyard that faced the Moika River, Felix Yusupov initially tolerated the investigators to fleetingly examine that location in the daylight, but shortly afterwards withdraw his permission. Fortunately, the second crime scene (where Rasputin’s body was eventually recovered), was a public place and given its remote location and the winter weather it, as the police photographs show, remained intact and uncontaminated.

It should be stressed that very few members of the extended family (other than Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, Nikolai II’s sister) conceded that Grigorii Rasputin’s murder was a wrong act. To her credit, the empress demanded justice for Rasputin’s murder, which happened after Nikolai II firstly responded to the family petition with the words: “No one has the right to commit murder”.

“Stab, poison, shot, drown” – Cavalera Conspiracy, Rasputin

Did Rasputin’s murderers really try to poison him first?

No, that was a myth that can be found in Vladimir Purishkevich’s memoir and repeated by Felix Yusupov in his so-called recollection years later. Aside the fact that Rasputin detested sweet food, my book explains why such a setup was logically impossible.

 “In Siberia you saw the Black Monk preach” – Therion, The Khlysti Evangelist

What was the Khlyst cult? And was Rasputin really a member?

The Khlyst sect was a 17thC movement that was prohibited movement in Russia and thus the Russian State was intent on finding adherents. Likewise, the Orthodox Church found it to be repugnant because the Khlyst conducted group sexual activity and self-flagellation. These acts, performed in a somnambulistic state of ecstasy was inspired through song, which supporters believed would offer them spiritual deliverance from their sins. All factors that confronted the teachings of the Church.

Rasputin was never a member of the Khlyst sect, a fact that was established by the Tobolsk Consistory Investigation that began in May 1907. At the end of their first Inquiry, in June 1908, the Tobolsk Eparchy handed down their verdict that Rasputin was a “Christian from … [the village of] Pokrovskoye.” The second inquiry (sought in secret by the empress) confirmed that Rasputin was a true Orthodox believer. After the third Inquiry concluded in November 1912 that he was indeed an Orthodox Christian, the church’s interest in Grigorii Rasputin had concluded. However, the matter did not end there. On 31 October 1917, a judicial investigator from the Provisional Government’s Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry unsealed the church file and was unable to find evidence that Grigorii Rasputin was associated with the Khlyst.

Caricature of Rasputin and the Imperial couple (1916).

Caricature of Rasputin and the Imperial couple (1916). Public domain.

“Why do they dislike me?” – Jack Lucien, Rasputin

Why did so many Russians turn against Rasputin?

Essentially, it was the incessant gossip that eventually found its way into the media and then the podium of the Duma as early as 1912. Once the President of the Third Duma, Alexander Guchkov introduced the “Rasputin matter” the strannik (a religious wanderer) became not only a political creature, but fair game to all. Guchkov’s statements led people to believe that the material must be credible. Elsewhere, many who were caught up in the anti-Rasputin gossip in the salons and the Yacht Club where foreign ambassadors were members, reacted by vilifying a person who did not fit in with Russian fine society and worst of all, ostensibly tarnished the imperial throne.  An attack on Rasputin was an indirect way of attacking the Empress, unpopular due to her German ancestry and her reluctance to be involved in society balls.

Gossip that affected Russia in the theaters of WWI

My book traces some of the originators of much of the gossip, which became so fanciful and malicious that it affected Russia politically and militarily in the theaters of the War. Initially the accusation included the presumption that Rasputin had wormed his way into the imperial palace. Society (including members of the Romanov family) believed that the ostracized empress had been debauched by Rasputin, that the peasant nominated government ministers, offered military advice to Nikolai II and that he sought a separate peace treaty with Germany whilst dabbling in espionage against Russia.

The gossiping was an affront to the imperial and Romanov families alike. Given the imperial family’s burden to maintain silence (taking such matters before the court was not feasible because the onus to prove Rasputin’s innocence would have in theory drawn in the emperor), how could one semi-literate peasant fend off all the gossip? As it turned out, several members of the Romanov family brought their insult into the public sphere and in 1916 reached the point that two of their own acted decisively to rid Russia of Grigorii Rasputin.

My research shows that although Britain had an interest in getting rid of Rasputin, British agents did not play a direct hand against Grigorii Rasputin. – Margarita Nelipa

What role did the British play in the plot against Rasputin, if any?

Russia enjoyed an alliance with Britain (and France). Once the War broke out, it was in Britain’s interest to ensure that Russia maintained its agreement and continued to fight the Germans until victory ensued. After attending the Duma and listening to the crucial 1 November 1916 speech as well as the gossip (some of which was alluded to above), British Ambassador George Buchanan and his friendship with Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich proved to be a toxic blend. Buchanan declared in one telegram that is now held in the British archives that he was informed that Rasputin would be murdered one week beforehand. Why would he be informed? At the crucial time, one British agent stationed in Petrograd and interestingly, a former Oxford university colleague of Felix Yusupov, was present at the palace. His role was to confirm that the British interest in Rasputin was realized to its satisfaction. Accordingly, my research shows that although Britain had an interest in getting rid of Rasputin, British agents did not play a direct hand against Grigorii Rasputin.

Additional trials/hearings pertaining to Rasputin’s murder took place in Great Britain and New York Supreme Court. Why did foreign jurisdictions look into Rasputin’s murder?

Yes, that was so. In 1932, Felix and his wife Irina sued film company MGM in Britain for libel in connection with the film titled “Rasputin and the Empress”. The questioning in the court had naturally raised questions about Rasputin’s murder, which were peripheral to the case and held no bearing on the verdict. Similar lines of questioning happened in the New York Supreme Court in 1965 after CBS televised a play based on Rasputin’s murder. In both jurisdictions, Yusupov knew that what he and his wife testified under oath about a Russian murder would not attract a guilty verdict.

I wanna be just like Rasputin – Jack Lucien, Rasputin

Have there been any attempts in the Russian Orthodox Church to canonize Rasputin?

Yes, there is a campaign by some religious folk and clergy in Russia who are seeking Rasputin’s canonization. The Synod of the Orthodox Church has stated unequivocally that it will not entertain this idea. Since there are conflicting accounts about Rasputin’s life, the question to prove or disprove them presents difficulties. Nonetheless, the enthusiasts continue to venerate Rasputin, creating icons that give him a saintly aura and treat him as a martyr akin to the martyred imperial family.

Margarita Nelipa's book, Killing Rasputin.

Margarita Nelipa’s book, Killing Rasputin. Courtesy of Wildblue Press.

The police photographs show the killer(s) wanted to inflict the maximum punishment. – Margarita Nelipa

You have medico-legal training and experience. How do you interpret the physical evidence?

My interpretation of the forensic evidence may be read in Appendix Five of the book. The ballistic information outlined by Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich provided the crucial evidence that I needed. I can state without reservation that a Russian not a British military weapon was used to shoot at Rasputin’s forehead. Indeed, the questions lies, how can a Webley firearm (British military issue) having a calibre of 11.56mm firing unjacketed bullets create a discrete 6mm diameter wound?

Furthermore, after examining the police photographs of Rasputin’s corpse, I did not see any impact injury that mirrored the plaited pattern of the truncheon allegedly given to Yusupov by the Minister of Justice, to mete his form of justice. Professor Kosorotov stated all external impact injuries were those sustained by the body after it hit the bridge. The bone in the right cheek was shattered when the body was thrown from the bridge. Accordingly, I rejected Purishkevich’s and Yusupov’s recollections that one of them had used a truncheon at the first crime scene.

Finally, I would like to add that the police photographs show the killer(s) wanted to inflict the maximum punishment.

“He ruled the Russian land” – Boney M, Rasputin

Following the Russian Revolution, the provisional official Alexander Kerensky said, “Without Rasputin, there would have been no Lenin.” Do you agree?

I disagree with Alexander Kerensky’s claim. In my earlier work that relates to Alexander III’s reign, I mention Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) and tell that he turned political after his brother was implicated and hanged for his participation in Alexander II’s assassination. That event caused Ulyanov to seek revenge against the reigning monarch, decades before Grigorii Rasputin became a household name in Russia. The imperial regime collapsed because Nikolai II was no longer supported by most of his family, the nobility, the Duma and the church. In the end, it was the betrayal by the elite military generals in the field that forced him to abdicate. Politically, Nikolai II was condemned because he would not give the Russian people a constitutional monarchy. If such a concession was made, then conceivably the brutal nature of the February Revolution may not have happened. The murder of Rasputin was one manifestation of these forces used against the sovereign, but if Rasputin never existed, the autocratic regime was still doomed.

In exile, Kerensky gave Rasputin too much credit by emphasizing the Siberian peasant had amassed political power – a conclusion that was refuted by Vladimir Rudnev who sat on Kerensky’s Extraordinary Committee of Inquiry as one of its prosecutors.

Vladimir Lenin came to power in November 1917 due to the ineptitude of the Provisional Government and its support for the socialist-minded Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies, both of which opposed the return of the monarchy (under Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich) and its institutions.

Thank you, Margarita Nelipa!

Literature on point:

Margarita Nelipa, Killing Rasputin: The Murder That Ended the Russian Empire (Denver, Wild Blue Press, 2017)

Romanov Archives – Okhrana Surveillance Report on Rasputin: From the Red Archives,” Alexander Palace Time Machine (website)

Carolyn Harris, “The Murder of Rasputin, 100 Years Later,” Smithsonian (December 27, 2016)


Read More

By the Hand of Another: Jack the Ripper’s Victims

Just how many victims did Jack the Ripper have? The number of canonical victims is five, but some people say there are more, and some less. What measuring sticks do Ripperologists use to figure their lists?

Historian and true crime aficionado Cal Schoonover joins us today with a guest post containing his analysis of the primary sources. What do you think? Please comment below.

Welcome, Cal Schoonover!

Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper by (c) Dm_Cherry
Lizenzfreie Stockfotonummer: 514093975; with permission.

Whitechapel 1888: The reign of Jack the Ripper begins

The violence London saw during the autumn of 1888 was something out of a horror novel. Murder was nothing new for the people in the East End, but the horrific way a group of murders occurred starting in April of that year caught the attention of many who lived there. The people of London’s East End in the district of Whitechapel faced poverty beyond what others in London faced. The slaughter houses employed people on a day-to-day basis as well as dock labors. Work was not a guarantee and when it ran out, people did what they had to do to survive. They stole and they prostituted themselves.

Violence was the norm, so to say, so when people’s attention was caught by the Whitechapel killer, forever known as Jack the Ripper, the crimes had to have been bad. On the morning of Friday, August 31, 1888 a carman named Charles Cross was on his way to work “about half past three” in the morning. Cross walked down the dark secluded street of Bucks Row when he spotted something that resembled a tarpaulin in the street. Moving closer, Cross could see it was not a tarpaulin, but the body of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols.

Canonical victim 1: Polly Nichols

Another carman named Robert Paul, who was also on his way to work when he came upon the scene. “Come and look over here; there is a woman lying on the pavement,” Charles Cross said.[1] Moving in for a closer look, both men gazed down at the woman. Not seeing any blood and pressed for time, both men left the scene in hopes of finding a policeman.

Not long after Cross and Paul left did the first policeman arrive. It was Police Constable (PC) John Neil, who was walking his normal beat. Seeing the outline of a person on the ground, Neil shined his bull’s-eye lantern on the figure. She was “lying on her back, with her clothes disarranged” with “blood oozing from a wound in the throat.”[2] Neil called for help and asked an arriving policeman to fetch a doctor. After they pronounced her dead, they removed the body from the scene and taken to the mortuary, where upon further examination, it was discovered severe abdominal mutilation had occurred. A bruise in the shape of a thumb was found on the lower right jaw and on the left cheek. The wound in the neck was noted to be jagged, proving the neck was cut at least twice down to the spine. There was no sign of a struggle either, which indicates Nichol’s willingly went with her killer.

Jack the Ripper: The Nemesis of Neglect

Jack the Ripper: The Nemesis of Neglect; Punch cartoon, John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Canonical victim 2: Annie Chapman

Annie Chapman, the second victim, was found on the morning of September 8, 1888 in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street. Chapman was a forty-seven-year-old prostitute whose life was just as hard as the others in her line of work. She spent the last night of her life drinking and searching for clients who were willing to pay her a few pennies for sexual favors.

Her body was found by a resident of 29 Hanbury Street, John Davis, who was horrified at his discovery. Davis didn’t examine the body; he just turned around after seeing it and ran for help. Inspector Joseph Chandler testified at Chapman’s inquest that he observed Chapman lying on her back with her legs drawn up. “A portion of the intestines, still connected with the body, were lying above the right shoulder,” Chandler described.[3] He sent for Dr. George Bagster Phillips, the divisional police surgeon.

Phillips examined the body, noting the throat had been severed deeply by a jagged cut along with bruises the size of a man’s thumb. Along with considerable abdominal mutilation, identical to the injuries Nichol’s received. Dr. Phillips noted the killer may have possessed some anatomical knowledge, having removed Chapman’s uterus intact. The killer would have to know what to look for and where exactly to cut without damaging the organ. The killer, according to Phillips, displayed this skill.

Canonical victims 3 and 4: The double event

Victim 3: Elizabeth Stride

Mortuary photo of Elizabeth Stride.

Mortuary photo of Elizabeth Stride. By Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

On September 30, 1888 the famous “double event” took place. The first killing of the night took place at Dutfield’s Yard, Berner Street shortly before 1:00 a.m. The victim was forty-four- year old Elizabeth Stride. Stride, like the other victims, was a known prostitute, but unlike the others, she was not mutilated.

Louis Diemschutz drove his pony and cart down the dark alley way into Dutfield’s yard, tired after a long day of peddling his trinkets. He could see the gates were wide open on the other end of the alley way, but as he neared the open gates, his pony shied away and wouldn’t move. There was an “object” lying in his path, but unable to make out what the object was, he jumped off his cart and lit a match. The wind picked up, blowing his match out, but he was able to see “it was the figure of a woman.”[4] Frightened, he ran for help, shouting “police” as he entered a nearby club.

Elizabeth Stride was lying on her back with her right arm over her stomach and her left arm extended from the elbow. In her hand she was clutching a packet of cachous, a breath sweetener. Stride wore a silk scarf around her neck, which was pulled tight as if she had been strangled by it. The lower part of the scarf was frayed, obviously from the deep cut to the throat she received. Blood flowed from the neck and onto the sidewalk; there were no other mutilations to Stride.

Another explanation?

Some people argue that Stride was not mutilated because Diemschutz interrupted her killer. While this is a possibility, the more likely scenario is that Stride was killed due to a domestic dispute. While people may or may not agree with the argument presented here, it is important to keep an open mind about how things were in the poverty stricken East end.

On the night Stride was murdered, an eye witness named Israel Schwartz saw a man grab and throw Stride to the ground. There was a second well -dressed man who was within feet of this attack standing there lighting his pipe. When the one man threw Stride to the ground, the well- dressed man ran off. Schwartz told police he was not sure if the two men were together or not. The man who threw Stride to the ground was described as 5ft. 5in. tall, with dark hair and a small brown moustache. He was broad shouldered and wore a dark -jacket and trousers along with a black peaked cap. The other man was taller and wore a dark dress over coat, with a black hard felt hat and carried a pipe.

Michael Kidney as a suspect

The more likely answer is the better dressed man was Stride’s client. Her attacker fits the description of her long-time boyfriend Michael Kidney, known by police to be violent and abusive to Stride. Kidney and Stride had lived together for three years by the time she was murdered and according to Kidney, the two lived together “nearly all that time.”[5] Kidney told the inquest that Stride had left him for at least five months total out of those three years due to his violent acts. He last saw Stride on September 25 and expected her home later that night. Catherine Lane, however, was called as a witness at the Stride Inquest and stated Stride left Kidney after a fight. Kidney denied this, but he did admit Stride had left him in the past. The stormy relationship they had included violence..

If the man in the peaked hat had approached Stride and the well-dressed man with the intent of robbing or murdering her, why didn’t Stride put up a fight or scream for help? Maybe because Stride knew her attacker, knew that she would be yelled at and possibly hit but not murdered. As she was shoved to the ground, her client fled, her killer then slit her throat while Stride was on the ground. The fact Stride still clutched the packet of Cachous in her hand proves she did not attempt to defend herself. Why?

So how exactly had Kidney known his ex-girlfriend had been murdered?

One last interesting fact is the day after Stride’s murder, Kidney, in a drunken rage stormed into the Leman Street Police Station in Whitechapel demanding to see a detective. He was thrown out of the station but claimed he had information about the murder. The problem with this is at the beginning of Stride’s inquest, she was identified as Elizabeth Stokes, not Stride. So how exactly had Kidney known his ex-girlfriend had been murdered? Kidney admitted he went to the police station to complain about her death, yet no one knew Stride was even dead at this time.

The murder of Elizabeth Stride gives the impression of a domestic dispute. However, due to the location and of past events, the hype of the Ripper murders linked Stride to the list of Jack the Ripper’s victims. The fact that Stride was murdered on the same night the actual Ripper chose to murder is a coincidence.

Victim 4: Catherine Eddowes

Not long after Stride was found murdered, forty-six-year-old Catherine Eddowes was released from the Bishopsgates Police Station. She had been arrested for being drunk in public and not answering a policeman’s questions. She was also a known prostitute. Eddowes was released around 1:00 a.m. and was last seen walking in the direction of Mitre Square. By 1:30 a.m. PC Watkins had passed through the square and nothing was out of the ordinary. When he reentered the square around 1:45, he found the body of Catherine Eddowes. Her body had been ripped open, it was a sight that Watkins had never seen before. Eddowes’s abdominal area had been completely ripped open, her intestines were ripped out and placed over her right shoulder. The throat had also been cut along with some small cuts to the face. Much of Eddowes’s nose was also cut off as well as her earlobe and her eyelids were slit.

Further examination of Eddowes’s body showed her right kidney had been cut out and taken away. Like in the case of Annie Chapman, Eddowes’s uterus was taken away by her killer. This frenzied attack on Eddowes happened in less than fifteen minutes and not one person heard any unusual sounds. The Ripper once again escaped undetected.

Police photo of Mary Kelly's body.

Police photo of Mary Kelly’s body. Does the extreme level of violence shown here speak for domestic violence? Opinions differ. By City of London police; Unknown photographer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Canonical victim 5: Mary Kelly

The last murder that has been attributed to Jack the Ripper was a younger woman named Mary Jane Kelly. She was different than the other victims. Not only was she much younger, but she also had her own lodgings. It was at her lodging house that her severely mutilated body was found. Mary Kelly, while considered to be Jack’s last, raises the question of whether she was an actual Ripper victim. Much like Stride, Kelly had worked as a prostitute, but she also had a live-in boyfriend named Joseph Barnett who had “lived with the deceased one year and eight months.”[6]

Twenty-five-year-old Mary Jane Kelly rented a one room apartment at 13 Miller’s Court, 26 Dorset Street in Spitalfields. She was reportedly out drinking at the Ten Bells Pub earlier in the night and was heard singing in her room in the early morning hours of November 9, 1888. By 10:30 that morning, no one had seen or heard anything from Kelly. Her rent was past due, so her landlord, John McCarthy sent his employee, Thomas Bowyer over to collect.

A gruesome murder

Bowyer knocked several times but got no answer. “Receiving no reply, I passed around the corner by the gutter spout where there is a broken window – it is the smallest window,” Bowyer said.[7] The window had a broken pane, so Bowyer reached his hand through and pulled back the curtains. His blood ran cold at the horrific scene before his eyes. “I saw two pieces of flesh lying on the table,” he described to the inquest. “The second time I looked I saw a body on this bed, and blood on the floor.”[8]

He ran from the scene to tell his boss of his discovery. McCarthy, not believing what he heard, followed Bowyer back to the crime scene. Seeing the horrific sight for himself, he knew the police had to be contacted. Mary Jane Kelly had been completely mutilated beyond recognition. Her legs were cut down to the bone, her face was cut off. Her stomach had been completely ripped open and her heart was missing. Her breasts were cut off and placed under her head and the intestines were placed between her legs. Pieces of flesh the killer cut off were placed on the table next to the bed. Her throat also had been cut, which was enough to cause death.

Joseph Barnett as a suspect

While the murder of Mary Kelly was horrific and linked to Jack the Ripper, the question remains if she was his victim or not. Joseph Barnett moved out after an argument with Kelly on October 30. Kelly, according to Barnett, had allowed a woman of “bad character” stay with them and he “objected to it.”[9] Barnett told the inquest he last saw Kelly on Thursday, November 8 around 7:45 p.m. when he came to her room and visited for a while. She asked Barnett for money, but not having worked in a while, he had none to give.

Kelly’s murder screams personal attack, like perhaps from a jealous boyfriend.

During the inquest, Barnett admited Kelly and he quarreled often. He also said he would read the newspapers about the Ripper’s murders to Kelly, who was afraid of what was taking place on the streets. People assume Kelly’s murder is connected to Jack the Ripper simply because of the timing of events; much like in the case of Stride. However, Kelly’s murder screams personal attack, like perhaps from a jealous boyfriend. One can not dismiss Joseph Barnett as Kelly’s probable killer. Although questioned for four hours by Inspector Abberline and released, one must remember that during this era, unless a killer was caught in the act, a murder charge was hard to prove.

Barnett knew how to access Kelly’s room since he lived there. He knew how gruesome the murders were since he read about them in the newspaper and admitted to fighting with Kelly because of her life choices. Another interesting fact came to light during the inquest by a woman named Julia Vanturney, who claimed there was another Joe in Mary Kelly’s life. Vanturney testified that Barnett would “not allow her (Kelly) to go on the streets,” and she stated that Kelly “often got drunk.”[10] This shows how controlling Barnett was toward Kelly and Barnett admitted Kelly would drink a lot but not when he was around.

Barnett may have killed Kelly after another aggressive argument turned deadly. Knowing her death could possibly be blamed on the Ripper, he may have felt more confident that he could get away with her death. One must keep in mind that although he was questioned by police, the police were in-fact looking for someone who may have had anatomical knowledge. Barnett did not, so the police didn’t view him as a suspect.

Just three victims?

The name Jack the Ripper created sensational headlines for newspapers, which kept their readers wanting more. Hundreds of people came forward with false leads and information which caused more confusion. The police really had no idea where to begin and with limited ways and means, did the best they could to catch the killer who claimed three, not five victims. When looking at Modus Operandi, one can only truly name three victims killed by the same person. Stride and Kelly both died by the hand of another, but will forever be grouped into the famous five of none other than Jack the Ripper.

What do you think? Which victims should belong to Jack the Ripper’s list and why?

Thank you, Cal Schoonover!

About Cal Schoonover

Cal Schoonover holds a BA in 18th and 19th century Military History and is working on his MA in history with a concentration on the Civil War. He plans on pursuing his PhD by the fall of 2019. His articles have appeared in Crime Magazine, the Surratt Courier and Emerging Civil War. com. He lives in Wisconsin with his son James.

Cal Schoonover, author of the guest post on the Villisca ax murders

Cal Schoonover, with permission

(c) By Cal Schoonover, 2018, with permission.

[1] Charles Cross testimony as published by The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday, September 4, 1888.

[2] PC. John Neil testimony as published by The Daily Telegraph, Monday, September 3, 1888.

[3] Inspector Joseph Chandler Inquest as published by The Daily Telegraph, Friday, September 14, 1888.

[4] Louis (Lewis) Diemschutz inquest testimony as published by The Daily telegraph, Tuesday, October 2, 1888.

[5] Michael Kidney’s testimony as published by The Daily Telegraph, Thursday, October 4, 1888.

[6] Joseph Barnett’s Inquest testimony as published by The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday, November 13, 1888.

[7] Thomas Bowyer’s Inquest testimony as reported by The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday, November 13, 1888.

[8] Ibid

[9] Barnett’s inquest testimony.

[10] Julia Vanturney’s inquest testimony as reported by The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday, November 13, 1888.

Read More
error: Content is protected !!