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

Consitutio Criminalis Carolina: Your Rights in a Torture Chamber

Time travel.

Time. Image from Pixabay.

The dangers of time travel

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

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

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

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

I’m here to help you.

Time machine.

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

Judicial torture

First, some basic concepts.

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

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

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

Torture chamber with rack.

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

Constitutio Criminalis Carolina

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

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

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

Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, front page.

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

Your rights under the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina

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

No torture without probable cause.

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

No leading questions!

No leading questions! (c) Everett Collection, via

No leading questions.

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

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

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

Corroboration of a confession.

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

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

Compensation if tortured illegally.

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

Safe time traveling

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

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

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

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

Prehistoric times. Image from Pixabay.

Literature on point:

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

Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (partial translation)

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

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

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

Read More

Mary Todd Lincoln’s Castle Ghost in Germany

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln, 1860-1865. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). Public domain.

Germany as a haven after the Lincoln assassination

One of the lesser known aspects of the Lincoln assassination is the aftermath that played out in Germany. All the surviving occupants of the presidential box at Ford’s theater ended up moving to Germany. Mary Todd Lincoln and her son Tad lived in Frankfurt from 1868 to 1870, and Henry Rathbone moved to Hanover with his wife Clara and children in 1882 when the president appointed him U.S. Consul there. [Rathbone then became involved in a true crime himself. He murdered his wife a year later in Hanover – but that will be the subject of another post.]

I enjoy following the Lincoln and Rathbone sojourns in Germany because I live here, speak the language, and can research them. And that’s why a letter from Mary Todd Lincoln about a castle ghost caught my eye. There’s a possible mistake in there that’s leaked out into the biographical literature and I hope to point it out with this post.

Hohenzollern castle on a 19th-c. postcard

Hollenzollern castle on a 19th-century postcard. Was this the haunt of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost? Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.


Mary Todd Lincoln in Germany

Mary stayed at the Hotel d’Angleterre in Frankfurt while Tad attended boarding school nearby. By February, Frankfurt had gotten too cold for her and she decided to travel to the Mediterranean. Along the way, she stopped at the spa town of Baden-Baden in the Rhine Valley. Once she reached Nice, France, Mary penned a letter to her friend Eliza Slataper, a member of the Lee family in Virginia:

En route to Nice, I stopped for a day or two at Baden to see a lady from America, who resides most of the time in Europe. We visited a castle near Baden, where the veritable “White Lady,” is said, delights most to dwell, and where Napoleon signed his memorable treaty, in roaming the immense building, I said to our two attendants “have you ever seen her” – to which, of course, they both replied – “We often do.” As you know, Germans are very superstitious, and from the King of Prussia, down to his humblest subject, believe in her frequent appearance.*

The white lady appearing to the Prussian king.

“The white lady appearing to King Frederick I in 1713 shortly before his death.” Lithography by Ludwig Löffler, 1851 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mystery of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost

Who or what was Mary Lincoln’s castle ghost? And where was the castle the white lady haunted? The answer is elusive.

One biography identifies the castle as the Hohenzollern castle in the Province of Hohenzollern. The royal family of Hohenzollern fits nicely to the white lady story. Kunigunde von Orlmünde, a widowed mother, she was engaged to marry another member of the Hohenzollern family, but thought her children came between herself and her fiancé. So she stabbed her children’s skulls with a needle and killed them. Later she sought repentance in Rome and entered a convent, where she died in 1351. According to legend, her ghost appeared throughout history to various members of the Hohenzollern family before they died, including the King of Prussia. Thus, Mary’s mention of the king in her letter appears to be a reference to the white lady of the Hollenzollern dynasty.

But the Hohenzollern castle as the dwelling for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost presents some problems. Several Prussian castles, including Berlin, Kulmbach, Rudolstadt, and Bayreuth, belong to the white lady’s traditional haunts, but I can’t find a reference to her ever spooking the Hohenzollern castle itself.

Hohenzollern castle.

The Hohenzollern castle as it appears today. Pixabay.

Problem of distances

There’s yet another reason why Hohenzollern can’t be the home of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost. It’s too far away. Baden-Baden lies on the west side of the Black Forest. To travel from Baden-Baden, Mary would have had to cross or skirt the Black Forest mountain range from the Grand Duchy of Baden into the Kingdom of Wurttemberg, and from there cross the Neckar Valley to the east and travel up into the Prussian Province of Hohenzollern on the Swabian Alb plateau. That was 44 miles as the crow flies, but at least 68 miles on the road, and three different countries.

Mary and her friend couldn’t have saved time by travelling by train, either. The Zollenalb train line connecting Tübingen to Hechingen (the nearest town to the castle) didn’t open until June 29, 1869, several months later. The women would have had to have completed at least part of the trip by horse and carriage. The journey, then, would have been too long to fit in as a side trip during a one to two day visit to Baden-Baden.

Baden-Baden was a popular tourist destination for Americans in the 19th century.

Baden-Baden was already a popular tourist destination for Americans in the 19th century. Baden-Baden Lichtentaler Allee. (c) Baden-Baden Kur & Tourismus GmbH, with permission.

Napoleonic treaty riddle

Mary’s other clue, that Napoleon signed a treaty at the castle, doesn’t help either. Napoleon, as far as I can determine, never signed a treaty at the Hohenzollern castle nor at any other castle in southwestern Germany. Mary might have been confused on that point. Please correct me if I’m wrong and leave a comment if you know what Mary might mean by  Napoleon’s castle treaty.

Hohenbaden castle

The Hohenbaden castle offers a better location for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost. Pixabay.

Hohenbaden castle and the gray lady

A prime location for Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost would have been the Hohenbaden castle right next to Baden-Baden – one of the city’s major tourist attractions – and a very manageable side trip from town. The Hohenbaden castle doesn’t have a white lady, though. It has a gray one. And her story would have been far more intriguing to Mary Todd Lincoln.

The margravine who lived in the castle and became the gray lady after her death was a different kind of a mother than the white lady of the Hollenzollerns. By all accounts, she loved her baby son more than anything in the world. One evening, she wanted to show him his inheritance. She took him up a high tower and held him out over the balustrade to show him all the villages, fields, and farms over which he would one day rule. But he slipped out of her hands and tumbled down the castle walls and cliffs. Panicked, the margravine rushed down all the castle steps to search the ground below the cliffs. Although she had all her servants and maids help her, she never found her little boy’s body again. The margravine died in grief. Now, according to the Baden-Württemberg’s official website for its castles and gardens, she haunts the castle. You can still hear the margravine wailing as the wind whips the crevices in the cliffs, and at midnight, her gray-clad apparition drifts from room to room, her long white hair waving about her face.

Mary, who herself had two sons slip through her fingers into eternity, would have related much more to the mourning gray lady than the murderous white one. Might her memories of Edward and Willie have prompted her questions to her tour guides?

Gray lady in folklore

Although gray lady ghosts aren’t as common as the white ones, they do pop up in 19th-century literature. The gray lady of Caputh is another example, as is Maillais’s “Grey Lady” in Scotland. By 1846, a poem about the gray lady of Hohenbaden appeared in a collection of Baden legends. To give you a taste, I’ve translated the first four lines:


Habt ihr gehört von der grauen Frau
Im Bergschloß Hohenbaden?
Bethört von finstrer Macht, dem Gau
War sie zu Schreck und Schaden.**

Have you heard of the lady gray
In Hohenbaden’s cliffside palace?
Bewitched by darkness, she steals away
To spew her fright and malice.


The poem underscores the fame of the gray lady by the time Mary visited Baden-Baden in 1869. Today, the castle’s website describes the gray lady as the most famous of the castle’s legends. The ghost could have easily become a subject of the castle tours by the time Mary visited in 1869.

Hohenbaden castle grounds

Did Mary Todd Lincoln walk these grounds? Hohenbaden castle by (c) Yakovlev Sergey,, with permission.

Hohenbaden as the better choice

It’s possible that Mary got the color of the ghosts mixed up by the time she reached Nice and wrote her letter. Even the names of the castles are quite similar, Hohenzollern and Hohenbaden. That might have confused her in any conversations or reading on the topic.

Nevertheless, the Hohenbaden castle, for its proximity to Baden-Baden and a ghost story that matches Mary’s letter, offers a far better alternative than Hohenzollern for Mary’s side trip destination and the haunt of Mary Todd Lincoln’s castle ghost.

The question of where she thought Napoleon signed his “memorable treaty” remains open and offers a way to solve the riddle of Mary’s destination. My cursory survey of the treaties Napoleon I and III signed didn’t turn up anything in a southwestern German castle. Knowledge, however, is a cumulative and cooperative effort, and perhaps a reader knows more about the topic than I do. Please leave a comment if you can contribute. In doing so, you’ll also augment Mary Todd Lincoln’s biography.

You might also enjoy reading about Mark Twain’s visit to Baden-Baden several years later and his encounter with the Prussian empress or two posts on Frederick the Great, a member of the Hohenzollern dynasty: How Frederick the Great’s Sword Helped Spark the Civil War and The Five Greatest Criminal Trials of History, which covers his judgment in the trial of the miller Arnold.

Literature on point:

Baden-Württemberg, Städtliche Schlösser und Gärten, “Ein Geist im alten Schloss: Die graue Frau,” Altes Schloss Hohenbaden.

Betty Boles Ellison, The True Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014).

Jan von Flocken, “Die weiße Frau – ein Gespenst macht Geschichte,” Welt (Oct. 7, 2007).

**Ignaz Hub, “Die Graue Frau von Hohenbaden,” in Badisches Sagen-Buch II, August Schnezler, ed. (Karlsruhe: Creuzbacher & Kasper, 1846), 180-184.

*Mary Todd Lincoln to Eliza Slataper, Feb. 17, 1869 (in Turner, 26-27).

Literarisches Colloquium Berlin, “Die graue Frau,” Literatur Port (2015) [gray lady of Caputh].

Stephanie Graham Pina, “The Grey Lady,” Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (April 19, 2017).

Justin G. Turner, “The Mary Lincoln Letters to Mrs. Felician Slataper,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 49(1):7-33 (Spring 1956).

Read More

The Köchert Diamond Heist: An Interview with Author Jennifer Bowers Bahney

Sisi and her stars

Empress Elisabeth, “Sisi,” and her famous stars, one of which was stolen in the Köchert Diamond heist. Franz Xaver Winterhalter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A daring jump

The night lights of Vienna swayed 12,500 feet beneath him as Gerald Blanchard perched at the airplane hatch. Once the Schönbrunn Palace came into sight, he signaled the pilot to slow down. Then Blanchard adjusted his parachute one last time. A nighttime jump to a city roof counted among the most dangerous types of skydives, but Blanchard was no ordinary thief. The theft he was about to accomplish – the Köchert Diamond heist – has taken its place among the most daring jewelry thefts ever.

The day before, he’d taken a palace tour. On display glittered Austria’s most famous jewel, the last remaining Köchert Diamond, one of the jeweled stars Empress Elisabeth used to wear in her hair. Blanchard hatched a plan to steal it.

An expert at analyzing weaknesses in security systems, Blanchard lingered behind the tour group, videotaping the room and making preliminary preparations. From the roof, he decided. Whoever planned the palace security system didn’t take that method of entry into account.

Blanchard then contacted a friend of his, a German pilot, to fly him over the city that night for the jump. Once inside the palace, he dismantled the display case and switched out the diamond with a replica he’d purchased in the museum shop.

A crime that touched history

He may not have known it, but as his hand touched the diamond, Blanchard’s 1998 crime converged with one of Europe’s greatest 19th-century crimes. The only woman to ever have worn that star, the Empress “Sisi,” fell victim to an assassin’s knife in 1898.

Jennifer Bowers Bahney’s new book, Stealing Sisi’s Star: How a Master Thief Nearly Got Away with Austria’s Most Famous Jewel, masterfully weaves the Köchert Diamond heist and the royal assassination into a compelling story. She joins us today for an interview about both of them.

Welcome, Jennifer!

Interview with Jennifer Bowers Bahney

Jennifer Bowers Bahney.

Author Jennifer Bowers Bahney, with permission.

What is Sisi’s Star and why is it so famous?

Empress Elisabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, loved her ankle-length hair and went to great pains to care for and dress it. She had a personal hairdresser who spent nearly three hours each day braiding it into intricate updos. Once, when Sisi was at the theater, she saw an actress with jeweled stars pinned throughout her hair, and Sisi decided that she would commission her own “hair stars” from the royal court jewel firm, Köchert. The jeweler created 27 ten-pointed stars for Sisi to pin throughout her braids featuring 30 graduated diamonds and a large center pearl set in white gold. (The hair star I write about in the book is known as the Köchert Diamond Pearl). When being painted for her state portrait in 1865 (“Empress Elisabeth in a Star-Spangled Dress” by Franz-Xaver Winterhalter), Sisi wore the stars in place of an old-fashioned tiara. The decision was considered very fashion forward and original.

Why was only one left in 1998?

Sisi actually had several sets of hair stars created, some versions were all diamonds without center pearls. Different sets were bequeathed to relatives (her grand-daughter, Erzsi, received a full set for her wedding after Sisi’s death). After World War I, when the Habsburg monarchy was disbanded, many formerly-titled royals broke down their jewelry and sold the gems piecemeal since they no longer received income from the state. This may have been the fate of many of the stars. There may also be a forgotten set locked away in a vault somewhere in Europe. A private collector who owned the last known Köchert Diamond Pearl lent it to Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna in 1998 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Sisi’s assassination.

You compare the Gerald Blanchard, the man responsible for the Köchert Diamond heist, to James Bond. Why?


Skydiving at night requires special skills. Pixabay.

Gerald Blanchard is a real genius with the unique ability to size-up security systems and figure out how to successfully dismantle them. He was also one of the first thieves to use modern technology like pin-hole cameras, listening devices and computers to perpetrate his crimes. The Canadian police I spoke to said they had never seen anyone take so much time, effort, and patience to complete his crimes. For the Sisi Star theft, Blanchard said he parachuted onto the roof of Schönbrunn Palace in the dead of night, slipped inside, evaded the motion sensors and security guards, and plucked the star from a weight-sensitive pedestal. To me, his actions played like a James Bond film!

How did you get Blanchard to talk to you about his theft of Sisi’s Star?

I contacted a journalist named Josh Berman who wrote a story on the Sisi Star theft for Wired Magazine. He gave me Blanchard’s email address, which was something like a bunch of random numbers I sent an email introducing myself, telling him that I was writing a book, and asking him to contact me. I waited several days and heard nothing back. So, I decided to appeal to his vanity. I sent another email telling him that I spoke to an authority at Schönbrunn who didn’t believe he pulled off the crime the way he said he had; the official thought Blanchard had inside help and wasn’t the “James Bond character” he wanted everyone to believe he was. I told Blanchard that only he could clear this up for me. I got a fairly immediate email back with a phone number saying, “call me.”

What surprised you most about Blanchard?

I think I was surprised by his humanity. He seemed like a very nice, very intelligent person who grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks” and discovered he had a talent for theft. He bought his mother a home with some money he stole when he was a teenager. And he took more jail time later in life so that his accomplices wouldn’t have to serve any. By the end of the Sisi Star caper, all of the Canadian cops seemed to really like him. So, he definitely wasn’t an uncaring psychopath and his crimes never turned violent. But I think he was a narcissist who had to become his own best champion because he didn’t receive the safety and stability he needed as a kid. He had learned to use his extraordinary intelligence and talents to take care of himself.

Schönbrunn Palace, site of the Köchert Diamond heist.

Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace, site of the Köchert Diamond heist. Thomas Wolf, [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

Was the German pilot ever identified?

Not to my knowledge. Blanchard is trying to get a movie made of his life, so we’ll see if he gives up the pilot in the future!

Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) is often compared to Princess Diana. In what ways were they similar?

Both women were born noble, and were very young and sheltered when they married into top-tier monarchy. Both had a difficult time coping with their mothers-in-law and their new positions in the limelight; they were both considered “difficult” and both suffered from eating disorders. Interestingly, Sisi spent time at Althorp House where Lady Diana would one day grow up. There may have been a portrait of Sisi somewhere on the estate as a gift given during one of her many riding excursions with Earl Spencer, so Diana may have been familiar with Sisi’s reputation as “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

In what ways was Sisi like her Wittelsbach cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria?

Both Sisi and Ludwig considered themselves to be “otherworldly creatures” who were misunderstood by the average people. They loved poetry, theater, and being around other beautiful people. Both suffered from “melancholy,” or depression. Madness in all its forms was said to be the “Wittelsbach Curse.”

What do you like most about Sisi?

This is a tough one. I like her creative mind, her independent spirit, and her originality, but I did not like her selfishness and her refusal to help her husband when he needed her most. He was under tremendous political stress, and there are many “public relations” moves she could have initiated to have bolstered the opinion of the monarchy in the eyes of the people. Concurrently, she could have used her great fame to help the people more — just like Princess Diana did with AIDS patients and land mines. Sisi visited a cholera hospital and a mental ward here and there, but was never known for her “service” to the people. I also think it’s tragic that she didn’t have a better relationship with her children. She rarely interacted with Gisela, who was married off at 16; never tried to understand her son, Rudolf, who committed suicide; and smothered her youngest daughter, Marie Valerie with overwhelming love and guilt. My new book takes a look at Marie Valerie’s life and quotes quite a bit from her diary where she expresses dismay at her mother’s behavior.

How was Sisi assassinated?

Sisi was staying at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, and was walking along the quay toward a steamer ship to her next destination when she was stabbed by an anarchist. Everyone thought she was OK at first, but she slowly bled to death internally. Sadly, Sisi always refused a police escort or bodyguards in her attempt to remain independent. She thought she was traveling incognito, but everyone knew who she was. Also, the anarchist had been simply looking for anyone of royal blood to kill in order to make a statement, and Sisi just happened to cross his path at the wrong time.

What is Blanchard doing today?

Blanchard served his time for the crimes that caused him to turn over the Sisi Star, then changed his name to Rick White and worked as a cable installer for a time in Canada. Today, he seems to travel a lot to Asia and he has a penchant for drones and posting his exploits as Rick White on social media.

Did Austria ever prosecute him for the Köchert Diamond heist?

Austria never prosecuted Blanchard for stealing the Sisi Star, probably because they never had enough evidence against him. In fact, had it not been for the Canadian Police who caught him for another international crime, the star might still be hidden away in a very unlikely hiding spot.

Stealing Sisi's Star, book cover.

Book cover, courtesy of Jennifer Bowers Bahney.

Thank you, Jennifer!

If you want to read how Blanchard avoided the motion detectors and display case alarms in the palace, and how Canadian authorities finally caught him, you’ll need to read the book. I don’t want to give everything away.

Literature on point:

Jennifer Bowers Bahney, Stealing Sisi’s Star: How a Master Thief Nearly Got Away with Austria’s Most Famous Jewel (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015).


Read More

Charms that Excused Perjury: A 19th Century Detective’s List

A witness testifying under oath

A witness testifying under oath. By bikeriderlondon, Shutterstock, with permission.

Is the witness lying?

It’s an important question for a detective – a train switch that can change the course of the investigation. Modern detectives can rely on lie detectors and subtle clues in body language. They get training based on sophisticated psychological research.

In the 19th century, a detective had to rely on his or her knowledge of human nature. A common technique was to question a witness over and over again to see if the story remained consistent. Detectives still do that today.

Crossing the fingers behind one's back was one of the charms that excused perjury.

Crossing the fingers behind one’s back was one of the charms that excused perjury. Photo from Pixabay.

But because folklore and superstitions about perjury ran rampant in bygone eras, detectives had to watch out for a whole list of things that would never occur to a modern detective. Witnesses used talismans or charms that excused perjury in the eyes of God – similar to a witness crossing his fingers behind his back. They thought these tricks negated the consequences of lying and absolved a perjurer from any moral and legal consequences. Just as a detective today would question the veracity of a person with crossed fingers behind his back, a 19th century detective had a list of folklore tricks to watch out for; they indicated the witness was lying.

Hanns Gross, father of modern criminology.

Hanns Gross, father of modern criminology, public domain.

 Charms that excused perjury

Hanns Gross, the 19th century Austrian professor and father of criminology, researched folklore about perjury and wrote about it in his landmark handbook for investigators. Austrian detectives put witnesses under oath when they interrogated them, but they needed to keep a sharp eye out for the tricks a witness might use to wiggle out from the weight of the oath. Here are some of them:

 Bird eyeballs

The eyes of two European birds, the hoopoe and lapwing, were supposed to bring luck in court. A person carrying them on their chest became “beloved.” In the courtroom, that meant one could escape from the consequences of the oath and lie even if sworn. The eyeballs would help the judge to view the witness’s case favorably.

Folklore ascribed magical powers to the hoope's eyeballs.

Folklore ascribed magical powers to the hoopoe’s eyeballs. Pixabay.

 Bones of one’s own child

Carrying the bones of one’s own deceased child supposedly excused perjury. Gross doesn’t mention how people obtained the bones. My mind doesn’t even want to go there. But the presence of a bone on a witness’s person should have been enough to arouse the detective’s suspicion.

 Bent thumbs

“Pressing” the thumbs is the German equivalent of the English crossing of the fingers; it’s supposed to bring luck. Bending the thumbs during testimony is another variation. Austrian detectives needed to watch out for witnesses employing this trick.

 Actions with the left hand

Putting your left hand on your side, making a fist with it, stretching out your left fingers, or holding your left hand backwards supposedly balanced out the right hand’s gestures in taking the oath. Left hand activity signaled possible charms that excused perjury to the astute 19th century detective.

 Actions with the mouth

According to folklore, spitting following taking an oath negated the oath. So did a gold piece under the tongue or seven pebbles in the mouth.

 Twisting the pants button

Twisting one’s pants button was another one of the charms that excused perjury Hanns Gross encountered. Witnesses did it while taking the oath to nullify its consequences.

Mistletoe in the shoe? That was one of the 19th century charms that excused perjury.

Mistletoe in the shoe? That was one of the 19th century charms that excused perjury. Pixabay.

 Mistletoe in the shoe

Mistletoe is for much more than kissing during the Christmas season. If you put it in your boot, on the sole, when you gave sworn testimony, it protected you from the consequences of your perjury.

 Burial shroud

The southern Slavic culture, according to Professor Gross, viewed parts of the burial shroud as charms that excused perjury. Carrying the clothing that bound the deceased’s chin, especially if it was still knotted, had magical powers that prevented the court from detecting or punishing perjury. Wearing the part of the shroud that bound the dead man’s feet in our own shoe had the same effect.

Watch out for a burial shroud in court.

Watch out for a burial shroud in court. Pixabay.

 Raising the right leg

In the Turkish culture, raising the right leg while taking an oath negated the oath and allowed the person to commit perjury.

 Can you add to this list about charms that excused perjury? Or superstitions about lying in general?

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s, 1899) 372-373.

Johann Gotthold Kunstmann, The Hoopoe: A Study in European Folklore (Dissertation, Univ. of Chicago, 1938) 14

Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Republic of Turkey, Superstitions


Read More

Hoots, Crows, and Whistles: Criminals Using Animals Calls as Secret Signals

Little Owl calls were among the common animal called imitated by criminals.

European criminals liked to imitate the Little Owl. Little Owl from Pixbay, public domain.

A Little Owl’s cry pierced the night. It rebounded through the neighborhood, and from the other side of the house, a man dressed in black heard it. Lifting his hands to his mouth, he imitated a Yellow-bellied Toad. The man who’d made the owl cry smiled. His lookout was now in place. He slipped through the shadows to the back door, picked the lock, and crept into the darkness of the home.

A burglar picking a lock.

Burglary. Pixbay, public domain.

Criminals using animal calls as secret signals are a recurring theme in literature. “Hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl,” the dwarves told Bilbo when he burglarized the trolls in Tolkein’s The Hobbit. The signal was not only supposed to let the dwarves know if Bilbo was in trouble. Criminals used animals calls to localize and identify each other.

The trolls were turned to stone in The Hobbit.

The trolls were turned to stone in The Hobbit. Photo from Pixbay, public domain.

Animal Calls in Criminology

But does the burglar-animal call motif have any basis in history? Definitely, says Hanns Gross, the 19th century Austrian father of criminology.

“Contact calls” consist almost exclusively of animal imitations, especially of those animals that make noises at night. Of course, people committing a robbery in the woods or approaching a home for a burglary don’t call to each other by name or make any noise that would attract attention. An animal call, especially when well imitated, is never suspected, and when the criminals agree in advance [who will make which animal call], the calls are as clearly understood as the names themselves.

A rooster? That's among the animal calls no one suspects.

A rooster? That’s an animal call no one suspects. Photo from Pixbay, public domain.

 The rooster’s crow, the quail’s rhythmic whistling, and near water, frogs or the Yellow-bellied Toad, are all imitated, but owl hoots are the most popular of all. Owls are everywhere, in the woods, fields, mountains, swamps, in isolated areas, and close to human habitation. No one questions the hoot of an owl early in the evening or before dawn; hunters even use hoots in broad daylight when summoning each other in the woods. Although animals don’t fear an owl hoot, men have a superstitious dread of it; on hearing an owl hoot they would sooner stop their ears than watch their pockets. Based on how far apart the accomplices are, a Scops Owl or Little Owl hoot is used…. The Little Owl is used for greater distances.

Owl calls. Gross at p. 278.

Hanns Gross reduced two animal calls popular among criminals to musical notation. Both are Little Owl calls. The first is a whistle and used for shorter distances. The second is a cry and used for greater distances.

Animal Calls Indicate Accomplices

Does the practice of criminals imitating animal calls make any difference in a law enforcement investigation? Hanns Gross thought so:

Yellow-bellied Toad; one of the animal calls criminals used.

Near water, criminals liked to use the Yellow-bellied Toad croak. Yellow-bellied Frog Bombina variegata (Marek Szczepanek); Creative Commons license

 Under the circumstances, this matter can be important. When the question is whether a robbery in the woods or a burglary has been committed by a lone perpetrator or several accomplices, the investigator should ask the witnesses whether they heard an owl hoot shortly before or after the crime. If the answer is yes, the chances are slim it was a real owl hooting at the exact time and place of the crime. Law enforcement should keep their ears open for such sounds.

 Do criminals still use animal calls as secret signals today? Who knows? The urban jungle has largely replaced the woods as a favored place to commit a crime, and perhaps other signals have taken their place. But in a residential neighborhood, it might be worth asking if anyone heard an animal cry in the night.

Have you ever heard of a modern crime in which the criminals communicated with animal calls? Or can you offer another example from literature?

European Common Frog

European Common Frog.

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Graz. Austria: Leuschner & Lubensky’s, 1899) 278-79 (translation mine).

J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit (London: George Allen & Unwin, 4th ed. 1978) 36.

Read More
error: Content is protected !!