Bertha Benz: How the World’s First Car Theft Jump Started the Auto Industry

Bertha Benz, public domain.

Bertha Benz, public domain.

She left a note for her husband on the table.

It was early in the morning of August 5, 1888, and her husband was still sleeping. She purposely didn’t mention her means of transportation. Bertha Benz just wrote that she and their two sons, Eugen and Richard, had already left to visit Pforzheim, Germany, 90 km (55 miles) away. It wasn’t until Carl Benz (of Mercedes-Benz fame) checked the workshop in his factory that he realized his family hadn’t taken the train.

His new invention was gone.

As one recent German documentary pointed out, Bertha had just committed the world’s first car theft. But this was a true crime we can all stand up and cheer for.

Wanted: Bertha Benz for Grand Theft Auto

Bertha Benz Made the First Road Trip in the History of the Automobile

What Bertha did was a pioneering undertaking. Her husband Carl was a brilliant engineer and had designed the world’s first automobile in 1885. Bertha believed in the importance of his invention. But Carl didn’t have good business acumen and his product wasn’t going anywhere.

The Benz Patent Motor Car Model III, which Bertha drove.

The Benz Patent Motor Car Model III, which Bertha drove. Public domain.

Bertha knew instinctively what every modern business knows today: Marketing a product requires different skills than designing one. The only thing lacking was the definite proof that the vehicle was reliable and could also master long-distance routes. And Bertha had a great marketing idea: She and her sons would drive the car from Mannheim to Pforzheim and show the world what it could do.

Inventing Brake Lining

Bertha Benz with her sons Eugen and Richard during the long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim with the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1888. Reconstructed scene (push-starting the car) on celebrating the 100th anniversary of the motor vehicle’s first long-distance journey.

Bertha Benz with her sons Eugen and Richard during the long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim with the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1888. Reconstructed scene (push-starting the car) on celebrating the 100th anniversary of the motor vehicle’s first long-distance journey. Courtesy of the Daimler Corp.

Bertha Benz and her sons pushed the car out of the workshop and started it only after it was out of Carl’s earshot. Once on the road, the threesome had to conquer novel problems. It made about 9 mph. At 2.5 horsepower, the car wasn’t strong enough to climb steep gradients and they had to get out to push it. Going downhill, the car burnt out the brake shoes, but Bertha knew what to do. She stopped off at a cobbler and asked him to fit the brake shoes with a leather lining. In so doing Bertha Benz became the inventor of brake lining.

Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard during their long-distance journey in August 1888 with the Benz Patent Motor Car. Contemporary portrayal of filling up at the pharmacy in Wiesloch, the “world’s first gas station.”

Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard during their long-distance journey in August 1888 with the Benz Patent Motor Car. Contemporary portrayal of filling up at the pharmacy in Wiesloch, the “world’s first gas station.”
Courtesy of the Daimler Corp.

World’s First Gas Station

She underestimated how far the fuel would bring them, but it wasn’t a big problem. Pharmacies sold fuel back then. Bertha Benz bought gas several times along the way. She made her first fuel purchase at the Stadtapotheke (City Pharmacy) in Wiesloch, Germany, and it still proudly displays a sign that it’s the first gas station in the world.

"The 'Stadtapotheke' is famous as the 'first gas station in the world.' Bertha Benz bought gasoline here for the first time in 1888 on her drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim."

“The ‘Stadtapotheke’ is famous as the ‘first gas station in the world.’ Bertha Benz bought gasoline here for the first time in 1888 on her drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim.”

In Wiesloch, people gathered around the vehicle to express their amazement. “Holy sandbag,” a green grocer is purported to have yelled out. “That’s a woman up there!”

Bertha and her sons telegrammed Carl along the way to let him know they were alright. They arrived safely in Pforzheim by dusk and returned to Mannheim several days later.

The world's first gas station: Wiesloch's Stadtapothe today.

The world’s first gas station: Wiesloch’s Stadtapothe today.

 How Bertha’s Drive Changed History

Carl Benz was livid about Bertha’s trip, but he eventually changed his mind. “Following the first shock,” he wrote in his memoirs, he “felt an inner pride.” Bertha’s “test drive” results also presented new engineering challenges. Afterwards, Carl fitted the Benz Patent Motor Car Model III out with a new gear and a better brake. And sales stepped up following Bertha’s round trip to Pforzheim.

The rise of Benz’s motor factory to one of the great automotive manufacturers in the world would scarcely have been imaginable had it not been for Bertha’s courage. Her publicity stunt sounded the prelude to the Mercedes-Benz success story.

Signs for the Bertha Benz Memorial Route between Mannheim and Pforzheim.

Signs for the Bertha Benz Memorial Route between Mannheim and Pforzheim.

Germany now has a Bertha Benz memorial route, marked with these signs, so that drivers can take the same trip Bertha did.

The world’s first automobile a road trip, the world’s first auto theft, and the invention of brake liners. Bertha Benz, the first woman driver, accomplished all three in one trip. Which feat impresses you the most for a 19th century woman?


Literature on point:

Johanna Lutteroth, Bertha Benz’ große Autofahrt, Spiegel Online

Daimler press kit, Bertha Benz and the world’s first long-distance trip in an automobile

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Last Walk of Bavaria’s King Ludwig II

Site of King Ludwig's last walk.

The path King Ludwig II walked only minutes before his death, taken at the same time he walked it on the anniversary of his death.

If trees could talk, what stories they could tell! This stately giant watches over the path that Bavaria’s King Ludwig II walked only minutes before he died in 1886. It might be just old enough to solve Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery, if only it could communicate with us.

Let me take you along the king’s last walk on the anniversary of his death.

It all happened during an attempt to depose Ludwig II in June, 1886. Bavarian officials arrested king and placed him under custody at the castle Berg on the shore of Lake Starnberg. You can read more about the king’s life, the arrest, and the circumstances of his death here.

A Stroll through the Beech Trees

Ludwig II with Dr. von Gudden

A 1901 postcard showing King Ludwig II and Dr. von Gudden starting off on their fateful walk on June 13, 1886. Ludwig is on the left. Public domain.

Ludwig II wanted to take a stroll in the evening of June 13, 1886. Psychiatrist Dr. von Gudden chaperoned him. The two left the castle at shortly after 6:00 pm and followed this path through beech woods south along Lake Starnberg. They were last seen around 6:30 pm.

I took these pictures around 6:30 pm on the anniversary of the king’s death to give you an idea of the setting. Although it was cloudier on the day Ludwig II died, you can still see in these picture how the shadows had begun to lengthen. The birds had also begun their evening chorus. Perhaps the king and the doctor heard the same birdsongs I did: the dizzy, upward spirals of the wood warbler, the chaffinch’s rhythmic chatter, and the rich overtones of the European robin echoing through the trees.

Mysterious Death of Ludwig II

Ludwig II made a dash for the water near this point.

Ludwig II made a dash for the water near this point.

About 900 m south of the castle, Ludwig made a dash for the water. The lakeshore here is only 20-30m from the path. The big question is why the king entered the lake. Either he wanted to escape custody or he intended to commit suicide by drowning himself in the water.

Ludwig II was found here.

The cross in the water marks the point where Ludwig II was found, floating dead.

A massive search began when the king and doctor didn’t return as planned at 8:00 pm. Their bodies were found floating in shallow water two hours later. This cross marks the spot where Ludwig’s body was found. His watch had stopped at 6:54 pm and von Gudden’s at 8:00 pm. Exactly what had happened to the king and the physician remain one of Germany’s greatest unsolved mysteries, and the theories range from murder to suicide to accident.

The King of Hearts?

Memorial service for King Ludwig II

Memorial service for King Ludwig II

Ludwig II, the patron of Richard Wagner and builder of fairy tale castles, remains Bavaria’s most popular king. Every year his devotees gather for a memorial service on the anniversary of his death. Here are a few photographic impressions.

Military salute at the site where Ludwig II died

Military salute

Ludwig II depicted on a sign

Ludwig II depicted on a sign

One of the speakers at the festivities made an interesting assertion: “No other European king has found his way into the hearts of the folk as did Ludwig II.” Do you agree? And if not, which European king would you nominate as the king of hearts?

Literature on point:

Christopher McIntosh, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria (London: I.B. Tauris, 1982)

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Ravens as Partners for Cadaver Dogs?

Raven in Yellowstone

Raven in Yellowstone National Park by Christopher May; shutterstock_283227410

Germany shocked the law enforcement world in 2010 with an ingenious idea: Why not use turkey vultures to search for dead bodies in murder investigations? Turkey vultures hunt with their sense of smell and scientists say they’re the best sniffers among the raptors. They’re naturally attracted to carrion. They can detect a dead mouse from a mile away and aren’t hindered by rough terrain. Could they be trained to distinguish human from animal bodies, be fitted with GPS devices, and help law enforcement solve cases?

Turkey vulture.

Turkey vulture. Morguefile free photos.

As great as the idea was, it met its demise in the sharp talons of the vulture’s biology. Vultures aren’t sociable. They’re all beaks and claws. They use projectile vomiting to defend themselves, spewing the rancid, corrosive mess up to ten feet. The German researchers couldn’t get them to cooperate and the project was quickly abandoned.

Should Germany have looked at ravens instead?

It’s not that vultures can’t be useful on cadaver searches. Cadaver dog handler Cat Warren admits to keeping an eye on turkey vulture kettles during her searches. But other wild birds offer clues, too. Hanns Gross, the Austrian father of criminology, kept his eye on European vultures and kites, but also on a different carrion-eating genus: the corvids. Ravens and crows. Here’s an example from his 19th century handbook on criminology:

Flying raven.

Flying raven. Morguefile free photos.

“The body of a murdered woman was once found in the following way: The teachers of the surrounding schools told the children to let them know if they noticed a flock of many crows, ravens, etc., anywhere; some of them made such a report, with the successful result that the murdered person was found.”

I say the Germans were experimenting with the wrong bird species. Shall we take a closer look at the raven?

 Ravens are sociable and super smart

Scientists consider corvids the most intelligent birds. They’ve even documented corvids using tools. They’re trainable. A big plus is that they’re affable to humans.

Raven totem pole.

Raven in Native American art. Morguefile free photos.

It’s no accident that the raven plays such a prominent role in Norse and American Indian mythology. Ornithologist Bernd Heinrich devotes three chapters in his book, Mind of the Raven, to the raven’s cooperation with other hunters: wolves, polar bears, cats, and humans. There are anecdotes of ravens spotting prey and leading predators to it. Ravens probably learned that large prey, in combination with a hunter, translated into food. As a reward, the ravens got a chance at the leftovers.

In fact, man’s first best friend might not have been the dog. It could have been the raven.

 A corvid, canine, and homo sapiens hunting triad?

Odin with his two wolves and ravens.

Odin sits atop his steed Sleipnir, his ravens Huginn and Muninn and wolves Geri and Freki nearby. By Lorenz Frølich (1895), public domain.

It may not be an accident, either, that the Norse god Odin took two ravens and two wolves with him on the hunt.

In order to track down the bases for raven mythology, modern anecdotes of interspecies hunting cooperation, and rumors that Eskimo hunters “talk” to ravens, Bernd Heinrich traveled to Inuit villages on the Canadian tundra. He found ravens everywhere, often in close association with the Eskimo dogs.

The Inuit told stories of hunters’ ability to communicate with overflying ravens in bygone times. They used incantations and called out the raven’s name, “tulugaq!” Ravens, they said, indicated the direction of the prey by wing tipping. “And after [the hunters] killed the caribou or the polar bear,” said one elderly Inuit, “they always left the raven the choicest tidbits of meat as a reward.” It wasn’t always the faithful dog, then, that accompanied the ancient hunter. The raven may have been there too.

Wolves are one of the raven's traditional hunting partners.

Wolf. Morguefile free photos.

Where they don’t have humans to help them, ravens are just as happy to work with canines. Research from Yellowstone National Park indicates that ravens are dependent on wolves to kill and open carcasses for them. Heinrich says that points to a relationship with an ancient evolutionary history.

Given that ravens also eat carrion and can spot it from the air, could they be trained to search for human bodies and work in cooperation with cadaver dogs and their handlers? Humans and canines are, after all, two of the raven’s traditional partners.

It’s an idea worth exploring. And it’s a more pleasant one than working with vultures.

Literature on point:



Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013)


Bernd Heinrich: Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds (New York, Harper Collins, 1999). The quote appears on p. 252 of the Harper Perennial paperback edition.

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (3rd ed., Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s 1899) p.124.

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Heligoland: Germany’s Pirate Hideout

Dodgerton Skillhause, morguefile free photos

Dodgerton Skillhause, morguefile free photos

Pirate hideouts always entice with the lure of buried treasure.

Last week’s announcement that an American explorer might have found Captain Kidd’s treasure in Madagascar puts pirates back into the news. Madagascar was a famous 17th century pirate lair, but Germany had a pirate hideout too. A legendary pirate rendezvous in the 14-16th centuries, Heligoland – Germany’s only high sea island – harbored the country’s most famous pirate, Klaus Störtebeker. Shall we open Heligoland’s treasure chest and look at some of the colorful history inside?

Pirate Hideout Heligoland

The cliffs of Heligoland.

Pirates could keep watch for other ships from these tall red cliffs.

Heligoland is the North Sea’s only high sea island. Twenty-nine miles offshore, a splash of red sea cliffs, meadows, and white sands rises from the seafloor northwest of the German port Cuxhaven. It’s small – less than a square mile – but its allure made the literary rounds. Goethe wrote about it in 1827: From the west, a description of the Island of Heligoland just reached me, with beautiful depictions of geological and biological nature, the amassed remains of prehistoric life, and fresh evidence for the survival and impact of the eternal world spirit.”*

Germany acquired Heligoland from England in 1890 in exchange for Zanzibar. A naval station during the two world wars, it served as the German base for the Battle of the Heligoland Bight. Now it attracts scientists, not warships. Heligoland hosts two biological research stations, one for birds and one for marine life.

These are the rocks of Heligoland.

Behold the birthplace of quantum physics.

It is also the birthplace of quantum mechanics. In June 1925, Werner Heisenberg, a young German physicist, travelled to Heligoland to escape his hay fever on the mainland. There he made a major breakthrough – what has been called one of the major “jumps” in 20th century physics. “It was about three o’clock at night when the final result of the calculation lay before me…. At first I was deeply shaken…. I was so excited that I could not think of sleep. So I left the house … and awaited the sunrise on top of a rock…. That was ‘the night of Heligoland.’”** Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in 1932.

The Pirate Störtebeker

What Heisenberg did for physics, Störtebeker did for German legend.

Klaus Störtebeker joined an infamous privateer group called the “Victual Brothers” in the late 14th century. They were mercenaries who fought for Denmark and Mecklenburg interchangeably in a series of conflicts in the North and Baltic Seas. Because Störtebeker took merchants captive, people later compared him to Robin Hood.

Pirates are fond of nicknames, and Störtebeker was no exception. In Low Saxon, “Störtebeker” means “empty the [gallon-sized] mug in one gulp.” He had a reputation for drinking too much wine.

When Denmark and Mecklenberg made a peace agreement in 1395, the Victual Brothers needed a new line of work. They first grounded a pirate town in Visby on the Swedish isle of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, but after they were attacked, the pirates moved to the North Sea. Störtebeker became one of their leaders. By 1400, Störtebeker had made Heligoland his basis.

Störtebeker's defeat at Heligoland.

Störtebeker’s defeat at Heligoland. Hamburger Staatsarchiv. Public domain.  „Stoertebeker1“ von Das Original wurde von Seebeer in der Wikipedia auf Deutsch hochgeladen – Übertragen aus de.wikipedia nach Commons.. Lizenziert unter Gemeinfrei über Wikimedia Commons –

A fleet from Hamburg attacked Heligoland in 1401 and defeated the pirates in 1401. The Flemish ship “Painted Cow” defeated Störtebeker’s ship, “Red Devil.” Tradition has it that one of his crew turned traitor and poured molten lead down the Red Devil’s rudder shaft. The rudder froze, the pirate lost control of his ship, and Painted Cow gained an advantage. You can see a model of the Painted Cow in the cellar of Hamburg’s city hall (Ratskeller).

Germany’s most famous pirate was executed on October 21 of the same year. He begged for mercy for his fellow sailors, but was refused. About 75 pirates were executed that day.

Impaled skull of a pirate.

An impaled pirate’s skull from about 1400. Found 1878 in Hamburg during a contruction project. “Schädel Hingerichteter Hamburg” by Michail Jungierek – Own Work, Ausstellungsstück im Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

According to medieval tradition, people publically displayed the skulls of executed pirates on stakes. Two of these skulls have survived. Forensic scientists have examined them but can’t prove whether one was Störtebeker’s.

More than any other German outlaw, Störtebeker has become the stuff of legend and is a popular figure in German literature. Operas, poems, and novels etch the pirate legend into German culture.

Can you think of any other outlaws who are so celebrated?

Literature on point:

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe & Carl Friedrich Zelter (Max Heller, ed.), Der Briefwechsel zwischen Goethe und Zeller, Vol. II (1819-1827) (Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1915) p. 592.

** Mauro, Dardo, Nobel Laurietes and Twentieth-Century Physics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p. 179.

Helmut Neuhold, Die berühmtesten Freibeuter und Piraten (Wiesbaden: marixverlag, 2013).

Klaus Störtebeker.

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The Guglmänner and the Mystery of King Ludwig’s Death

Die Gartenlaube, 1886, public domain.

It. Was. Murder!

That’s what a sign held by a group of hooded men reads. It’s the battle cry of the Guglmänner, a secret society in Bavaria. It is trying to prove King Ludwig II was murdered in 1886 and thinks America might hold the clues it needs.

Who are the Guglmänner?

Guglmänner translates to hooded men, but they should in no way be confused with the white-hooded men in America. The German group traces its history back to a medieval knighthood with a tradition of dressing in black robes and hoods. That’s how mourning knights dressed following Kaiser Barbarossa’s death in 1190, the Guglmänner website explains. And during the time of the plague, the black-hooded knights became symbols of death and exhortation to the living; they were the ones that carried the victims to their graves. Guglmänner traditionally participate in the funerals of Bavarian monarchs by marching in front of the casket carrying two crossed torches and shields with the royal coat of arms. Their motto is: Media in vita in morte sumus. In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death.

Today the Guglmänner are still organized according to a 1037 law, Constitutio de feudis, regulating the knighthood. And their main focus has shifted to clarifying the mysterious circumstances of a royal death.

A Controversal Death

Bavaria’s best known king, Ludwig II – patron of Richard Wagner and builder of Bavaria’s fairytale castles – couldn’t have picked a more controversial way to die. You could call it Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery.

Ludwig II

Ludwig II portrait by Carl Theodor von Piloty, public domain

Bavarian ministers deposed Ludwig in 1886. They alleged his insanity, but the real reason may have had more to do the king’s overspending. They transferred Ludwig to the castle Berg on Lake Starnberg for psychiatric supervision and evaluation. The following day, on June 13, 1886, Ludwig and his psychiatrist took a walk along the lakeshore but never returned. Searchers found them dead several hours later, floating in shallow water near the shore. A previous blog post covers the death in more detail.

Authorities ruled Ludwig’s death suicide by drowning, but there are plenty of people who don’t agree. Years later, witnesses said a gag order prevented them from talking. Everyone who helped recover the bodies was forced to swear on a crucifix and Bible never to say anything about that night, not even on his deathbed. One witness said Ludwig was shot while trying to escape to a boat.

Might there be Overlooked Evidence in America?

Some of those witnesses immigrated to America after Ludwig’s death. It’s possible that one of them left information behind because witnesses who moved to America might have not longer felt constrained by a Bavarian gag order. On their website, the Guglmänner request that anybody with an ancestor bearing one of the following last names check to see whether a forefather might have been a witness to the occurrences the night of June 13, 1886 on Lake Starnberg. If so, they would like to hear from you. You can contact the Guglmänner by emailing info@guglmä

Ludwig II with Dr. von Gudden

A 1901 postcard showing King Ludwig II and Dr. von Gudden starting off on their fateful walk on June 13, 1886. Ludwig is on the left. Public domain.

Grashey, Gudden, Gumbiller, Hack, Hartinger, v. Holnstein, Huber, Klier, Lauterbach, Lechl, Lidl, Liebmann, Mauder, Mayr, Müller, Rasch, Schneller, Schuster, Ritter, Rottenhöfer, v. Washington, Wimmer, Zanders.

This avenue of research ought to be pursued, because I don’t think it’s been tried before. Since the Guglmänner website is in German, it’s worth bringing their request to the English-speaking world. Who knows? Perhaps someone has some interesting history boxed away in their attic.

Ludwig II once expressed his hope that his life would be an “eternal enigma.” His death has certainly become one. An international enigma.

Do you it still might be possible to resolve the controversy surrounding Ludwig’s death after all these years?

Literature on point:

Die Guglmänner SM. König Ludwig II. (Guglmänner website)

Die Guglmänner, Mitteldeutsche Zeitung Sept. 28, 2010


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Tramp Signs: Secret Symbols of Criminals and Vagabonds


Tramp signs were somtimes carved into wood.

Criminals used to use secret tramp signs, sometimes carving them into wood. Photo AVN Photo Lab, Shutterstock.

A black shape emerges from the misty shadows of the night and slinks up to the door. A glint of light flashes from a knife. There’s a scratching sound as the man begins to whittle a symbol into the wood. You probably won’t be able to read what he’s carving, because it’s in a centuries-old secret language: the tramp signs of Europe.

Frequently used from the 17th to 19th centuries, these symbols provided secret information to other criminals and vagabonds. Tramp signs told which houses provided refuge and which were dangerous. Even if a criminal was illiterate, he could still read these symbols.

By the 20th century, law enforcement had deciphered many of the symbols. Here are few listed in a criminal investigator’s handbook:


Historical tramp signs from Europe. Hans Gross, Handbuch der Kriminalistik is a good source.

Historical tramp signs from Europe.


Some of these symbols became the basis for the hobo symbols that flourished in North American starting in the late 19th century and through the Depression. Compare the tramp signs above to some of these hobo symbols from North America:

Hobo signs

Ryan Somma, Key to a few hobo signs, National Cryptologic Museum, Creative Commons.

In Europe, however, tramp signs were also used by mischief-makers who were much more dangerous than hobos. Some tramp signs would tell a criminal which house to burglarize, which to burn, or even which occupants to murder. Here are two ominous examples from 19th century Europe:

Tramp signs from Germany.

Instructions to commit murder by arson found on a chapel in the forest in Germany. The first line means “In the night of the last quarter moon, the fourth house in the direction of the arrow will be attacked.” The symbols on the bottom line are the signatures of the participants. From Hans Gross, Handbuch, 1899.


Another example of tramp signs.

These symbols indicate plans to burglarize the church on Christmas night. The stones and the child wrapped in swaddling clothes indicate the date. Hans Gross, Handbuch, 1899.

In the modern age of cell phones, the need for such communication has largely died out, although police do occasionally still find tramp signs. In 2009, police in Vienna found several on houses, mailboxes, fences, and doors. You can view photographs here. One of the symbols used looked like an upside down table. That means “old people live here.”

A modern variation of tramp signs is warchalking, symbols on streets or lampposts indicating the availability of an open wireless access point.

Warchalking as a modern variation of tramp signs.

Maha, Warchalking on a street in Bamberg, Germany, Creative Commons

Have you ever seen secret symbols in a public place?

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross & Ernst Seelig, Handbuch der Kriminalistik (Berlin: J Schwietzer, 1954)

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik (Graz, Austria: Leuschner & Lubensky’s Universitäts-Buchhandlung 1899)

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