Shotgun Ballistics in the 19th Century

Shotgun ballistics for these old weapons could be difficult

Antique shotguns; photo by Joppo,

Making Your Own Ammunition

Laura Ingalls Wilder described how Pa made his own bullets in Little House in the Big Woods. Isolated in the Wisconsin wilderness of the 1870s, the Ingalls family lived in a log cabin and had to make many things themselves.

Castling ladle for making ammumition

Casting ladle from a 1911 German hunting catalogue

After dinner, Pa moved over to the family hearth with his two daughters at his side. He started by melting lead in a ladle held in the glowing coals, and when it melted, he poured the molten lead carefully into the bullet-mold. After a minute, he popped the mold open. A shining hot bullet dropped out onto the hearth. It was too hot to touch, although the girls sometimes gave in to temptation and then had to shove their fingers into their mouths to cool them off. Once the bullet cooled, Pa shaved off any lumps left by the mold. The finished bullets went into his bullet pouch, and leftover shavings were set aside for making more bullets. Pa was now ready to go hunting the next day.


An early 20th c. German bullet-mold

Pa used a rifle, writes Laura. Named after the “rifling,” or spiraling groves on the inside of the barrel, a rifle throws its bullets into a spin and gives them greater accuracy, not unlike football or tennis players putting a spin on their balls. Rifles were a boon to hunters and soldiers.

Rifles vs. Shotguns

Rifles also leave clues on their bullets that help criminal investigators. Those groves leave behind unique “ballistic fingerprints” on each bullet. Law enforcement uses them to identify weapons used in crimes.

Shotguns are different. Their bores are smooth, not rifled, and they shoot a spray of pellets instead of single bullets. Modern shotguns use cartridges containing both shot and powder. Cartridge shells, once spewed from the barrel, can leave telltale clues pointing to the individual shotgun used.

Cartridges offered additional information for shotgun ballistics

A 1897 German cartridge

Cartridges were invented during Pa’s lifetime. But early in the 19th century, hunters had to load their shotguns by ramrodding powder, wadding, shot, and a thin cover down the barrel. Many people made their own shot, using the same procedure Pa used to make his bullets or by dropping molten lead into water. And if a criminal used one of those loads, law enforcement had a much more difficult time tracing them back to a weapon.

Early Shotgun Ballistics

Modern forensic science was born in the 19th century, just during the time that cartridges came into vogue and the frontloading shotgun began to fade into obscurity. But Austria’s father of forensic science, Hanns Gross, did address shotgun ballistics in 1899.

Bullet and pellet-mold.

This mold makes both bullets and shot pellets.

One clue all shotguns left behind was the spray pattern. Distribution of the shot and wadding could give investigators clues about where and in what direction the perpetrator shot. It can even help determine whether it was a crime or accident: “We can determine the cone of dispersion, and hence see whether the victim was in the middle or on the edge of the cone; this is most important when the issue of intention or accident comes in.”

The mixture of shot was once piece of evidence in shotgun ballistics.

A mix of buckshot, foxshot, and birdshot, together with wadding, with a U.S. penny for size comparison.

Another important clue was the size of the shot. “If all the pellets are the same, then there is not much evidence to be obtained. But if (providing they all came from the same discharge) the pellets are of mixed sizes, e.g. foxshot and rabbitshot, and if a suspect denies committing the crime, but the same mixture in a similar proportion are found on his person, the investigator has gained at least one piece of evidence.”

That evidence could be very individual, because like Pa, many people in the early 19th century made their own ammunition.

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (3rd ed., Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s 1899) p. 410.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (New York: Harper Collins 1932).

August Stukenbrok Einbeck, Moderne Waffen, Munition, Jagdartikel (catalogue, ca. 1911).

A special thanks to Markus Beck, weapons dealer in Kirchheim a.N. in Germany, for information about antique German weapons

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Cadaver Dogs in the 19th Century

A beagle tracks a scent. Soloviova Liudmyla, shutterstock.

A beagle tracks a scent. Soloviova Liudmyla, shutterstock.

A landscape of odors….

Compared to canines, humans smell in black and white. We live in a world of sight and sound, words and letters. If you wrote a novel for dogs, you’d have to use smells – it would be a scratch-and-sniff book. Dogs find their literature on the ground, on trees, and under bushes; a stroll in the woods is to browse through a library. They “see” the world as an aromatic landscape colored with scents we can’t even imagine.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

It’s precisely that facility that makes dogs so useful to law enforcement. Their olfactory perception complements a detective’s visual perception and can offer critical clues in a criminal investigation.

Cadaver dogs begin their careers

Father of the murder bag.

Hanns Gross, father of forensic science in Austria. Public domain.

Systematic training for cadaver dogs began in the 1970s. Modern human remains detection dogs learn to distinguish the odors of human decomposition from those of animal decomposition and track them through varied terrains. But that doesn’t mean that no one ever used dogs for finding dead bodies before the 1970s. One of the first recorded instances of a court purposely using a dog to search for a murder victim occurred during the investigation of the Bavarian Ripper in 1809.

Hanns Gross, an Austrian criminologist and the father of modern forensic science, wrote about the need for cadaver dog searches as early as 1899:

Hanns Gross recommended this breed as a cadaver dog

Johann Elias Ridinger, Leithund, 18th c.; public domain

“Undertaking outdoor [searches] is difficult under any circumstances. Systematic searching is almost always impossible due to the size of the territory; success is due to chance. Only in one circumstance is outside assistance advisable: searching for a human body. For that purpose, a good tracking dog can be used. Not every bloodhound or Leithund [a 19th c. German breed similar to the Weimaraner] can be used, however; only a few dogs possess the right facilities for the task. But if the investigating magistrate needs help in such a case, it won’t suffice if he just orders: “Get me a tracking dog.” He most certainly won’t obtain any help in this manner. He must, as discussed above, prepare for war during peacetime. This is all the more necessary because you often find such dogs in completely unexpected places, and can’t find one on the spot when you need one.”

A watchdog breaks the case

Gross managed to find a good dog and described how it found a body quickly enough to exculpate the suspect:

William Henry Jackson, "Seek Dead," 1902; public domain. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

William Henry Jackson, “Seek Dead,” 1902; public domain. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

“A tanner in my district had a garden-variety watchdog that didn’t have a bit of hunting dog in him, but (I think it merely due to his voraciousness) could find every single piece of carrion within a huge perimeter. For that reason, the local hunters borrowed him to find all the game they shot that their hunting dogs couldn’t find. The tanner’s dog found everything that was animal and dead. He would come to a standstill for wounded deer as well as a long-dead cat, but he found both. Once, when we needed to search for a missing cretin, presumed to have been murdered by his brother-in-law, this dog found the cretin’s body deep in the woods. At that point it was still possible to determine that the cretin had died as a result of an epileptic seizure, but a few days later, it might not have been possible to make a postmortem finding that no violence had occurred, and the suspicion would have followed the brother-in-law for the rest of his life.”

A landscape of scent. Morguefile photos.

A landscape of scent. Morguefile photos.

The dogs in this case and the Bavarian Ripper investigation proved their worth. One discovered the bodies, providing the crucial piece of evidence to convict a murderer, and the other found the body quickly for investigators to prove there was no murder, and exonerated an innocent suspect. Hats off to cadaver dogs and their forerunners in the 19th century!

What are some of the unusual things your dog has found with its nose?

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (3rd ed., Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s 1899) pp. 122-124 (translation mine).

Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows (New York: Touchstone 2013)

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King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Murder, Accident, or Suicide?

Fairy Tale Castle of Ludwig II

Neuschwanstein by Ondrey Prosicky, Shuttersotck

Germany’s Greatest Unsolved Mystery

We know him as the “Fairy Tale King” and the “Swan King.” Some also call the “mad king of Bavaria,” but psychiatrists today debate whether he really was insane. He was the patron of Richard Wagner and the builder of Neuschwanstein, the alpine castle that inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. If that wasn’t enough to make him the stuff of legend, his death certainly was. It became Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery. Almost 130 years later, historians still can’t decide what happened.

Let’s take a closer look at that fateful day of June 13, 1886 on Lake Starnberg, southeast of Munich. But a bit of background is necessary to understand why some people wanted Ludwig II off the throne.

An Unconventional Reign

Ludwig II

Ludwig II portrait by Carl Theodor von Piloty, public domain

Ludwig II ruled Bavaria from 1864 to 1886. Always more interested in the arts than governing, he increasingly withdrew from Munich, the Bavarian capital, to live in his beloved alpine countryside. Ludwig avoided crowds and refused to host royal balls and banquets. His abhorrence for social gatherings was so great that he even avoided public theaters, preferring private performances put on for an audience of one.

His private money that he might have spent on royal functions went instead to fund magnificent castles and palaces in the foothills of the Alps: Neuschwanstein, Herrenchiemsee, and Linderhof are now considered architectural jewels of Bavaria and draw millions of tourists. But Ludwig ran out of money, and a 7.5 million mark bank loan likewise slipped through his fingers. By 1886, the king was 14 million marks in debt and creditors began to take legal action against him.

How Bavarian Ministers Deposed Ludwig II

Hoping to avoid a crisis for the government, Bavarian ministers hatched up a plan to oust Ludwig II and found a legal method in the Bavarian constitution: a king could be removed if found insane.

Ludwig II in Linderhof

The king in the blue grotto of the Linderhof palace. Sketch by Robert Aßmus, public domain

They collected witness statements about Ludwig’s eccentric behavior and presented it to a panel of psychiatrists. But there was a catch. The psychiatrists had to make a diagnosis without examining their patient: There was no way Ludwig would have consented to a psychiatric evaluation.

Based on the evidence they had, the physicians declared Ludwig insane. That was all the ministers needed. They proclaimed Ludwig’s uncle regent and had Ludwig taken into custody in Neuschwanstein. They transferred the deposed king to the castle Berg on Lake Starnberg on June 12, 1886 for psychiatric supervision and evaluation.

The Most Controversial Death in German History

The following day, Ludwig took an evening walk with his psychiatrist, Dr. von Gudden. The physician felt safe with the king and sent an orderly, who was to accompany them, back to the castle. The two were to return by 8:00 p.m.

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.

When they didn’t, a search party began scouring the castle grounds. At 10:30 p.m., the party found Ludwig’s jacket, overcoat, hat, and umbrella on the lakeshore and in the shallows. Gudden’s hat and umbrella were also nearby. The search continued by boat. At 11:10 p.m., the party found both bodies floating lifeless, in the dead man’s float, 20-25 paces from shore in waist-deep water. Both were fully clothed and wearing shoes.

Footprints found the next day indicated a struggle. Then the king’s footprints led into deeper water.

A later autopsy concluded that Gudden died from drowning. The king’s autopsy was inconclusive about the cause of death, but claimed to have found organic brain changes indicative of insanity (doctors still dispute the significance of those findings today). The king appeared uninjured, but the doctor had a head injury and torn fingernail.

Summary of popular competing theories about the death of Ludwig II



  • Struggle with Gudden over attempt to escape or commit suicide
  • King killed Gudden in the struggle
  • Heart attack due to water temperature and recent ingestion of alcohol


  • Ludwig II had previously expressed suicidal thinking
  • King fled into the water to drown himself
  • Doctor attempted to stop him and died in the process (injury or exposure to cold water)


  • King attempted to escape, struggled with Gudden
  • Someone shot Ludwig II in the back as he waded to a waiting boat
The cross marks the spot where the body of Ludwig II was found

The cross in Lake Starnberg shows were the bodies were found. Bbb auf wikivoyage shared; GNU-Lizenz für freie Dokumentation

The official government version was suicide by drowning. Some witness statements that came years later support the murder theory. 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. And that alone might indicate a cover-up. Some even say the autopsies were a cover-up.

I find it strange that that both bodies were found floating. Usually drowning victims sink fast, especially when water-logged clothing and shoes pull them down. There is such a phenomenon called dry drowning, in which a larynx spasm suffocates the victim. Gary Haupt, with the Missouri Water Patrol writes, “If a corpse does not sink, investigators should suspect another cause of death, such as heart attack. Or, perhaps, a dry drowning has occurred; in those cases, because the lungs do not contain water, the body will not descend.”

Might that indicate a murder? We will never know.

Ludwig II once expressed his hope that his life would be an “eternal enigma.” If he hadn’t achieved that within his lifetime, he certainly did with his death.

What do you think might have happened?

Read another post about why Americans might have the evidence needed to clear up Ludwig’s death.

Literature on point:

Alfons Schweiggert & Erich Adami, Ludwig II. Die letzten Tage des Königs von Bayern (Munich: MünchenVerlag 2014)

Christopher McIntosh, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria, revised ed. (London: I.B. Tauris 2012)

Gary Haupt, Drowning Investigations, Missouri Water Patrol

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Ötzi, the Alpine Iceman: How Modern Forensic Science Unveiled a Stone Age Murder


The Iceman is examined

Ötzi the Iceman gives up his secrets. (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter

It was a perfect murder.

Well, almost.

The victim’s body lay undetected for over 5,000 years, and even after it was discovered, it took a decade for scientists to realize they were dealing with a murder victim. Forensic analysis of the Iceman not only pulled back the curtains on a Stone Age murder cover-up, it also showcased just how far back the long arm of modern forensic science can reach.

The Iceman was found here

Site of Ötzi’s discovery. A pyramid marks the place where Ötzi was found. (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/L. Aichner

Discovery of the Iceman

It was on a sunny, late summer afternoon on September 19, 1991 that two German hikers decided to take a shortcut. Helmut and Erika Simon had been descending from the Finail peak in the Ötztal Alps near the Austrian-Italian border when they left the footpath to traverse a plateau beside a rocky gully with glacial meltwater. The glacier’s retreat had only recently revealed the gully. In 1922, when the Austrian-Italian border was established, the gully lay under 20 meters of snow and ice. Picking their way through the rocks, the Simons noticed something brown on the floor of the gully. They approached to inspect it, and to their horror, realized it was the head and shoulders of a human corpse jutting out of the ice and water. Helmut snapped a picture and the couple hurried down the mountain to notify the police.

The Iceman's clothing

This reconstruction of Ötzi shows some of his clothing. (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter

Austrian police and mountain rescuers were at the scene the following day, but recovery was difficult. In order to free the corpse from a gully full of running meltwater, the men had to work underwater. They worked for four days before they could hack the corpse out of the ice. A helicopter flew the body, along with pieces of clothing and equipment that emerged in the ice water, down the mountain. A hearse then transported it to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck, Austria, where the frozen man’s equipment raised a few eyebrows. The Austrians called in an archaeologist. It was an axe that caught the expert’s attention. Based on its make, he immediately dated the find as “at least four thousand years old.” Thus began a historical and media sensation. Ötzi (“Ertsie”), as the media dubbed him, turned out to be the oldest well-preserved mummy in the world. Radiocarbon dating confirmed the archaeologist: Ötzi lived between 3,350 and 3080 B.C.

Clues to the Iceman’s Life

Archaeologists were able to paint some of Özti’s biography with broad brush strokes. Pollen analysis indicated he lived south of the mountains and died in the late spring, probably in June. His clothing – a bearskin cap, leggings, loincloth, shoes, and cape – were well suited to cold and high altitudes, so the Iceman probably planned his trip up the Alps. And the equipment he brought with him – tools and a primitive first-aid kit – suggested he was on a long journey. Ötzi’s copper axe represented rare, valuable, state-of-the-art technology for the cusp of the Bronze Age, suggesting that the Iceman was a person of high status in his culture.


Modern forensic techniques, however, gave the Iceman a megaphone to announce to the world he had been murdered. Computer tomography revealed an arrowhead in Ötzi’s left shoulder in 2001. Someone had shot him from behind. That shot was no accident. Hunters of the Middle Stone Age favored the left shoulder as a target for a deadly chest shot.

Ötzi had brain injuries

Red blood cells in Ötzi’s brain indicate bleeding and brain injury. (c) Marek Janko, TU Darmstadt; courtesy of South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology


Scientists had overseen the arrowhead because the shaft was missing: Some theorized the archer had yanked it out to cover up a murder. But Ötzi also had a skull fracture, and red blood cells present in his brain tissue suggested resulting brain damage. Although both the arrow and fracture were mortal wounds, pathologists concluded the fracture was the immediate cause of death. Did the archer also hit Ötzi on the head? Or did Ötzi injure his head when he collapsed after the arrow shot? The answers aren’t clear.


Why was the Iceman up at an elevation of over 10,000 feet in the first place? A group of hospital pathologists discovered a critical clue in 2003. Ötzi had a recent defensive wound, only a few days old, in his right hand. The “cut in his hand shows a battle before the Iceman died,” says the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where Ötzi is now housed. Was he fleeing from an enemy?

Last Meal

Maybe not. Analysis of Ötzi’s stomach showed he ate a large meal of Alpine goat meat directly before his death – gastric emptying times indicate the meal was within two hours of his death. Would he have taken the time to hunt and cook if he were fleeing for his life? But pollen analysis of the intestinal contents offers another clue. He had been down in the valley only twelve hours before his death. He must have spent his last hours hoofing it up the mountain.

Ötzi was injured by an arrow

An arrowhead is an unusual murder weapon today, but wasn’t during the Stone Age.

Iceman Wasn’t Transported After Death

Theories that Ötzi might have been murdered in the valley and then carried up to the mountain for burial have been refuted. The corpse would have then shown more signs of decomposition; in particular, the blood clots that had formed in its wounds would have been damaged. Ötzi died on site in the Alps. It’s possible, though, that the murderer shoveled snow over the Iceman after the murder to conceal his crime.

No Foreign Human DNA

Both the corpse and clothing have been examined for foreign human DNA, but to date, nothing has been found. Information about the identity of the murderer remains a mystery. Blood was found on his grass cape and bow, but proved to be animal blood.

Ötzi carried this axe.

Ötzi’s copper axe might be a clue to his murder. (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/


Questions about motive are the most difficult, but the copper axe might offer a clue. The archer didn’t steal it, so robbery was not a motive. But the axe must have represented status, and a power struggle might have driven someone to release the arrow. That could be why the valuable axe was left with the body: Anyone carrying the axe after Ötzi had disappeared might have been accused of murder in his community.

Future research will certainly offer some more answers. We will never know all of them. But not even the Queen of Cold Cases can hide all its clues from modern forensic science.

Which discovery about Ötzi surprises you the most?

Literature on point:

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology website

Dirk Husemann, Tod in Neandertal; Akte Ötzi; Tatort Troja: Die ungelösten Fälle der Archäologie (Stuttgart: Theiss 2012)

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Live Burial: Murder or Negligent Homicide? An Interview with True Crime Author Corinna Müller

Corinna Müller wrote about a a live burial in the 17th century.

Corinna Müller, a German true crime author, has written about a live burial in the 17th century. With permission.

His parents assumed he was dead.

The grave digger did too. Well, maybe. If he thought it was strange that the corpse of the six-year-old child, two days after his purported death, vomited and hadn’t yet entered rigor mortis, he didn’t do anything about it. He buried the boy anyway. Grave diggers back in 1607 weren’t well educated – the community shepherd usually doubled as the town grave digger – and might not have been familiar with medical signs of vitality. Four children were buried that day in Murrhardt, Germany, and as was often the custom, they were buried together in one grave. After he lowered all four caskets, one on top of another, the grave digger heard it: pounding that sounded like it was coming from the inside of one of the coffins below him.

A six-year-old boy was buried alive in this cemetery in Murrhardt, Germany, 400 years ago.

A six-year-old boy was buried alive in this cemetery in Murrhardt, Germany, 400 years ago.

What happened next could have only one explanation. Fear of Wiedergänger, malevolent zombies who returned from the dead to exact revenge on the living, was rampant in 17th century Germany. The grave digger quickly shoveled a layer of dirt between himself and the threat and dashed to the nearest pub to tell about his narrow escape from the undead. Within hours, a local church official heard the story and was alarmed.  He didn’t share the grave digger’s superstitions and ordered an immediate exhumation to rule out a live burial.

Townsfolk rushed to the cemetery and dug out all four coffins. The first three contained children who were clearly dead, but not the fourth. The fourth boy’s head was bleeding from fresh wounds. He’d apparently been hitting his head against the inner coffin walls. When a public officer placed a feather under the boy’s nose to see if he was still breathing, the feather moved. Then the boy’s eyes flicked open.

The people carried the boy to a nearby chapel, but the stress of his underground ordeal had been too much. He soon expired. He had been buried for eight hours. The grave digger was arrested and imprisoned in a tower to await trial.

But a trial for what?

This case threw down a gage to Germany’s criminal code, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina. Heralded as revolutionary when it was first enacted in the 16th century, it recognized mitigating factors justifying milder sentences.  For the first time, a judge could take age, illness, mental state, and other factors into account. Children, for instance, could be exonerated based on their age. Whether or not the grave digger committed murder or negligent homicide by burying a child alive depended on his ability to form intent. But intent to kill presumed awareness the victim was living. And that awareness, in turn, depended on his education and superstitions. Were they mitigating factors?

Murrhardt, Germany’s live burial provided the basis for the first of five short historical true crime stories in Corinna Müller’s new book, Verurteilt [Convicted]. I recently interviewed her, in German, and present the highlights below in English.


Corinna Müller's book Verurteilt. Courtesy of the Sutton Verlag.

Corinna Müller’s book Verurteilt. Courtesy of the Sutton Verlag.

Ann Marie Ackermann: Frau Müller, when I started your story about the live burial in Verurteilt, I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. And in the middle of the story, I noticed that I could hardly breathe. That’s how exciting it was.

Corinna Müller: That’s exactly how I felt when I first read the court file in the archives. That poor child! Eight hours underground…. And he came so close to being saved. I knew as soon as I read it I knew I needed to publish his story.

AMA: Were live burials a frequent occurrence in the 17th century?

CM: I’m afraid they occurred regularly. Württemberg, for instance, did not mandate medical examination of a body prior to burial until 1833. But to the extent that an accidental live burial was a crime, it was one that was very rarely detected. This case was one of the rare ones we know about. Judicially, it trod the boundaries of the legal definition of criminal homicide. Did the grave digger commit a crime or not? And if so, which one? This case was not only factually exciting, it was legally exciting.

AMA: You take on true crime cases in both your books that fall outside of the usual purview of the genre. Your stories also have to do with suspects who are exonerated, pardoned, or receive mitigated sentences.

CM: Law enforcement and the criminal justice system aren’t only there to arrest and convict. They are also there to exculpate innocent people and to find the appropriate punishment. I try to bring out all the facets of the justice system and strike the same balance in my true crime stories that law enforcement might see in practice. In fact, I recently published an article about a witch trial in which the defendant was found not guilty. My first book features another witch trial, from 1629. The defendant had cooked a skull because she thought it would bring the father of her children back from the dead. She was banished from her town, but not put to death. Banishment was still a severe punishment for a widow with children – who outside of town would accept a widow with two children? – but the court showed leniency. Literature on witch trials is obsessed with convictions and abuses of the system, and it is all too easy to overlook the successes. Often the old legal system operated quite fairly. I want to bring that out, along with the human drama and culture inherent in those stories.

The grave digger was jailed for eight days in this tower in Murrhardt, Germany.

The grave digger was jailed for eight days in this tower in Murrhardt, Germany.

Murrhardt’s live burial was one of those cases in which the 400-year-old German judiciary recognized grounds for leniency. Duke Friederich reviewed the case and decided that the eight days the grave digger had already spent in prison, awaiting trial, sufficed as punishment. The crime was at most negligent homicide. Had the court found him guilty of murder, it would have meant the death penalty.

Corinna Müller and I are sitting in a café in southern Germany, across from a baroque palace and small reflecting pool, sipping tea under the glow of Christmas lights. She speaks quietly, but her gestures and facial expressions broadcast a multi-tiered passion for historical crime.  If the three elderly gentlemen seated next to us are disturbed by our conversation about live burials and witch trials, they don’t show it. When we offer them the brownies served with our tea (alas, we are both allergic to the ingredients), the men pilfer them gleefully.

AMA: Your legal analyses of a centuries-old criminal code are fascinating.

CM: So many people associate the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina with torture and witch trials and fail to see how progressive it was in comparison to prior medieval German criminal law. The CCC was a tidal wave of fresh water that washed out the injustices of the old system. It exonerated children and the mentally ill. It allowed for mitigated sentencing. Torture was allowed in the interrogation of witnesses, yes. Of course I don’t condone it. But most people don’t realize that under the CCC, torture could only be used if very strict requirements were met. Those reforms were incredibly liberal for their time.

AMA: Yes, but it was so easy for the officials administering torture to abuse the system.

CM: There are abuses in every system, unfortunately. But I have yet to find a documented case of an official abusing the CCC’s torture restrictions in Württemberg. [Württemberg is a state in southwest Germany.]

Corinna Müller's first book. Courtesy of the Verlag Regionalkultur.

Corinna Müller’s first book. Courtesy of the Verlag Regionalkultur.

AMA: What were the restrictions?

CM: Probable cause was one: Concrete evidence that the suspect committed the crime, such as witness testimony or the suspect’s having been caught in the act, was a prerequisite to interrogation under torture. Then the CCC limited the duration of torture to one hour, and it could repeated only once. Neither leading questions nor yes-no questions were allowed. And if the court didn’t have outside witness testimony to corroborate a confession under torture, it was necessary for the suspect to reaffirm the confession while not under torture. That was to rule out admissions made just to avoid the pain. Physical or mental handicaps as well as pregnancy or having an unweaned baby rendered a suspect ineligible for torture.

AMA: Before you starting writing true crime, you used to work for the police force.

CM: Yes, for the “Kripo,” or  Kriminalpolizei, as a detective. I processed crime scenes – homicides, drug cases, sexual offenses, and the like. Suicides as well. It included all the work involved after patrol officers made the initial response to a crime scene.

AMA: How did the detective become a true crime writer?

CM: I had to quit the police force due to health reasons, and in my new-found free time started researching genealogy. I attended a genealogy conference and someone gave a speech about a witch trial. It fascinated me. The speaker then asked me to help research a historic criminal case, and I got hooked. And that led to my first true crime publication.

Eid des Stadtschäfers (Municipal shepherd's oath)

A sample of old German handwriting that any historical true crime writer in Germany has to learn to read. Courtesy of the Stadtarchiv Nürtingen.

AMA: What was the hardest part about the switch?

CM: Learning how to decipher the old German handwriting was a challenge! That took awhile. Several archivists helped me, and with practice, I can read it fairly well now. In addition, the language and vocabulary have changed. And many historic legal documents also used Latin.

AMA: Does any of your law enforcement experience transfer to your historical research and writing?

CM: If anything, it would be a detective’s approach or mindset. In law enforcement, I didn’t stop asking questions of the evidence, the witnesses, and of myself until I felt like I’d gained a complete understanding of the case. I try to do the same with my research material. Curiosity is my motor.

AMA: Thank you, Fr. Müller!

How would have you decided this case if you were Duke Friedrich and had the last say?

Books by Corinna Müller (unfortunately available only in German):

Verurteilt: Historische Kriminalfälle aus Alt-Württemberg [Convicted: Historical Criminal Cases from Old Württemberg] (Erfurt: Sutton Verlag 2014)

Um Kopf und Kragen: Historische Kriminalfälle der Frühen Neuzeit im heutigen Württemberg [When Your Life is on the Line: Historical Criminal Cases of the Early Modern Era within the Current Boundaries of Württemberg] (Ubstadt-Weiher: Verlag Regionalkultur 2011)


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Birth of the “Forensic Kit” or “Murder Bag”

forensic kit

Sherlock holmes and the open safe; OSTILL/

Sherlock Holmes had his magnifying glass. A modern detective will bring things like evidence tags, fingerprint kits, and latent bloodstain reagents.

What did a 19th-century detective pack into his forensic kit to bring to a crime scene?

Hanns Gross, father of criminology

Hanns Gross (sometimes spelled Hans Gross), the Austrian father of criminology. Public domain.

Let’s ask Hanns Gross (1847-1915), an Austrian who established forensic science as an academic discipline. Gross studied law and worked as a detective (Untersuchungsrichter) before founding the first university institute of criminology. His Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Handbook for Criminal Investigation), a field book for criminal investigators that was published in 1893, caused a global tsunami in police work, washing away outdated techniques. Gross integrated science and psychology into criminal investigations. He also developed the field of crime scene photography. In translated form, the Handbook became a standard work worldwide.

In the Handbook, Gross lists the items a detective should keep packed in his forensic kit in order to be ready to process a crime scene at a moment’s notice. The list is long, but here are some of the important contents:

  • paper for taking notes
  • pen and pencil, ink
  • ruler or measuring tape
  • pair of compasses for measuring minute distances
  • pedometer for measuring distance in paces
  • transparent paper for tracing outlines, drawings, and blood splatter
  • plaster to make casts
  • test tubes for samples of stomach contents of dead bodies to test for arsenic
  • candles for illumination during nighttime investigation
  • crucifix for the purposes of putting a dying witness under oath for a statement
  • directional compass to provide orientation for the detective’s sketch of the crime
  • bars of soap, not only for washing, but for taking impressions of small items like keys
  • brush for cleaning debris out of a footprint before taking a cast
  • magnifying glass
  • tape, to which small traces of evidence adhere
  • candy for calming children and inducing them to make statements
  • first-aid kit, for victims or the detective himself
 Hanns Gross recommended that detective pack candy into his "murder bag" to induce children to give statements.

Yum, old fashioned candy! Hanns Gross recommended investigators bring candy to the crime scene. It can induce children to give statements.

 Which of these items seem old-fashioned? And which were ahead of their time? Do you think anything’s missing?

forensic kit

Hanns Gross’ depiction of a detective bag to contain the forensic kit. Public domain.

Because Hanns Gross developed criminal investigation photography, I was surprised not to see a camera on his list. He might have included that in later editions of his book.

(c) Text Ann Marie Ackermann 2014


Literature on point:

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

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