Real quick now: What are the first things that come to your mind when you think of the Texas frontier?
But how about paleontologists? Did you think about them, too?
Fossil hunters tended to stick to the background, picking their way through the Texas bone beds, but they were very much part of the frontier. Texas was a magnet for 19th-century collectors. Universities and museums on the east coast, even in Europe, hired them to augment their collections. Mix the paleontologists up with the usual cast of characters and you sometimes had a great recipe for violence and murder.
In her book, Death of a Texas Ranger (2014), Cynthia Leal Massey successfully stirs a paleontologist into the frontier murder recipe. Her book deals with what was once the coldest case on the San Antonio court docket (37 years to case closure!) and features all the traditional characters listed above. The culinary result was a winner. Death of a Texas Ranger took the 2015 Will Rogers Silver Medallion Award for Best Western Nonfiction and the 2015 San Antonio Conservation Society Publication Award.
Cynthia Leal Massey joins us for an interview today. Welcome, Cynthia!
Death of a Texas Ranger actually chronicles two homicides, one of a Ranger in 1873 and another of a postmaster in 1878. Tell us first how the Ranger died.
On the morning of July 9, 1873, Minute Men Texas Ranger Troop V of Medina County was breaking camp at a site in northwest Bexar County, Texas, near the settlement of Helotes, getting ready for a scout. Private Cesario Menchaca came out of the bushes and confronted Sgt. John Green (a German immigrant originally born Johann Gruen). After a few tense words, Sgt. Green moved toward Menchaca, who had a rifle in his hands, and Menchaca shot him, killing him on the spot.
John Green’s company was a colorful mixture of Texans, Germans, and Mexicans. Did Germans and Mexicans often serve as Rangers?
During the early days of the Ranger companies, Mexicans did serve in a sort of multicultural unit; however, it was not the norm. The Ranger company that John Green served in was composed of ranchers and farmers from northwest Bexar County and southeast Medina County. A mixture of Germans, Mexicans (or Texicans), and Anglos, lived in this region. These men had something in common–they wanted to protect their families and their livestock.
Menchaca fled to Mexico. The U.S. and Mexico already had an extradition treaty at the time of the killing. Why didn’t it help Texas extradite Cesario Menchaca from Mexico?
Apparently, no one was able do the work necessary to get the extradition paperwork together.
How did the Green homicide end up becoming the coldest case on the San Antonio court docket?
The United States has no statute of limitations on murder. The 1873 indictment charge was murder, so by necessity, it moved forward on the docket, despite no activity in his apprehension. In 1897, Deputy Will Green, the victim’s son, petitioned the court for a new Bill of Indictment, since the sitting judge was eager to remove old cases from the docket. Deputy Green was successful and with a new bill of indictment and case number, the murder case remained on the docket. However, because of circumstances regarding the outcome of the extradition request, the case remained on the docket until Menchaca’s death in 1910, 37 years from the initial indictment.
How did a turtle fossil lead to a fossil hunter killing the postmaster?
Gabriel Wilson Marnoch, a frontier naturalist, lived in Helotes. He was a neighbor of the Green family and was allegedly involved in the Green killing. Marnoch collected specimens and fossils and mailed large boxes of his finds to scientific institutions around the country. He was a frequent visitor to the Helotes Post Office, where Carl “Charles” Mueller was postmaster. In the spring of 1877, Marnoch received correspondence from Professor Joseph Leidy of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, indicating that one of Marnoch’s packages to him, which contained “turtle remains,” had arrived in a state of “ruins.” Marnoch confronted the postmaster about the mishandled package, demanding recompense, which elicited bad feelings on both sides. This ignited what came later.
In Death of a Texas Ranger, you write that post-Civil War Texas was a magnet for paleontologists. Why?
The mid-nineteenth century is often referred to as the Age of Darwin, a nod to British naturalist Charles Darwin, who in 1859 and 1871, respectively, published his seminal scientific works, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Texas was still very much a frontier, with virgin landscape, and those interested in the natural sciences descended upon Texas in troves. According to Samuel Wood Geiser, author of Naturalists of the Frontier, “several hundred men of science labored in Texas in the pioneer days.” Marnoch’s father, Dr. George Frederick Marnoch, a graduate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh, was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and likely shared a medical class with him. Gabriel mentioned this many years later, saying that he’d had “considerable correspondence” with Darwin and fellow naturalist Thomas Huxley, although said letters have yet to surface.
Gabriel Marnoch collected for Professor Edward Drinker Cope at the Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Cope’s feud with paleontology Professor Othniel Marsh of Yale is now the stuff of legend. Can you tell us about their clashes?
There are several good books about the feud between Cope and Marsh. In a nutshell, the paleontologists were involved in something now called “The Bone Wars.” This was a period of intense fossil hunting and discovery in the mid-nineteenth century. Trying to outcompete each other, they resorted to spying, counter-spying, bribery, theft and even destruction of bones to remain “on top.” Marsh’s charges of errors, distortion, and fraud against Cope and the professor’s countercharges were published in the spring and summer of 1873, in The American Naturalist, which Cope finally purchased in 1877 to stop further allegations from being published.
How did Marnoch help cement Cope’s reputation?
Marnoch hosted Cope in Helotes and other Texas environs on a two-week quest for new fossils in the fall of 1877. After that, Marnoch, whom Cope hired as a field correspondent, began sending specimens to the paleontologist. Marnoch discovered several new specimens, one a frog that Professor Cope said was “a new genus of Cystignathididoe.” Cope gave the cliff chirping frog the scientific name Eleutherodactylus (Syrrhophus) marnockii, in honor of his field correspondent. A few other Marnoch discoveries named by Cope: the Texas Banded Gecko, Short-Lined Skink, and the Barking Frog.
Why were the murder charges against Marnoch dismissed?
Marnoch killed the postmaster in March 1878. He was indicted for murder on April 4, 1878. In November of that year, the jury could not agree on a verdict and a mistrial was declared. At his second trial May 17, 1879, the jury convicted him of murder in the second degree and sentenced him to confinement in the penitentiary for twenty years. His attorneys kept him out of prison while they appealed his murder conviction and the appeals court remanded his case back to the district court for a new trial. The judge believed that the jurors weren’t given appropriate directions regarding self-defense. His lawyers were able to get continuances due to their inability to recall several important witnesses who’d moved out of the country. The murder case was finally dismissed in 1887.
How did John Green’s son try to reopen his father’s case decades later?
In 1897, Deputy Will Green learned that the 37th District Court of Bexar County was reviewing old cases on the docket and that caused him to seek a new indictment. The original indictment for murder against Cesario Menchaca was filed in October 1873. Deputy Green was able to assemble several of his father’s old Ranger comrades before a new Grand Jury, and was successful at obtaining a new indictment on May 26, 1897. This enabled him to seek and obtain an extradition requisition from the Governor of Texas.
A fascinating twist at the end of the book concerns a discovery about the paleontologist. He may be had more to do with the death of a Texas Ranger than Will Green originally thought. But I won’t spoil the ending for you – you need to read the book yourself.
Cynthia Leal Massey is working on a screenplay adaptation of Death of a Texas Ranger, and with luck, we might get to see it out the big screen. Fossils and felonies should make a great mix. I’ll be there if the film comes out. If you go too, grab an extra large bag of popcorn and come sit with me.
Literature on point:
Cynthia Leal Massey, Death of a Texas Ranger: A True Story of Murder and Vengeance on the Texas Frontier (Guilford, Connecticut: TwoDot, 2014).
Charles H. Sternberg, The Life of a Fossil Hunter (1st ed. Henry Holt & Co., 1909, reprint, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990) [Another account of a 19th-century paleontologist collecting for Cope, in part in Texas; considered a classic among paleontologists].Read More
Betrayed by her boots
When she pulled the trigger, the last thing Nancy Clem thought about was her boots. In 1868, she and an accomplice murdered Jacob and Nancy Jane Young in a riverside park northwest of Indianapolis. They’d owed the couple money, and she decided murder was the best way to solve the problem. But the “notorious Mrs. Clem” left behind a footprint. That’s what led to her arrest in one of the nation’s most celebrated murder cases until Lizzie Borden swung up her ax in 1892.
A young cowherd found the bodies the next day. Jacob Young had most of his face blown off by a shotgun. Nancy Jane Young had been shot in the temple by a pistol at close range. Something – possibly the gunpowder – caught her crinoline on fire. Her body was still smoking when the cowherd found them. The flesh of her thighs had been burnt off, her bones pulverized, and her intestines spilled out of her charred skin. “Burned to the crisp,” wrote one Indianapolis newspaper.
The Hoosier murder that shocked the nation
The police originally surmised it was a murder-suicide. But a small woman’s footprint and a shotgun purchased the previous day and left at the scene led them to the “notorious Mrs. Clem” (as the papers dubbed her) and her accomplice, William J. Abrams.
The case wrote history. The public was shocked that a woman could commit such a murder. A future U.S. President – Benjamin Harrison – cut his prosecutorial teeth on the case. The notorious Mrs. Clem was his first major trial. The case also showcases the first known use of the financial swindle known as the Ponzi scheme. That was the motive for the murder. But what most shifted the tectonic plates of history was that the case put women’s right to work on trial. In a new book by Indiana University history professor Wendy Gamber, The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), the author navigates both the murder and the societal tsunami it created.
If you’re looking for a conventional true-crime read, this book may not be for you, because the raw facts of history don’t always neatly fit into a narrative arc. Notorious Mrs. Clem slipped through the fingers of justice. Her first trial resulted in a hung jury. She was convicted of second-degree murder in the second trial, but Mrs. Clem appealed and the Indiana Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial. The third trial resulted in a hung jury and the fourth a first-degree murder conviction. Once again, the Indiana Supreme Court reserved and remanded. By then, six years later, most of the witnesses had left the state and the prosecution gave up. That’s not an emotionally satisfying ending to a true-crime book.
Notorious Mrs. Clem as a societal magnifying glass
But Wendy Gamber’s forte is history, and that’s precisely what she does so well in this book. Gamber uses notorious Mrs. Clem’s trials to dissect 19th-century Hoosier culture and values. Notorious Mrs. Clem became the first person to use the Ponzi scheme to bilk clients of their money, Gamber claims. Mrs. Clem borrowed money from her clients, promising to pay it back at attractive interest rates. But the money she paid back was nothing more than funds obtained from new clients. No Ponzi scheme can go on forever. Her debts to the Youngs forced a breaking point.
Notorious Mrs. Clem’s financial trading shocked not only Hoosiers but the rest of the nation. More than just guilt and innocence went on trial: Mrs. Clem made the public question women’s rights to manage their own businesses and keep their own profits. The trials serve as a magnifying glass to illuminate 19th-century ideas about gender against the backdrop of the emerging women’s rights movement. That’s what makes this case so fascinating.
In fact, you might say that the notorious Mrs. Clem left her footprints on history.
Disclaimer: I received an advanced review copy of The Notorious Mrs. Clem in exchange for an honest review.
What surprises you most about the notorious Mrs. Clem — her willingness to murder or her invention of the Ponzi scheme?
What would you do if you had clues to a murder no one else knew about?
And what if you knew the authorities wouldn’t believe you? Would you still try to preserve your information? Even worse, if the case involved the murder of a U.S. president, your dilemma would take on historical significance. According to Fred Rosen, who recently published a book about the assassination of President Garfield in 1881, that’s exactly what happened. Through newly accessed documents, Rosen found hints about the true assassin in Alexander Graham Bell’s correspondence. Those clues don’t point to Charles Guiteau, the disappointed office-seeker who shot and injured President Garfield at a train station.
Who murdered President Garfield, then? Dr. Bliss, Garfield’s treating physician who managed the president’s bullet wound, says Rosen. Bliss has long been suspected of committing malpractice by mismanaging the case and using unsanitary techniques. An ensuing infection killed the president. But Alexander Graham Bell’s correspondence tells a different story: Dr. Bliss purposely sabotaged Garfield’s treatment. And his actions crossed the line into criminal conduct.
Fred Rosen, a former New York Times columnist and author of twenty-four books on true crime and history, published his research results on September 1. The book’s called Murdering the President: Alexander Graham Bell and the Race to Save James Garfield (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2016). If the book interests you, Rosen has generously offered a 30% discount for my blog readers. You can download the coupon here.
Fred Rosen joins us for a discussion today on the question of who murdered President Garfield. Welcome, Mr. Rosen!
Interview with Fred Rosen on who murdered President Garfield
The most surprising claim in your book is that President Garfield’s treating physician, and not Guiteau, killed Garfield. Why is that?
Alec Bell left a trail behind him for someone to discover what he knew: that Bliss murdered Garfield and discredited the Induction Balance. I followed that trail because I am a homicide investigator and historian who followed the evidence. Plus, new 2014 medical findings helped. Finally, Bliss’s full, previous criminal history that has never before been published until now.
Dr. Bliss had a criminal history?
Dr. Bliss had a long traceable record as a criminal and con man, including being court-martialed for cowardice at the Battle of Bull Run. He also accepted a bribe when he was the head of Armory Square Hospital during the Civil War. That’s just the beginning.
What were the 2014 medical findings?
Bliss perforated the President’s gallbladder with his unnecessary exploration for the bullet. This has never before been revealed.
Who chose Dr. Bliss as Garfield’s treating physician?
Secretary of War Robert Lincoln.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s son! Why he choose Dr. Bliss?
Bob Lincoln called in Bliss because he knew he had treated his father after he was shot. On the basis of that publicity, Bliss built a prominent Washington practice, despite the fact that Lincoln’s attending physician, Charles Leale, wouldn’t let Bliss touch the president. Bob didn’t know that because he was out of the room during most of his dad’s treatment.
Wouldn’t have Guiteau’s bullet killed President Garfield anyway even if it weren’t for Dr. Bliss?
No. The autopsy showed that the bullet safely encysted inside the president’s body. If Bliss had left him alone, President Garfield survives. And even if he decided to operate using the Induction Balance to locate the bullet, he wouldn’t have had to explore for it, let alone DELIBERATELY explore for it on the wrong side of the president’s body. That is why it is second-degree murder.
When does medical malpractice cross the line into murder?
That is what second-degree murder is: depraved indifference to human life. Exactly what Bliss did.
Candice Millard wrote a bestselling book about Garfield’s death in 2012 — “Destiny of the Republic.” She also espouses the theory that Garfield’s physicians killed him. What does your book offer that hers doesn’t?
That is incorrect. I read it. She espouses the theory that his DOCTORS killed him by not practicing sepsis. That is not the case; the evidence does not back her conclusion. Only one doctor killed him. Bliss deliberately killed Pres. Garfield and discredited Alec Bell’s invention. That also eventually led to Pres. McKinley’s death. It’s all in the book.
The other surprising claim in your book is that Alexander Graham Bell invented the metal detector in an effort to save President Garfield’s life. Please explain.
Alec Bell figured there had to be a less barbarous way of finding the bullet than exploring for it with the Nelaton Probe and the scalpel through healthy tissue. He knew that magnetism was the answer and so he invented the world’s first metal detector to find the bullet in the president’s body. And this was 1881!
How did Dr. Bliss sabotage Alexander Graham Bell’s efforts? And why?
He wouldn’t let Bell use his invention; he wielded it, incorrectly, himself. Dr. Bliss wouldn’t look for the bullet on the side of the body the other MDs thought it was in because he staked his reputation on it being someplace else in the President’s body. He didn’t want to look bad in front of the public. And, he did a lot, lot more to deliberately sabotage Bell’s efforts It’s all in the book, revealed for the first time how Bliss murdered the president.
What kind of a background did Dr. Bliss have?
Trained as a surgeon, he served in the Union Army during the Civil War and ran the other way at the Battle of Bull Run. He was excellent at using newspapers to promote his practice and bad at treating his patients. He was a con man who took bribes and fooled his patients.
Did Alexander Graham Bell leave behind clues to Dr. Bliss’s maltreatment of the president?
Yes, in his correspondence with his wife Mabel and the scientific paper he wrote about his efforts that I got ahold of.
Why didn’t Bell take that information to the authorities himself?
Because no one would believe a doctor deliberately killed a patient in 1881. And perhaps more importantly, when James Garfield died, Bell was up in Boston consoling his wife and grieving himself: they had just had a son who died at birth.
Is the Hank Garfield who wrote the foreword to your book related to President James Garfield?
Hank is the great-great-grandson of President James Abram Garfield and First Lady Lucretia Garfield.
Thank you, Fred Rosen!
Who murdered President Garfield? Based on what you just read, whom do you blame more for Garfield’s death, Charles Guiteau or Dr. Bliss?
Historians are a bit like detectives. They sift through evidence, weigh it, and try to leave no stone unturned.
But when they publish their results, they’re a bit like lawyers. They need to be objective enough to gain the credibility of the judge and jury, but they are still advocating. They back up their historical observations with evidence and try to draw new conclusions.
In the following guest blog, historian Shelby Harriel uses the same analogy as a springboard into her research into women Civil War soldiers. Those female warriors were actually committing a crime. They also violated the norms of Victorian society. Because of that they covered their tracks and concealed their true identities. Sometimes the army even destroyed the evidence if they were caught.
That makes women Civil War soldiers hard to research. But their contributions to the war were invaluable; the research adds a new layer of understanding to Civil War history. Shelby Harriel is writing a book on women Civil War soldiers. I met her online, through her fascinating blog, Forbidden, Hidden, and Forgotten: Women Soldiers of the Civil War, and invited her to write a guest blog. You can read more about Shelby and her book below.
Here’s Shelby Harriel with her guest blog:
I was delighted to meet Ann Marie recently. As bloggers, researchers, and writers, we share similar experiences. We also share a love of history. So I was extremely honored when she asked me to contribute a guest post. Beyond the aesthetically pleasing nature of her blog, Ann Marie has some very interesting content among her writings, most of it dealing with true crime. It made me think of how I, as a historian, am like a detective in my search for women soldiers of the American Civil War, 1861-1865.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War. We’ll never know exactly how many there were.
Victorian society was strictly defined. Women were supposed to be passive and remain in the domestic sphere. They were expected to create life, not take it. Therefore, the government did not allow Victorian women to serve in the military. War was the domain of men.
Clothing defined the genders. Women did not wear pants. Doing so resulted in imprisonment and/or a fine, not to mention the shame that discovery would bring themselves and their family.
So when women traded in their hoop skirts for army trousers, not only did they defy the morals and mores of the times, which was unacceptable behavior, they were also breaking the law.
It is difficult to think of these women Civil War soldiers as criminals, especially since many of them made the ultimate sacrifice and lie buried in graves right next to the men with whom they served. But, by definition, women soldiers were committing a crime. (And so were the hundreds of thousands of boys under 18 years old who lied about their age in order to fight.)
The Crime Scene
Women are reported to have fought in every major battle of the American Civil War. They were there from the beginning to the end.
The Motives of Women Civil War Soldiers
Why would these women risk their reputation and lives for a society that did not desire their service? There were several reasons. A majority of them enlisted in order to avoid being separated from a loved one. Others were trying to escape an oppressive situation. Economic factors drove some women. Disguised as men working in masculine-only professions, they could make more money than they ever could in the few jobs available to Victorian women. Patriotism motivated some women to enlist while others were simply seeking adventure, not unlike their male counterparts. Love, fear, money, duty…motives common to any good mystery story.
Civilians, common soldiers, high-ranking officers, and even well-known generals bore witness to women serving in the military during the Civil War.
Documentation is the backbone of any historian’s arguments. The same goes for a criminal investigator. Without supporting evidence, there is no case. And sometimes, acquiring this evidence and documentation is challenging. Just like investigators of a criminal case, researchers who delve into the topic of women Civil War soldiers must overcome the obstacle of subterfuge. In order to serve in the military, these women had to disguise themselves. They cut their hair short, wore clothes that Victorians weren’t accustomed to seeing them wear, and assumed an alias. (Some men did this, too….enlisted under an alias that is.) When discovered, some women soldiers not only told newspaper reporters the wrong male aliases they used, but they sometimes provided a false feminine name, if any at all. Remember, it wasn’t that difficult for Victorians to assume a new identity. They didn’t have birth certificates or forms of identification.
How does one find an individual who doesn’t want to be found?
Chasing phantom identities
Before anyone may choose to venture into this realm themselves, I would suggest purchasing a box of hair color to hide the gray hair that will be infesting your head. Eat chocolate. And develop an exercise regimen to relieve the stress. Eat more chocolate and understand that you’re not going to find all of the answers.
A good place to start an investigation is to read secondary sources. But proceed with caution. Both period and contemporary accounts may contain errors. Some researchers can be careless. On the other hand, it may not necessarily be the fault of the authors. Most historians do the best they can with the evidence available to them at the time. It is the job of subsequent generations of researchers to uncover new findings and advance the historical narrative. And this is why it’s important to instill the love of history in young people. As archives continue to digitize more records, the more information people from all over the world will have access to. This is exciting!
After scouring secondary sources for names, dates, regiments, etc., I enter the information in a genealogy website to see if I can discover the true name of the woman soldier, attempt to complete her story by finding out what happened to her after the war, or determine whether she existed at all.
I also like to search newspaper archives for period articles. Again, the information may be wrong. Names were sometimes spelled phonetically, and an incorrect unit may have been mistakenly recorded. Furthermore, the woman soldier may have chosen to lead the reporter astray in order to protect the reputation of herself and her family. Or the reporter may have chosen to take an otherwise true story and embellish it with exciting….and incorrect….details. And some newspaper editors simply made up the story entirely. They were trying to make a living by selling newspapers, after all. I try to collect as many articles as I can about an individual woman soldier. Even though all of them may contain the same basic information, one unique sentence in a single article can make the difference in piecing together the true story.
All investigators question the witnesses… or they’re supposed to. Since all of the individuals involved in my realm of research have all passed on, it is necessary to acquire their testimony by investigating their letters and diaries. I always feel as if I’m being rude by invading someone’s personal space, but at the end of the day, they’re not around to protest. And these primary sources provide a wealth of all sorts of interesting information. Again, one must proceed with caution. Soldiers sometimes merely reported camp rumors and were not personally privy to the events they were writing about. On the other hand, I have discovered information in a letter or diary that validated a newspaper article or was a completely new find. One thing is for sure. These missives are not tainted with political correctness! Other primary sources such as regimental histories, prison records, court martial transcriptions, and provost marshal documents also provide invaluable information. Some of these particular records that I have examined have supported the claims of some women Civil War soldiers while debunking others.
Service records are the gold mine of military records. One can learn all sorts of information from them: when and where a soldier enlisted, a physical description, an antebellum occupation, when and where the soldier was mustered out, any prison records, some medical records, and any duty the soldier was assigned to. To a lot of people, service records are the smoking gun. According to some, if none can be found, this is enough to disprove a woman soldier’s service. “If they don’t exist, you must omit!” Ah, but a prosecutor doesn’t need the murder weapon or even a body to get a conviction. In the case of women Civil War soldiers, a lack of service records does not necessarily equate to a lack of service. For example, there is an account of a woman killed by an exploding shell during a particular battle. The story is supported by a future president of the United States, his future brother-in-law, who was a surgeon standing next to the soldier when she was killed, and several private soldiers who recorded the event in diaries and letters. The surgeon provided enough details to narrow down a possible unit that the soldier belonged to. So off I went to search for her service records. Two months later, my aching eyes and I were unable to locate any. Nor have I been unable to find any newspaper articles about the event. Yet it happened.
Here’s another example. Enter Exhibit A, carded medical record and discharge document for Mary Scaberry, alias “Charles Freeman,” of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. Obviously, she served….until she went into the hospital with a fever and ultimately discharged for “sextual incompatibility” after her true identity was discovered. In addition to this card, newspaper articles document her story as well. But yet there are no service records for her. Nor does she appear on the unit’s roster. So what happened to her records? It could be that they were inadvertently lost or destroyed over time. Or officials could have deliberately expunged them. Officers were often embarrassed and angry when a woman was discovered in their unit. They had just been fooled after all. Also, if a woman was hired as an officer’s servant or orderly, there wouldn’t be any service records because she wouldn’t have been mustered in. Yet she would have worn a uniform and experienced the same trials with the rest of the members of the regiment.
As for Scaberry, just like her service records, her ultimate fate also remains a mystery at this time. After she was discharged, she went home to Columbus, Ohio, only to be spurned by her father. Seeking employment, she then made her way to Chicago where she encountered a guard at Camp Douglas who made fun of her. She promptly beat him up which landed her in police court. The judge felt sorry for her and released her. She then vanished from history, rendering the tale of her life incomplete.
Women Civil War Soldiers: Tough Cases to Prove, But Valuable Contributions to History
As we have seen, researching women Civil War soldiers is much like any courtroom drama in film or text. The evidence is gathered, crime scene investigated, witnesses interviewed, and trials held. However, unlike most crime stories, there is no dramatic final scene….no dramatic presentation of the final piece of evidence to deliver the coup de grace as it were. But just as in these crime stories, the process of bringing the truth to light is the ultimate goal. However, there is no jury to decide the fate of these women. It is up to all of us to help solve this century old “crime.” The book never closes on a murder and it is my hope that the book will never close on the gallant and mostly unknown deeds of these courageous women.
Thank you, Shelby!
About Shelby Harriel:
Shelby Harriel received her B.A. in History with a minor in mathematics in May 1997 and her M.Ed. with an emphasis in mathematics and history in 2005. She earned both degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi. Shelby has been teaching mathematics at Pearl River Community College since 2007.
While her career has always revolved around mathematics, Shelby actively pursues her passion for history through research, exchanging ideas, and speaking to the public. For her efforts, Pearl River Community College bestowed upon her the Outstanding Humanities Instructor award in 2014. She is also a member of the speaker bureau of the Mississippi Humanities Council.
“The Third Mississippi Infantry and Hancock County”
“A Different Look at the Yankee Invaders: Two Women Disguised as Male Soldiers in Louisiana”
“A ‘Hole’ New Perspective: A Woman Soldier at the Crater”
“Bully For Her: Women Who Served Openly as Women”
Shelby is currently writing a book on women soldiers of the Civil War, Forbidden, Hidden, and Forgotten: Women Soldiers of the Civil War.
You can follow Shelby on Facebook too, where you’ll receive updates about her book.
An Interview with Author Kim Murphy
Every once in a while, a book comes along that shifts the tectonic plates in my understanding of history.
I used to practice law and was the prosecutor for parole revocation hearings in a ten-country region for Washington State. I’m familiar with elements of the crime of rape. I’m familiar with the questions defense attorneys pose about consent during cross-examination. You’re probably familiar with them too from crime films and books.
What the public never saw was the rape victims in my office when I prepared them for the hearings. They wept. They vented anger. And often, they oozed fear and frustration. It’s not easy to face your rapist in the courtroom, but it’s necessary if we want to send the rapist to prison. Without question, the hardest part of my job as a prosecutor was to lend courage to a frightened rape victim, to convince her to put her fears aside and take the witness stand for the public good.
I wasn’t always successful.
Nevertheless, once a victim agrees to testify, our modern criminal justice system takes a pretty good stab at sifting guilt from innocence, and I naively assumed that had always been the case in United States history. I never realized how much rape laws had changed over time.
My introduction to 19th-century rape laws
Never realized, that is — until I read Kim Murphy’s I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. Murphy’s non-fiction book is not only a survey of rape in the Civil War but an eloquent testimony to prejudice. Prejudice against African Americans, prejudice against foreigners, and above all, prejudice against women. Prejudice that happened in the very location that’s supposed to be the most impartial place of all: the courtroom.
Kim Murphy joins us for an interview about rape in the Civil War. Watch out for the double standard she offers of a criminal soldier who holds a gun to two victims’ heads, a man’s and a woman’s. Look out for her discussion of Sir Matthew Hale and 19th-century rape laws. And take note of the age of consent. Those are things I never learned in law school. They shocked me to the core. And I think they will shock you too.
You can read more about Kim Murphy below.
If this post changes your understanding of the history of rape laws, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.
Welcome, Kim Murphy!
What got you interested in the subject of rape in the Civil War?
While researching my Civil War fiction, I kept coming across the topic of rape. Some Civil War historians stated that it was uncommon or “rare.” Originally, I took them at their word, but the more I researched the war, I began to doubt their claim. I thought it was time the women involved had a voice, which is why I ended up writing I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. The title comes from a woman’s testimony during a court-martial. She said she’d rather die than to have been raped.
Some authors claim the Civil War was a “low-rape war.” Why has this view been so entrenched?
I think part of the view comes from the fact that few soldiers were executed for the crime of rape during the war. With rape being a capital crime during the 19th century, some historians have used that basis for their “low-rape war” belief. As time went on, the belief was repeated without any facts behind it. Some, I believe, also romanticized the war, claiming the soldiers from the Civil War practiced gentlemanly “self-restraint.” Such a belief ignores the problem we still deal with today, where most rapes are never reported.
What do the facts say?
Researchers E. Susan Barber and Charles F. Ritter state that approximately 450 sexual crime cases were heard in Union courts-martial. I personally found over 400 accounts of molestation or rape in the Civil War for my database. Although most were court-martial cases, not all were. Some came from diaries, letters, newspapers, and the Official Records of the two armies. The latter sources show that many cases never made it to trial. The men who were actually charged with the crime rarely got more than a slap on the hand. Some of the sentences were ridiculous, such as their heads being shaved and their getting drummed out of their regiments.
As for the statistics of STD cases, the official report from the United States Surgeon General’s Office stated there were 109,397 cases of gonorrhea and 73,382 cases of syphilis among the U.S. white troops. This report doesn’t include black soldiers or the Confederates. If the Confederate records ever existed, I’m sure they were lost along with most of their other records at the end of the war. In any case, these statistics show that gentlemanly restraint was somewhat lacking.
Are you able to draw any broad conclusions based on the data for rape in the Civil War?
Of the rapes that were reported and went to court-martial, black soldiers frequently received harsher sentences than white soldiers. Of the white soldiers, foreign-born soldiers were more likely to receive harsher punishment. Nearly thirty soldiers were executed for rape or attempted rape. More than half were black, even though they made up 10% of the Union forces. Most of the white soldiers who received the death penalty were accused of other crimes in addition to rape.
As for the victims, conclusions are difficult to arrive at since most rapes are never reported. Those that went to court-martial, upper-class white women were believed more often than poor white women or black women. Poor white women and black women essentially had to prove their cases, since both were regarded as “promiscuous.”
Another factor that many don’t take into account is that during wartime, most reported rapes are during times of occupation. At other times, armies were on the move or engaging in combat. During these times, the authorities had difficulty finding enough officers for judges to hold a court-martial, and women who had been raped wouldn’t have known to whom or where to report the crime.
There are more recorded instances of Union rapists that Confederate rapists. Why is that?
Many of the Confederate records were lost during the retreat and burning of Richmond. Even though few records remain, however, similarities can be seen. Women had to prove they had been raped.
The most shocking thing about your book, at least for me, was the state of the rape laws in the 19th century. Why was a woman required to fight for her life before a court would consider it a rape?The rape laws for all of early America came from Sir Matthew Hale, an influential 17th-century English judge:
It is true that rape is a most detestable crime, and therefore ought severely and impartially to be punished with death; but it must be remembered, that it is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.
His words echoed throughout courtrooms well into the late-20th century. Basically, his declaration laid the groundwork that women frequently lied about being raped, and it was very difficult for men to prove their innocence. At the time of the Civil War, chastity was regarded as a virtue, so a woman was expected to put up a fight in order to be believed. If she had no bruises or any kind of trauma to her body, she was regarded with suspicion and believed to have most likely given her consent.
An interesting side note: Sir Matthew Hale was also a judge for witchcraft trials. At least two women were hanged when he presided.
So if a man held a gun to a woman’s head and said he would kill her, and if the woman was scared to death and submitted, that would have counted as consent? And did that actually happen?
Yes to both questions. In one particular case, Private Ennis went to the home of Mary Harris in North Carolina. At gunpoint, he asked the women of the household if either would have sex with him. When they said no, he threatened them.
Mary said she was an “old woman with a heap of children.” The private turned to her daughter, Caroline. He took her to another room and locked the door behind them. At that point, he put his gun down, then raped her.
On the same day, Ennis had robbed another man at gunpoint, then attempted to rob another. The second man was also armed and turned Ennis in to the authorities.
At the court martial, Caroline was repeatedly badgered by Ennis in cross-examination. During the Civil War era, the accused often couldn’t afford an attorney, and there was no right to free representation during this time, so the defendants frequently represented themselves. As a result, a woman often faced intense questioning from her rapist.
Ennis never denied what happened but claimed that Caroline “yielded from fear of death.” He was found not guilty for rape, but guilty on the robbery charges, even though the man offered no resistance during the robbery.
And the age of consent was ten? Are there cases of girls that young who got raped and were deemed to have consented?
The age of consent was ten in most states. Kentucky, Virginia, Indiana, and Iowa set the age at twelve. Arkansas established the age to coincide with a girl’s first period, which tended to be several years later than modern girls.
If the case went to trial, a girl of ten was more likely to be believed than an adolescent or an adult. Many girls’ ages, especially slaves, were not given in the records, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how old some were. So yes, I’ve come across records where young girls were raped and said to have consented. When young girls were involved, the soldiers were found guilty more often, but the girls were still frequently asked questions during the testimony as to whether they had contributed to the act.
In one case of a ten-year-old girl, she was raped at gunpoint. A doctor confirmed she had been raped and feared she might die from blood loss. Yet, at court-martial, she was asked questions that indicated she might have tempted her rapist by touching him. The private was found guilty on several charges in addition to rape and was sentenced to be shot, but most of the charges, including rape, were dropped on a technicality because the locality where the rape had taken place wasn’t listed. In the end, the private escaped to Canada.
What has been the scholarly reaction to your book?
I’ve received a couple of excellent reviews, including one from Choice, but the Civil War historians have pretty much ignored the book. I have a feeling they find the topic of rape in the Civil War uncomfortable.
Thank you, Kim!
About Kim Murphy:
Award-winning author Kim Murphy has written historical and historical-fantasy fiction. Her published articles consist of a wide range of subjects, from seizures in the Belgian sheepdog to various topics of the 17th and 19th centuries. From her research for her fiction, Kim learned that historians incorrectly assumed rape was rare during the Civil War. Seven years of researching and writing went into her only nonfiction title to date, I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. The title was taken from a rape survivor’s testimony during a court-martial case. Her Civil War ghost stories, Whispers from the Grave and Whispers Through Time, have won several awards, including ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, an IPPY (Independent Publisher Book awards), as well a nomination for RT Reviewer’s Choice award.
Kim Murphy maintains a website at www.kimmurphy.net.
Not long after Jack the Ripper terrorized Whitechapel, another serial murderer stalked Ohio. The press dubbed this new killer “Jack the Strangler.”
When a University of Dayton criminal justice instructor discovered his great-aunt was one of the strangler’s victims, his curiosity drove him to the archives. Blowing the dust off old newspaper reports revealed a few surprises. Not only did this case receive international media attention, his family also became intricately involved in the investigation because his great-grandmother found a clue in her daughter’s coffin.
Brian Forschner joins us today to tell us how he discovered the case and to introduce his new book, Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders.
Discovery in the cemetery
I’m not sure what possessed me to take a lunch break that day, maybe it was having taught three intro courses to freshmen in the University of Dayton Criminal Justice Program. I decided to go across the street to the Woodland Cemetery (the Wright Brothers are buried there) and have a sandwich. Knowing I had some relatives buried there, I stopped by the office and rifled through the card catalogue. Under “Forschner” I found grandparents and great grandparents but found an outlier, a 15-year-old Mary Forschner who died on January 23, 1909. I immediately thought “There must be other Forschners in the area. I’ve never heard of her.” Within days I obtained her death certificate and, under “cause of death,” found “strangulation by the hand.” More stunningly, she was my grandfather’s sister. I saw him often when I was growing up! She was never mentioned.
Brian Forschner discovers the “Jack the Strangler” cases
I began searching newspapers around the date she died. I was astounded to find her face filling the front page of newspapers around the country. Not only that, but crime reporters were tying her death to that of several other women, which the New York Times had apparently named the “Jack the Strangler Murders.” Over a period of four years I read hundreds of newspaper articles and editorials in papers around the U.S. with references to some in Europe, searched death certificates, autopsies, and trial records where available. I read the newspapers out at least 9 months after each death to see if the murders were solved. They were all cold cases, police records long destroyed. I had to write a book on this, possibly a series of short stories since these cases had been cold for over 100 years.
Hundreds of crime reporters asking different questions from different standpoints gave me snippets of information about the girls and their cases, enabling me to piece together their personalities. I wanted to tell their stories, as telling their stories would be a way to grant them some justice and show that they were just that, young girls murdered and raped, never allowed to grow up, long forgotten, families forever shamed and socially victimized. My training had been in philosophy and logic at the undergraduate level and human behavior and psychology at the doctoral level. I had been a probation officer and operated a group of halfway houses for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Ohio Department of Corrections, so I felt reasonably well armed to use one of the primary forensic techniques of the time, what some have referred to as “circumstantial logic.” Without eyewitnesses or confessions (forensics was in its infancy), would a reasonable person, given a preponderance of circumstantial evidence, be prepared to convict? This forensic thinking was buttressed by a perfect storm of the literature and press of the time, which painted a picture of the typical criminal, namely as a ruffian or animal, much like Poe did in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”(an orangutan did it!). This view was supported by the quintessential cold case of all time, Jack the Ripper, and, a disciple of Poe’s, Conan Doyle. Doyle showed that even an untrained individual like Sherlock Holmes could solve mysteries by using simple logic and determination. After all, solving crimes was “elementary.”
Clue in the coffin
My editor loved the Jack the Strangler stories, but I wasn’t happy. I wanted to know who did it. It wasn’t until reading about the viewing of Mary Forschner in the parlor of my great-grandmother’s home, when in anguish she was helped to the casket and bent over to kiss Mary goodbye, that it came together. Great grandma immediately was shaken from her sobbing when she noticed that something was missing, something precious! She cried out to all present. Detectives in attendance rushed to the casket. They had missed it in their investigation.
“Aha,” I thought to myself! “How could I have missed it? The other four girls were the same MO, murdered and then raped, souvenirs had been taken, the crime was brazen, in full site of potential witnesses, a crime on the anniversary date of another crime, and I could trace all but one of the girls to the same bus stop.” Yet, it would not be until I came across an article written several years later about an arrest and conviction for an unrelated offense that I found the murderer/rapist.
My verdict is for you to judge. Read Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders. Get to know these girls, their stories, and the shame and disgrace their families endured. Tell me if you agree. A critical clue is in the clasped hand on the cover of the book, Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders © 2016 by Morgan James Publishers.
You can visit Brian Forschner’s website to learn more.
Have you ever discovered old family secrets like Brian Forschner did?