Benjamin Franklin as a True Crime Writer

Benjamin Franklin wrote true crime early in his career

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Franklin. You know him as a founding father, a drafter of the Declaration of Independence, the discoverer of electricity, a diplomat. But did you know he wrote true crime, too?

He started his career as a printing apprentice and later purchased The Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia. Although he said he would never pander to the morbid interests of his readership, Benjamin Franklin published a shocking true crime article in the Gazette on October 24, 1734 – one that has left scholars scratching their heads. Why would Franklin write this?

Here’s Benjamin Franklin’s short true crime piece. Read on to see what the scholars have to say.

Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin's newspaper

Title page of The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754. Public domain, via Wikipedia Commons.

“The Murder of a Daughter” by Benjamin Franklin

Saturday last, at a Court of Oyer and Terminer held here, came on the Tryal of a Man and his Wife, who were indicted for the Murder of a Daughter which he had by a former Wife, (a Girl of about 14 Years of Age) by turning her out of Doors, and thereby exposing her to such Hardships, as afterwards produced grievous Sickness and Lameness; during which, instead of supplying her with Necessaries and due Attendance, they treated her with the utmost Cruelty and Barbarity, suffering her to lie and rot in her Nastiness, and when she cried for Bread giving her into her Mouth with a Iron Ladle, her own Excrements to eat, with a great Number of other Circumstances of the like Nature, so that she languished and at length died. The Evidence against them was numerous, and in many Particulars positive; but the Opinion of the Physician who had visited the Child, that whatever Usage might be given her, the Distemper she laboured under was such, as would of itself in all Probability have ended her Life about the Time she died, it is thought weighed so much with the Jury, that they brought in their Verdict only Man-slaughter. A Verdict which the Judge, (in a short but pathetic Speech to the Prisoners before the Sentence) told them was extreamly favourable; and that, as the Relation of their hitherto unheard-of Barbarity had in the highest Manner shocked all that were present; so, if they were not perfectly stupified, the inward Reflection upon their own enormous Crimes, must be more terrible and shocking to them, than the Punishment they were to undergo: For that they had not only acted contrary to the particular Laws of all Nations, but had even broken the Universal Law of Nature; since there are no Creatures known, how savage, wild, and fierce soever, that have not implanted in them a natural Love and Care of their tender Offspring, and that will not even hazard Life in its Protection and Defence. — But this is not the only Instance the present Age has afforded, of the incomprehensible Insensibility Dram-drinking is capable of producing. — They were sentenced to be burnt in the Hand, which was accordingly executed in Court, upon them both, but first upon the Man, who offer’d to receive another Burning if so be his Wife might be excused; but was told the Law would not allow it.

Benjamin Franklin and true crime

Although he was fond of saying he wouldn’t pander to the “corrupt taste of the majority,” Benjamin Franklin didn’t always do what he said. The Pennsylvania Gazette was one of the most popular newspapers in the colonies, and Franklin didn’t object to printing sensational material to boost his readership. Crime and court proceedings are, after all, news. The Pennsylvania Gazette published a number of his articles covering incest, domestic abuse, and murder.

So why did he pick this horrifying account for his own press? Here are a couple of theories:

A young Benjamin Franklin (middle) as a printer.

A young Benjamin Franklin (middle) as a printer. By Charles E. Mills [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Franklin wanted to express his distaste for crime

Robert Bosco, an English professor, doesn’t view “The Murder of a Daughter” as objective reporting. He thinks Franklin used the trial to express his contempt for human depravity. Underpinning that contempt might have been the statesman’s reservations about human nature.

Pennsylvania historian Randall Miller says Franklin was less optimistic of people’s ability to control their own destiny. That might boil down to a primal fear that Friedrich Schiller says makes true crime so suitable for literature – the fear that, but for the grace of God, that could have been me. That is one of the reasons readers are so fascinated by true crime.

Franklin scholar J.A. Leo Lemay isn’t even sure if the judge in the case actually spoke the pronouncement Franklin put in his mouth; the article might be an instance of Franklin editorializing. Franklin might have used the judge as his mouthpiece to condemn such depraved child abuse.

Lemay also points out how telling the ending is. No one can claim the abusive father was incapable of loving his daughter. His willingness to accept his wife’s punishment shows he was capable of self-sacrificing affection. Perhaps then, the difference between the abusive father at home and the self-sacrificing father in court might have been due to drink.

Whiskey and barrel by (c) Jake Hukee

Whiskey and barrel by (c) Jake Hukee, Shutterstock 1026860485.

Benjamin Franklin wanted to condemn dram (whiskey) drinking

Benjamin Franklin had no objection to a drink, especially since water – in Europe at least, where Franklin lived for years – was considered unsanitary. He composed several drinking songs. He enjoyed wine, beer, and cider, but in moderation. Early experiences with his friends turned him against excessive drinking.

A childhood friend named Collins drank too much dram and had trouble finding a job. And Hugh Meredith, Benjamin Franklin’s first partner for The Pennsylvania Gazette, also had a drinking problem. Franklin tried to persuade him to lay off the bottle. Writing under the pseudonym Silence Dogood, Benjamin Franklin condemned drunkenness. His comment about “the incomprehensible Insensibility Dram-drinking is capable of producing” might have been meant to illustrate the evil monsters dram drinking can create within us.

There is, of course a third possibility, and that is that Benjamin Franklin just considered the case newsworthy and reported it accurately, like a modern true crime writer.

What do you think?

Literature on point:

J.A. Leo Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 2: Printer and Publisher, 1730-1747 (Univ. of  Penn. Press, 2006)

Life of Benjamin Franklin: Embracing Anecdotes Illustrative of His Character (Lindsay & Blakiston, 1846)

Benjamin Franklin, “The Murder of a Daughter,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, October 24, 1734

Edwin McDowell, “A Darker Side to Franklin is Reported,” New York Times, August 18, 1987

Harold Schlechter, “Benjamin Franklin,” in True Crime: An American Anthology (Library of America, 2008)

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A Murder, a World Record, and a White Squirrel

The letter that cracked one of the coldest murder cases ever solved

The 1872 letter that cracked the Rieber case. Frederick Rupp to the City of Bönnigheim, April 29, 1872. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg, E319 Bü 146, with permission

A triple insult

As I scanned the ink scratched onto the yellowing letter, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for its author. It’s one thing to be falsely accused of a murder. It’s another to be driven out of your country. But the final insult is to prove your innocence by solving the case and then be deprived of your just reward. Frederick Rupp, the author, suffered all three insults.

Rupp had written Bönnigheim, a German town, from Washington, DC in 1872, offering the solution to an 1835 assassination of the Bönnigheim’s mayor. He had once been a suspect himself. The grinding machinery of the Bönnigheim’s rumor mill had driven him from his fatherland to the United States. But now Rupp had the solution – and proof of his own innocence – and asked about the reward Bönnigheim had once issued for information leading to the murderer’s identity.

Bönnigheim never paid Rupp the reward of 200 Gulden. It should have, because the German prosecutor closed the case as solved based on Rupp’s tip. But the city minutes authorizing the reward got misfiled. And without the minutes, the city wasn’t authorized to pay. But poor Frederick Rupp couldn’t have known that.

A record-breaking murder case

The murder of German mayor Johann Heinrich Rieber in 1835 fascinates German readers today for its criminal records. It was 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved, its only case ever solved in America, and its investigator was the first to have used forensic ballistics. It fascinates American readers for its connection to American history. The assassin died at the feet of Robert E. Lee in the Mexican-American War. Lee wrote a letter home praising the heroism of an unnamed soldier who turned out to be the German assassin. You can read about how all these events fit together in my award-winning book, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee.

Descendants of Frederick Rupp receiving a 146-year-old reward for solving the murder in Death of an Assassin.

Descendants of Frederick Rupp receiving a 146-year-old reward for solving a murder.

One for the Guinness Book of World Records?

In May 2018, the Rieber murder left another mark on history when Bönnigheim mayor Kornelius Bamberger paid the reward posthumously to Frederick Rupp’s descendants. Two of them live in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and their mayor, Jud Ashman invited Mayor Bamberger and me to the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 19. Four of Rupp’s descendants, Richard Humphrey, Cheryl Johnson, Jennifer Manion, and Patricia Beisner were on hand to receive a giant check for €1,000.

With 183 years having passed since the murder, Mayor Bamberger and I believe this was the oldest reward for solving a murder ever paid. The city of Bönnigheim has applied for a new Guinness world record title and is awaiting the results. The award presentation made national news. You can watch C-SPAN’s coverage of the reward presentation here.

The white squirrel is a rare morph of the grey squirrel.

White squirrel by (c) Tom Reichner, Shutterstock royalty-free stock photo ID: 111557381

The white squirrel

You won’t see it on C-SPAN’s tape, because the cameras weren’t rolling yet, but a white squirrel caused quite a commotion as we were setting up for the event. It popped into our tent, ran across the stage, ran back, and repeated its performance a few times. Members of the audience gasped because white squirrels are so rare. You can read about the rare white morph of the eastern grey squirrel here.

Afterwards, one of the Gaithersburg Book Festival organizers pulled me aside. “Do you realize what white squirrels mean in Native American mythology?” he asked. “That was a spirit animal. I think Mayor Rieber [the murder victim] was present to watch this happen.”

The thought jarred me. It’s the kind of symbolic thing you only see in novels. But several other people came up to me and said the same thing. The white squirrel may not have been a coincidence. And they wanted to know who I thought came to visit us from the other world.

That’s fun to ponder. Here are my thoughts.

Mayor Johann Heinrich Rieber

Certainly, Mayor Rieber would have loved watching this event – the final chapter to his own murder 183 years ago. It meant Bönnigheim hadn’t forgotten him and the awful crime against him. He would have enjoyed seeing Mayor Bamberger, his successor, bring the case to its final conclusion. In fact, one of the reasons Mayor Bamberger was so set on getting this reward paid was because it concerned the assassination of a mayor. The city of Bönnigheim had a special duty to honor the man who solved the case.

Frederick Rupp

Frederick Rupp was vindicated on May 19, 2018. What better apology and honor could Bönnigheim offer than sending its mayor overseas with a reward for his descendants? He would have watched his four great-great-great-grandchildren with pride.

Barbara Schaefer

Barbara Schaefer, a great-great-granddaughter of Frederick Rupp, was the first descendant Mayor Bamberger and I contacted about the reward. Unfortunately, she died a year before my book came out. And I’m sure she would have loved to have been there.

Patricia Beisner, her daughter, later wrote me with these touching words about the reward presentation:

I have always told myself “Everything happens for a reason”. But, I must tell you, most of the time I am left wondering why something happened or what the reason was that a certain situation occurred. Especially since my mom passed away a year and a half ago.

She was my best friend and we spoke two or three times a day, despite her living in Florida 6 months of the year. I looked up to her, admired her, laughed with her and could tell her anything. She was my partner in crime, if you will…..and the day she left, a part of me left with her.

It has been such a struggle for me and I try to find little gifts that she sends me from heaven and yesterday [the reward presentation] was one of these gifts. I think we all had our reasons for being at the book festival. My cousin Rich told you how much joy you brought him by uncovering our family tree. For Mayor Bamberger, it was a trip to the United States and saying thank you to my family. For you, it brought closure to a murder mystery in your town and finally carrying out a reward that was promised so long ago. For me, it was about honoring my mom. She was an amazing woman and had no doubt that this was real. She believed in the goodness of people and just knew that you were sincere and not trying to pull one over on her. She was a people person and would have been in hog heaven meeting and talking with everyone, especially you.

Coat of arms of the Lees of Virginia

Coat of arms of the Lees of Virginia, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Robert E. Lee

Half a week after the Gaithersburg Book Festival I gave a talk at the Beach Haven Library on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Discussion once again focused on the white squirrel and whom it might have symbolized.

“But why a squirrel?” someone in the audience asked. “Does the squirrel have a special meaning?”

A great question, and one that hadn’t occurred to me before.

One character in the story had quite a strong connection to squirrels, I told the audience, and that was Robert E. Lee. The Lee family coat of arms features a squirrel on top, holding a nut, and the motto at the bottom, “Ne Incautus Futuri” translates to be not unmindful of the future. The squirrel gathering nuts symbolizes that perfectly.

Lee researched his family tree before the Mexican-American War and knew about the Lee family squirrel. So might he have had an interest in visiting our event?


An unnamed hero

Lee had been so impressed with Rieber’s assassin he wrote home about him, concluding with a surprising statement that has generated some discussion among Robert E. Lee biographers: I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man. Lee’s comments made the man a symbol of the human suffering in the Mexican-American War.

Until publication of Death of an Assassin, no one has asked who the man was. Lee didn’t mention his name. I doubt Lee knew it. The assassin fought for an all-German company in the 1st Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers; Lee was a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers and directed fire at a naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz. Fate brought them together when the German company was assigned to defend Lee’s battery.

There’s no way Lee could have known the man’s past history of crime. The story would have shocked him. But throughout his life, Lee might have remembered this death at his very first battle and might have been interested in seeing that story come to a final conclusion too.

Who knows? Maybe the assassin was there as well.

I’d like to think the white squirrel represented all five people. It did, after all, pop in and out of the tent several times!

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Felony Murder on Trial: An Interview with Prof. Karen L. Cox, Author of Goat Castle

Natchez, Mississippi, site of the Goat Castle murder.

Natchez, Mississippi, site of the Goat Castle murder. Photo from Pixabay.

Eighty-six years ago, in August 1932, a highly unusual crime put the felony murder rule, an old law in Mississippi case law, to the test. That night, Emily Burns accepted an invitation to take a walk with one of her boarders. The 37-year-old widow rented out rooms in her home to other members of the black community in Natchez, Mississippi. What she didn’t know was that her boarder, who went by the nickname “Pink,” had made plans to burglarize a home that night.

An unplanned murder

Pink led Emily through the woods and bayous to a dilapidated house known as “Goat Castle,” where he met his two white accomplices. When Emily overheard them talking and realized their plans, she wanted to leave, but Pink threatened to kill her if she did. They snuck over to the house of a neighboring white woman and Pink motioned to Emily she should keep a lookout.

While Emily Burns waited outside, Pink and his white companions did the unthinkable: they murdered the occupant of the house. Pink made her hold the lantern while he and his accomplices carried out the body and deposited it 100 yards behind the house. Then they went home. That was the extent of Emily’s involvement. The law’s out-of-proportion reaction to Emily Burns is the subject of a recently published book, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South by history professor Karen L. Cox. She joins us for an interview below.

A case that made national headlines

The investigation into the murder of 68 year-old Jennie Merrill of Natchez, Mississippi, made national headlines. That she was born into the southern planter aristocracy and her father was once U.S. Ambassador to Belgium were enough to garner attention. Yet the story that emerged focused on those charged—her eccentric neighbors, Dick Dana, 61, and Octavia Dockery, 68, also born into elite southern families except that by 1932, they lived in squalor in a crumbling down antebellum mansion with all variety of animals, including goats. Their home was nicknamed “Goat Castle” and the pair became known as the “Wild Man” and the “Goat Woman.” Journalists compared their story to those of Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner—a southern gothic narrative come to life. And despite the collection of their fingerprints from inside Merrill’s home, the case never went to trial. Instead, as was typical of the Jim Crow era, the black community was targeted. In the end, the only person to be punished was an innocent African American woman named Emily Burns. She was convicted as an accessory to murder and sentenced to life in prison in the state penitentiary—Parchman—while Dana and Dockery profited from their notoriety. Burns’ sentence was eventually suspended in 1940, and she returned to Natchez. Previous accounts of the case are terribly brief, and focus exclusively on the white principals. This book offers the first extensively researched account of this Depression-era crime, including the national media coverage, while also recovering the story of racial injustice.

The felony murder rule

The legal doctrine that allowed Mississippi to convict Emily Burns of murder is the common-law felony murder rule. It holds a person responsible for murder if someone dies during the commission of a felony, even if that death wasn’t planned.

Felony murder definition: The unlawful killing of another human being while engaged in the commission of or attempted commission of one of several felonies specified according to the laws of a particular jurisdiction.  At common law, the “felony murder crimes” are burglary, arson, rape, robbery, and kidnapping.

The rule itself genders controversy. Not every U.S. state follows it. England, Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland have abolished it.

What makes the Goat Castle case different is the unbalanced punishment: Emily Burns took the legal blame for the murder while the white accomplices who were in the house when Jennie Merrill was murder got off scot-free. This gritty story is about what happens when the cogs in the wheels of justice run in the wrong direction.

Welcome Karen L. Cox! Dr. Cox is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

History professor Karen L. Cox, author of Goat Castle.

History professor Karen L. Cox, with permission.

Interview with Professor Karen L. Cox

AMA: What role did Emily Burns play in the murder?

KLC: Emily was caught in a terrible situation. She accompanied the actual trigger man–George Pearls a.k.a. Pinkney Williams–on a walk the evening of the murder.  Once he informed her of his plan to rob Jennie Merrill she tried to go home, but he threatened to kill her.  So her role in the robbery was to stand watch outside of Merrill’s home.  There she heard scuffling and shots–including those that killed Merrill. Later, she allegedly carried a lamp that lit the path for Williams to dispose of the body.

Did she ever enter Jennie Merrill’s house?

I don’t believe she ever entered the house.  Her fingerprints were not found inside of the house. I feel certain if they had been found, that evidence would have been used at her trial.

Do you think justice was served in this case? Why or why not? 

No, absolutely not.  Emily Burns was the only one charged and convicted as an accessory to murder with very little evidence.  Jennie Merrill’s neighbors, on the other hand, got off scot-free and their fingerprints were found inside of Merrill’s home. The fact that the fingerprint evidence was never discussed in court indicates that the DA did not want to try two white people; rather, he sought justice through the conviction of a “negro.”

Why do you think this story attracted national attention? 

 During the Depression, true crime sold newspapers and magazines and served as a cheap form of entertainment for Americans during desperate economic times. Such stories frequently involved the demise of prominent individuals and were fixated on the salacious details of family dysfunction. The murder of Jennie Merrill in Natchez, Mississippi, had all of this and then some. She was referred to as an “aristocratic recluse” and the way her neighbors lived led journalists to compare what was happening in Natchez as something that could have come from the pen of William Faulkner or Edgar Allen Poe—except it was all true. Thus, Natchez provided readers with two distinctive, and yet popular narratives, of Old South grandeur as well as southern gothic.

People have noticed similarities between Goat Castle and the more famous Grey Gardens. How do the two compare?

 Analogies have been made between Goat Castle and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the film Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, too, but perhaps the best comparison is with Grey Gardens. Like Grey Gardens, Goat Castle is the name of a house and specifically a fine house that, by the time the public learned about it, was in shocking condition. Both homes had fallen into wrack and ruin, both were filthy and full of garbage and debris, and two people who were clearly not in their right mind occupied both houses. There is also the similarity that despite the years and the location that separate these two estates, Goat Castle, like Grey Gardens, is a story of the social and economic downfall of elites—in this case, people descended from the planter class of the Old South.

Goat Castle deals with injustice wrought by the felony murder rule.

Goat Castle book cover, courtesy of University of North Carolina Press.

Given that you’re a white woman writing about a black woman, you needed access to Emily Burns’s community. How did you gain their trust to get them to open up to you and thus do Emily’s story justice?

This is an important question, especially given the racial history of Natchez and Mississippi more broadly. As a white woman telling a black woman’s story, it was important to get the perspective of the black community and I could best do that by talking with people in person, in places where they felt most comfortable, and demonstrating my appreciation for the gift of the information they shared with thank you notes, phone calls, etc. Because the church is such an important institution in the black community, I also attended services at Emily’s home church in Natchez and spoke directly to the congregation about my efforts to bring justice to her story, promising to return and share the book with them when it is published—a promise I intend to keep.

Goat Castle can be characterized as both Southern history and true crime. How did your training as a historian inform your work as a writer of true crime? Did you have to adapt your writing style in any way?

 I’ve long been fascinated by local stories, and so my training as a historian helped here because it meant digging into local records for even the tiniest bit of information that I could then piece together to understand more about the individuals involved. Census records, city directories, witness dockets, case files, maps, and the landscape itself all provide information. In fact, I think of a book, and particularly this story, as a puzzle. Once all of the pieces are put into place, an image emerges or, in this case, the story emerged. I absolutely adapted my writing style. While my training would suggest I should write a scholarly work, this simply would have ruined the story I was trying to tell. So, while I did the primary and secondary research one would expect a historian to do, I wrote a narrative with a more general audience in mind. A true crime story about a place named “Goat Castle” required this approach.

Thank you, Karen L. Cox!

 What do you think of the felony murder rule? Was it justly applied in this case? Should it be abolished?


ISBN 978-1-4696-3503-3 $26.00 cloth

240 pp., 24 halftones, notes, bibl., index

Publication date: October 9, 2017

For more information:

Portions of this blog post were borrowed from “A conversation with Karen L. Cox, author of Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South” (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2017). The text of this interview is available at

A brief youtube film about this case, posted the Natchez National Historical Park, shows pictures of many of the participants and places.

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Death of an Assassin: The Murder Case that Broke All the Rules

On May 19, the Gaithersburg Book Festival will witness a world true crime record being broken when a German mayor pays a 146-year-old reward for solving a murder of his predecessor in 1835. It will go to the American descendants of the man who cracked the case in 1872.

That will be only the last of the records this case has broken. The murder, detailed in the award-winning book Death of an Assassin, also made history for these records:

  • 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved, with 37 years between the murder and solution
  • Its only murder solved in America outside of a confession
  • The birth of forensic ballistics, which was first used in this case

Swenson Book Development recently interviewed me about Death of an Assassin and graciously gave me permission to reblog it on my site.

The Case That Spanned an Ocean – An Interview with Ann Marie Ackermann

Audrey Schultz   |   April 17, 2018

Originally posted on the Swenson Book Development Website

If you’re a history lover or a fan of good mysteries, then Ann Marie Ackermann’s novel Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee is the book for you. This historical true crime novel details the story of a case that breaks several records, including coldest case ever solved, and intertwines both German and American history. Now, in large part because of the novel and its author Ann Marie Ackermann, another record is set to be broken next month in Gaithersburg, Maryland: the oldest reward for solving a murder case ever paid.

Bönnigheim's mayor paid a 183-year-old reward for solving a murder

Kornelius Bamberger, Bönnigheim’s mayor in 2018, paid a posthumous 183-year-old reward for solving a murder to the tipster’s American descendants.

May 19 at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, Ann Marie Ackermann, accompanied by the current mayor of Bönnigheim, Germany, Kornelius Bamberger (pictured above), and Gaithersburg Mayor and Book Festival Founder Jud Ashman, will present the 146-year-old reward to the descendants of the man who provided the tip that solved the case. As explained on the Gaithersburg Book Festival website, “Frederick Rupp, a German immigrant in Washington, D.C., provided the crucial tip in 1872 that solved the murder, but the reward was never paid after the city council minutes recording the decision to offer the prize were misfiled and archived.”

Death of an Assassin has been awarded a bronze IPPY for the True Crime category. Conducted annually by the Independent Book Publisher Awards, the IPPY honors the best independently published titles from around the world. Congratulations to Ann Marie Ackermann.

In light of all this exciting news, I had the chance to interview Ann Marie Ackermann for Swenson Book Development, and I am thrilled to share it with you.

Ann Marie Ackermann, author of Death of an Assassin

Death of an Assassin author Ann Marie Ackermann

Swenson Book Development: What was your favorite part about writing this historical true crime story?

Ann Marie Ackermann: The discoveries I unearthed in the archives just floored me. When I first started researching, I thought I was just going to write a about a small-town murder for my local German historical society in Bönnigheim. But the case was so much bigger than anyone thought. This was 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved and its only case solved in the USA: A German immigrant in Washington, DC provided the decisive tip 37 years later. I tracked the assassin’s flight to the United States to escape justice in Germany, only to discover that Robert E. Lee had written a letter about him without knowing his past history of crime. Lee’s praise turned the assassin into a symbol of the costs of the Mexican-American War, but his identity has been a mystery to Americans. So this case solves mysteries on both sides of the Atlantic!

SBD: Extensive research went into writing Death of an Assassin. What did your research process look like?

AMA: I spent loads of time in the German archives and needed to learn to read the old German handwriting. The archivists were extremely helpful.

I did fly twice to Philadelphia to visit the archives there, but ended up hiring Gail McCormick, a talented Washington, DC archivist, to help me with research at the National Archives and Library of Congress. It was just too expensive for me to fly over the ocean every time I had a question. The material she found helped identify the German assassin as the object of Lee’s admiration.

Death of an Assassin cover

Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee, courtesy of Kent State University Press.

SBD: How did your experience as an attorney with a focus on criminal and medical law come into play while writing this book?

AMA: Two things shape a criminal investigation: the law of criminal procedure and the forensic technology available to the detective. Those two aspects guided me in my research and analysis. And they bore fruit: I was able to show that the detective in this case was the first to use forensic ballistics. That’s another record right there!

My background in medical law gave me lots of experience reading autopsy reports, so it was really fun to read one from 1835. A cardiologist friend of mine helped me pick it apart and put it under the microscope of modern medicine. In some ways the doctors in 1835 were surprisingly modern; other aspects of their practice were oh-so-quaint.

SBD: What would you say was your biggest obstacle in writing and researching for Death of an Assassin?

AMA: Learning to read the old German handwriting! I’m so glad I did, though, because it opened so many doors in my research. The investigative file in this case alone is almost 800 pages. I couldn’t rely on friends and archivists to read it for me. When I got to the point I could read it myself, I unearthed so many interesting aspects of the case.

SBD: One of the things I enjoyed most about your book was getting to read from the perspective of historical characters, particularly Robert E. Lee, which made history come alive for me as a reader. What was it like as an author delving into the minds of historical characters like Robert E. Lee?

AMA: I’m so glad my book brought history alive for you! My hope, in writing Death of an Assassin, was that the true crime format would get some people reading about past events who wouldn’t otherwise have been interested. And from the feedback I’ve been getting from readers, it sounds like I reached that goal.

To delve into the minds of historical characters, I tried to use as many primary sources as possible. What did they themselves write about the events? And what did the people who were with them have to say? I tried to use that technique not only to put the reader into a historical character’s mind, but also to place the reader in the din of the battle scene at the climax of the book.

I also wanted to show there’s more to Robert E. Lee than just the Civil War. Even if the United States had never fought the Civil War, history books would still remember Lee for his accomplishments in opening the St. Louis harbor and in the Mexican-American War. Because the Civil War overshadows those parts of American history, they’re somewhat obscured. My research taught me new things about that period, and if this story opens people’s eyes to broader aspects of antebellum history, I’d be pleased.

Robert E. Lee's letter

Detail of Robert E. Lee’s letter. Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers, in which he discusses the heroic death of the German assassin. (c) Virginia Historical Society, with permission.

SBD: You moved from the United States to Germany in 1996. What was the transition like? How is life in Germany different from life in the United States?

AMA: The transition wasn’t too difficult. I’m German-American, already had blood relatives here, spoke the language, and of course I had my German husband. I’d describe the transition as an adventure, but it was one that taught me what it means to be American. Living in another culture is like holding up a mirror to better see your own.

Wherever I live, I try to look for the positive aspects, and I’ve come to appreciate Germany for its excellent education and health care system. I’ve enjoyed raising my children here. But I miss the United States too.

SBD: Next month at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in Maryland, you get to present a long-lost reward to the American descendants of the man who provided the tip that solved this record-breaking case. What are you most looking forward to about this experience?

AMA: Payment of the 146-year-old reward will bring closure to this case and pull a 19th-century story right into the present.

The city of Bönnigheim is applying for a Guinness World Record title for the oldest reward for solving a murder ever paid. If Guinness grants the title, the town of Bönnigheim and I will be popping so many champagne bottles you’ll probably hear us over in the United States. What could be a better way to draw a spotlight onto the town and my book? It’s an author’s dream, really, and I’m so glad my legwork on the reward is coming to fruition. I’ve been working a couple of years to make the reward happen.

Now I’m most looking forward to meeting the descendants – the flesh and blood embodiments of one of the characters I wrote about. They will be the focal point of the ceremony in Gaithersburg, and if they ever decide to visit Bönnigheim, they’ll be received as the descendants of a town hero.

The letter that cracked one of the coldest murder cases ever solved

The 1872 letter that cracked the case. Frederick Rupp to the City of Bönnigheim, April 29, 1872. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg, E319 Bü 146, with permission

SBD: What are your writing plans for the future?

AMA: So many Germans want to read this book too. Before I tackle a new project, I’m going to be assisting with the translation.

After that I have a couple of ideas in mind – more historical true crime in Germany, and a history of a European food and wine tradition that dates back to the Romans. I’d love to visit all the European countries that still follow the tradition, taste their wares, and put together a coffee table-like book of a pan-European custom.

Oh, and my kid still wants me to publish the bedtime stories I told him as a child. So there are lots of ideas.

Image credits:

1. Bürgermeister (Mayor) Kornelius Bamberger. Credit: Courtesy of the city of Bönnigheim, Germany.
2. Ann Marie Ackermann. Credit: Inge Hermann.
3. Death of an Assassin book cover. Credit: Kent State University
4. Detail of Robert E. Lee’s April 11, 1847 letter to his son, Custis. This section discusses the assassin from Bönnigheim. Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society. deButts-Ely family papers.
5. Letter from Frederick Rupp with the tip that solved the case. Credit: Courtesy of Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Branch Depository Ludwigsburg, Germany; StAL E 319 Bü 146.

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Catching a Crook in the Bad Ole Days: Interview with Jan Wiechert

Böse Alte Zeit by Jan Wiechert.

Böse Alte Zeit by Jan Wiechert. Courtesy of the Gmeiner Verlag.

Criminal investigations in the 17th and 18th centuries differed from the ones we know today. Forget the police. They didn’t exist yet. Superstition played a big role. City and castle walls helped entrap crooks; citizens pitched in with the chase.

Jan Wiechert and the Bad Ole Times

In fact, historical true crime cases make an exciting way to learn local history. That’s what archivist Jan Wiechert thinks. And he doesn’t think the “good ole times” were necessarily good. He selected a handful of intriguing crimes from the dusty pages of Hohenlohe Central Archiv in Neuenstein and created an anthology appropriately dubbed “Bad Ole Times” (Böse Alte Zeit, Gmeiner Verlag, 2017).

Jan Wiechert’s stories offer so much drama I didn’t realize, until I finished the book, how much history I’d painlessly picked up. Is there a more fun way to learn history than a true crime format? Wiechert doesn’t think so and joins us for an interview today to show why.

An interview in German follows the English version. Ein Interview auf Deutsch folgt der englischen Version.

Interview with German true crime author Jan Wiechert

Archivist Jan Wiechert brings history alive through crime stories.

Archivist Jan Wiechert brings history alive through crime stories. (c) Thomas Gburek, with permission.

There weren’t any police in the 17th century. How were criminals investigated and caught?

Often the normal citizens had to look for the criminal when someone committed a crime. In cities, a magistrate or bailiff drummed the people together; in villages is was the mayor who organized a patrol. Of course, the crook often slipped through their fingers, but when he was caught, it was the citizen’s duty to detain him securely and to deliver him up the authorities.

What role did superstition play in the administration of justice?

The belief in the effects of inscrutable, magic powers played a significant role in every part of the people’s everyday life. During the period of the witch trials, it had dramatic consequences for criminal justice issues. In history films, the witch hunter is usually an evil, ruthless, and fanatical brute. Without brushing aside the victim’s suffering, you also have to try to be fair to the persecutors. They believed in the tangible intervention of the incarnate devil in the world of man – that was as self-evident for them as it is for us to believe the light will go on when we flip the switch.

What were the best investigative techniques of the 17th and 18th centuries?

For lack of scientific knowledge, criminal investigations essentially evolved from interrogations, through which torture was employed under certain circumstances. I find it interesting that in cases of doubt, the technique of confrontations was often used. Instead of saying to the suspect: “The witness XYZ said something different!” one simply brought the suspect and witness together and interrogated them together.

Can you compare the 17th and 18th century warrants of apprehension with the wanted posters of the Wild West?

In the 16th and 17th century, wanted posters were usually handwritten and directed to the authorities of surrounding regions. Sometimes a messenger was sent with the poster, who collected signatures on paper or even seals to show he was really at a certain location, so we can reconstruct his route today. That changed in the 18th century, especially with the advent of bands of robbers and thieves. From this time period there exist printed wanted posters with all the information about the person sought that could be hung up or – sometimes even from the church pulpit – read out loud.

City gate in Iphofen, Germany

Want to commit a crime in a medieval walled city? You better think about how to escape the city walls. City gate in Iphofen, Germany

How did city and castle walls help to catch criminals?

It could indeed be helpful to have a city wall when you knew a criminal was located in the city. You could simply close the gates and step up the controls before you started the search. But for the authorities, the protective factor was more important. To a certain extent, medieval walls were useless as a military defense against firearms, but they could keep thieves and tricksters from sneaking in.

If you were Jean Travenier – the young thief in your book – how would you have escaped justice after you had climbed over the castle walls?

Travenier – nice that you’re referring to my favorite criminal – actually did everything right in that he traveled as quickly as possible to another territory. The multitude of small German states worked as a real advantage for fugitives. That he was nevertheless caught was just bad luck: bad luck that he was seen on the run, bad luck, that the city of Schwäbisch Hall cooperated so quickly and well with the earls of Hohenlohe, and bad luck, that he fell asleep above the table at the inn. But no wonder: He had already fun 30 kilometers that day. I can’t begrudge him his escape.

Thief Jean Travenier escaped over the Langenburg castle walls after stealing some jewels.

The Langenburg castle. Thief Jean Travenier escaped over these walls after stealing some jewels. By Martin Zeiler – Scan eines Orginal Buchs durch, Public Domain, 1 January 1656.

You sold out of the first edition of your book after only four months….

Yes, I was pleasantly surprised. Obviously my plan was to tell social and daily stories to a regional market, through the principle that “crime sells,” and in a colloquial, non-academic language without the readers shuddering with the memories of their history classes.

Are you planning another book?

Just  one? A half bookcase is swirling around inside my head and in the Hohenlohe Central Archives, many exciting stories are slumbering that desperately need to be told. The next book will appear in mid 2018 and it will delve deeply into a murder case that occurred in 1777 in Langenburg.

Thank you, Jan Wiechert!

If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like Medieval City Structure and True Crime History. That post’s about how city walls affected criminals ability to escape.

Interview mit Jan Wiechert auf Deutsch


Es gab im 17. Jahrhundert keine Polizei. Wie wurde Straftäter ermittelt und erwischt?

Wenn ein Verbrechen bekannt wurde, mussten oft die normalen Bürger nach dem Täter suchen. In Städten trommelte der Vogt oder Amtmann seine Leute zusammen, in Dörfern war es der Schultheiß, der eine Streife organisierte. Oft ging der Täter natürlich auch durch die Lappen, aber wenn er gefasst wurde, war es die Pflicht der Bürger, ihn sicher zu verwahren und an die Obrigkeit auszuliefern.

Welche Rolle spielte der Aberglauben in der Justiz?

Der Glaube an das Wirken undurchschaubarer, magischer Kräfte spielte im gesamten Alltag der Menschen eine bedeutende Rolle. In Fragen der Strafjustiz hatte das, besonders in Zeiten der Hexenverfolgung, dramatische Auswirkungen. Im Historienfilm ist der Hexenjäger meist ein böser, skrupelloser und fanatischer Unmensch. Ohne das Leid der Opfer herunterzuspielen, muss man auch versuchen den Verfolgern gerecht zu werden. Sie glaubten an das konkrete Eingreifen des leibhaftigen Teufels in die Welt der Menschen – so selbstverständlich, wie wir daran glauben, dass das Licht angeht, wenn wir den Schalter drücken.

Was waren die besten Ermittlungstechniken der 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts?

Mangels naturwissenschaftlicher Kenntnisse bestanden Ermittlungen im Wesentlichen aus Befragungen, bei denen unter bestimmten Umständen die Folter eingesetzt wurde. Interessant finde ich, dass man in Zweifelsfällen oft auf das Mittel der Konfrontation setzte. Statt dem Angeklagten zu sagen: „Der Zeuge XY hat aber etwas ganz anderes gesagt!“ führte man ihn einfach mit dem Zeugen zusammen und befragte sie gemeinsam.

Kann man die Steckbriefe der 17. und 18. Jh. mit den “Wanted”-Postern des wilden Westen vergleichen?

Im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert waren Steckbriefe meist handschriftlich und an die Obrigkeit umliegender Gebiete gerichtet. Manchmal wurde ein Bote mit dem Brief losgeschickt, der sich auf dem Papier unterschreiben oder sogar siegeln ließ, dass er wirklich an einem bestimmten Ort war, so dass man heute noch seine Route rekonstruieren kann. Im 18. Jahrhundert, vor allem mit dem Aufkommen von Räuber- und Diebesbanden änderte sich das. Aus dieser Zeit liegen wirklich gedruckte Steckbriefe mit allen Angaben zu den gesuchten Personen vor, die ausgehängt oder – manchmal sogar von der Kirchenkanzel aus – vergelesen werden konnten.

Wie halfen Stadt- und Burgmauern dabei, Straftäter zu fangen?

Es konnte schon hilfreich sein, eine Stadtmauer zu haben, wenn man erfuhr, dass sich ein Straftäter in der Stadt befand. Man konnte schlicht die Tore verschließen und die Kontrolle verstärken lassen, bevor man sich auf die Suche machte. Für die Obrigkeit war die schützende Funktion aber wichtiger. Mittelalterliche Mauern waren zur militärischen Verteidigung gegen Feuerwaffen zwar einigermaßen nutzlos, aber sie konnten das Einschleichen von Dieben und Gaunern verhindern.

Wenn Sie Jean Travenier — der junge Dieb in Ihrem Buch — gewesen wären, wie wären Sie der Justiz entkommen, nachdem Sie über die Burgmauer kletterten?

Tavernier – schön, dass Sie auf einen meiner Lieblingsverbrecher anspielen – hat eigentlich alles richtig gemacht, indem er sich so schnell wie möglich in ein anderes Territorium begeben hat. Die deutsche Kleinstaaterei war für Flüchtige eben ein echter Vorteil. Dass er doch gefasst wurde war reines Pech: Pech, dass er auf der Flucht gesehen wurde, Pech, dass die Stadt Schwäbisch Hall so schnell und gut mit den Grafen von Hohenlohe kooperierte und Pech, dass er über dem Wirtshaustisch eingeschlafen ist. Aber kein Wunder: er war an diesem Tag auch schon 30 Kilometer gelaufen. Ich hätte ihm die Flucht jedenfalls gegönnt.

Sie haben nach vier Monaten schon die erste Auflage ausverkauft….

Ja, das hat mich positiv überrascht. Offenbar ging mein Plan auf, durch regionalen Bezug, das Prinzip „Crime sells“ und eine etwas lockere, unakademische Sprache Sozial- und Alltagsgeschichte vermitteln zu können, ohne dass die Leute mit Grausen an ihren Geschichtsunterricht zurückdenken.

Planen Sie noch ein Buch?

Nur eines!? In meinem Kopf schwirrt ein halbes Bücherregal herum und im Hohenlohe-Zentralarchiv schlummern noch viele spannende Geschichten, die dringend mal wieder erzählt werden müssen. Das nächste Buch wird Mitte 2018 erscheinen und sich intensiv mit einem Mordfall beschäftigen, der sich 1777 in Langenburg zugetragen hat.

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The mysterious fate of Boston Corbett

What happened to the man who shot John Wilkes Booth?

Boston Corbett

Boston Corbett, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

One of the lingering mysteries of the Lincoln assassination concerns Boston Corbett, the man who shot John Wilkes Booth. In 1888, Corbett disappeared into thin air. Michael W. Kauffman, a Lincoln assassination scholar, joins us today with a guest post  on this strange and historical case. Kauffman wrote American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies and contributed a chapter to The Lincoln Assassination Riddle: Revisiting the Crime of the Nineteenth Century.

Welcome Michael W. Kauffman!

A historical disappearance

Boston Corbett’s disappearance is one of many mysteries connected to the Lincoln assassination, and it’s one that will probably never be solved. Corbett was last seen in the town of Neodesha, Kansas, where he had gone to visit a friend named Richard Thatcher, whom he had known when both were prisoners of war at Andersonville during the Civil War.

 Boston Corbett after the Civil War

Corbett had drifted from one job to another after the war, dogged by the feeling that he would fall victim to revenge at the hands of John Wilkes Booth’s friends. Celebrity hadn’t suited him well. After a brief and unsuccessful career as a lecturer, he became a minister of the gospel. He was probably a bit too intense for most parishioners, and before long he headed west and took up residence on a grant of land in Cloud County, Kansas. His behavior became increasingly erratic, and in time he came to be regarded as a public menace and a danger to society. But mindful of his status as a national hero, officials in Cloud County came up with a novel way of getting rid of Corbett while appearing to pay him an honor: they arranged to make him an assistant doorkeeper to the state legislature in Topeka! (Keep in mind, they did this because they considered him dangerous.)

Corbett lands in an asylum

It wasn’t long before Boston Corbett wore out his welcome in Topeka. He took offense to some remarks and drew his revolvers in the state house. The men in the white coats came to get him, and after a brief hearing, he was committed to the State Asylum for the Insane.

Apparently, Corbett felt the institution had little to offer, and he availed himself of the first opportunity to escape. He disappeared in short order, and made his way to Neodesha, in the southeast part of the state. There his old war buddy, Thatcher, extended a warm welcome and an invitation to stay a while. But after making some noises about heading for Mexico, Corbett disappeared into the wilderness, and as far as is known, he was never seen again.

Various theories about Boston Corbett

The western frontier was vast and forbidding, and it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what might have happened to Boston Corbett as he made his way south. Starvation, hostile Indians, marauders, and dangerous animals were only a few of the hazards any traveler would have to face in the Old West. Travelling alone was especially dangerous, and the odds of survival in the wilderness were extremely poor. Wild animals would have left little trace of anyone who died in such a vast expanse.

All of which is to say that it probably surprised no one when Corbett failed to materialize in Mexico or anywhere else in subsequent years. Though there were pretenders — most notably a patent medicine salesman in Enid, Oklahoma who was imprisoned for fraudulently claiming Corbett’s pension — the real Boston Corbett was never seen for certain again.

Great Hinckley Fire

But there were stories that suggested otherwise. In September of 1894, a forest fire consumed more than 200,000 acres around the town of Hinckley, Minnesota, and among the more than 400 fatalities was a man identified as Thomas Corbett. That was actually Boston Corbett’s given name, and it didn’t take long for rumors to take root about the death of Lincoln’s avenger in the Great Hinckley Fire. But in truth, this was never more than a rumor, based solely on the name of a man who seemed to be a stranger to the people of Hinckley. Attempts to connect that stranger to the killer of John Wilkes Booth have fallen flat for lack of evidence.

But as a wise old friend once told me, mysteries are a good thing. They give us something to talk about and to keep us interested. If you can supply all the answers, everyone will just get bored and move on to another topic. Nevertheless, if anyone can shed more light on the fate of Boston Corbett, I’d be delighted to hear about it.

Michael W. Kauffman

Author Michael W. Kauffman (Owings) has written a book about John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Assasination titled “American Brutus”. Photo by: J. Henson, courtesy of Michael Kauffman.

Thank you, Michael W. Kauffman!

Which theory do you think is most likely?

If you want to read more about the Lincoln assassination, check out my interview of Michael W. Kauffman.

Michael W. Kauffman also offered a blurb for the back cover of my book, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee:

Death of an Assassin is not only a startling historical discovery but a poignant tale of heroism and redemption. With a marvelous eye for detail, Ann Marie Ackermann has navigated through long-forgotten records on both sides of the Atlantic to unearth a new and complex kind of hero – a brutish, vengeful man who, perhaps out of remorse, was anxious to start a new life and redeem himself in his adopted home. It’s a great story, bolstered by solid research and told by one who is uniquely qualified to bring it to the public.

Click on the link above to order the book.

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