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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Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter connected to a record-breaking cold case


Robert E. Lee's mysterious letter

Detail of Robert E. Lee’s letter. Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers. (c) Virginia Historical Society, with permission.


A national mystery

The Virginia Historical Society inherited a national mystery in 1981. That’s when it obtained the deButts-Ely family papers. The collection contains Robert E. Lee correspondence, and among it, a surprising letter from the Siege of Veracruz. In that letter, Robert E. Lee praised an unknown hero. But no one suspected that man was an assassin – the perpetrator in a record-breaking German cold case.

Lee at the Siege of Veracruz

General Winfield Scott masterminded the siege in March 1847 as the opening gambit to his campaign in the Mexican-American War. While General Zachary Taylor remained in northern Mexico, far from the capital, Scott planned an amphibious landing near Veracruz. He wanted to capture the Mexican port city and then march inland, following Cortez’s route from centuries before, to sack Mexico City.

The Siege of Veracruz was Robert E. Lee’s first battle. He directed the fire at an onshore naval battery. A German company from Pennsylvania’s first regiment was assigned to defending it. Eight Americans died at the battery before the U.S. won the siege, and one of those deaths made a profound impression on Lee. On April 11, he put his feelings on paper in a letter to his son Custis:

Robert E. Lee’s mystery letter

There was one poor fellow that behaved nobly. His thigh was broke by a cannon ball & he was laid in a trench at the rear of the battery for security, the balls & shells were flying so thick that he could not be borne away. A bush was stuck over him to keep the sun out of his eyes & all that we could give him was occasionally a cup of bad warm water. The men at the guns were hot & thirsty & drank up the water as fast as it could be brought. It was at some distance & the balls swept over the field & at such a furious rate that the officers would not let the men go for water except when they could not do without it. There the poor fellow lay till evening; when they got a litter & was bearing him off, when a shell fell & burst & a fragment killed him. He laid the whole day with the balls & bombs flying over him without uttering a complaint. His sufferings must have been very great, for the battery kept up a constant & brisk firing & the concussion from the 32 [pounders] & Paixhan guns shook the whole ground & must have pained him terribly. I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man.*

This unknown hero has been a discussion point in the literature. Why would Robert E. Lee balance American military objectives against the life of one man and find them lacking?

But no one, until now, has asked who that man was.

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz

Naval battery at the Siege of Veracruz, ca. 1848. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

The unknown hero turns out to be a long-sought criminal

A careful comparison of the American casualty list against descriptions of the deaths at the naval battery in primary sources such as logbooks, letters, and a newspaper account from an embedded journalist all point to a German volunteer in the 1st Pennsylvania.

Robert E. Lee couldn’t have known the man’s background. It would have shocked him. The man was the assassin in a record-breaking German cold case – 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved and its only murder ever solved in the USA.

For the first time, Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee (Kent State University Press, September 1, 2017) brings these two stories together. It offers American history packaged in international true crime wrapping. You can order the book here on Amazon.

Next week we’ll look at the German case and the letter from America that provided the crucial clue.

Literature on point:

*Robert E. Lee to George Washington Custis Lee, 11 Apr. 1847, deButts-Ely family papers, Virginia Historical Society.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (New York: Penguin Books, 2009; discusses the letter on p. 173).

Bernice-Marie Yates, The Perfect Gentleman: The Life and Letters of George Washington Custis Lee, Vol. 1 (Xulon Press, 2003; discusses the letter on pp. 92-94).

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Little Lost Girl and the Civil War General


A young girl like this accidently found her way into the bed of a later Civil War general.

Morguefile free photos

There’s only one thing more disconcerting that waking up and hearing strange noises in the night. Waking up and finding a stranger in your bed is worse. Even if it’s only a small child.

One of my favorite anecdotes of any Civil War general deals precisely with that situation. Like many other Civil War generals, this one got his first taste of battle in the Mexican-American War. That war, fought between 1846 and 1848, was like a training ground for many of the West Point graduates. For a brief period of time, they all fought side by side, only to fight against each other thirteen years later.

The Civil War general was travelling on a steamer like this one.

Steamer, ca. 1852. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

It was in August 1846 when it happened. He was on his way to the war, travelling aboard a steamer. The passengers consisted of 66 mules, quartered in the “Ladies Saloon,” a young soldier’s wife journeying to the front to find her husband, her little daughter, and my general, who at that point was a captain. He and the soldier’s wife had neighboring cabins in a section of the boat labeled, in gold letters, “Ladies Private Apartments.” The sole three human passengers reached their cabins by passing under a sign “Gentlemen Not Admitted.” That the future general was allowed to sleep there was probably an exception to give more room to the mules.

Mules boarding a ship.

Mules boarding a ship over a passenger gangplank. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

One night, the little girl apparently used the head and wandered back to the wrong cabin.

The future general wrote about it in a letter to his family the following day. “I was dreaming of you all last night & thought [our] daughter was in the bed with me & I was wondering how she should be so small when lo & behold when I awoke in the morning and found it was little Agnes. But I did not see that precious Mildred [one of his daughters].”

Morguefile free photos.

Morguefile free photos.

There’s no additional information about little Agnes and her mother; they remain unidentified and lost to history. But I’ve often wondered if Agnes, who was probably a teenager during the Civil War, ever remembered the incident and realized she had spent half a night in the arms of the now-famous general.

Robert E. Lee, ca. 1846.

Robert E. Lee, ca. 1846. Library of Congress.

The general was Robert E. Lee, but it could have also been Ulysses S. Grant, Nathan Bedford Forrest, or George Gordon Meade for all it matters. The point is that none of those men were made of wax or marble; they were flesh and blood, like us. When they were at home, their children slept in their beds, and at least once, in the morning, one of them returned a lost, sleeping girl to her mother.

Literature on point

Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995) p. 113.

Robert E. Lee to Mary Custis Lee, August 13, 1846, Lee Family Papers, Mss1L51c50, Virginia Historical Society.

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Civil War Balloons: Five Fun Facts


Civil War balloons were used for reconnaisance.

Thaddeus Low in a reconnaisance balloon. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Spycraft rose to new levels during the Civil War. One of the most interesting innovations was ballooning. These five fun facts provide a brief introduction to what was then cutting edge military technology.

French ballooms preceeded Civil War balloons.

The French were the first to use military balloons. L’Entreprenant at the Battle of Fleurus (1794), public domain.

  • Civil War balloons were not the first balloons used for military reconnaissance. France created the Corp d’Aerostiers in 1794 to promote the use of wartime balloon reconnaissance. In the United States, Thaddeus Lowe developed balloons from a more durable material, won an army contract, and formed the Aeronautic Corps, forerunner of the U.S. Air Force. Lowe used portable hydrogen generator wagons to inflate his balloons.
Hydrogen wagon inflates a Civil War balloon.

A hydrogen wagon inflates a Civil War balloon. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

  • The Union Army was the first to combine ballooning with telegraph communications. That was Thaddeus Lowe’s brainchild. Balloons rose up to a thousand feet over the landscape, offering expanded vistas. Using binoculars and sometimes even telescopes for more accurate observation, ballooners observed troop movements, spotted artillery locations, and sketched maps. Troop size was estimated by counting tents. Since it wasn’t possible to shout urgent information down from that height, the balloonists used signal flags or telegraph lines to communication their observations to the ground. Sometimes the balloonists dropped handwritten notes, attached to bullets, overboard. Most Civil War balloons remained tethered to the ground. That facilitated air to ground communication.
Civil War balloons offered vistas like this one.

Aerial view of Washington, D.C. from a Civil War balloon. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

  • Confederates quickly developed countermeasures to frustrate Union aerial reconnaissance. During Lowe’s maiden military flight on August 29, 1861 over Arlington, they pointed their cannon skyward and baptized Lowe with artillery fire. That was our country’s first instance of ground to air artillery. There are no recorded instances of a balloon being shot down during the war on either side, however. The distances were probably too great for accurate fire. Confederates also created false impressions for Union airborne observers. They doused their campfires and created fake artillery by painting logs black and posing them as cannon.
Launching the Intrepid.

Launching the Intrepid, one of Lowe’s balloons. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

  • The South used balloons too. During the Seven Days Campaign, for instance, Confederate reconnaissance balloons hovered over the countryside surrounding Richmond. Robert E. Lee ordered Edward Porter Alexander to observe Union movements, for which Alexander used a balloon. Lee’s balloons were inflated with hydrogen. Johnston used a hot air balloon. I haven’t been able to find a photograph of a Confederate balloon, and if anyone knows of one, please comment and provide a source!
Ships were used to launch Civil War balloons.

The Washington rising from the deck of the George Washington Park Custis. Wikipedia, public domain.

  • Both sides launched balloons from ships: the North from the George Washington Parke Custis and the South from the CSS Teaser. Those ships were our country’s first aircraft carriers.

Have you ever taken a balloon ride? How well could you observe the ground?

Literature on point:

Civil War Trust, Civil War Ballooning

Steven D. Culpepper, “Balloons of the Civil War.” Master’s thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1994.

Howard Brinkley, Spies of the Civil War: The History of Espioage in the Civil War (Bookcaps, 2012).


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How Frederick the Great’s Sword Helped Spark the Civil War

This is not Frederick the Great's sword, but a Civil War era Klingenthal sword.

This is not Frederick the Great’s sword, but a Civil War era Klingenthal sword.

More than any other event, it was John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry that lit the fuse of North-South tension and ignited the Civil War. Brown planned the raid for two years in advance, so it was no mistake that the first thing he did when he crossed into Virginia was to send a detachment to steal a sword and kidnap its owner. It wasn’t just any old sword. It was – purportedly – the sword of the Prussian monarch Frederick the Great.

Legend of the Sword

Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great (standing) before the Battle of Torgau (1791) by Bernhard Rode, public domain.

The story of why Frederick the Great’s sword fascinated John Brown is a story of the symbolism in the raid. And that symbolism helped establish Brown’s reputation as a martyr.

Lewis Washington

Lewis Washington, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain.

Brown’s preparations for the raid included sending an advance man, John Edwin Cook, as a spy. Cook moved to Harpers Ferry over a year in advance. He blended in well and even married a local girl. One interesting tidbit Cook passed on to Brown had to do with a sword once belonging to Frederick the Great and two pistols once belonging to General Lafayette. Col. Lewis W. Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington, had inherited them and lived only four miles from Harpers Ferry. Frederick the Great had reputedly sent the sword to Washington in 1780 with a note: “From the oldest General in the world to the Greatest.”

John Brown Steals Frederick the Great’s Sword

John Brown. LOC LC-USZ62-89569

John Brown, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Brown’s raiders kidnapped Washington in the middle of the night and delivered him by carriage, along with the sword and pistols, to the U.S. armory in Harpers Ferry, now under John Brown’s command. Brown kept Washington hostage in the armory’s fire engine house and wore Frederick’s sword during the following standoff. Robert E. Lee, appointed to command the U.S. troops from Fr. Monroe present in Harpers Ferry, successfully recaptured the armory.

Harpers Ferry

View over the historical Civil War town of Harpers Ferry, a National Park owned town, by the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, by Steve Heap, Shutterstock.com

Brown was injured and captured. Carrying Frederick’s sword might have helped save his life. When a U.S. Army lieutenant tried to strike Brown with a saber, something under Brown’s shirt deflected the blow. That something is thought to be the buckle for the belt carrying the sword. Brown, according to one source, surrendered Frederick’s sword and Lafayette’s pistols to a black man, Osborn Perry Anderson, a freeborn Pennsylvanian who had joined Brown on the raid. They were eventually returned to Washington.

Had Brown been killed immediately, he may not have become a national martyr. His stoicism in face of the death penalty is one of the things that changed him, in the eyes of the North, from an abolitionist who had gone too far to a national saint.

Why the sword? And why the pistols?

The Sword in Symbolism

Lewis Washington as a captive in Harpers Ferry.

Harper’s Ferry insurrection – Interior of the Engine-House, just before the gate is broken down by the storming party – Col. Washington and his associates as captives, held by Brown as hostages. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, 1859; public domain.

John Brown planned the raid on Harpers Ferry not only on a tactical level, but also a symbolic one. Symbolism was already reflected in his selection of the date for his raid: July 4, 1859. Only because he couldn’t amass enough men and materials by Independence Day did Brown postpone the raid to October 16.

George Washington & Lafayette at Valley Forge

Washington & Lafayette at Valley Forge, public domain.

Historians today doubt whether Frederick really gave Washington a sword. It’s impossible to determine the origins of the sword because it was severely damaged in a fire in 1911. But the point is moot, because the people of the era believed it really was Frederick the Great’s sword and the role it played was symbolic. Brown had planned from the beginning to place those national heirlooms in the hands of a black man as a symbol of racial justice.

Literature on point:

Michael Korda: Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (Harper, 2014)

Peggy A. Russo & Paul Finkelman, eds. Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press 2005)

United States Department of the Interior; National Park Service. National Registers of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for Beall-Air (Jefferson County, West Virginia) 1973.

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