Birds, Bullets, and a Bad Guy
A crime historian uncovers origins of ballistics with a link to Robert E. Lee.
Posted Aug 24, 2017
Recently in the news, we’ve been reminded of General Robert E. Lee’s role in the Civil War. Whether or not we should keep statues to him that represent the cause for which he fought, there’s no question that he has a significant place in history.
But I’m not going to address Lee’s role in the Civil War. I’m more interested in a true crime incident that had an association with Lee during the Mexican-American War. It features a German man who fled his homeland to escape prosecution for the murder of the mayor of Bönnigheim in 1835. He ended up in the same place as Lee during his first battle. This man, just one of many soldiers there, made such a distinct impression on Lee that he mentioned him in a letter.
As Lee watched this member of the Pennsylvania Volunteers suffer from a serious wound, it gave him a stark perspective on war. And this same person turned out to be the solution to a cold case that had perplexed Bönnigheim for nearly four decades. In fact, it was the oldest cold case ever to be solved in nineteenth-century Germany, and the man who finally accomplished this was himself an initial suspect.
This strange tale is the subject of Ann Marie Ackerman’s meticulously researched and poetically told account, Death of an Assassin. It takes a true crime historian to track down such an obscure incident and grasp its significance. It takes a true storyteller to convey it with skillfully drawn suspense. I asked her how she knew about it, and this, too, is an interesting tale.
“I first found out about this case,” said Ackerman, “while researching the birdlife in my German town. I was writing an article for the historical society and the chair gave me a 19th-century diary from a local forester. He thought the forester might have mentioned birds. He did, but he also talked about having helped solve a 37-year-old murder case. The solution came from America, and he found the crucial corroborating evidence in the forestry archives.
“I used to practice criminal law in the US and was immediately struck by how odd this case was. In the 19th century, and especially before the advent of DNA testing, murder cases were usually solved within several weeks or not at all. Thirty-seven years was a record-breaker for 19th-century Germany. And that piqued my curiosity enough to start tracking the murderer through the archives. He fled to America. But when I started the research, I didn't yet know that Robert E. Lee had written a letter about him.”
That’s what makes this book so readable. The way a figure like Lee crossed paths with a German immigrant who inspired a notation in one of Lee’s letters is a remarkably twisted tale. Just as interesting is how Ackerman found resources to fully support the facts.
The hardest part about the research, she said, was learning to read the old German handwriting in the German archives. “It's Gothic and the letters are all different. I used some study books to help me and the archivists were incredibly helpful, and eventually I got to the point where I could read the texts. It was also hard to straddle research on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. I did travel to the US twice in the course of my research to read material in German housed at the Pennsylvania German Society. I also hired a talented archivist in Washington, DC who was a genius in turning up material at the National Archives.”
In addition to the Robert E. Lee angle, Ackerman found that, contrary to current accounts about the birth of forensic ballistics, this case beats that date by several decades.
In France in 1888, Alexandre Lacassagne, a pathologist and professor of medicine at the University of Lyon, had removed a bullet from a homicide victim during an autopsy. On the projectile's surface, he’d noticed seven longitudinal grooves. He’d examined the barrels of pistols that belonged to suspects, and by matching the grooves to the barrel, he identified the one he believed had been used – the only one that could have made seven grooves. Its owner was convicted.
Yet German magistrate Eduard Hammer, who investigated the mayor’s murder in 1835, had used a similar approach. Collecting 48 firearms, he examined striations and managed to eliminate a suspect. It wasn’t a case-resolving discovery like Lacassagne’s, but the technique was in place well before Lacassagne used it.
Having written Beating the Devil’s Game, a history of forensic science, I enjoy seeing crime historians add new chapters and correct official accounts. With this book, Ackerman establishes her place in this field. I look forward to seeing what she produces next.
Ackerman, A. M. Death of an assassin: The true story of the German murderer who died defending Robert E. Lee. Kent, OH: Kent State Press.