GUEST BLOGGER ANN MARIE ACKERMANN DISHES ON DIGGING UP THE TRUTH ABOUT A DOWNRIGHT BIZARRE COLD CASE
Ann Marie Ackermann and I became friends after the publication of my first book, A Lady
in the Smoke, which was based on the true- crime railway frauds in the 1870s in England. Her book Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee is more true crime and won an Independent Publisher Award (2018).
If you or someone you know likes true crime history that is very well-researched but still accessible—books such as Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann or Eric Larson’s Devil in the White City—check out this one.
Ann Marie graciously agreed to reminisce about where her research and writing process began. Here is her post:
Police, Buckshot, and a Dip in the Archives
I swear to God, I never expected to call the police the day I visited the state archives. Of course that could have happened if I’d discovered a theft there. Thieves have been known to pilfer stamps and rare documents. But in my case, I was elbow-deep in archival dust and found notes to the file in an 1835 murder investigation that made me pick up the phone. What would you do if you found evidence that rewrote police history?
What originally sent me packing for the archives was an entry in the diary of a 19th-century German forester, in which he described the 1835 assassination of a mayor in my German town and how a letter from Washington, DC solved the case in 1872. That shocked me. I used to work as a prosecutor in America and I knew that a 37-year time span for solving a cold case was extraordinary. Back in the 1800s, before the advent of DNA, the case had probably smashed criminal records. That case was a story that hadn’t been told and I hoped my archival research could form the basis of a journal article.
But then I found the notes in the police file. They shocked me even more.
A magistrate named Eduard Hammer had written this in November 1835:
[The] buckshot found in the corpse [have] dented sides and scratches [that the consulting gunsmith thinks] came from the lead rubbing against the rifling in the barrel.
The gunsmith … concluded that the scratches visible on the buckshot in the body were probably indentations from the barrel of a rifle with so-called fine grooving.
Fine grooves, called microgrooves today, made for a super clue. Most rifles have 6-8 grooving, but a rifle with microgrooves have 15-20 or even more thinly spaced, spiral-formed grooves. In 1835, they were rare. So the investigator gathered all the firearms in town – 48 in all – and inspected the barrels. Solving the case might have been as simple as identifying which had rifling with fine grooving. It almost worked. One rifle out of the 48 had the same kind of grooving as the murder weapon. But had someone really used it to shoot the mayor?
Then I read one doozy of a note in the file, the one that made me pick up the phone and call the police:
At this point, we document that several shots were fired from the suspect weapon with buckshot and birdshot; the buckshot and birdshot, fired into a sack with sawdust 2 feet long and 1 ½ feet thick, were collected, but the same impressions in the scratches that were on the shot from the body could not be detected. The gunsmith provided an expert opinion that one could not conclude that the buckshot found in the body came from the suspect weapon. The shot fired from the suspect weapon did not have such sharp impressions as those found on the shot from the body.
Holy sack of straw! (All right, all right, that’s what Germans say when they’re surprised.) That note looked, sounded, and smelled like forensic ballistics. The only problem was that forensic ballistics supposedly hadn’t been invented yet. Not for another half century.
It has been a truth universally acknowledged that Alexandre Lacassagne, a French pathologist, invented forensic ballistics in 1888, when he dissected a bullet out of a body on autopsy and discovered that the number of scratches or “striations” on the bullet (seven) corresponded to the number of lands and grooves in the barrel of the suspect’s pistol (also seven).
But here I was, reading Hammer’s note to the file that he had done essentially the same thing to eliminate a suspect weapon. And that was 53 years before Lacassagne!
My original plan to publish an article in a history journal dissolved with two archival discoveries. Both of them screamed, “Book! Book! This is worthy of a book!” One was that Robert E. Lee, during his first battle at the Siege of Veracruz in the Mexican-American War, wrote a letter about the murderer and praised him as a hero. But Lee couldn’t have known his hero was a long-sought criminal from Europe.
The other was this one, Hammer’s note. Hammer’s description of his investigative technique promised to move the birthplace of forensic ballistics from France to Germany. On the basis of his ballistic analysis, Hammer struck the rifle’s owner from his suspect list. He might have been the first documented person in history to use the technique, and the first to eliminate a suspect weapon based on ballistic testing.
So I called the state police laboratory in Stuttgart and talked to Volker Schäfer, the weapons expert there. He was surprised to hear about Hammer because no known investigator had used forensic ballistics before Lacassagne.
This is where my historical research really got fun. Schäfer invited me to the state crime lab. If we wanted to prove Hammer was right, he said, we needed to recreate the murder in the laboratory. Schäfer found a 19th-century pistol with microgooving. He loaded it with several loads of buckshot and birdshot -- the same mixture used to shoot the mayor -- and fired into a water tank. With a long-handled net, he scooped the shot out from the other end of the tank and popped it under his microscope. There, glaring at me through the lens, were the scratches Hammer wrote about. They would have sufficed to make Hammer draw his conclusions, Schäfer said.
My discoveries in the case led to a book contract with Kent State University Press and a book award in 2018. When the Silberburg publishing house in Germany published the German translation of my book this year, Ralf Michelfelder, the chief of the Baden-Württemberg state police, wrote the foreword. Hammer prefigured Lacassagne, he wrote. It was Hammer, not Lacassagne, who invented forensic ballistics.
So this case really did rewrite criminal history. Now I have the police, some buckshot, and archival material to back up my claim. A museum in Bönnigheim, Germany hosting an exhibition on the birth of forensic ballistics this year, but the opening date has been indefinitely postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. If you happen to visit southern Germany in 2020 or 2021, contact me via my website, and I can give you more definite information. I can also offer you a museum tour in English.
Ann Marie Ackermann is a former prosecutor from Washington State now living in Germany, where she wrote the award-winning historical true crime Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee (Kent State University Press, 2017). She blogs about historical true crime as well.
Karen Odden is the author of bestselling novel A Lady in the Smoke, the award-winning A Dangerous Duet, and A Trace of Deceit (Dec 2019).