A German Murderer who died defending General Robert E. Lee

A book of history and mystery in Southern Germany was written by Ann Marie Ackerman, the award-winning author of “Death of an Assassin”. The book is about a true story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee (Kent State University Press, 2017). Ann-Marie is a former American prosecutor now living in Bönnigheim, Germany.

Guest blog by Author Ann Marie Ackermann

Cover Photo: Bönnigheim’s Historical Society’s reenactment of the murder at the original crime scene. (c) Boris Lehner, with permission.

“Kapper? Ton? Kamera? Los geht’s!” That’s what a German movie director calls out. Clapperboard? Sound? Camera? Action!

A young woman snapped the clapperboard, announcing the scene and take. Then an actor raised a 19th-century rifle to his shoulder. He took aim across the courtyard, where another actor in a black suit, carrying a lantern and adorned with a top hat, approached a door. The first actor fired. The rifle was loaded only with powder, but the shot reverberated through Bönnigheim’s town center. The second actor collapsed in mock pain, shouting in German. “Help! I’ve been shot!”

The German clapperboard used for the film on Bönnigheim’s murder. Ann Marie Ackermann

The German clapperboard used for the film on Bönnigheim's murder. Ann Marie Ackermann

It’s a dream of every author to have a book made into a film, even if it is a small production, like this one, for a museum. Perhaps it’s not so surprising my book got the honor, because there is nothing that makes history more interesting than a good murder mystery. In 1835, Bönnigheim’s mayor was gunned down one evening just four steps from his front door.

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Below Bönnigheim’s palace. The murder took place next door, but the palace archives held the corroborating evidence that convinced the prosecutor to close the case as solved 37 years later.

Bönnigheim’s palace by Ann Marie Ackermann

Bönnigheim's palace

The murderer bolted through the town’s labyrinth of allies, slipped though a break in the city wall, and eventually fled what was then the Kingdom of Württemberg for Philadelphia. The case smashed several criminal records. It became 19th-century Germany’s coldest case ever solved and its only murder ever solved in the United States.

The investigator was the first to ever use forensic ballistics to rule out a suspect weapon. The case also ties into American history, because the murderer died at Robert E. Lee’s feet during Lee’s first battle in the Mexican-American War. Lee wrote a letter home praising the murderer as a hero, but never named him. Research uncovered Lee’s hero was the long-sought assassin from Bönnigheim.

Perhaps the most amazing record of all was the reward for solving the murder, finally paid in 2018! Bönnigheim’s murder made international news that year when the mayor flew to the United States to pay the posthumous reward to the American tipster’s descendants. Although the city had issued a reward the day after the murder, it had never gotten paid in 1872, when a German immigrant in Washington, DC discovered who the murderer was and wrote a letter to Bönnigheim with the tip.

The prosecutor’s office had reopened the case, found evidence to corroborate the tip from America, and closed the case as solved. Although the murderer had since died in 1872, the reward was still valid. But due to a clerical error, it never got paid. The 2018 reward broke a world record for the oldest reward for solving a murder ever paid. Newspapers in the United States (including the Washington Post), Germany, Hungary, and Malaysia reported.

When Kent State University Press published my book about the murder in 2017, I started offering city crime scene tours in Bönnigheim to highlight the town’s unusual history. The tour is interactive. I’ll show the members a clue – there was a clump of deer hair at the crime scene – and ask the audience what that clue could have meant and how the detective analyzed it. The tour group takes a look at the crime scene and tries to figure out the murderer’s escape route.

Detail of the original crime scene sketch from 1835. The blue star shows the position of the murderer, the red star the victim, and the yellow star the sole eyewitness.

Original crime scene sketch from 1835. (c) Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg, E319 Bü 146, with permission

original crime scene sketch from 1835 Boenningheim

Usually they get it right. And together we look at the fine scratches left on a piece of buckshot that led to the world’s first forensic ballistics tests. By the time we cover the murder investigation, the Mexican-American War, and the tip from America, we’ve painlessly covered quite a lot of history.

One of the best clues in the case: Striations on a piece of buckshot led to the world’s first tests in forensic ballistics. The striations came from the rifling in a gun barrel, and through test shooting, the German investigator could rule out a suspect weapon.

Striations on a piece of buckshot (c) Martin Keim, with permission

Striations on a piece of buckshot

Bönnigheim’s Museum im Steinhaus has an exhibit about the murder this year, in 2020, that will open in June. Among the displays are period weapons showing different kinds of rifling that were pertinent to the world’s first forensic ballistics test, a comparison microscope on loan from Baden-Württemberg’s state police department, and a replica of a 19th-century “murder kit,” a tool case detectives used to bring to the scene of a crime. You can also view the film the museum produced.

Image of the 19th-century Austrian detective’s crime scene tool kit. Image credit: Historische Gesellschaft Bönnigheim, with permission.

 Image of the 19th-century Austrian detective's crime scene tool kit.

If you visit Germany, you can take part in this history. Bönnigheim is in the Neckar Valley between Heilbronn and Ludwigsburg and is well worth a visit. Ann Marie Ackermann lives there and will be offering museum and crime scene tours in both German and English. Let her know you are a reader of AngiesWeb.com and she will serve up one of Germany’s most unusual murder mysteries, and hopefully make history all the more interesting.

The German museum exhibition about the murder in her book will run from June 7 through October in the Museum im Steinhaus in Bönnigheim, Germany.  You can visit Ann-Marie Ackermann website and book a tour here: AnneMarieAckerman.com

Museum im Steinhaus, Meiereihof 7, 74357 Bönnigheim. Hours are 3 to 5 pm on Sunday’s starting June 7. Please bring your mask


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