A Parting Kiss

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:B%C3%A9la_Kiss.jpg

In December 1912 Hungarian tinsmith Béla Kiss told his neighbors that his wife had run off with another man. At the same time he began collecting large metal drums, telling the town constable that he planned to stockpile gasoline against the approaching war in Europe.

In November 1914 Kiss was drafted and left for the front, and in 1916 he was declared dead in combat. When soldiers visited the town that June in search of gasoline, the constable directed them to the dead man’s drums. On opening these they found that each contained not gasoline but the body of a nude woman, strangled and pickled in alcohol. A search of the house showed that Kiss had been luring women using newspaper advertisements in the name of Hoffmann, a “lonely widower seeking female companionship.”

In the surrounding countryside authorities found 17 more drums, each containing a corpse. Among them were Kiss’ wife and her lover.

It got worse. In 1919 Kiss was spotted near the Margaret Bridge in Budapest, and police discovered that the Béla Kiss who had been reported dead was in fact another man. In 1924 a deserter from the French Foreign Legion told of a legionnaire named Hoffmann who matched Kiss’ description and boasted of his skill with a garotte. But this Hoffmann himself deserted before police could apprehend him.

In 1932 New York detective Henry “Camera Eye” Oswald, who was renowned for remembering faces, insisted that he had seen Kiss emerge from the subway in Times Square, but crowds had prevented him from reaching him. Kiss was never apprehended, and his final fate is unknown.

False Confessions

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After the Great Fire of London, a French watchmaker named Robert Hubert confessed to having started the blaze in Westminster. When he learned that the fire had never reached Westminster, he claimed to have thrown a fire grenade into a bakery window in Pudding Lane. It turned out that the bakery had no windows, Hubert was too crippled to have thrown a grenade anyway, and in fact he hadn’t even arrived in London until two days after the fire had started. He was convicted and hanged anyway.

Related: In 1797, the crew of the frigate Hermione mutinied and killed the cruel captain Hugh Pigot. An Admiralty official later reported, “In my own experience I have known, on separate occasions, more than six sailors who voluntarily confessed to having struck the first blow at Captain Pigot. These men detailed all the horrid circumstances of the mutiny with extreme minuteness and perfect accuracy; nevertheless, not one of them had ever been in the ship, nor had so much as seen Captain Pigot in their lives. They had obtained, by tradition, from their messmates the particulars of the story. When long on a foreign station, hungering and thirsting for home, their minds became enfeebled; at length they actually believed themselves guilty of the crime over which they had so long brooded, and submitted, with a gloomy pleasure to being sent to England in irons for judgment. At the Admiralty we were always able to detect and establish their innocence, in defiance of their own solemn asseverations.”

From Southwood Smith, “Lectures on Forensic Medicine,” in the London Medical Gazette, Jan. 20, 1838. See also The Campden Wonder.

Planning Ahead

Excerpts from the diary of 16-year-old Pauline Parker of Christchurch, New Zealand, 1954:

February 13th: Why could not mother die? Dozens of people, thousands of people are dying every day. So why not mother, and father too? Life is hard.
April 25th: Deborah [her 15-year-old friend Juliet Hulme] and I are sticking to one thing. We sink or swim together.
April 28th: Anger against mother boiled up inside me. It is she who is one of the main obstacles in my path. Suddenly a means of ridding myself of the obstacle occurred to me. If she were to die …
April 29th: I did not tell Deborah of my plans for removing mother. The last fate I wish to meet is one in a Borstal. I am trying to think of some way. I want it to appear either a natural or an accidental death.
June 6: We are both stark, staring mad.
June 19th: We practically finished our books today and our main “ike” for the day was to moider mother. This notion is not a new one, but this time it is a definite plan which we intend to carry out. We have worked it out carefully and are both thrilled by the idea. Naturally we feel a trifle nervous, but the pleasure of anticipation is great.
June 20th: We discussed our plans for moidering mother and made them a little clearer. Peculiarly enough, I have no qualms of conscience (or is it peculiar we are so mad?).
June 21st: I rose early and helped mother vigorously this morning. Deborah rang and we decided to use a brick in a stocking rather than a sand-bag. We discussed the moider fully. I feel keyed up as if I was planning a surprise party. Mother has fallen in with everything beautifully and the happy event is to take place tomorrow afternoon. So next time I write in the diary mother will be dead. How odd, yet how pleasing.

On the afternoon of June 22, Parker and Hulme ran into a Christchurch tea shop, crying that Parker’s mother had tripped on a plank and hit her head on a brick. “Mummy’s been hurt terribly,” Parker said. “I think she’s dead.” Police found the body of 45-year-old Honora Mary Parker on a secluded path in nearby Victoria Park. An autopsy found “forty-five discernible injuries, twenty-four being lacerated wounds on the face and head.” Parker quickly confessed under questioning:

Q: Who assaulted your mother?
A: I did.
Q: Why?
A: If you don’t mind I won’t answer that question.
Q: When did you make up your mind to kill your mother?
A: A few days ago …
Q: What did your mother say when you struck her?
A: I would rather not answer that.
Q: How often did you hit her?
A: I don’t know, but a great many times I imagine.

It transpired that Hulme’s father had planned to take Juliet to South Africa, and both girls knew that Mrs. Parker would refuse to let Pauline go with her. “These girls are not incurably insane,” the prosecutor told the jury. “They are incurably bad.” They were sentenced to five years in separate prisons.

The Easy Way

Ludwig Schlekat bought a bank with its own money. Over the course of 17 years, starting in 1936, he embezzled $600,000 from the Parnassus National Bank of New Kensington, Pa. Then he invented two fictional investors and arranged for them to buy the bank and make him president.

In his new position he earned $800 a month, four times the salary he’d been getting as a teller. He bought a $19,500 home, $13,000 in furnishings, and a $1,000 diamond for his wife. When regulators pounced on these he resisted, saying they’d been bought with earned rather than stolen money. He went to jail for 10 years.

Crime Does Not Pay

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In 1799, the English cutter Sparrow intercepted the brig Nancy in the Caribbean. The area was forbidden to American ships, but the Nancy’s captain, Thomas Briggs, produced papers claiming she was owned by a Dutchman. Suspecting a smuggler but lacking evidence, the Sparrow’s captain sent Briggs to Jamaica to have his case heard by the vice-admiralty.

Two days later, another English ship, the Ferret, caught a large shark near the coast of Haiti. In its belly were the papers of the American ship Nancy — which Briggs had thrown overboard before getting false Dutch papers in Curaçao.

The “shark papers” were produced in court, and the Nancy and her cargo were confiscated.

Minor Theft

https://www.google.com/patents/US5079541

In 1955 Carolyn Wharton became the youngest person ever kidnapped — 29 minutes after she was born, she was abducted from the Baptist Hospital in Beaumont, Texas, by a woman disguised as a nurse.

This might have saved her — in 1992 Thomas Moody proposed adding anti-theft devices to hospital baby diapers. The diapers would bear a distinctive pattern so that any attempt to remove or replace them would be spotted by hospital workers.

“In addition to sounding an alarm, the system may be coupled to the doors or elevators of the secure area to prevent egress by would-be abductors or to other security measures such as television recorders.”

Lending a Hand

http://books.google.com/books?id=aswXAQAAMAAJ

The tricks by which a shop-lifter succeeds in plying her profession without being caught are many and ingenious. The most successful of all tricks is the false arm and hand, shown in one of the illustrations. While the shop-lifter’s hands are apparently in sight of the store clerks, one is at work stowing away articles. The false hand is, of course, gloved and thrust through one of the sleeves. The real hand works under cover of the bodice and coat. The second illustration shows one of the pockets in which stolen articles are secreted.

Popular Mechanics, September 1908

Victimized

As he enters the room, he knows what awaits him. Resistance is useless. He cannot escape; there are simply too many of them, and there is nowhere to hide anyway. Hands take hold of him and strap him tightly. Now he cannot move. They have total control over him. They set to work quickly, efficiently, and without malice. They follow a strict protocol, their actions being exquisitely coordinated toward a single end. They begin to kill him, deliberately and methodically. This is not their first time to take life. They make no attempt to conceal their intentions or their actions. On the contrary, they do everything in public, before an audience who watch as his life ebbs away.

“If premeditation is central to the handling of homicide, this killing ought to evoke considerable severity. But it does not,” write University of Georgia sociologist Mark Cooney. “In fact, the law tolerates it, and some people even praise it highly. The words ‘homicide’ and ‘killing’ are rarely used to describe it. Instead it goes by another name: ‘capital punishment.'”

(From Cooney’s 2009 book Is Killing Wrong?)

Stick Up

http://www.google.com/patents/US292389

John Van Zandt’s “combined cane and burglar alarm,” patented in 1884, is low-tech but effective: The head contains a percussion cap, and the ferrule contains a spring clamp.

“The operation is as follows: The occupant of the room simply takes the cane and suspends the same over the top of the door, as hereinbefore explained. On the door being slightly opened the support for the cane is released, whereupon the cane drops and, striking the floor, explodes the cap, thus frightening away the thief and arousing the occupant of the room.”

Pandora’s Divorce

In June 1946, 44-year-old Fern Bowden filed for divorce from her husband James, charging him with “cruel and inhuman treatment” and asking $100 a month to support their two teenage daughters. James filed an answer denying the charges and accusing his wife of keeping company with other men while he had been in Alaska on war business.

In mid-July, James began working with a small trunk which he kept locked in the basement of their Oregon home. He refused to tell the family what it contained but warned them repeatedly not to try to open it; when the girls came upon their father working on it he shouted at them to get out. Only he and their mother, he said, had the padlock combination.

On July 27, alone at home, Fern opened the box. “The cellar of the Bowden residence was wrecked by the explosion,” reported the Associated Press. “Small pieces of flesh and bone found scattered throughout the shattered parts of the home have been identified by the police criminal laboratory as human.”

Detectives determined that the trunk had contained six sticks of dynamite rigged with tacks, wire, and a small battery.

James was charged with illegal possession of explosives and first-degree murder.