Book Review: Death of an Assassin by Ann Marie Ackerman

For the second time in a year, I’ve had book encounters with 19th century European assassins who eventually fled to the United States and began new lives under different names. The first was Sergei Degaev, who assassinated the chief of Tsar Nicholas’s security organization in 1883. Sixteen years later he would become a popular professor at the University of South Dakota. Most recently I was introduced to a man who assassinated the mayor of Bönnigheim, Germany, in 1835. His potentially greater impact on U.S. history is explored in Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee.

Author Ann Marie Ackerman unravels a real life mystery. Not only is this an engaging piece of history, the former prosecutor uses an appendix to present the compelling evidence and reasoning behind her identification of a 19th century German murderer. Ackerman also makes a strong case that the initial investigation may have seen the first use of forensic ballistics as a law enforcement tool.

Death of an Assassin begins on the night of October 21, 1835, when the mayor of Bönnigheim, Germany, was shot just a few steps from his front door. The mayor did not see his assailant and died about 30 hours later. Using the original investigative file, Ackerman details the investigation, providing a rare look inside the techniques and legal standards of the time.

Despite a thorough investigation and examination of several potential suspects, the case was essentially closed without resolution in 1837. At some point, the actual assassin emigrated to the U.S. illegally. (Ackerman doesn’t identify him until approximately halfway through the book so his name isn’t used here.) In January 1840, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, then a force of only 7,000 men.

At the time of the assassination, Robert E. Lee was 28, a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. That same month, the Texas Revolution against Mexican rule began, eventually leading to the Mexican-American War a decade later. And, Ackerman maintains, that would bring Lee and the German assassin together during the siege of Veracruz in March 1847, Lee’s first battle experience.

In April 1847, Lee would write his 15-year-old son about his experiences. He described a soldier in a company protecting him and the battery he commanded during the bombardment of Veracruz. The soldier’s thigh was shattered by a Mexican cannonball and he lay in agony most of the day. When finally being borne off in a litter, he was killed by an incoming shell. “I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man,” Lee wrote. (It seems somewhat ironic that an account of Lee’s military activities more than a decade before the Civil War is released when the nation is debating Confederate statues.)

Currently living in Germany, Ackerman’s experience as a prosecutor in America shows through. Poor military record-keeping at the time forces her to say the assassin “probably” was the soldier mentioned in Lee’s letter. Yet she musters and builds a strong case for naming him. Although there are a few instances of repetition and the actual events surrounding the man’s death are muddied by time, Death of an Assassin is a cogent work.

In 1872, the assassin was identified, ironically, by a Bönnigheim resident who emigrated to the U.S. in 1836 after unfounded rumor said he killed the mayor. In a letter to authorities, he relayed that a friend told him that shortly after arriving in the U.S., the assassin admitted to killing the mayor for rejecting his application to be a game warden. While they were aware the killer died in combat in Mexico, it took Ackerman to make the connection to American history.

This one shot would rectify a lifetime of career frustrations.

Ann Marie Ackerman, Death of an Assassin

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