Thriller writers are always looking for inspiration, and what better source of crime than the annals of history? Author Andrea Maria Schenkel knows this better than most. Her new novel, Ice Cold, revisits a terrible crime that took place in 1930s Munich. Below, she does aspiring writers a favor by recounting six real-life murders that could inspire the best true crime books.
Wano De Grier Walsh
Wano De Grier Walsh and her husband, Edward DeWitt Walsh, were hosting a dinner party in Montclair, New Jersey in November 1903 when Mrs. Walsh suddenly reported feeling ill. Her husband carried her upstairs, and shortly after he returned, the sound of a handgun rang through the house. The guests and Mr. Walsh ran upstairs to find Mrs. Walsh dead—shot through the heart. While ruled a suicide, her death is surrounded by mystery. The New York Times reported that she had been “in excellent spirits all through the dinner and was quite the life of the little gathering.” Moreover, her death was not reported to police until two hours after the gunshot was heard.
Rothstein was the mastermind behind the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal in which several players from the heavily favored Chicago White Sox took money from gamblers to intentionally throw games in the World Series. Nine years later, Rothstein was shot and mortally wounded at the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan. On his deathbed, he refused to identify his killer. A Rothstein-like character briefly appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” but a book-length fictional look at this early 20th-century gambler would undoubtedly be a grand slam.
There is an eponymous character on the popular television show “Boardwalk Empire” nicknamed “The Big Bankroll”—based on the real Rothstein and played by Michael Stuhlbarg.
An engraving of James A. Garfield’s assassination, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
President James Garfield
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln has long been of interest to fiction and non-fiction writers alike. But the killing of the United States’s 20th president, James Garfield, offers ample material for a crime novel. The Ohio native, who served less than a year, was shot in early July of 1861 in the presence of his secretary of war—and Lincoln’s son—Robert Todd Lincoln. Garfield died two and a half months later, most likely due to poor medical treatment, and only after inventor Alexander Graham Bell worked feverishly to devise a metal detector in a futile attempt to locate the bullet.
Left: 1968 newspaper article about “Bible John” victim Patricia Docker. Right: Artist’s rendering of “Bible John”
In the late 1960s, three women were murdered after spending the evening in Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom. The sister of one of the victims reported that a man seen with her sibling called himself “John” and quoted from the Bible, thus earning his nickname. As with Jack the Ripper in the 19th century, many have claimed the identity of “Bible John,” but the killings have never been solved.
Christa Lehmann in court (Corbis)
In the 1950s in southwestern Germany, Lehmann’s husband, who suffered from stomach ulcers, and father, who suffered from heart failure, appeared to die of natural causes about a year apart. The following year a friend of Lehmann’s died after ingesting liqueur-filled chocolate-covered mushrooms that Lehmann had brought home. When police discovered that the treat had been laced with poison, they exhumed the bodies of Lehmann’s spouse and father—whose bodies showed traces of the exact same toxic material. Given the police’s tardy discovery of these crimes, one wonders: whom else did Lehmann know, and did she kill them, too?
Hugo Betthauer and Otto Rothstock
What happens when a writer of numerous detective novels becomes the victim? Such was the fate of Hugo Betthauer, who was murdered in Vienna by a member of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in 1925. The motives of the killer, Otto Rothstock, remain unclear. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, three years earlier Betthauer penned “The City without Jews,” a satirical—but prophetic—look at anti-Semitism in the 1920s.
Andrea Maria Schenkel lives with her family near Regensburg in Bavaria, Germany. On publication in Germany, her first novel, The Murder Farm, won the German Crime Prize as well as the Friedrich-Glauser Prize. Her second novel, Ice Cold, will be published on June 2nd.