Tag Archive for bomb

Scent of a Man

Bloodhound on the scent

Expert testimony in a criminal case is almost to be expected these days. We’ve all heard about the alleged “CSI Effect” where juries have been unwilling to convict because there wasn’t some sort of scientific evidence to link the defendant conclusively to the crime.
 
This is not new in the American criminal justice system, as the case of Nick Grba, a convicted murderer, attests. Courts have struggled with invisible evidence for a long, long time.
 
Grba blew up his rival with a couple of sticks of dynamite and was caught thanks to the hard work of Gyp and Pansy, a pair of pure-bred bloodhounds. Unfortunately, the Iowa Supreme Court was unimpressed with their efforts and issued a ruling that remained the law of Iowa for more than 70 years.
 
Mike Baldizer, a native of an eastern European country that doesn’t even exist anymore, drove a cab in Mason City, Iowa, where he lived with his wife, Anna.
 
In the early morning hours of August 21, 1920, Mike returned from carting a fare and parked his car in his garage. Within seconds of his arrival, the garage exploded and Mike was severely injured. He languished for a couple of days, but on August 24, he died.
 
Police arrived shortly after the building exploded and found wires leading from the garage to a spot about 30 yards away.
 
In the darkness, they sealed off the area and waited for daylight. When dawn broke, it was apparent that someone had laid in wait near Mike’s home waiting to set off the charges. The police called for a bloodhound team from Waterloo and at 2 p.m. on August 21, Gyp and Pansy and their handler arrived to see if a scent could be found.
 
At first, the dogs appeared to be going in circles. They followed a course around the garage toward the cabin where Mike and Anna lived, and then back to the end of the wires where they had started. The next time, the bloodhounds picked up a scent and headed down a street about 100 feet away, the team crossed a ditch and then ran across some railroad tracks to the main plant of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company. At the plant, the dogs headed toward some clay pits, and stopped at a steam shovel, where Nick Grba had left some clothing.
 
The police had not been simply waiting on the dogs to make an arrest. In fact, shortly after the explosion, Nick Grba had been arrested based on his threats and conversations he had with Anna Baldizer — with whom he was carrying on an illicit affair.
 
The 24-year-old Serbian immigrant had come to Mason City in 1909 and had lived across from the Baldizers for about a year. He and Anna, 30, began their affair after Grba told Anna that he could not live without her. He begged her to leave with him, but she refused.
 
Rejected, Grba threatened his former lover.
 
“Well, Anna, if you don’t listen to me, you won’t go farther with me, you will feel sorry about it,” he said, according to Anna. “You will shed tears. You will cry plenty.”
 
A witness also placed Grba at the scene of the crime the night it happened, for Grba had apparently stopped by the Baldizer’s home to fill a jug of water.
 
The police investigation also turned up other evidence that Grba was the bomber. A few days before the explosion, Grba was looking for wire and fuses to “blow up a rock.”
 
“You can get it for me,” Grba said. “There won’t anybody know anything about it.” (sic)
 
On August 19, another witness told police, Grba approached him to get “electric dynamite caps.” Earlier in the week, Grba bought a pound of blasting powder, which he returned and bought electric dynamite caps. Three days before Mike was blown up, Grba bought “three or four” sticks of dynamite and blasting caps, telling the sales clerk that he wanted to blow up some stumps. That same day, he bought 60 feet of insulated wire and a pair of dry-cell batteries.
 
Two or three days before the explosion, Grba apparently tried a test run. An explosion was heard in the clay pits where Grba worked, and he told questioners that he had blown up some fish in a pond there.
 
The bulk of the state’s case, however, was the testimony of the anonymous fireman from Waterloo who owned Gyp and Pansy, the bloodhounds who helped confirm the police’s theory of the crime.
 
His testimony gives a fascinating look at how bloodhounds work, and it’s worth repeating at length:
 

Since being engaged in raising and training bloodhounds, I have trained a great many dogs. It would be pretty hard to say just how many, but I would be safe in saying, hundreds of them. These dogs have been trained to follow nothing but just the human trail. The dog is better when he is trained to just trail one thing.
When I first start a young dog out, we take him and I take my boy, a young lad of 8 years old, and let him feed the pups and take the pup’s feed–take the pup out and let the boy show the pup his food, and then start and go out of the pup’s sight as quick as he can. Well, then, the puppy is hungry, and he will want to go to the boy because he knows he has got the food there for him, and when he goes to where he saw the boy last, the only way the dog has of finding the boy is to use his nose and to find him. Well, after the dog will do that, take him in the morning, and every time he feeds him, make the dog make his nose earn his feed; and after a few days of that, just take the boy out and let him stand by a tree, or any place, and mark the place on the ground to know where he was, and take the pup over and tell him to smell of that spot, and then go find him.
The dog will go ahead and follow the trail until he gets to where the young fellow is, and then the young lad will feed him; and I do that and keep on doing that, and try him on some girl or my wife or some of the neighbor’s children; and after the dog has had a week or so of that kind of trailing, then we take the dog and change him over onto different trails, and keep making the trails a little more difficult and a little longer and a little older.
If the trail is — say the dog runs a 5-hour trail this morning — if he falls down on it or is slow, the next trail in the afternoon is a 5-hour trail for him to run, and keep him on that until he is used to that old scent, and then keep drawing it longer and stretching it out until your dog will run what we call an overnight trial — that is, a trail made one night and run in the morning…
Then have a man make a trail on the road, and have a rig to get into, and go and get off at a certain place that we know where he gets off, and we trail him with the dogs to this spot where the dogs lose the trail, and let the dogs work all around, and then take the dog in the car and take him close to where this man has hit the ground again, and begin circling around until he crosses this trail, and when he hits that trail, he will beller and go on.
They will just come up to a man and smell him all over. When they are on the trail, they give tongue. When a dog is off the trail and running around, he runs mute, and when he strikes the trail, he bellers; he will bawl and go on.
Some dogs are trained so that, when they locate their man, they are fierce; while others show a friendly spirit. My dogs are trained peaceable.

The fireman was brought in the afternoon after the blast to see if his dogs couldn’t find a trail or scent at the edge of the wires.
 
“I walked out to the end of the wire, and I could see plainly where a man had been lying down,” he said. “I took both dogs and led them out to the end of the wire, and I put my hands down on the ground, like that, and both dogs stuck their noses down to where my hands were. I says, ‘Man gone get him.’ That is the words I use in starting my dogs.
 
“I started my dogs at the end of this wire,” he continued. “The dogs started, and they came over right along the wire back past this garage and into the street, and then they followed around back and forth around there a little bit; they worked around quite a little bit.”
 
He described how the dogs became confused with a “muddling of tracks.”
 
“Where a man has went around in a circle and back and all over those tracks, it puzzles a dog quite a bit, and it is hard for him to get away. His tracks are all crisscrossed, and no straight trail for him to follow, and he does a lot of stammering and swinging and circling before he finds a way to get away,” he testified “That is what made me take my dogs back to the end of the wire again, to let them straighten out and come through again.”
 
This time, the dogs apparently picked up Grba’s scent.
 
“They came back toward the garage, and swung out west and right straight out across the stubble field, and went out kitty-cornered across the stubble field to a road, and down this road to where there was a big hole in the ground and a lot of dirt taken out,” the dog handler testified. “They went up along this here bank, and kind of along the edge of the bank there was an engine or shovel set right up in here. There is a place marked ’shovel’ on here. It might have been set back 100 or 150 feet; but the dogs went to this shovel. The Gyp dog stood up to the entrance way that goes up in, and barked. There was a pair of overalls there, and she smelled the overalls all over.”
 
Having led investigators to a place where the bomber had apparently been, the next step was for the dogs to pick out the bomber himself. Gyp, Pansy, their fireman handler and the sheriff headed to the jail, where a line-up/walk-by was conducted. Gyp and Pansy were again put to the test.
 
“I took my dogs into the sheriff’s office, and the sheriff says, ‘We will have the men walk by the dogs,’ and he says, ‘I want you to see if you can pick the man that we have, and see if we have the right man or not, if the dogs know,” the unnamed fireman testified. “I did not know who the man was. He was a perfect stranger to me, and I didn’t know what kind of a looking man he was.
 
“There was quite a few fellows came in the sheriff’s office and came by, and the dogs stood at leisure, right side of me. I didn’t have no strings on them or nothing. There was probably five or six men went by, and then there was three men came in and started by. When they came up by us, both dogs turned and begun to kind of swing their heads, and went over to this one man. They smelled of him, and he kind of held his hands up, like this. One dog was smelling of his shoes, and the other kind of smelling around here on him.”
 
Looking back, it seems incredible that the Iowa Supreme Court was not impressed with this evidence, but for whatever reason, it was not.
 

It is a “theory” that microscopic particles of effluvia emanate constantly from the body of every living human being, and that these particles possess an odor characteristic of the particular individual. It is supposed that the highly developed olfactory nerves of the bloodhound enable him to detect the peculiar odor of these particles, and thus to follow the trail of any particular person. How this is possible is not a matter of ascertainment. Scientists are baffled. The dog only knows. How long the particles exist after the person has passed has likewise never been scientifically demonstrated. The “scent” is referred to as being “cold” or “fresh.” Time and atmospheric conditions are supposed to affect it.
Notwithstanding that the majority of the courts of the country, especially in the southern states, have sustained the admissibility of evidence of this character, we are disposed to the view that the better reasoning requires that such evidence should be excluded, and we are inclined to ally ourselves with the Supreme Courts of Nebraska, Illinois, and Indiana, in rejecting such evidence. The life and liberty of any citizen should not be placed in jeopardy or be forfeited upon evidence of the conduct of a dog.

With that tongue-lashing, the Supreme Court of Iowa reversed Grba’s conviction.

The Yule Bomber

At the close of 1922, Wood County, Wisc., was like any other rural Midwest county where people made their living off the land. Aside from a little problem with bootleggers and a controversial drainage project, Wood County was a quiet place where people worked hard and followed the Golden Rule. It was the last place anyone would expect to host a murder trial that would become one of the defining moments of forensic science.
 
The year had been a contentious one for the County Commission. The first issue Commissioner James Chapman and the board had to contend with was an attempt to curtail the rise in bootlegging activity in the county. It voted in an unpopular and draconian ordinance to punish anyone connecting with violating Prohibition laws and provided an additional $5,000 appropriation for the sheriff to enforce the law. The board was making it clear to everyone from the organized bootlegger to the farmer who ran a small still that Prohibition was the law of the land and that Wood County would brook no violation.
 
The drainage project, however, made the controversy over the Prohibition ordinance pale in comparison.
 
For years farmers and landowners had struggled with controlling the flooding of the Wisconsin River which meandered through the county. The Wisconsin, which has its head somewhere near the Wisconsin/Michigan border and flows into the Mississippi, was a major thoroughfare for the lumber industry which dammed the river here and there to ensure a heavy flow of water as the lumber jacks floated their logs to the paper mills downstate. Those dams altered the natural flow of water from the northern snows, causing problems for farmers whose fields would often suffer from overflows.
 
In an effort to control the flood waters, the Wood County Commissioners had approved a plan to dredge a series of drainage ditches across the county, cutting through farmland. The plan to encroach across the private property of fiercely independent farmers was unpopular enough, but when the Board decided to pay for the project and its perpetual upkeep through new taxes on the affected property owners, the complaints increased tenfold.
 
No one protested more than John Magnuson, a Swedish immigrant who came to Marshfield, Wisc., by way of Chicago and South Africa.
 
Magnuson was a 44-year-old farmer and machinist who spoke only broken English and who lived on his farm with his wife and two teenage children. He had no use for some stranger digging drainage ditches on his property, even less use for new taxes, and made no secret of the fact that he was not opposed to violence to stop the project.
 
Once, when approached by neighbors asking him to sign a petition against the project, Magnuson told them he planned to “peck, peck, peck against the head man” of the project with his rifle.
 
Magnuson was the prime suspect in the summer of 1922 when a dredge working on the project exploded in a fireball near his property. The dredge was loaded with 100 gallons of gasoline and an equal amount of diesel fuel when it exploded in the middle of the night. Although TNT was being used as part of the dredging project, the explosive was housed several hundred yards away.
 
Few people believed that the blast was an accident but investigators were unable to prove conclusively that the dredge was sabotaged.
 
In the fall of that year Magnuson approached the drain commission to protest the ditch assessment he received. The discussion quickly turned ugly. He threatened a lawsuit, then claimed Chapman was accepting bribes from the firms digging the ditches. Finally, Magnuson threatened violence.
 
Chapman responded that he would “make it hot” if Magnuson continued to assert he was on the take, but promised to review Magnuson’s assessment.
 
“He certainly was earnest about the use of violence,” Chapman said he believed at the time.
 
Later the two men — who openly considered the other to be an enemy — met again.
 
“I saw Mr. Magnuson in the fall and told him the assessment was fair and it could not be changed,” Chapman said later. It was the last time the men would talk.
 
Winter came and work on the ditches stopped, but apparently Magnuson continued to seethe.
 
Two days after Christmas 1922, postal carrier Eugene Fehrenbach was delivering mail to the Thorbald Moen farm and picked up a tubular package wrapped in heavy gray paper and tied with a string resting atop the Moens’ mailbox. The package contained no return address and in a semi-illiterate hand was addressed to “J.A. Chapman, R.1 Marsfilld Wis.”
 
Fehrenbach assumed the package was meant for James Chapman whose address was Route 1, Marshfield. He passed the mail along to the Route 1 postman, John Heaton, who delivered it to the Chapman home, where James Tarr, Chapman’s grandson passed it along to his grandmother, Clementine, 60.
 
Since Christmas had just passed, the Chapmans thought the package, 12 inches long by 1.5-inches wide and 1-inch high, was a belated gift and the family gathered around as James Chapman opened it.
 
As he cut the third string, the pipe bomb inside the package exploded with sufficient force to blow four fingers off his left hand, leaving his little finger hanging from his wrist by the skin. His left leg, on which the bomb sat, was sliced open across the thigh.
 
Across from him, Clementine Chapman screamed that she was hit and was dying. She staggered from the room and collapsed on a bed, mortally wounded. She had been hit in the head by wood and metal shrapnel from the bomb, but the most serious wounds were to her torso, which had borne the brunt of the explosive force.
 
Tarr, standing behind his grandfather, suffered minor injuries. In shock, he ran to the telephone, screaming “for God’s sake, come quick!” over and over into the party line.
 
By the time help arrived, James Chapman had managed to crawl to his wife, but there was nothing that could be done for her. She died in the Marshfield hospital the next day, about the time doctors were amputating what was left of Chapman’s left hand. Surgeons were unable to remove a shard of iron that had embedded itself in Chapman’s leg — he would have it there for the rest of his life, just one reminder of the attack.
 
The force of the explosion drove the pocket knife Chapman used to cut the strings 2 inches deep into the wood floor and investigators later counted 40 holes in the walls caused by wood and metal shards.
 
It did not take experts from the U.S. Treasury Department and Postal Inspectors long to piece together the composition of the bomb that killed Clementine Chapman. It was fueled by picric acid, one of the earliest synthesized explosives, more powerful than TNT, and something readily available in a farming community like Wood County. The explosion was set off by the primer portion of a shotgun shell which ignited a detonator cap. A spring-loaded trigger made from a wagon bolt that struck the primer was connected to one of the strings binding the package. The bomb itself was an brass pipe encased in a white elm “shell.” For shrapnel the bomber had used bits of brass and iron.
 
Although the explosion was sufficient to kill one person, critically injure a second, and give a third minor injuries (Tarr received a cut above one eye), there was enough of the gray wrapping paper left to allow investigators to study the handwriting of the sender and the presumed bomber.
 
Just as it didn’t take investigators long to piece together the bomb, it didn’t take long for them to decide on their prime suspect. While there was some half-hearted speculation initially that the bomb came from bootleggers in the area who were unhappy with James Chapman’s crusade against the illegal stills that dotted the county, police made it clear that they wanted very much to talk to John Magnuson.
 
On December 29, 1922, in what was the largest funeral anyone in the area could remember, the people of Wood County buried Clementine Chapman. The mood was ugly and there were more than a few people talking about a lynching. Posses of lawmen, citizens, and newsmen who had flocked to the small city of Marshfield fanned out across the area in search of Magnuson. Perhaps fortunately for him, Magnuson was arrested by Sheriff Walter Mueller and his undersheriff, Cliff Bluett.
 
On January 4, 1923, Magnuson, protesting his innocence, was bound over for trial on first degree murder charges.
 
The investigation and trial would turn out to be one of early forensic science’s defining moments. In an era when fingerprint evidence was just beginning to be used in the courtroom, the guilt or innocence of John Magnuson would hang on whether prosecutors in a small Wisconsin county could convince a jury to believe the testimony of forensic linguists, handwriting analysts, ballistics experts, and chemists.

The Linguistic Evidence


Forensic Linguistics is one of the most fascinating applications of a so-called “soft science” to the law. Linguistics is the scientific study of language; while forensic linguistics is the application of the observations of this study to the law. In other words, how words, speech, syntax and other parts of language can be used as evidence in a court.
 
In the Magnuson case, Professor J.H. Stromberg of the University of Minnesota was called by the prosecution as an expert witness in the Swedish language.
 
Stromberg examined the scrap of paper left from the bomb wrapper that contained the address “Marsfilld” rather than the correct spelling, “Marshfield.”
 
A Swede, he explained, would pronounce “Mars” as “Marsh,” and an “uneducated” Swede would spell “field” as “filld, or fild.” Thus it could be reasonably inferred that an “uneducated Swede” would spell “Marshfield” as “Marsfilld.”
 
Following up on this testimony, the arresting officers presented handwriting exemplars from Magnuson in which he wrote the word “Marshfield” five times. Each time Magnuson left out the H and the E. Later, after he employed an attorney, he correctly spelled “Marshfield.”
 
Although this evidence was interesting and possibly damning, it only showed that someone with knowledge of Swedish addressed the package containing the bomb. Unfortunately for Magnuson, he was the only known Swede in the area with a motive to attack Chapman.

The Handwriting Analysis


Magnuson’s handwriting, along with the evidence from the scene, was submitted to three experts: John F. Tyrrell, Albert S. Osborn, and Jay F. Wood. These three men were at the time the giants in the field of scientific handwriting analysis. Osborn was the author of the field’s bible, Questioned Documents, and would in a few years testify as an expert for the prosecution in the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. He also served as the first president of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners.
 
Osborn, often cited as “the father of handwriting experts,” noted 14 points of similarity between Magnuson’s exemplars and the bomb wrapper. Osborn’s testimony centered on the small letter f in the word “Marshfield,” which he said was “unusual in its significance and peculiarity” because of the downward stroke of the cross characters on the f’s in the sample.
 
He also noted several examples of “overwriting” and “remarking and improving” the letters.
 
Ticking off the points that are nearly invisible to the uninitiated, Osborn noted the bending of the capital A, the “patching” of the letter c, and the formation of the small a. The W’s also demonstrated similarities, as did the small s’s.
 
Not only did the letters themselves tend to indicate that the same person wrote them, the spaces between them also pointed to a single author, Osborn said, referring to the distance between the J and the A and the C and h.
 
Equally telling are the consistent dots at the top of the letter a, he said.
 
Working separately from each other and Osborn, Tyrrell and Wood also identified the writing on the bomb wrapper as Magnuson’s.
 
The defense attempted to cast doubt on the experts’ work by asserting an “accidental coincidence,” but their own expert, on cross-examination, proved to be so damaging that he might have been called by the prosecution.
 
The best the defense could do was have its expert assert “It is easier to prove a person didn’t write a certain document than it is to prove a person did write a certain document.”

The Pen, Ink and Glue


The writing was also examined from the point of view of its physical formation. Commonly used ball point pens were not invented until 1935, so it was obvious that the address had been written on the package by fountain pen. Analysis by the handwriting experts showed that the pen that wrote the address was a round-point pen of medium size. Police found a similar pen belonging to Magnuson’s daughter in his home.
 
While the ink in the pen gave off the same spectral signature of the ink on the wrapper, there was no ink in the Magnuson home that matched either.
 
Probing further, investigators learned that Magnuson’s daughter lent her pen to a classmate who refilled and returned it with black ink, rather than the blue ink found in the Magnuson home. Combining the two inks as a control created the identical spectral signature.
 
The glue used to hold down the string linked to the trigger was determined by analysis to be “LePage’s Glue.” The same glue, with the same chemical make-up was used to fix another pen in the Magnuson house.

The White Elm


Professor Arthur Koehler of the United States forest products laboratory at Madison testified for the State that sawdust taken from Magnuson’s work bench was of white elm. This would not have been significant had not Magnuson denied that he had ever worked on elm wood in his shop in his life.
 
He admitted having worked on oak. Under the microscope it appeared that the sawdust came from hemlock, oak, and white elm. That part of the wooden covering of the bomb which remained was white elm.

The Trigger

During the search of Magnuson’s workshop, a triangular “trip or trigger” was taken off a gasoline engine on account of its resemblance to the trigger found on the bomb.
 
The trigger on the bomb was compared with the trigger taken from the gas engine by Professor David Fahlberg of the University of Wisconsin. His analysis showed that the trigger from the bomb had the identical crystals and formation of that obtained from the trip on the gasoline engine. The surface of the two pieces appeared to be identical.
 
“The thickness was the same to one-half part of a thousandth of an inch,” Fahlberg said. “The angle of the cut of the two pieces was the same to within one tenth of a degree.”
 
In addition to the scientific evidence, the prosecution presented other circumstantial evidence linking Magnuson to the crime: shotgun shells identical to those used as the igniter in the bomb were found in the Magnuson workshop, pipes with the same thread count as those found in the bomb — an unusual 18 to the inch size — also turned up in the search.

The End


The jury considered the evidence over 12 hours before returning a first-degree murder conviction. Magnuson, still asserting his innocence, was sentenced to life in prison.
 
In the early 1930s Magnuson was declared insane and committed to the Wisconsin state hospital. He managed to walk away from the hospital in 1940 and was on the loose for 4 years until he was captured in Chicago and returned to prison. He was paroled in 1952 on the condition that he leave Wisconsin. He died in Grayling, Michigan at the age of 78 four years later.