Tag Archive for forensics

When Morons Kill

Jean Gianini, prison mugsht

Ignorance of the law is no defense to a criminal accusation — knowing the rules that govern us is the duty of each person in a civilized society. Because our justice system is based on the premise that we are aware of what we are doing when we do it, a lack of understanding of the law does not excuse illegal behavior. For most defendants who find themselves in the dock this is not an issue; they knew what they were doing was wrong, they just hoped they would get away with it.
Ignorance of the law takes on a new meaning when we examine how intelligence affects a defendant’s ability to know right from wrong. The criminal justice system has never really figured out how to deal with criminals who lack the brainpower to know they were breaking the law and modern juries show little tolerance for any mental issues, whether insanity or developmental disability, as a defense. It was not until 1989 that the U.S. Supreme Court reluctantly agreed with a majority of states with capital punishment that executing intellectually disabled criminals was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Many states have eliminated diminished capacity defenses that hinge on the defendant’s mental acuity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a rural jury in upstate New York was presented with this conundrum when it had to determine whether 16-year-old Jean Gianini was responsible for what appeared to be a cold-blooded, calculated murder of his former schoolteacher, or if his level of intellectual disability prevented him from knowing the nature and quality of his act. His case marked the first time that scientific tests and testimony were used in court to show a defendant was not smart enough to know the wrongfulness of his action.
“The verdict of not guilty on the ground of criminal imbecility,” said one expert, “recognizes that weakness of mind, as an excuse for crime, is of the same importance as disease of mind; puts feeble-mindedness in the same category with insanity, and requires that it like insanity be considered in all discussions of responsibility.”
But many people at the time thought Gianini got away with murder and were outraged at the verdict. To most the slaying appeared to be a premeditated killing with clear steps taken to further the crime and avoid capture. But with a chain of circumstantial evidence that included more than one weak link, each time the prosecutor presented his theory of why Gianini did x or said y, the defense had an answer based on scientific study of imbecility.
The defense’s alternative theory of the crime convinced the jury, which acquitted Gianini of first-degree murder. Rather than to the electric chair, Gianini was sent to a state hospital for the criminally insane where he remained the rest of his life.

The Crime and Confession

The facts surrounding Lida Beecher’s murder were never contested by the defense.
Early on March 28, 1914, a Herkimer County farmer was making his rounds delivering milk. About a mile from the village of Poland, he saw signs of a violent struggle in the snow and slush. A trail of blood and footprints led from the road. Following the tracks he found a body, which proved to be that of Lida Beecher, one of the schoolteachers in the village of Poland. Her killer made a half-hearted attempt to hide her body behind a hedgerow several yards from where the killing occurred. Her umbrella and hat were found at the site of the initial assault.
Lida BeecherSuspicion quickly centered on Gianini, who was known to harbor ill will toward the victim.
Numerous witnesses saw Gianini and Lida together the night previous and watched the two of them walk out of town toward Gianini’s house. Others saw Gianini with the wrench used in the killing, and more than one reported how he talked of killing Lida for revenge.
A chronic truant who was disruptive in class when he was there, Gianini had been expelled from school and court-ordered to attend a regimented boarding school run by Catholic priests, and he incorrectly blamed Lida for his expulsion. He had been pestering her for weeks to meet with his father in hopes that she would allow Gianini to return to the local school — a wish she had no power to grant.
Based on this evidence, police went to arrest Gianini, only to learn that he had run away that morning. He was found 4 miles away and willingly returned to Poland and the police station even though he knew he was a suspect in a murder.
When he was being brought back to Poland by a friend of his father, the man said, “You have got something beside skipping out now staring you in the face.”
Gianini replied, “They can’t give me but ten years.” The witnesses to his interrogation testified that when Gianini was told that “he had murder staring him in the face,” he expressed no fear and appeared not to care at all.
Gianini was taken to the Poland police station where testimony at his trial revealed that the youth was strip-searched so authorities could check for bloodstains on his clothing or wounds that might have come from a death struggle. There were none, but Gianini’s coat was missing a button identical to one found near the crime scene.
Immediately upon undressing, Gianini offered a spontaneous confession of the crime, admitting quite proudly and with no trace of regret or remorse that he was Lida Beecher’s killer.
He was arrested on the spot and a few months later, Gianini’s first-degree murder trial began in Herkimer County.

Idiots, Imbeciles and Morons

A brief lesson in early developmental psychology is necessary before we dive deeper into this case.
In the late 19th Century a pair of French psychologists created a reasonably reliable way of measuring a person’s comparative intelligence or “mental age.” Still taken by thousands of American students in various forms today (the most common being the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale), the Binet-Simon Test of Intelligence was used to identify the “feeble-minded” who were, in the words of psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard, “the person who shows in every movement and action, if not in his very face, that he is ‘lacking,’ is ‘not all there,’ is ‘not quite right,’ or whatever may be the expression that we apply to those unfortunate ones, of whom there are, sad to say, always one or more in every community.”
The terms “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron” had scientific distinctions at the time. An idiot was a person whose mental age was 3 or under. An imbecile was a person whose mental age was pegged between 3 and 12 years, while a moron was “a high-grade imbecile capable of earning a living under favorable circumstances, but is incapable from mental defect, existing from birth or from an early age, (a) of competing on equal terms with his normal fellows, or (b) of managing himself or his affairs with ordinary prudence.” Anyone whose mental age was above 13 by the time they reached that chronological age was considered normal.
The words have changed over the decades, but the definition of what was called imbecility, feeble-mindedness, retardation and most recently developmental disability, put forward by the British Commission on the Feeble-Minded, quoted above, is in general consistent with the American Psychiatric Association definition of Intellectual Development Disorder published in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders vol. 5, which defines IDD as a condition “with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains.”
Very simply, the Binet-Simon test measured the subject’s mental acuity against the performance of what an average child of that age is able to accomplish. Binet and Simon conducted interviews with hundreds of French schoolchildren, which they used to set the scale. The children were asked questions that did not have right or wrong answers, but would have more in-depth responses correlated to age.
Dr. Henry GoddardFor example, the children were asked to define “charity.” Beginning at around 10 years old, the subjects could offer a cogent response. Binet and Simon found that younger children would respond with something like “Charity is giving,” while by far most 12-year-olds not only said charity was “giving,” but also included the concept of giving to the less fortunate.
“The point is not always that this answer (‘charity is giving’) is or is not technically correct, but that it is not the kind of answer which a child of the specified age (16) should give,” Goddard testified at Gianini’s trial. “Therefore, it indicates that he is not of that age, but below it.”
Goddard was a respected alienist, or psychologist, and head of the New Jersey Institute for the Feeble-Minded. He was also a proponent of the now-discarded theory of eugenics and argued strongly for sterilizing the developmentally disabled which he believed would eventually eliminate imbecility. He also said on the stand that Gianini’s predilection for masturbation was evidence of mental defect because it demonstrates “cowardice” and is not something “well-endowed young men” do. As a result of these ignorant views based on Victorian values rather than science, in counterpoint to his efforts to help imbeciles receive justice, Goddard leaves a mixed legacy.

The Prosecution’s Case

As is typical of trials involving affirmative defenses — where the defendant admits the act but attempts to show there were mitigating factors that render the act non-criminal — the prosecution’s presentation of the facts of the murder went quickly. Establishing motive, means and opportunity took just a few witnesses and the state’s case was presented in two days. The only reason it took that long was the number of witnesses put forward by the State to bolster its case which prompted frequent objections by the defense.
The only version of the murder we have is Gianini’s confession, which he gave freely and spontaneously after his arrest:

I went to school to Lida Beecher and had trouble with her and wanted to get revenge. I met her above the hotel and walked up the street with her up beyond the stone quarry; she had been a-coming to see my folks about school and was a-coming up to see them last night and I told her they lived up the hill, and when we got up there on the left side of the road, I hit her with a monkey wrench that I got out of my father’s barn. I had the wrench in my pocket when I went up.
After I had hit her about three times with the wrench, I hit her with a knife several times, to be sure to finish her, and then I took her over in the lot; I dragged her by the foot; and then I went home and got there about 7:30.
The knife I stabbed her with was one that belonged to my father and I took it home and put it in the pantry drawer.
I left the wrench somewhere near where I hit her. When I hit her first, she did not scream but moaned.
She said she thought it was quite a ways and she did not see any house.
I was not afraid when I got home; I was just as happy as I ever was and didn’t think anything about it as I thought I had revenge.

Gianini was referring to the ruse he employed to lure her to the murder site. He told her his father was building a new house further away from the town in an isolated area. When she began to suspect something was wrong and refused to go on, Gianini pulled out the wrench and hit her. Gianini stabbed Lida more than “several” times. The coroner counted 24 stab wounds to her chest and throat. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
The state argued that Gianini’s motive can be inferred from a look at his school history. More than a year before the murder, Gianini had been promoted — at the age of 14 or 15 — from the 5th to 6th grade, where Lida was the teacher. He became disruptive in class and was eventually expelled. Although she had little to do with that decision and letters written by Lida demonstrated that she was working to place him in a boarding school that could help him learn a trade, Gianini blamed her for the expulsion. His hatred of Lida can easily be understood, writes Goddard in an article on the case:
“The boy did not get along nearly so well after the change and he dropped back in his studies. His teacher was obliged to report him a number of times to the principal, who twice whipped him with a piece of rubber hose,” he wrote. “Failing to make his studies under the new standard, he was made to occupy a special seat apart from the other pupils, at the instance, if not the actual order, of Miss Beecher.”
Gianini’s “special seat” was next to her desk facing the wall.
At one time Gianini said he would shoot Lida if he had a pistol, one witness testified, while four others offered examples of more general threats to Lida by Gianini.
Two days prior to the crime, Gianini was heard speaking harshly to Lida. After she told him she did not know when she would be talking to his father about returning to school, Gianini shouted, “Aw, I don’t believe you intend to come at all, you will wait until summer time, and go home and then it will be too late.”
The strongest part of the state’s case was demonstrating Gianini had opportunity to commit the crime, which it also used to show he was planning it in advance.
Witnesses established that Jean confronted Lida three consecutive nights demanding that she speak to his father at that moment. Twice she refused, but the third time she agreed. Whether or not she had planned to make the visit that fateful night or was a reluctant participant was not established at trial.
Several Poland residents saw Gianini with the large, rusty monkey wrench in the days before the crime and the night he committed it. When asked why he was carrying the unwieldy tool, Gianini said, “I have use for it.”
The pair was seen walking in the direction of Jean’s farmhouse around 7:15 p.m. on the night in question, and Jean was not seen again for about 30 minutes when he returned home without showing any indication of having just murdered a woman.
He ran an errand for his father and then, as he frequently did, slipped out in the middle of the night to jump a freight train. When he discovered that the train had already gone, he returned home and went to bed. The prosecution posited that this was an attempt to flee.
Early on the morning after the murder, Gianini headed to the nearby farm where he was employed, as if nothing had happened. When the farmer went looking for his employee around 9 a.m., Gianini could not be found. His father, who had the Juvenile Court declare his son delinquent because he was fond of hopping boxcars and leaving town, called the nearby station where Gianini usually caught the train, where the boy was found and returned to Poland.
Beyond those facts, the only indication of what occurred during the crime came from the defendant’s statements to police, on the witness stand, and to the psychiatrists who examined him. The admissions of having committed the act are all consistent, which is normal when a suspect is telling the truth.

The Defense Case

As Gianini had already confessed to the crime and admitted as much in court, and because his defense was imbecility, the entirety of the testimony in his favor came from witnesses to his bizarre and age-inappropriate behavior and experts in feeble-mindedness. The facts presented are bleak.
Jean Gianini was born in December 1897, the third of three children to Charles and Sara McVey Gianini. Jean’s older sister was, at least at the time of his trial, “normal.” His older brother, Charles, had been profoundly developmentally disabled — an idiot, according to Goddard:

Charles lived to be but seven years of age and during his lifetime did not learn to speak, but merely made guttural sounds; he did not walk, but moved about when seated on the floor, pushing himself sidewise, and finally shortly before his death tottered about. His death occurred when he was about seven years old. He ate gluttonously and his death was due to asphyxiation, choking due to taking in trachea foreign matter while vomiting contents of an overloaded stomach.

Genetics plays a significant role in determining whether a child is born with an intellectual disability, and mental issues ran rampant through the Gianini and McVey families.
Less than a year into her marriage, 20-year-old Sara began to lose her grip on sanity, trial testimony showed. The symptoms manifested themselves during her pregnancy with Charles, according to Goddard.

Before her first child was born she broke down mentally and was probably never ‘right’ after that time. “Prior to her marriage she was bright, vivacious, stylish, and accomplished in music. Shortly after her marriage she began to become untidy in her appearance, morose, depressed, and indifferent to her child, took no care of him, and said that while she wanted to die, she was going to live forever. She also said she thought that her face was black and that she was a negress, that she would not go into the street because she was black.

Mrs. Gianini began to self-medicate using alcohol and became a “dipsomaniac” or alcoholic.
“She became addicted to the use of liquor, first lager beer and subsequently whisky and brandy. She made pledges, administered by priests, only to be broken,” Goddard wrote.
Gianini had little contact with his mother in his first year, which one’s gut instinct tells is rarely a good thing. Mrs. Gianini died in June 1899 in the St. Anne’s Retreat Sanitarium. The causes of death are listed as “meningitis, alcoholic heart failure.”
Whatever other impairments he may have had, Gianini was very likely a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome based on his mother’s alcoholic drinking during her pregnancy. He was malnourished and weighed about five pounds. Gianini was placed with a foster family where he lived until he was 6; whether this was a private arrangement or a state act is unknown.
He did not speak until he was 5 years old, one of the defense experts testified, but “made sounds which resembled yells.” The doctor also said Gianini was late to learn to walk.
For the first few years of school, Gianini progressed like his peers, but was held back several times in fifth grade. To Goddard this indicates that Gianini had reached his ultimate intellectual age.

In the last days of his school life Jean dropped, to a very marked degree, in his standing in his studies. This falling off in Jean’s ability was attributed to his teacher. As a matter of fact, the falling off was due to the fact that Jean had reached his limit in the fifth grade. He attained to that height because of a good memory, which is characteristic of many imbeciles and is in no way indicative of normal intelligence. It is also very common for children of this type to get through the fifth grade and fail in the sixth. They have mentality enough to carry them to that point, but not farther.

The defense experts presented a compelling case of a 16-year-old youth with the mental acuity of a 10- or 11-year-old. Other testimony indicated that his relationship with his father was contentious, he held a deep hatred of his stepmother, and was the butt of jokes. One time, his father testified, Gianini took a model train set and tried to build tracks from kindling wood.
“He couldn’t make it work, of course, and we all laughed at him,” Charles Gianini testified. He said he considered his son’s attempts “irrational.”
“And yet you laughed at him and thought his actions were amusing?” the prosecutor asked, to which the witness had no reply.
The crux of the defense’s case, however, was the rebuttal of the State’s allegations. When confronted with an almost purely circumstantial case, the defense strategy is to raise reasonable doubt by proposing an equally plausible scenario. Gianini’s defense team confronted each link of the circumstantial chain head on.
There was no premeditation and to assume so was to misunderstand what caused Gianini’s behavior, its experts argued.
“The result can be accounted for in another way. Jean being an imbecile, it is entirely possible that he had no premeditation of murder at all,” Goddard testified. “On the contrary, it is possible that as he walked up the hill with Lida Beecher he had no more thought of killing her than of committing suicide. Indeed, it is much more plausible from all we know of imbeciles, and of boys of his physical development, that there was an entirely different purpose. That purpose was probably sexual.”
Goddard recounted episodes where Gianini’s behavior toward girls was more like that of a boy at the onset of puberty, than those of a 16-year-old. Rather than behave toward the opposite sex maturely (albeit awkwardly), Gianini would tease the girls and generally make himself a nuisance. Goddard blamed the inequality of Gianini’s physical and mental ages for his inability to communicate on a mature level with women.
When he was 14, Gianini was found in the woods undressing two young girls. When confronted, he said they were going to play “Indians, and Indians are naked.” Goddard used this as more proof of Gianini’s imbecility.

That is to say, such acts are, by the uninitiated, not considered sex acts at all… Dismissing the possibility that his explanation was invented to conceal a definitely conscious sexual impulse, let us admit that he gave his real reason for the act. Still it is clear to all who are familiar with sex psychology that the subconscious reason for playing Indian in that way was a sexual one.

The defense’s experts argued that Gianini was lying to investigators when he said he wanted revenge, and theorized that he lured Lida away from town for some sort of sexual encounter. His intentions rebuffed, probably quite strongly, he lost his temper and using the wrench and knife as weapons of opportunity, he murdered Lida Beecher.
They pointed out that while Gianini’s statements to investigators and examiners were generally consistent, he embellished his story with each telling, something the experts said was common among imbeciles.
Rejecting the prosecutor’s theory that moving Lida’s body proved Gianini was trying to cover up his crime, Goddard pointed out that after hiding Lida’s body behind some bushes, “he then went back into the road, making new tracks, which he made no effort to cover. Nor did he make any effort to cover the old tracks or the blood spots that were left along in the snow. Neither did he make any attempt to hide the hat nor the umbrella nor the broken comb which were left in the road.”
The prosecution got Goddard to admit Gianini said he knew the difference between life and death, and the difference between taking a human life and killing an animal, the basic level of knowledge of the nature and quality of the act.
The eminent alienist responded that Gianini knew those distinctions, but not that causing death is considered wrong by society.
“Why hide the body, then?” asked the prosecutor.
His behavior showed “he knew he did something he ought not to have done, and rather not be caught at,” the doctor replied.
As for Gianini’s ability to recount a similar story every time he was asked about the murder, Goddard was nonplussed. Calling the youth “a braggart and a coward, with an excellent memory, a great reader — particularly interested in stories of excitement and crime,” Goddard pointed out that Gianini’s statements became more detailed over time, but rather than recall obscure details, Gianini embellished the murder itself.
“His confession is colored by his desire to show off and shine in the limelight,” Goddard said. “Gianini’s testimony is unreliable, because he was talking for effect. He is of the type that loves show and notoriety.”
In reality, what probably saved Gianini’s life was not that jurors considered him too dumb to be guilty of murder, but that they had been advised before deliberating that if they found Gianini not guilty by reason of imbecility, he would not walk free. Goddard made it clear in his testimony and in a subsequent article on the case that he considered Gianini too dangerous to ever be released, which helped sway the jury.
We reach this conclusion by looking at two similar cases where diagnosed morons were accused of murder and used the same defense as Gianini.
In one case from Oregon, a stalker shot the woman who had scorned his advances and explained his justification as “if I cannot have her, then I wanted to make sure no one did.” Just like in Gianini’s case, his spontaneous confession to police makes his crime look planned and well-executed. Medical experts using the Binet-Simon tests came to the conclusion that the man, Fred Tronson, “showed the the crude brutality of a somewhat lower grade defective.”
His lawyers told the jurors that one way or another Tronson would never be a free man again, and he was acquitted.
Around the same time, Roland Pennington, a diagnosed moron, stood trial in Pennsylvania for participating in the murder of the lover of a friend’s wife. The facts in his case clearly indicate he was only interested in helping his friend, who had kept after him for weeks to aid in the crime. Pennington expressed reluctance to kill, so his co-conspirator told him, “You start it, I’ll finish it.” After the actual killer promised to give him the “$1000 bill” the victim carried and explained that was a one followed by three zeroes, he agreed. When it turned out that the victim had only $14, Pennington did not complain but took $7 and a watch that he pawned for two bucks.
For his act he was convicted and executed.
After the verdict his jurors said they were loathe to convict the imbecile, but when presented with a binary choice of what they thought was liberty or death, they opted for death, not knowing that Pennington’s freedom was never a possibility.
Newspaper reports said that Pennington entered the death chamber barely able to stand, only walking with the aid of his guards and covering his eyes with his hands so he would not see the electric chair.

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.