The letter Barbara Schaefer of Gaithersburg, Md., received three years ago sounded suspicious. It came from Germany and informed Barbara she was entitled to a share of 1,000 euros, roughly $1,200. All she had to do was travel to a town outside of Stuttgart to receive it. The letter-writer would even pay for plane tickets for her and a guest.
Barbara said it sounded pretty good to her, especially the reason for the windfall: An ancestor of Barbara’s had helped solve a murder, and she was entitled to some of the reward.
“My sister, myself and our brother, we’re all saying to her, ‘You’re crazy. Do not reply to this person. It’s a scam,’” said Patti Beisner, one of Barbara’s daughters.
Said Patti’s sister, Jennifer Manion, “My mom always said, ‘If it’s too good to be true, it is.’ We couldn’t figure out why she was believing it.”
Convinced by her family it was a scam, Barbara never responded to the letter. She died in 2016.
Last year, it turned out she had been right. The murder occurred in 1835 in the German town of Bönnigheim. Barbara’s great-great-grandfather, August Frederick Rupp, had helped identify the killer.
How this all came to light is the subject of “Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee,” by Ann Marie Ackermann, published last year by Kent State University Press. Ackermann will be at Saturday’s Gaithersburg Book Festival talking about her book. (Visit gaithersburgbookfestival.org for details.)
Also at the festival: Kornelius Bamberger, mayor of Bönnigheim. He will be presenting the reward to Manion, Beisner and other family members.
Bamberger has a special interest in the case: The victim was a 19th-century mayor of the town, Johann Heinrich Rieber. On the evening of Oct. 21, 1835, Rieber was hit by a shotgun blast as he walked home from a restaurant. He lingered in pain for a few days, then died.
The act so horrified the town that Mayor Rieber’s blood-encrusted clothes were displayed in the city hall for the next 36 years, a reminder the murderer was still at large.
A magistrate named Eduard Hammer investigated the crime. A highlight of Ackermann’s book is the description of how he set about trying to solve it, interviewing witnesses, poring over clues, examining ballistic evidence.
“When it’s a public official who’s murdered, I think they put a little more effort into the investigation,” Ackermann said. The case files grew to nearly 800 pages, all written in a Gothic German script Ackermann had to master.
Ackermann is an American lawyer whose father was German. She moved to Bönnigheim in 1996 after marrying a German man. She stumbled across the murder while researching an article for the local historical society on bird life. She was flipping through the diary of a 19th-century forester — who would be more familiar with the birds of the forest? — when she saw a mention of the killing.
The murderer turned out to be a disgruntled government employee, though that would not be known for sure until 1872 when Rupp — a Bönnigheim resident who had emigrated to Washington, where he sold an ointment called Rupp’s Salve — notified town officials he had heard a conversation that might prove pertinent.
I will spare you the details in case you want to read the book, but you may be curious about the Robert E. Lee connection in the subtitle. After fleeing to the United States, the murderer joined the U.S. Army. He ended up under Lee’s command at the Siege of Veracruz during the Mexican American War.
Ackermann could find no mention of the reward ever being paid. Gail McCormick, a Washington researcher, found Rupp’s descendant, Barbara Schaefer, living in Gaithersburg.
“When I brought it to our mayor in 2015 and said we have this unpaid reward, he could have backed out and said we have no legal obligation to honor it,” Ackermann said. “But he felt this was the murder of his predecessor, and the town has a moral and diplomatic obligation to make this good again.”
When Ackermann’s book was finally published last year, she sent copies to Rupp’s descendants in America. This time, they believed her.
“It was totally from a movie,” Patti Beisner said. “We were thinking this is ridiculous, so crazy. I just wish my mom was here. She believed in it wholeheartedly.”
Here is another local reunion:
Surrattsville High Class of 1968 — Two reunion activities: Aug. 18 (visit surrattsville68. classquest.com/main/default. aspx) and a cruise Dec. 30-Jan. 6 (email Jeannie Lipphard at jeannie@cruiseplanneronline .com or call 410-987-7245 or 443-871-5914).
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.