Published October 9, 2017

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A few years ago, I received an e-mail from an author named Ann Marie Ackermann who was living in Germany and needed some research done at the Pennsylvania State Archives.

The assignment was intriguing: Gottlob Rueb, the man for whom she was searching, had killed the mayor of a town in southern Germany before fleeing to the United States and ending up a casualty in the Mexican War.

Ackermann suspected that Rueb was the man to whom Robert E. Lee was referring in a letter to his son when he wrote: “I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man.”

The author had me investigate a couple of diaries from others in that military outfit as well as looking at German-language newspapers of the period from Pennsylvania.

Alas, I could find nothing that would confirm her theory that Rueb was the man whose sacrifice Lee praised.

As a result, Ackermann and her book kind of fell off my radar screen until a complimentary copy of it arrived at the postal mailbox.

She had kindly mentioned me in her acknowledgements in a nod to my efforts (fruitless though they proved to be).

The book is titled Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee and Ackermann writes a real “page turner.” (The subtitle is perhaps a little overdramatic … the man in question was not personally defending Lee but rather was party of a detachment at the naval battery commanded by Lee, but no real matter)

She starts by setting the scene in Württemberg in 1835, describing conditions in the town in which the mayor was murdered. The author – who was a first-career attorney – covers the crime and its aftermath with precision, showing the limitations of the forensics of the time and running through a number of alternate suspects.

Ackermann then changes the scenery to America and paints an equally realistic picture of the lead-up to the Mexican War. Along the way, she also documents Lee’s life before this period.

Despite the lack of any document identifying who Lee was talking about, she makes a convincing circumstantial case that eliminates everyone except Rueb.

There are even some modern-day developments in the case – regarding which I’m not going to play spoiler!

And for the hard-core genealogist, Ackermann’s use of court records and witness statements almost may make you hope that your German ancestors were involved in an investigation because of all the documentation it generates.

***

Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee, 204 pages, $24.95 (True Crime History, Kent State University Press: Kent, OH: 2017).