Murder in a Nutshell

Nutshell 1

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.

According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.

Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”

Nutshell 2

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.

You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, and the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, has been reprinted. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.

****Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths about Police Shootings

NYCity police officer

photo: scubacopper, creative commons license

By Joseph K. Loughlin and Kate Clark Flora – Laughlin, a former assistant chief of police in Portland, Maine, and Flora, a true crime writer, teamed up to produce this remarkable non-fiction book, which, for all its limitations, is a must-read for people concerned about gun crime and police violence, as well as for those who write about these matters.

The book is based on interviews with dozens of police officers (mostly on the US East Coast) involved in deadly shootings. They recount how and why they reacted as they did during the event and the impact on them afterward.

Citizens often wonder why police don’t just shoot weapons out of suspects’ hands. Or shoot to wound them. Television and movies would suggest that police have plenty of time to make such calculations, take careful aim at their suspect, and are accomplished marksmen. In real life, the compressed timeframe in which police actions typically occur does not allow for a carefully aimed shot. The situation may be confusing, people are moving, and armed suspects may be charging the officers or putting nearby citizens at risk.

The public also wonders why so many shots are fired. They may not realize that suspects high on drugs or adrenaline or both aren’t stopped by a single bullet—even if that bullet would eventually prove fatal—they keep coming. The officers’ goal is to eliminate the hazard, to themselves, to other police, to the public. A single bullet doesn’t achieve this.

No fictional account could be more powerful than the book’s second-by-second reconstruction of the confrontation with the Boston Marathon bombers by Watertown, Massachusetts, police officers. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was hit nine times by bullets from a .40 caliber Glock and still ran toward the police, firing. When his gun was empty, he threw it at an officer and kept coming. The police thought he might have a bomb strapped to him. Nevertheless, they tackled him, and he went down. He was still fighting them when his younger brother ran over him with an SUV, in making his own escape. Tsarnaev was dragged 20 feet down the street and still struggled with the officers.

The interviews with the police officers are truly moving. Killing another person is not something good officers take lightly. Often they are off patrol work for many months afterward. Some can never return to duty.

The book might have been stronger if some of the interviews were with police whose actions were more ambiguous (impossible because of legal liability), or if there were greater acknowledgment that sometimes there are “bad-actor” officers. In the closing chapter’s list of 10 ways the public can support the police, one might have been improving methods for weeding such individuals out of a department.

Reading this book, you’re likely to develop a greater appreciation for the split-second decision-making skills police are routinely called upon to deploy and the inevitability of errors. You also will have greater appreciation of the investigatory process—the news media blasts officers’ actions within hours—even minutes—of a shooting event, whereas a full investigation takes time. While the terrible occurrences in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Staten Island, and elsewhere are high in the public consciousness, how many Americans are aware that in the decade from 2003 to 2012 there were more than 575,000 felonious assaults against police officers, almost 200,000 of which involved a weapon?

Readers will come away with an appreciation of the need for greater police training and education too. Training not just to deal with police issues, but the fallout from drug abuse and alcoholism, poverty and unemployment, homelessness, the underfunding of the mental health system—all of which produce social problems that wind up in the laps of public safety personnel on a daily basis.

While this book tells one side of the story, it’s a side too rarely discussed in inflammatory news stories and a rush to judgment. It’s an exciting read, and one that will give every person who reads crime stories—and the daily newspaper—a new perspective on unfolding events

****God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican

Vatican, Rome, St. Peter's

photo: Nick Fewings, creative commons license

By Gerald Posner, narrated by Tom Parks – If this troubled history of Vatican financial dealings over the past 150 years were fiction, it would be dismissed as unbelievable, but, alas, it is not. Former Wall Street lawyer Posner has done a remarkable job of in-depth reporting to pull together this story. Although much of the story has come out piecemeal over the years, he’s assembled it in a highly readable, occasionally jaw-dropping narrative.

Posner helpfully puts the Church’s opaque financial dealings in the context of pressures on it at any given time. His descriptions of the politics around the election of recent popes are likewise fascinating. Few of them had any awareness of—or interest in—the questionable and large-scale financial activities taking place practically under their noses.

Since 1942, when the Church reorganized many of those activities by forming the Vatican Bank, authorities in Italy, in the United States, and in the international financial world repeatedly pressured the Church to reveal what the Bank was up to, with little success. Bank leaders would claim ignorance of financial matters when it suited them (“we’re just poor priests here”), and employed a succession of shady financial advisors (“a few bad apples”). Meanwhile the international monetary wheeling and dealing was unstoppable. As Damon Linker says in The New York Times, “The result (of the Church’s history) has been a tension—and sometimes a blatant contradiction—between the church’s exalted claims for itself and its behavior.”

Not all of the Bank’s financial deals were successful and some too much so. Millions and millions of dollars simply disappeared. Many readers may know about the Pope’s barely audible muttering when it came to dealing with Hitler; they may not know that the financial side developed ratlines to provide monetary and other aid to Nazi fugitives. Or how its lack of records “made it an ideal safe haven for money plundered from Jews and other wartime victims,” said Chicago Tribune reviewer Trine Tsouderos.

They may not know about the money-laundering for the American mafia or the political slush funds disguised as benevolent sounding charities. Or how the Bank was used to support the anti-Communists in Poland and the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras. Or the Vatican Bank’s role in the demise of Italy’s largest private bank. Or the assassinations. . . . In short, it’s “an extraordinarily intricate tale of intrigue, corruption and organized criminality—. . . not widely known among more casual church watchers—from Pius XII down to Benedict XVI,” says Linker.

Pope Francis is now taking concrete, meaningful steps to reform the Bank and limit its activities. He’s letting the sunshine into an institution that for many years did not operate like a normal financial institution. It did not conduct independent audits, and it had a scanty, periodically destroyed, paper trail.

Posner’s book was almost 22 hours long, and though Parks’s narration was excellent, there were so many characters, I wish I’d read it instead of listened, so I could flip back through to remind myself who was who (the affiliate link below is to the paperback). Nevertheless, the overall picture resounded clear as a church bell.

Solace in True Crime?

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteEditors of The Guardian gave a topping headline to a Rafia Zakaria story about the attractions of the true crime genre: “Reading a genre where the worst has already happened is an odd comfort.” There’s truth in that. A few years ago, I was struck low by life circumstances and in a rare (for me) state of malaise sat down in front of the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch The Pianist. Oddly, when the end credits rolled, I felt better. When I told my daughter about this, she said, “Ah. A movie about someone with real problems.” Exactly.

Zakaria suggests true crime as a corrective, even for political angst. “No other genre is a more apt testament that our evil, primal, fearful selves linger just beneath our calm, civilised exteriors, that life goes on even after the worst has happened, and that all catastrophe, central or marginal, has to be understood and confronted before a future becomes possible.”

In our household we’re stuck back at the first stage: probing the calm, civilized exteriors, looking beneath Victorian London with our six books on Jack the Ripper—each with its earnestly promoted theory of the villain’s identity—our five books about the Lizzie Borden case, six about the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and more.

The distance afforded by time provides a bit of psychological insulation, and weighting the theories about these “unsolved” or “unresolved” cases have enlivened many a dinnertime conversation. Perhaps if you visited Cleveland, you went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even a ballgame at Progressive Field. Not likely you made a pilgrimage to the 1954 home of Dr. Sam Sheppard and his soon-to-be-late wife, Marilyn (LMGTFY). We did.

If in these trying times, you want to test the true crime palliative, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood still sets the standard. (Both the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones movie versions are riveting as well.)

Here are four more excellent possibilities:

The Witness

apartment-building

photo: La Citta Vita, creative commons license

12/7 Update: The Witness is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary!

On a March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in the vestibule of her Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment building as 38 witnesses did nothing, according to an unforgettable story in the New York Times, which described how she was allegedly stalked and stabbed three times in the span of a half-hour.

While spurring needed improvements in emergency response and community watchdog efforts, the horror of her death became imprinted in the public’s minds and in sociological texts as examples of urban dwellers’ indifference to others.

The Witness, a film released this year and now showing on Netflix, is an exhaustive examination of these events, resulting from a decade-long crusade to learn the truth about Genovese’s death. First-time documentarian James Solomon follows Kitty’s brother Bill as he traces the threads of the story, a story even some family members wish he could put behind him.

As Stephanie Merry wrote in Washington Post review, everyone got the story wrong, and they got Kitty wrong: “People don’t remember the vivacious bar manager, the prankster, the beloved big sister. They remember a victim.” Bill was especially close to his sister and loved her joyful, playful spirit. That is what he wanted to honor and remember in his quest to learn the truth.

“There were a lot of things we discovered,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon last spring. “During the course of 11 years, there were a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.”

Many of the so-called witnesses did hear something—desperate screams for help that roused people out of sound sleep—and many did do something. A neighbor who knew Kitty well ran down to the narrow lobby vestibule, now knowing whether the assailant was still in the area, and cradled Kitty as she was dying.

Even the convicted murderer, Winston Moseley (he died in prison while serving a life sentence), had his own version of what happened that night. In a letter to Bill, he claimed that he did not kill Kitty, but was the getaway driver for an underworld figure.

The nature of truth—and what we choose to believe—and the fuzziness of memory are key themes in the film that echo coverage in more recent stories about iconic victims such as Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.

The film shows Bill doggedly pursuing leads, reading trial transcripts, checking what people might have seen from their windows, and tracking down surviving witnesses and their families like a latter-day Lieutenant Columbo. He enlists a woman to re-enact the crime using what witnesses said they heard that night. The effect is chilling. And Bill sits weeping.

In a Merry’s review, filmmaker Solomon said, “For whatever reason I am drawn to these iconic stories we think we know.” (Previously, he wrote the screenplay for “The Conspirator,” about Mary Surratt, who aided John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.)

Editor’s note: The mischaracterization of Kitty Genovese’s death was possible, in part, because relatively few Americans have witnessed murder. We think we know how we would respond, but . . .? Today, social media makes many more of us “witnesses” to violence and provides a whole new range of responses (see this riveting WIRED account of social media around last summer’s police-involved shootings). The availability of real-time “evidence” on screens in front of us, even acknowledging that distortions may occur, should mean it won’t take 52 years for the true circumstances of these deaths to be understood.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings, celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.

*****No Stone Unturned

justice

photo: Dan4th Nicholas, creative commons license

By Steve Jackson, narrated by Kevin Pierce. Every year, thousands of Americans disappear who are believed murdered, but their bodies are never found. Even if the police have a suspect, lack of a body and the evidence associated with it impedes and may even prevent prosecution. Without a body, the case may be just not winnable “beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

As harrowing as any fictional thriller, this absorbing book tells the real-life story of Colorado-based NecroSearch International—an organization of volunteer scientists that brings a surprisingly large array of disciplines to the search for clandestine graves and the analysis of the evidence they hold. What began as a research project has led to work with police forces from across the country to find the bodies of more than 300 people missing and believed murdered. This book, initially published in 2001, was updated in 2015 for the audio and Kindle editions.

When a small group of researchers began this work, they were interested only in developing more scientific methods for grave searches. They started by burying the bodies of pigs at various depths to see how, over time, different detection methods could yield useful results. Eventually, they added experts in additional specialties, bringing together forensic scientists, soil experts, naturalists, botanists who know which plants grow in disturbed soil, geologists, experts on hydrology, meteorology, psychology, geophysics, entomology, anthropology, and “cadaver dog” handlers. Some members now are from law enforcement.

They use technology—like ground-penetrating radar, infrared imaging, and aerial photography (now sometimes using drones)—but it’s their encyclopedic knowledge of the way soil, stone, water, plants, insects, and wildlife interact that sets them apart. The scientists always caution that no technology can reveal where a body is, but their methods can tell the police where to look.

When the police have a suspected grave site, the alternative, still used too often, is to bring in a backhoe, destroying evidence and disturbing the remains, so that tiny details that provide important clues are lost. NecroSearch approaches a site like an anthropologist exploring an ancient city, gently removing one layer of soil at a time and sifting it for evidence.

Their first of many setbacks was when some of the pigs were dug up and scavenged by animals. Once they realized a human corpse was as likely to be scavenged as one of the pigs, this became an opportunity to bring in animal behavior experts to consider likely predators and how they would deal with the remains.

Jackson, a journalist with a talent for clear and compelling prose, tells the story of their accumulating expertise through the actual cases they worked on—not all of which were successful. Team members work as volunteers, asking only for expense reimbursement. Their payment is in the form of satisfaction—the successful application of scientific methods to difficult problems, aiding the police in finding evidence that will allow a murderer to go to trial, and, every bit as important to them, giving closure to the family and the investigators, often after years of fruitless searching and agonizing uncertainty.

Kevin Pierce gives a fine, energetic reading that draws you into the cases and what it means to the scientists when they are able to resolve one. “There is no statute of limitations on murder,” they say, “and no statute of limitations on grief. The truth does matter.”

***The Art of Forgery

paint-brushes

photo: Lynn Friedman, creative commons license

By Noah Charney – In this richly illustrated book, author Charney explores many of the most notorious cases of art forgery—a deception that dates to ancient Rome—and the often colorful characters bent on deception. Like all crimes, this one depends on opportunity and motive.

While Old Masters may be a forger’s more likely and lucrative target, what about modern abstract artists? Can you tell the fakes? Take this clever quiz!

Opportunity

Until very recently, the perceived value of artworks and religious objects was solely expert-driven, based on connoisseurship. If a recognized expert asserted that a painting was a heretofore undiscovered Rembrandt, for all intents and purposes (especially sales value), it was.

Today, science provides museums and private collectors with increasing protection. Chemical, radiographic, and other advanced techniques can analyze paper, canvas, pigments, wood, and other intrinsic attributes of a work. A common giveaway is the use of paints that weren’t available at the time the artwork was supposedly created. But science provides protection only if would-be buyers insist tests be performed before they write out their check.

Over the years, forgers have responded by becoming more skilled in reproducing the materials and techniques of the past, so that often their work can pass all but the most detailed examination. Detailed digital replicas pose a new hazard to unwary purchasers.

Those engaged in an art forgery racket also excel in producing false documentation and paper trails. These establish the spurious lineage and history of ownership (called provenance) of a work. Forgers rarely simply copy an existing work—it’s too easily identified as already hanging in a museum or private collection. Instead, they precisely mimic an artist’s style and favored subject matter. This new work is then passed off as a “lost” or previously unknown masterwork, with all the paperwork to prove it.

Motivation

Why do they do it, when the possibility of detection is ever-present? Charney says some simply like the challenge of pitting their skill against that of past masters. A German newspaper said forger Wolfgang Beltracchi “painted the best Campendonk that ever was.” Indeed, some forgers have been artistic geniuses, but underappreciated and undervalued in their own time. For that reason, revenge against an indifferent art establishment contributes to motive. Art forgery is not treated as a particularly serious crime and rarely results in lengthy jail terms (usually for fraud). Many former forgers have gained substantial fame after their misdeeds were exposed.

More rarely, copies of paintings are made and substituted for the real thing, delaying detection of the theft of the originals. At Prague’s Sternberk Palace, thieves skipped the hard part and substituted a poster for the original they stole; in Poland, more ambitious thieves replaced the painting they stole with a painted-over poster bought at the museum gift shop. It took days for anyone to notice.

Unscrupulous dealers—con artists, basically—persuade some artists to create works in a particular style. The excitement and pride collectors feel when they “discover” a lost artwork typically makes the seller’s job easier.

Charney describes numerous examples of fraudulent art from over the centuries, and his comparison photos add much to the book’s enjoyment. (Forgery of religious relics is a cottage industry in Israel and the Middle East, detailed in Nina Burleigh’s excellent Unholy Business, touched on briefly in Charney’s book.)

Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur “The world wishes to be deceived,” the book’s cover says, “so let it be deceived.”

“Super-Recognizers”: A Crime-Fighting Super-Power

cctv-cameras

photo: Kevan, creative commons license

The ability to recognize faces is a neurological trait that some people are simply better at than others. You can test yourself here. People at the lowest end of the spectrum lack this perceptual ability altogether. In these extreme cases, mothers cannot recognize their own children; colleagues don’t recognize someone they’ve worked with for years. At this level, the condition is called prosopagnosia, “face-blindness,” and some degree of difficulty recognizing faces may affect about 14 million Americans.

For many years, interest in this trait focused on people who have problems recognizing faces. When recent scientific advances indicated the trait exists on a continuum, this opened interest in people who have a superior ability to recognize faces. Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of London’s Metropolitan Police Service (the Met) thought he had a job for them: identifying criminals.

London is the perfect place to test Neville’s idea, according to a fascinating article by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker. London has the densest concentration of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the world—more than a million of them, mostly in the hands of homeowners and businesses. Keefe quotes former London Mayor Boris Johnson as saying, “When you walk down the streets of London, you are a movie star.”

Crime fiction writers will have a field day with this. The “super-recognizers” seem ideally suited for solving cold cases and identifying suspects in real time. On the other side of the courtroom, smart defense attorneys—I’m thinking Mickey Haller here—might chip away at the facial-recognition ability of “eye-witnesses.”

In the 1990s, installation of cameras was promoted throughout London as a crime prevention measure, but it turned out to be a weak deterrent. There were too many images, they were too hard to analyze, and though the camera recorded lots of crimes, nothing came of this evidence, because the images couldn’t be matched to specific people. Last weekend, NewYork/NewJersey bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was captured on camera at both Manhattan bomb sites, but it was the fingerprint left at the scene that led to his identification and the match with the man seen on camera.

Early on, Neville headed a unit that analyzed this CCTV footage, trying to make identifications. It was slow work. But when he learned about super-recognizers, he saw the potential benefit of recruiting people who might be extra-skilled at the process.

Now a small, dedicated unit within the Met is assembling an image database, which has more than 100,000 pictures of unidentified suspects in crimes recorded by CCTV. Unit experts compare these images with mug shots of known criminals. They collect images of the same individual at different crime scenes; if the person in one of the images is finally identified, multiple crimes are solved. And, knowing when and where multiple images of the same person were captured gives clues to a criminal’s behavior patterns.

This is, says Scientific American, a very special super-power.

Friday: The Future of Facial Recognition: Man vs. Machine?

Crime Prevention: Burglary

Burglar Alarm

photo: vistavision, creative commons license

Yesterday’s local “newspaper” used most of the front page to list the 25 New Jersey towns with the most burglaries, an overall number that’s been dropping. Whatever the community-wide data reveal, having your own home burglarized is 100%. So, how to prevent it? Can you? Geoff Manaugh, author of the new book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City (promoted as “you’ll never see the city the same way again”), presents a frustratingly balanced article on this topic in the May issue of Metropolis.

Criminologists and beat cops agree that certain home features may affect the likelihood it will be burglarized, yet it seems there’s always an “on the other hand. . . .” Decreasing the likelihood of a break-in involves a series of trade-offs that we mostly don’t think about much.

Something we probably ignored when selecting our house (and can’t fix, anyway), is its position on the street. Manaugh says a house on a corner is more likely to be broken into. Conversely, a house on a cul-de-sac or in a neighborhood with curving streets and dead ends is less attractive to would-be thieves. Ease of escape is the issue here. On the other hand, such neighborhoods tend to have fewer police patrols.

If your house is set back from the street or ringed with tall shrubbery, it may be harder to notice. On the other hand, it gives a burglar “the same privacy it gives you.” Clear visibility into and out of your home discourages thieves. For the same reason, a rainy night is burglars’ most-favored time for a break-in; people aren’t out on the streets, and it’s hard for the neighbors to notice that ladder up to your second-floor (unalarmed) window. You know, the ladder you told the painters or the arborists or the . . . , “Sure, just leave it out there for the night. You’ll be back tomorrow.”

Pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods are safer, unless the pedestrians are there because a house is close to a subway station or train depot. Neighborhoods near schools receive more patrols and a closer watch from parents. Those near woodlands provide an opportunity for escape.

A burglar sees your house as a set of entry and exit points–back doors, side windows, porch roofs, and sliders. Are they protected? Is your alarm system a preventive, or does it suggest you have something worth stealing? A friend lives on a block where every house has been broken into except hers. The other difference between her and her neighbors? She has a dog.

Finally, Manaugh asks one simple question applying to all of us: “Do you really know where all your extra sets of house keys have gone?”

****The Romanov Sisters

Tsar, Russia, Romanov

Standing: Maria, Tsaritsa Alexandra; seated, Olga, Tsar Nicholas II, Anastasia, Alexey, Tatiana

By Helen Rappaport – Prepare to have your heart broken. Like everyone, I knew that the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought a violent end to the rule of the Romanov family and the tsars. I also knew the gruesome trivia that Tsaritsa Alexandra had family jewelry taken apart and the gems sewn into her daughters’ clothing. In July 1918, when the family was led to the tiny half-cellar room where they were shot, at first many of the bullets struck the gems and bounced away, giving the fleeting impression the girls were impervious to them.

Rappaport wrote about that last horrific scene in a previous book, Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs, and she may have wanted to spare us—and herself—from reliving it. In this book, she follows the family right up to its final hours, and I found myself reading more and more slowly, trying to delay the inevitable.

Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia were 22, 21, 19, and 17 at the time of their deaths. The book follows the courtship and marriage of their parents, the births and childhoods, and their maturing to young women through remaining letters diaries, and reminiscences of friends and relatives at the time. The reader comes to know these intelligent, warm-hearted, and lively young women well, and their unnecessary death is devastating.

It’s perhaps inevitable to speculate about a happier outcome. What if Nicholas hadn’t unexpectedly become Tsar at the age of 26? What if he’d been a stronger, more experienced military and political leader, a more flexible one, receptive to the idea of constitutional monarchy? What if their mother had been less withdrawn, chronically ill, and mentally fragile and had fostered—rather than assumed—the love of the Russian people? What if heir Alexey hadn’t inherited the hemophilia gene? Would she not have fallen under the sway of the much-reviled Grigory Rasputin?

Even without any of these circumstances, what if Nicholas and Alexandra had taken one of their many opportunities to leave Russia or at least send their daughters abroad? Eventually, even England’s King George V—determined to keep Soviet Russia as an ally in the war against Germany—withdrew his offer to provide his cousins safe haven.

They girls lives were closely sheltered, and they saw little of life as it existed outside their palaces or aboard the imperial yacht used for summer vacations. Alexandra often dressed them all in long white dresses, and that’s the picture most people had of them: remote, inviolate.

Russia, Romanov

Olga & Tatiana with a wounded soldier

An exception arose during the War, when Alexandra, Olga, and Tatiana trained to be nurses. Alexandra couldn’t reliably fulfill these duties because of her health, but the older two—especially Tatiana—were tireless. They wrapped bandages, dressed wounds, assisted in surgery, cleaned instruments, and did everything they could to aid the wounded soldiers in their care, including raising funds for their hospitals. The two younger girls read to the wounded and wrote letters for them.

These soldiers, like everyone else who met them, repeatedly remarked how natural and unaffected the girls were, how curious they were about the lives of other people. They were not at all like what they expected Grand Duchesses to be or what their popular image was. Rappaport has written a well researched, engaging biography of these brief lives and a century-old crime.