The Line Between Fact and Fiction in the Alienist Books

It didn’t surprise me to learn that Caleb Carr’s agent and editor had believed him when he originally pitched the story of The Alienist as non-fiction (see the afterword to The Alienist’s 2006 trade paperback edition for the complete–and amusing–tale of intrigue and deception). Even though I had known the novel was fictional when I first read it, many of the background details in the story had such a feeling of authenticity to them that I distinctly remember closing the book upon finishing it and wondering just how much of what I’d read might really have happened. Certainly, I had known that Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, his principal investigative colleagues, and the murderer had been fictional, just as I had known the major historical figures featured in the book were real; but there were minor characters mentioned or included throughout the story who had felt real, but who I knew could have been just as fictional as the principal investigators, developed to meet the needs of the plot.

Some of the characters who intrigued me the most were the other criminals Dr. Kreizler assessed throughout the novel in order to determine whether they could be connected to the case. Indeed, the first of these individuals provided us with our introduction to the Doctor and his methods in Chapter 4. After speaking to our narrator, John Schuyler Moore, on the telephone–and deducing in true Sherlock Holmesian style that Moore was still in his nightclothes–the Doctor requested his friend read an article in The New York Times (while dressing) about a certain Henry Wolff who had shot a five year old girl in the head. The Doctor explained that he was to conduct the psychiatric assessment of Wolff later that morning at Bellevue Hospital’s Insane Pavilion, and he wanted Moore to accompany him on the chance that it would prove relevant to the case.

nyt-markowitzThe original article Dr. Kreizler was referring to can indeed be found in the archives of The New York Times, with a date appropriate for the timeline of the novel (March of 1896). “HE SHOT A CHILD IN THE HEAD”, the headline reads, and the article goes on to state that the aforementioned Henry Wolff had shot Louisa Rudesheimer, the five year old daughter of Wolff’s neighbour, Conrad Rudesheimer, while Louisa had been sitting on her father’s lap. The two men, along with an additional third man, had been drinking in the tenement rooms where Rudesheimer and his daughter resided on East Tenth Street. The article indicates that Wolff had used inappropriate language in front of the girl that offended the father and resulted in a quarrel. Although peace was restored temporarily, the men continued drinking and Wolff drew a revolver, firing three shots into the air before targeting the five year old girl.

We can find another such example in Chapter 12, although in this instance the case appears to have been adapted slightly for the purposes of the novel. Specifically, Harris Markowitz of No. 75 Forsyth Street had been accused in the novel of murdering his grandchildren by poisoning their milk prior to gassing them while they slept. Even though the investigative team were already confident by this stage that the serial killer they were hunting was not a poisoner, they felt it might be useful to develop a “negative image” of the killer by looking into such cases; that is, they hoped that by being able to identify more clearly who their killer was not, a clearer picture would emerge of who their killer was. Once again, an article in The New York Times with a date that matches the novel’s timeline can be found that details a highly similar case; however, in the Times’s version of the story, Markowitz had not succeeded in killing the children and had only been accused of attempted murder.

So, if you’ve ever wondered whether some of the background detail in The Alienist or The Angel of Darkness have their origins in fact or are completely fictitious, it’s worth taking the time to look it up through whatever means you have available to you. Over the years that I’ve spent running this website, I can attest that doing so can provide an interesting insight into both the history of the period and the creative process involved in writing the books.

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Weapons in the Dark Ages: Military Technology of The Legend of Broken

This month’s history blog was written by a guest blogger, Tiffany, who has previously donated wonderful character art to 17th Street that can be viewed on the Alienist character analysis pages. In addition to art, Tiffany also has a keen interest in military history and therefore decided to focus this month’s history blog on the military technology included in Caleb Carr’s latest novel, The Legend of Broken. For more information about Tiffany or to contact her, please visit her art portfolio.

In this blog post we will discuss the weaponry and use of military technology presented in The Legend of Broken. The novel takes place near the Harz Mountains in Germany at a time after the fall of the Roman Empire and before the rise of Charlemagne in the later part of the eighth century. We will use the term “dark ages” to refer to the time period between A.D. 400 through 800, which has been also called the Early Middle Ages and the Migration Period.1 In this post we shall address what weapons were available during this time period and how they were used in battle.

The majority of weapons used in the Early Middle Ages and onward include the short- and longbow, the sword in its many variations including daggers and long knives, spears, lances, and halberds, as well as heavier siege artillery such as the siege tower and catapult with its variants, the ballista and trebuchet. Armor came in various fashions and styles, but almost always included the helmet, greaves for leg armor, and scale, chain mail or whole plate armor to cover the torso – made of any number of materials available at the time including iron.


HelmThe accoutrements of a Dark Ages warrior usually consisted of a helmet, body armor including the arms and legs, and possibly a shield to deflect bladed weapons and small artillery. A type of plate armor known as greaves — also called sarbein in The Legend of Broken (632) — were worn on the legs to protect the shins from blunt force. Chain mail was in much use covering the torso from shoulders to hips. Because chainmail could be penetrated by a well placed arrow, scale mail was much more effective in weapon deflection, but neither were more safe and damage resistant than plate armor, a whole piece of metal armor worn over the torso. The spangenhelm is very similar to the helmet mentioned in the novel, and is referred to by native etymology in the endnotes (667). One particular helmet found worn by a Frankish warrior of the sixth century provides insight to what Germanic warriors of this time and region would have utilized.

Swords and Bladed Weapons

SpadalongobardaIn the novel, The Legend of Broken, a few types of swords mentioned are “raiding”, “marauder”, and “short-” swords, or what is also known as an arming sword. Although there are several types of swords, as catalogued by Oakeshott’s typology2, we will focus only on those mentioned in the novel. During the Migration Period in the Germanic region, the sword most often in use was a type of Roman sword known as the spatha, a long, straight sword, which is possibly a descendant of the Roman gladius. The majority of swords at this time were made of bronze or iron available in the region, created by methods known as pattern-welding or damascening — a process of inlaying various metals into one another.

Historians have speculated that swords and other bladed war implements were named for the peoples who used them. The Saxons favored the seax, or sax, a type of dagger with wooden or horn hilt used by the Germanic people. Spear implements such as the Frakki or frakka  or “Francisca” were used by the Franks during the Merovingian period. The Longobardi were supposedly named — by the Romans — after their long-handled axe, or the long halberd.

Employment of the economic and easily crafted spear was used by cavalry and infantry. The spear consisted usually of only two parts, a leaf-shaped blade wedged into a long wooden staff. Another member of the long-hafted bladed weapon family was the halberd, typically a long handled implement with a metal axe head which was used to cleave and chop.


There are a few types of bows, but those most commonly found in this particular era and region, according to archaeological record, are short- and longbows, and composite bows. The longbow gets its name from its length which is usually similar in height of the person wielding it (between five and six feet). It is typically constructed from a single piece of wood, usually of the yew tree, but other wood materials have been found just as hardy. The composite bow’s design and construction consists of various materials laminated together such as wood, and animal horn and sinew. Both long- and composite bows were used by infantry soldiers and highly trained horse-mounted archers. Longbowmen required years of training to develop the strength to use a longbow effectively.

In later centuries, the crossbow would eventually replace the longbow completely mainly because of its ease of use and its efficacy of penetrating chain mail due to the mechanical advantage inherent in the mechanism of loading the weapon. | Continue reading →

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Feedback Trends

Many thanks to those who provided feedback a fortnight ago about the kinds of topics you would most like to see discussed at 17th Street in the future. As I’m currently too swamped with work to research/write about anything specific to the books this week, I thought that I would take the opportunity to share some of the trends from the feedback survey instead.

blog-topicsEvery survey respondent indicated that they had read both The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness, which is probably not too surprising given the primary focus of this website. However, I was pleased to see that most respondents indicated that they had also read at least one other book of Mr. Carr’s, with The Italian Secretary and Killing Time the most common of his non-Alienist books to have been read.

Consistent with the preceding trend, the overwhelming majority of respondents indicated that they would prefer to read about topics on the blog related to the historical aspects of the Alienist books, with subject matter related to the literary aspects of the Alienist books the second most popular choice. There was also reasonable interest expressed in topics related to the historical aspects of Mr. Carr’s other novels, although there appears to be less interest in the literary aspects of these other novels or general topics related to Mr. Carr’s non-fiction work.

history-topicsPerhaps the most interesting trend that I observed lay with the types of history topics respondents were most interested in reading about for the Alienist books. Social history related to the Alienist books was the most popular topic by a relatively narrow margin, with a fairly even spread of interest between New York history and true crime as the second most popular topics, and the history of psychology and the history of forensic science as the third most popular topics. Most respondents ticked multiple boxes for this question, which is why there is a fairly even spread among the second and third most popular topics.

Regarding which of Mr. Carr’s non-Alienist books respondents were most interested in reading about, The Legend of Broken was by far the most popular choice, with The Italian Secretary and Killing Time coming equal second. I can only suppose that even though respondents haven’t necessarily read The Legend of Broken, there is considerable curiosity among Mr. Carr’s readership about the new book, so I will do what I can to cover topics that might be helpful in addressing the types of questions Mr. Carr’s readers might have about Broken.

I also received some very creative and interesting new content suggestions and ideas about the 20th anniversary coming up next March, many of which I couldn’t possibly have come up with on my own. I won’t review these now but rest assured that your ideas have been heard and I will be doing my best to implement the most feasible of the suggestions over the coming months.

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