Unlikely Testimony Solves Murder Case in ‘The Sixteenth Rail’

The riveting biography by Adam Schrager tells the story of Madison forensics botanist Arthur Koehler

In the end, it wasn’t his fingerprint or ransom money spending trail that sent Bruno Hauptmann to the electric chair. What sealed his fate in the 1932 kidnapping and murder of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby was the testimony of Arthur Koehler, a forensic botanist from Madison’s Forest Products Laboratory.

Adam Schrager, a longtime Madison broadcaster now with WISC-TV3, tells Koehler’s story in The Sixteenth Rail (Fulcrum Publishing, $16.95).

Koehler was the federal government’s top wood identification expert. He proved in three years of exhaustive work leading up to the 1935 trial that part of a homemade ladder found at the scene of the crime came from a floorboard in Hauptmann’s attic. To find the origin of irregular cutting marks on the ladder, Koehler crisscrossed the country, tracing its wood and tools that had touched it.

It’s a riveting biography, with astounding science and great writing that’s understandable even to those who have never touched a 2x4. Wood enthusiasts will swoon.

Karyn Saemann is a Madison-based freelance editor and book reviewer.

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