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Pictures of disguises in Dosi’s scrapbook via Getty Images
Pictures of disguises in Dosi’s scrapbook via Getty Images

Giuseppe Dosi, Italy's Famed Detective and Master of Disguise

Pictures of disguises in Dosi’s scrapbook via Getty Images
Pictures of disguises in Dosi’s scrapbook via Getty Images

Giuseppe Dosi has gone down in history as one of Italy's greatest detectives, a master of disguise who went undercover to solve the thorniest of crimes. Famous in Italian police circles for his pioneering efforts, Dosi has been getting wider attention recently thanks to the publication of a biography, the airing of a new documentary about him, and the digitization of some his papers, now in the Museum of the Liberation of Rome.

Born in 1891, Dosi’s first love was for the theater. He acted for two years and worked briefly behind the scenes, but he failed to make his career on the stage a success. Instead, he poured his love of performance into his job as a detective. His enthusiastic embrace of disguises became known as fregolismo detectivistico ("detectival transformism”) after the late 19th/early 20th century stage actor and quick-change artist Leopoldo Fregoli. Dosi himself had at least 17 confirmed disguises, including a femme fatale, two priests (one foreign, one Italian), a Galician banker, a German doctor, a Yugoslavian merchant, a nihilist, and a Czech World War I veteran with a bum leg. Five of them were fully fleshed-out identities complete with fake identity documents, background stories, and even their own penmanship.

Dosi’s impersonation of a Czech veteran completely fooled poet and would-be dictator Gabriele D'Annunzio, who in August of 1922 had mysteriously “fallen” out of a window and cracked his skull. Dosi went undercover to find out what had really happened—a politically sensitive investigation since D'Annunzio's greatest rival was one Benito Mussolini, who two months later would march on Rome with his Blackshirts and secure an appointment as the new Prime Minister of Italy.

Dosi discovered that D'Annunzio had been pushed, not by a political assassin, but by his volatile mistress. The case was quietly closed. D'Annunzio, who had dubbed his limping Czech guest the “liberator of butterflies and smiling rhymes” while unknowingly being investigated, called Dosi a "dirty cop" when he found out he was really a nimble Roman.

Actually, Dosi was the opposite of a dirty cop as we mean the phrase today. He was a man of resolute integrity, fearless in pursuit of the truth even when his bosses would have preferred he look the other way—and he paid a high price for it. In 1927, he took on a case that had bedeviled Rome for the previous three years. It was a horrific series of crimes, the rape of seven little girls and the murder of five of them, the youngest just three years old. The atrocities had been breathlessly reported in the national and local press, and the city was in turmoil. Mussolini saw the failure to solve the crimes as a major embarrassment because it made it seem like his law-and-order party could not deliver on its promises. He pressured Chief of Police Arturo Bocchini to arrest someone, and quickly.

So the police found someone. Sure, photographer Gino Girolimoni didn't match the description of a tall, middle-aged man with a bristling mustache and an imperfect command of the Italian language—he was average height, in his 30s, clean-shaven and Roman-born and raised—but he was a warm body, and between riled up public opinion and Mussolini breathing down their necks, that was enough for the police. They ginned up some blatantly fake evidence and arrested Girolimoni in 1927.

Dosi knew the evidence against Girolimoni was flimsy, and was convinced the real murderer was still out there. He reopened the case over the objections of his superiors, and quickly zeroed in on a more likely suspect: a British Anglican priest named Ralph Lyonel Brydges who had been caught in the act molesting a girl in Canada before decamping to Rome. In April of 1928, Dosi got a search warrant for Brydges’s room and found a note in a diary referencing the location of one of the murders, newspaper clippings about the crimes, and handkerchiefs identical to the ones used to strangle the little girls. Brydges had friends in high places, however, and diplomatic interference from Britain and Canada (his wife was the daughter of a very prominent Toronto politician) kept him out of jail. He was briefly committed for observation to the insane asylum Santa Maria della Pietà, only to be released and flee the country.

With the case against Girolimoni in shambles, the police quietly dropped the charges against him. But every newspaper in the country had splashed his name and face on their front pages as the "Monster of Rome" when he was arrested, while his release was covered only in cursory articles in the middle sections of just a few papers. He could no longer make a decent living because everyone thought he was a child rapist and murderer. He died in 1961, penniless and alone. Only a handful of friends showed up to his funeral. Dosi was one of them.

But when Dosi cleared Girolimoni's name, the authorities no longer had their patsy, and the only other suspect was far out of reach. Mussolini, who several years earlier had praised Dosi and recommended him for a promotion after the detective foiled an assassination plot against him, was deeply displeased by Dosi's dogged persistence. (A memoir Dosi wrote in the 1930s, which was critical of his superiors, didn’t help matters.) Dosi's police bosses, already antsy about him exposing their corruption and lies in setting up poor Girolimoni, again felt the pressure from the top to curb their man's hubris.

First they fired him. Then they just cut to the chase and arrested him. He was imprisoned in 1939 in Regina Coeli, a truly scary jail in Rome that during the Fascist period was packed with political prisoners. Apparently that wasn’t severe enough, because they moved him to Santa Maria della Pietà, where the police detective spent 17 months forcibly detained in the same psychiatric facility where Brydges—a certain child molester and possible serial child murderer—had spent only a few nights. Dosi was finally released in January 1941.

Before the end of the war, Dosi’s great courage and initiative would perform another historic service. On June 4, 1944, Allied troops under General Mark Clark liberated Rome. The Nazi occupiers beat a hasty retreat. A mob assembled at the notorious SS torture prison on Via Tasso to free the political prisoners and Jews who hadn't been murdered by the retreating Nazis. On the way out the door, the SS had set their papers on fire in the attempt to cover their tracks, and when the mob freed the prisoners, they tossed bunches of records out the window in a sort of riot of de-Nazifying the place.

Dosi, who lived on a neighboring street, showed up with a cart and took it upon himself to enter the burning building and save all the surviving records. He turned them over to the Allied Command, who appointed him a special investigator for two years. His testimony and the records he single-handedly saved from the flames, including the list of 75 Jews taken from Regina Coeli to their deaths in the monstrous Ardeatine massacre, would be crucial in the prosecution of numerous Nazi war criminals. In November of 1946, he rejoined the Italian police force as director of the Central Office of International Police.

Over the course of his long and storied career, Dosi applied his great energy and dedication to areas of police work that are now standard but were then considered newfangled. He wrote essays on scientific policing, was a vocal advocate for women police officers, promoted photographing and fingerprinting arrestees, and encouraged the preservation of cultural patrimony as well as cross-border law enforcement. He retired in 1956 with the title of Chief Inspector General. He also wrote several books about his detective work and lived a long life, dying in 1981 at the age of 90. He lived as he worked, pouring his tenacity, discernment, endless intellectual curiosity, and vision into everything he did. As he wrote [PDF in Italian ] in an article on police work in 1929:

In a sense, each of us is a born cop, for our own inherited psychophysiological constitution has at its disposal infinite new sources of knowledge. The difficult part can be to evaluate them precisely, to find them, link them, associate them, integrate them, to be able in the end to repeat in triumph the motto that a medieval sage wore engraved on an amulet: "Nil occultum quod non scietur." That is, we may not know something, but there is nothing truly hidden; with hard work, everything can be known.

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The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”

EXECUTION DAY

The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.

A NEW CHANCE AT JUSTICE

On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
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The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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