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Alexander KEITH Jr.






A.K.A.: "Dynamite Fiend" - "William King Thomas"
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Murder/insurance scam on a large scale
Number of victims: 88
Date of murders: December 11, 1875
Date of birth: September 23, 1830
Victims profile: Men, women and children
Method of murder: Barrel-bomb (dynamite)
Location: Bremerhaven, Bremen, Germany
Status: Commited suicide by shooting himself the same day. Died 5 days later

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Alexander 'Sandy' Keith, Jr. (1827–1875) was a notorious nineteenth century criminal from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Keith was born in 1827 in Caithness, Scotland, immigrating to Halifax when he was a small boy. The nephew of Alexander Keith, founder of the Alexander Keith's brewery, Keith worked for a time as a clerk in his uncle's brewery.

Keith became a secret agent for the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War, acting mostly as a blockade runner and courier. He was involved with Luke Blackburn in an infamous plot to send clothes infected with yellow fever to northern cities in the United States.

In 1865, he swindled his associates-in-crime and fled to St. Louis, Missouri, settling finally on the prairie. There, he married Cecelia Paris, a milliner's daughter from St. Louis.

Hunted down by one of his victims, he fled again with Cecelia to Germany, where they lived the high life in Dresden and Leipzig, hobnobbing with wealthy socialites and Saxon generals under the assumed name of William King Thomas. When the couple began to run out of money, Keith concocted a plot to blow up passenger ships and collect the insurance money.

This led to a major catastrophe in Bremerhaven, in December 1875 when one of his bombs accidentally went off on a dock, killing eighty people. At the time, the deed was known as the "crime of the century. Keith was aboard another ship at the time and was aware of the premature detenation of his time bomb, and the massive carnage. He went to his suite in the ship he was on and shot himself. He died in a week's time."

After the tragedy was revealled as a murder/insurance scam on a large scale, the disappearance of other ships were looked into to see if Keith and his possible associates were involved. One was the disappearance of the SS City of Boston which vanished in January 1870.


The Dynamite Fiend

By Ann Larabee - St Louis Magazine

In the final months of the Civil War, a gentleman took rooms in St. Louis’ Southern Hotel. He was a bear of a man with a huge appetite and memorably bad table manners. Flashing wads of cash, he impressed the staff with tales of his speculations on Wall Street. He intimated that he and the hotel steward, known as the Frenchman, had been daring blockade runners together in the Bahamas. Most St. Louisans who met Alexander King Thompson were completely taken in by his amiability, generosity and dash.

But Thompson was not what he seemed. Ten years later, his friends in the Southern Hotel would learn that they had laughed and joked with the most devious mass murderer of the 19th century. The amiable Alexander King Thompson hid an evil Mr. Hyde: Alexander “Sandy” Keith Jr., a Confederate agent from Halifax, Nova Scotia, whose greed would lead him to kill 81 people in a single blow and earn him the nickname the “Dynamite Fiend.”

Sandy Keith began his ruthless career early. Born in the Scottish Highlands in 1827, he immigrated to Canada when he was a boy. He went to work in the brewery of his uncle, Alexander Keith, a respected businessman and three-time mayor of Halifax. Envious of his uncle’s wealth and power, the younger Keith began forging his uncle’s name on phony bills of exchange and was probably responsible for blowing up the Halifax powder magazine in 1857 to cover up a gunpowder swindle.

At the start of the Civil War, Southern blockade runners began arriving in Halifax, eager for adventure and profit. Keith saw his chance and became their purchasing agent. He was so popular among the blockade runners that he became known as the “Confederate Consul,” offering his wealthy new friends the finest champagne in his rooms at the Halifax Hotel.

But even more devious operations were afoot in Halifax. As the war became ever more desperate for the Confederacy, Southerners hiding in Canada plotted raids and terrorist attacks across the border. Keith was in the thick of it, and, because he had earned their trust, the conspirators enlisted him in their schemes.

The most ruthless of these, at least in spirit, was organized by Dr. Luke Blackburn, who would later become governor of Kentucky. The good doctor volunteered his services to yellow-fever patients in Bermuda, collected their soiled clothes and linens and had the goods sent through Halifax to Northern cities for auction. Keith was involved in the shipment of this 19th century version of bioterrorism. Luckily, it failed; Blackburn was of the mistaken belief that yellow fever is transmitted through human contact, but mosquitoes are the real carriers.

By the end of 1864, Confederate operatives and blockade runners were eager to squeeze as much profit as they could from the war before their inevitable defeat, and they heaped money in Keith’s hands. He feigned enthusiasm for their cause while secretly plotting to destroy them. Inspired by Confederate bomb makers such as Thomas Courtenay, a St. Louis insurance salesman who invented a device with which to blow up Union steamships, Keith began to form an idea: He would use time bombs to blow up ships and collect the insurance money.

Some later believed that Keith had used a bomb to scuttle a ship carrying the theatrical costumes of John Wilkes Booth, who performed in Montreal in 1864.

To the surprise of his Confederate chums, Keith vanished in December 1864, taking with him $1 million worth of investments and Mary Clifton, a chambermaid from the Halifax Hotel. For a brief time, he hid in Boston and New York, enjoying a lavish lifestyle funded by his ill-gotten gains. But when a private detective, hired by his angry victims, came close to catching him, Keith abandoned Clifton and fled to the farthest point on the rail: St. Louis.

Deeply divided in its loyalties and with its own history of devious Confederate operations, the city was a harbor for Sandy Keith. Here, the infamous boat-burners sneaked around the docks, setting fire to Union ships and placing infernal machines in their coal bunkers. Some 60 ships, carrying soldiers and innocent civilians, had met their fates in this way.

Keith undoubtedly felt he had reached a haven in the Southern Hotel, a cheerful yellow-limestone building between Fourth and Fifth streets. Theodore Dreiser, who later worked as a news reporter in St. Louis, wrote that the Southern was “my favorite cure for all despondent gray days—where all was warm, brisk, colorful, gay, in fact. Here was no least sign of poverty or want, but only of comfort or luxury.”

But the tentacles of the angry Confederate network were longer than Keith had ever imagined, and he was tracked down again by the detective. Keith offered the man a $5,000 bribe, packed his valise with his remaining cash and ran again, this time 30 miles east to Highland, Ill., a small enclave of Swiss immigrants out on the Looking Glass Prairie. Here he met a small, dark-eyed young woman, Cecelia, the illegitimate daughter of an imperious St. Louis milliner, Madame Louise Paris. They married a few months later.

The couple settled down to a happy life, often visiting the bride’s family in St. Louis. Early one morning in December 1865, sleeping off the effects of a Christmas party, they were surprised to hear a loud rap on the door of their room in the Highland boarding house. Keith opened the door to find a U.S. marshal, a St. Louis detective and one of Keith’s victims, Luther Rice Smoot, quartermaster of the state of Virginia. Keith had stolen $25,000 from him. The men muscled Keith to St. Louis and locked him in the city jail until he could come up with enough money to satisfy Smoot.

It was a dreadful twist of fate, for if Smoot had never found him, Keith might have lived a quiet, law-abiding life in Highland. Instead, fearful that his other victims would hunt him down, he embarked on a voyage that would lead to murder and mayhem unprecedented in the annals of crime.

On a wintry day in January 1866, a panicky Keith and his wife made for New York and boarded a transatlantic ship bound for Germany. For several years, they lived the high life in Dresden with their stolen wealth, hobnobbing with expatriate American socialites and Saxon generals.

The couple burned through the money at a fantastic rate, champagne flowing like water at their lavish parties, until Keith saw bankruptcy looming. To prevent a humiliating downfall, he came up with a diabolical plot inspired by his old days as a Confederate agent: He would have worthless export goods insured for a huge sum and get them placed aboard a ship carrying one of his expertly designed clockwork bombs. The ship would disappear at sea, taking all of its passengers and the evidence of his swindle with it, and he would collect the insurance money.

Crossing the Atlantic with his deadly time bomb, Keith made at least two failed attempts to get the plan to work. Then he set his sights on the steamship Mosel, docked in the German port of Bremerhaven.

On December 13, 1875, traveling under the name William King Thomas, Keith took his bomb, packed in a barrel, to the harbor. Leaving the barrel with the porters, he boarded the Mosel and took a first-class cabin. Outside on the busy quay, the porters loaded the barrel into a horse-drawn wagon and wheeled it toward the ship. They were attaching it to a winch when it suddenly fell, hit the dock and exploded with tremendous force.

Witnesses described the scene as a battlefield. The blast caved in the bow of the Mosel and buckled the deck of the Simson, its tug. Cabins and decks were covered with sand, broken glass and pieces of wood and twisted iron. On the cobbled loading area of the dock, the explosion produced a black, smoking hole 6 feet deep and 7 feet wide. Body parts lay everywhere, and the air was filled with the moans of the wounded and the dying. Keith had killed 81 people and seriously injured 50 more.

From his cabin on the Mosel, Keith heard the blast that signaled his fatal mistake. He rushed onto the deck and looked down at the carnage he had caused. He took deep swigs from his schnapps flask before descending to his cabin.

He sat down and wrote a letter in heavy pencil to his wife: “God bless you and my darling children, you will never see me to speak to again.” He wrote another to the Mosel’s captain: “What I have seen today I cannot stand.” Then he picked up his revolver and pumped two bullets into his head.

But the world was not yet done with Keith. Rescuers discovered him groaning in his cabin and took him to the baggage hall that had been turned into a makeshift hospital. He lay among his victims as suspicious police inspectors interrogated him and finally extracted a brief confession.

Five days later, Cecelia was led to her husband in his final hours. Seeing him in such a terrible state, she begged the doctors, “Kill him! Kill him!” Then she threw herself at her husband’s side and urged him to repent, but Keith gave her no satisfaction. Instead, his last words were “I have been a thick head. The fellows in New York are guilty.”

After Keith’s death, a massive investigation ensued on both sides of the Atlantic to find his real identity and to establish whether he had had accomplices. The news spread rapidly in the international press, striking panic in ocean travelers, who wondered whether they might be the next victims of a new species of criminal.

In St. Louis, reading the sensational reports, the staff at the Southern Hotel had an eerie feeling that they might have known the Dynamite Fiend, described as a fat, bearded gentleman with a voracious appetite who constantly bragged about his blockade-running days. Seeing an opportunity for fame, one of the clerks sauntered down to the St. Louis Republican and told reporters of the mysterious stranger who’d come to town 10 years earlier. The newspaper ran the story, and the famous detective Allan Pinkerton, who’d been hired by the Bremen police to investigate, rushed to St. Louis to confirm it.

In Bremen, the coroner requested permission to preserve the Dynamite Fiend’s head for scientific purposes. The rest of Keith’s body was tossed into a pauper’s grave, but the head was placed in a jar and kept in a Bremen museum. Local legend has it that during an Allied bombing of the city, the jar burst, dumping the head into the general mayhem, where it was mixed with newly dismembered body parts. Finally it came to rest with the “unidentified.”

The flamboyant Sandy Keith, anonymous at last.


'Dynamite fiend' had deep roots in famous family

The Dynamite Fiend:
The Chilling Story of Alexander Keith Jr.,
Nova Scotia Spy, Con-Artist & International Terrorist
By Ann Larabee

LUCK and good instincts led American historian Ann Larabee to uncover the story of one of the 19th-century's notorious mass murderers.

The feared "dynamite fiend" just happens to have deep roots in a famous Canadian family. Rooting deep in the archives of Bremen, Germany, Larabee discovered the forgotten 130-year-old story of Alexander Keith Jr., a heartless man who could have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's classic horror story Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Most knew him as a jovial, prosperous businessman, friend of the town's well-heeled burghers and a good family man who loved buying presents for his children.

In reality, he was a swindler, a spy linked to international terrorism in the American Civil War and a pitiless murderer.

Larabee's narrative begins as a simple story of a well-to-do Keith family in 19th-century Halifax. The owners of Alexander Keith and Son Brewery were leading citizens and powerful political voices in colonial Halifax.

Unfortunately, a nephew, Alexander (Sandy) Keith, was the black sheep of the family. Sandy began passing himself off as Alexander Keith Jr. and associating with unscrupulous characters, including Confederate blockade runners who did their business in Halifax's posh hotels.

Young Keith had one goal -- to be as rich as Midas. He connived with the desperate Southern patriots and swindled millions from them.

When they demanded their money back, he escaped to New York and lost much of his money on the stock market. He abandoned his pregnant wife when the city became too dangerous for him but found a new one and more dupes to con in St. Louis.

When his enemies closed in on him, Keith fled to Germany and raised a family under the alias of William Thomas. In the early 1870s, the money began to run out, and Keith needed a new swindle to maintain his bourgeois faade.

Up to this point, Larabee's story is a commonplace sleazy tale. Yes, Keith was a bad man, but now he steps into the shoes of infamy. He was, argues Larabee, the first mass murderer to simultaneously exploit the weakness of one technology and the strength of another to serve his deadly purpose.

In the 1870s, steamship technology was new and dangerous. A ship's boilers sometimes blew up during the ocean crossing and the vessel was never seen again.

Keith surmised he could over-insure some goods being shipped to the U.S. and collect when the ship sank. All he had to do was make sure the ship went under.

To do this Keith took advantage of another new technology: dynamite. Dynamite was invented in the 1860s, and Keith believed he could construct a time-bomb in a wooden barrel, place it on a ship and have it explode when the ship was at sea.

In 1875, Keith arranged to have his barrel-bomb stowed on a ship set to sail from Bremerhaven, Germany, to New York. He had been only able to insure it for a few thousand dollars. Sinking this ship wouldn't make him rich; it was only a test of his evil plan.

Catastrophe stuck when dockworkers dropped the barrel and the ensuing massive explosion left, "135 orphans, 45 widows and 20 hopelessly maimed victims."

Keith was on the ship and in apparent despair tried to commit suicide but lingered on for five days. He refused to give police a reason for his actions and fears of a terrorist conspiracy gripped Europe.

Psychologists and writers speculated on the motives and character of the "Dynamite Fiend." After his death, Keith's head was cut off in the hope that phrenologists could analyse the bumps on his head.

He never expressed any remorse or made a confession to his wife. His last words to his doctors were simply, writes Larabee, "I have had ill luck; that's all."

The Keith family of Halifax was able to disassociate itself from William Thomas/Alexander Keith Jr. It squashed the story, and he was never heard from again. That is until now. Thanks, Ann Larabee.



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