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1783: Johanna Catharina Höhn, by Goethe’s vote

November 28th, 2010 Headsman

“To think is easy. To act is hard. But the hardest thing in the world is to act in accordance with your thinking.”

-Goethe

On this date in 1783, Johanna Catharina Höhn lost her head for infanticide … thanks to the vote of the man who wrote the most recognizable infanticide story in literature.

Eleven years before, then-22-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had been a firsthand witness to the trial of another infanticide who ultimately lost her head. This case very likely inspired the character Gretchen in Goethe’s best-known work, Faust.

Faust was a lifelong project for the author, but evidently the same could not be said of empathy for infanticidal mothers.

As a Privy Councilor to Carl (or Karl) August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Goethe was presented with the case of Höhn, a 24-year-old unmarried servant girl who cut her newborn son’s throat.

Infanticide was an Enlightenment wedge issue touching not only evolving standards of humane criminal justice, but “as the main eighteenth-century area of conflict surrounding social repression and female sexuality.”*

Was it justice to put mothers to death for infanticide? Was it efficacious for a state to do so — given that such crimes were committed in a state of desperation that might negate deterrence, and that the offenders attracted the pity of potentially unruly scaffold mobs?

And if the executioner’s sword** was not depended upon to keep women keeping it in their britches, what social policies ought to replace it?

Infanticide and its prevention was the favorite theme of the criminologists of that time. [Christian] Rothenberger calls attention to the wide discussion of means to care for the poor, to the evil effects of luxury, and then to a “formliche Kindermordlitteratur.”† [L.W.] Seyffarth, the editor of the best edition of [Johann Heinrich] Pestalozzi‘s works, says: “The question how infanticide might be stopped was at that time a burning one.”

The great interest in infanticide can best be brought to view by the contest for a prize of 100 ducats offered by [Karl Theodor] von Dalberg, intendant of the Mannheim theater, for the best essay on the subject: “What are the best and most practicable means to eradicate infanticide without promoting prostitution?” The contest closed at Whitsuntide, 1781. The offer of the prize was published in most of the newspapers and magazines of that time and was generally accompanied by editorial comments. The editorial in August Ludwig Schlozer‘s magazine Briefwechsel is typical. “There are crimes committed among us,” the editor writes, “which are the most horrible and at the same time the most common, and among these is infanticide; crimes which are related to virtues, virtues which develop into vices, and among these too is infanticide; crimes which experience teaches are not made less frequent by increasing the severity of the punishment, while not to punish them would bring disgrace to mankind and destruction to law and order, and among these too is infanticide … How long shall we lead to the block these unfortunate girls as sacrificial victims, whose love and the natural weakness of their sex, whose adornment of innocence and modesty has made them to be mothers and murderesses?

The Duke inclined very strongly to the progressive answer gaining ground at the time, and when Hohn’s case surfaced, he put to his aides the prospect of eliminating the death penalty for infanticide and replacing it with other legal sanctions.

Those aides produced a mixed response. Goethe, perhaps the duke’s closest advisor, was ultimately in a position to exercise decisive influence on whether to adopt the duke’s proposal. (Whether it was the decisive influence is a matter of some dispute.)‡

Despite his sensitive portrayal of the fictional Gretchen/Margarete in Faust, the great writer took a distinctly retrograde stance on sparing actual flesh-and-blood women … and Goethe’s position, which he formally voted only 24 days before the execution, carried the day.

The evidence is clear that there was substantial (though not necessarily unanimous) agreement with the duke’s proposal to abolish the death penalty for infanticide.

… Without doubt, then, Goethe’s vote carried considerable weight. How could it not? He was the duke’s best friend and thus easily the most powerful member of the Council after Carl August because of his immense influence over him … [and] Goethe unquestionably cast his vote to retain the death penalty for a crime that was widely seen in his time as resulting from social injustice and harbouring wide potential for extenuating circumstances (in principle, not only in particular cases). His vote thus ran entirely counter to his depiction of the case of Margarete in Faust, in which ‘extenuating circumstances’ abound. While the question of Goethe’s guilt is a moral one that need not concern us, his part in the responsibility for retaining the death penalty for infanticide and thus also for the execution of Johanna Hohn is crystal-clear.*

A Weimar journalist called it “state murder.”

Hohn’s body was delivered to a Jena professor for anatomization.

A recent German book, Goethes Hinrichtung (Goethe’s Execution), novelizes the case.

* W. Daniel Wilson “Goether, his Duke, and Infanticide: New Documents and Reflections on a Controversial Execution,” German Life and Letters, January 2008. This volume includes the (German) text of the previously unpublished Halsgericht, a very detailed “script” for the actual execution. This volume of German Life and Letters also features a ceremonious dialogue between der Scharfrichter, the executioner, and der Richter, the judge, conveying possession of the criminal and legal direction for her punishment, which would all have been enacted in public in the doomed woman’s presence.

** Hohn was beheaded with a sword; this was itself a “mercy,” as she could have been dispatched by drowning.

† Most notably, Die Kindermörderin by Heinrich Leopold Wagner (both German links).

‡ Note that the consideration at the level of the Privy Council was formally about whether to abolish the death penalty for infanticide in general — not directly about Hohn’s case, which proceeded on a separate track. It seems to be generally agreed that Goethe and all other parties understood Hohn would live or die based on the statutory decision.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Sex,Women

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8 thoughts on “1783: Johanna Catharina Höhn, by Goethe’s vote”

  1. Al says:

    It should be noted, that Grete in “Faust” is also executed. In fact she refuses to escape out of prison and willingly accepts her fate.
    For Goethe the death penalty for infanticide was a way to redemption, in fiction and in real live.

  2. adeline says:

    The Duke’s “progressive answer” is more sexist then to try the murderous (killing a post-neonatal child is murder) women by a jury and execute summarily. To assume a woman of child bearing age is naturally “crazier”, or “weaker” in fact undermines her position as a legitimate human being making her own choices. If women are to be pardoned for infanticide then under the same rules any crime committed in an emotionally vexed state is pardonable.

  3. Laura says:

    ICH WAR ENTAUSCHT ZU LERNEN DASS GOETHE, DER SO GENIAL WAR, SEINE ZUSTIMMUNG FUR DEN TOD DIESER ARMER FRAU GEGEBEN HAT..DIE SEELE IST KOMISCHE SACHE, KANN SO TOLLE LYRIK SCHAFFEN UND AUCH EINEN MENSCH ZZUM TOD SCHICKEN? ES WAR MORDER UND GOETHE WAR SCHULDIG DAFUR…

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