Posts filed under 'Beheaded'

1620: Sidonia von Borcke, the sorceress

Add comment September 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1620, Sidonia von Borcke was beheaded and then immolated in Stettin (Szczecin) — one of the most notorious witch executions in German history.

The Pre-Raphaelites quite fancied the Sidonia story: this is Edward Burne-Jones‘s 1860 watercolor Sidonia von Bork.

This Pomeranian noblewoman (English Wikipedia entry | German), aging and penniless, resided from 1604 in a Lutheran Stift, a secular convent for unmarried ladies. There she busied herself and the courts of the Holy Roman Empire with numerous lawsuits against the convent’s prioresses, other women in the cloister, and inheritance disputes with members of her family.

According to Gerda Riedl’s “‘Alles von rechts wegen!’ Frühneuzeitliches Hexenprozeß-(un-)wesen am Beispiel des Falles der Sidonia von Borcke” in Hexen: Historische Faktizität und fiktive Bildlichkeit, the frayed nerves around Sidonia finally snapped at a church service where she and the sub-prioress got into an altercation and were both arrested.

It was July of 1619. Sidonia von Borcke was a cranky 71-year-old spinster with a knack for making enemies. And then the sub-prioress accused her of witchcraft.

The ordeals of the next year occupy over a thousand pages in the archives. A wandering fortune-teller named Wolde Albrechts was slated with channeling the infernal powers for Sidonia: when put to torture, that poor creature soon admitted all, complete with the obliging accusation of Sidonia.

Wolde Albrechts went to the stake on October 9, 1619. By December, 72 impressive charges were preferred against Sidonia von Borcke, by now transferred from confinement in her abbey (where she had attempted suicide) to the public prison. These included the murder by sorcery of every consequential person who had died in her vicinity in recent memory, from the previous prioress all the way up to the Duke of Pomerania, whose childless death at the tender age of 44 the previous year had thrown the political situation in Pomerania into confusion.* (Not to mention sexual contact with her loyal kitty Chim, in the latter’s guise as demonic familiar.)

Her ashes were barely cold when Sidonia passed into folklore and thence to legend, eventually to be seized and considerably embellished by Gothic poets in the 18th century. Her countryman Wilhelm Meinhold‘s Sidonia von Bork, die Klosterhexe situates her as a beautiful young woman balked of her dynastic marriages who goes on a midlife jag as a picaresque outlaw before repairing in her dotage to the abbey heavy with grievances. English translations of it were wildly popular, including one rendered by Oscar Wilde‘s mum.

* Succession started passing to the late duke’s brothers, and the Harry Potter-esque House of Griffin which had ruled Pomerania back to the 12th century was done by 1637. Their destruction juxtaposed to Sidonia’s own would help cement the latter’s immortality.

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Feast Day of Saints Cosmas and Damian

Add comment September 27th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian, by Fra Angelico.

September 27 is the traditional* feast date of early Christian saints Cosmas and Damian.

Martyred in Syria during the Diocletian persecution, these Arabian brothers were reputedly physicians who did not charge their patients, even for premium services like transplanting an entire leg.

Cosmas and Damian graft an Ethiopian’s leg onto a white patient.

This has made them patron saints to doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, and dentists but decidedly not to insurers.

They were once much more widely known and revered than today, back when the mysteries of medicine and of faith intertwined with one another. The two are named in the Canon of the Mass, and multiple churches in Europe dubiously claim the honor the ancient doctors’ relics; their skulls alone reside simultaneously in Bremen, Vienna, and Madrid, while a church in Venice allegedly holds their non-cranial remains. Visitors to the Roman Forum will behold the beautifully preserved pagan Temple of Romulus, which was rededicated in 527 as the basilica of Santi Cosma de Damiano and still hosts weddings beneath its impressive Cosmas and Damian mosaic.

A reliquary for the skulls of Cosmas and Damian in St. Michael’s Church, Munich.

The saints’ day is observed in Brazil, where children on September 27 receive candies (Cosmas and Damian also count confectioners and children among their devotees). St. Anthony’s Church in Utica, New York, also hosts an annual Cosmas and Damian pilgrimage attracting thousands of people from across North America.

As two men intimate with one another who traveled and ministered together, they are sometimes speculatively ventured as early gay exemplars. (They’re traditionally accounted as brothers.)

* The Vatican’s 1969 calendar revision moved the feast to September 26, leaving September 27 to St. Vincent de Paul.

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1811: Anna Maria Zwanziger, “once beautiful, exceedingly beautiful”

Add comment September 17th, 2015 Lady Duff-Gordon

Thanks to Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon for the guest-post — part of her translation of Paul Johann von Feuerbach‘s Narratives of Remarkable Criminal Trials. Footnotes are original from the text. -ed.


In the year 1807 a widow, nearly fifty years of age, calling herself Nanette Schönleben, lived at Pegnitz in the territory of Baireuth, supporting herself by knitting. Her conduct gained her a reputation which induced Justice Wolfgang Glaser, who was then living at Rosendorf separated from his wife, to take her as his housekeeper, on the 5th March, 1808. On the 22nd of the following July Glaser was reconciled to his wife, who had been living with her relations at Grieshaber near Augsburg. Soon after her return to her husband’s house, though a strong healthy woman, she was suddenly seized with violent vomiting, diarrhoea, &c., and on the 26th August, a month after the reconciliation, she died.

Anna Schönleben now left Glaser’s service, and on the 25th September she went to live as housekeeper with Justice Grohmann at Sanspareil. Her new master, who was unmarried, was thirty-eight years of age, and though a large and powerful man, had suffered from gout for several years, and was often confined to his bed. On these occasions Anna Schönleben always nursed him with the utmost care. In the spring of 1809 he was seized with an illness more violent than any he had had before, and accompanied by entirely new symptoms, violent vomiting, pains in the stomach, diarrhoea, heat and dryness of the skin, inflammation of the mouth and throat, insatiable thirst, and excessive weakness and pains in the limbs. He died on the 8th May, after an illness of eleven days, and his housekeeper appeared inconsolable for his loss. Every one, the medical men included, took it for granted that Grohmann, who had long been ailing, had died a natural death.

Anna Schönleben was once more out of place, but her reputation for kindness, activity, attention and skill as a sick-nurse soon procured her a new home. At the time of Grohmann’s death the wife of the magistrate Gebhard was just expecting to be brought to bed, and asked Anna Schonleben to attend her as nurse and housekeeper during her lying-in. Anna Schönleben, always willing to oblige, readily agreed, and from the day of the confinement she resided in Gebhard’s house, dividing her time between the care of the household and of the child. Madame Gebhard was confined on the 13th May, 1809, and both the mother and the child were doing very well until the third day, which the mother fell ill. Her illness became more alarming every day; she was seized with violent vomiting, nervous agitation, distressing heat in the intestines, inflammation in the throat, &c.; and on the 20th May, seven days after her confinement, she died, exclaiming in her agony, “Merciful Heaven! you have given me poison!” As Madame Gebhard had always been sickly, and moreover had died in childbirth, her death excited no suspicion, and, like Madame Glaser and Grohmann, she was buried without more ado. The widower, embarrassed by his household and the infant which was left upon his hands, thought that he could do nothing better than to keep Anna Schönleben as his housekeeper. Several persons endeavoured to change his resolution. They said that this woman carried death with her wherever she went; that three young persons whom she had served, had died one after the other within a very short time. No one made the smallest accusation against her; their warnings arose from a mere superstitious dread of an unfortunate sympathetic influence exercised by her upon those with whom she lived: her obliging deportment, her piety, and her air of honesty, humility and kindness, protected her from every breath of suspicion. Thus she remained for several months in Gebhard’s service unsuspected and unaccused.

During her residence in Gebhard’s house various suspicious events occurred, without, however, exciting attention. On the 25th August, 1809, a certain Beck, and the widow Alberti, dined with Gebhard. Soon after dinner they were both seized with violent vomiting, colic, spasms, &c., which lasted until late at night. About the same time she gave the messenger Rosenhauer a glass of white wine, and not long after he had swallowed it he was attacked in precisely the same manner, and was so ill as to be forced to go to bed. On the very same day she took Rosenhauer’s porter, a lad of nineteen named Johann Kraus, into the cellar and gave him a glass of brandy. After drinking a small quantity he perceived a sort of white sediment in it, and therefore left the rest, but in a short time he felt very sick. During the last week of August, one of Gebhard’s maid-servants, Barbara Waldmann, with whom Anna Schönleben had had several trifling disputes, was taken ill after drinking a cup of coffee, and vomited every half-hour during the whole day. The most remarkable occurrence, however, took place on the 1st September. Gebhard, while playing at skittles with a party of his friends, sent for a few pitchers of beer from his own cellar. He and five other persons drank some of the beer, and were seized soon after with sickness and internal pains; some of the party, among whom was Gebhard, were so ill as to require medical aid.

This first inspired distrust and dislike of Anna Schönleben. On the following day, chiefly at the instigation of one of his fellow-sufferers at the skittle-ground, Gebhard dismissed her from his service, but gave her a written character for honesty and fidelity.

She was to leave Sanspareil for Baireuth on the next day 3rd September. She expressed her surprise at so sudden a dismissal, but was civil and obliging as usual, and busied herself during the whole evening in various domestic arrangements. Among other things she took the salt-box out of the kitchen (which was no part of her usual duty), and filled it from a barrel of salt which stood in Gebhard’s bedroom. When the maid-servant Waldmann commented upon this, Anna Schönleben said, in a jesting manner, that she must do so, for that if those who were going away filled the salt-box, the other servants would keep their places the longer. On the morning of her departure she affected the greatest friendship for the two maid-servants, Hazin and Waldmann, and gave each of them a cup of coffee sweetened with sugar which she took out of a piece of paper. While the carriage was waiting for her at the door she took Gebhard’s child, ail infant five months old, in her arms, gave it a biscuit soaked in milk to eat, then let it drink the milk, and finally parted from it with the most tender caresses, and got into the carriage which was to convey her to Baireuth, and which Gebhard paid for, besides giving her a crown dollar and some chocolate.

She had been gone scarce half an hour when the child became alarmingly ill and vomited terribly, and in a few hours more the two maid-servants were attacked in the same manner; and now, for the first time, suspicion was excited. On hearing from his servants how Anna Schönleben had busied herself, Gebhard had the contents of the kitchen salt-box analyzed by a chemist, and a large quantity of arsenic was found among it. The salt-barrel was likewise found at the trial to contain thirty grains of arsenic to every three pounds of salt.

To these facts were now added a number of hitherto unnoticed reports of persons who had been taken ill immediately after eating or drinking at Glaser’s and Grohmann’s houses, whilst Anna Schonleben was in their service. Moreover it came out that Schönleben was only her maiden name, and that she was in fact the widow of a notary called Zwanziger, who had lived at Nürnberg.

It is strange that after all these discoveries it was not till the 29th September that Gebhard laid information against her at the criminal court of Baireuth, which immediately appointed chief magistrate Brater to conduct the inquiry. He went at once to the spot, where the charges against her of various cases of poisoning were confirmed, and increased in number.

The most important point was to discover the causes of the sudden and unexpected deaths of those three persons whom Anna Schönleben had served in succession since 1808. The body of Madame Glaser was dug up on the 23rd October, in the churchyard at Rasendorf. It presented in a very remarkable manner all those appearances which the discoveries of modern science have taught us to regard as the peculiar symptoms of death from arsenic. Although the body had been buried for fourteen months, it was very little decomposed, dried up and hardened like a mummy, and the skin was the colour of mahogany. The abdomen was rather swollen and gave a peculiar hollow sound when struck. The coats and muscles of the stomach were converted into a substance resembling cheese in appearance and smell, and the whole body emitted the same peculiar odour. On the following day the body of Madame Gebhard and that of Grohmann, which had lain in the earth for nearly six months, were disinterred in the churchyard at Wonsers, and presented exactly the same appearances as that of Glaser’s wife. On investigation the intestines of the two female corpses were found to contain arsenic. In those of Grohmann the presence of the poison was not discovered, although his body exhibited every symptom of it.

Meanwhile, Anna Schönleben, or, as we will henceforth call her, Zwanziger, felt perfectly secure. On quitting Gebhard’s service she had left a letter for him in which she reproached him with exaggerated sensibility for the ingratitude with which he had repaid her care of him, and her devotion to his child. “If,” says she, “the child should be restless and unhappy, my guardian angel will say to you, ‘Why didst thou take from her that which she held most dear?’ If, six weeks hence, you should ask for me, you will hear ‘She is no more,’ and then woe to your heart, for it will break; woe to those who have calumniated me to you.” She then prays God to reward him for his kindness, begs him to continue his friendship to her, and promises to write to him every fortnight. This promise she faithfully kept; and both from Baireuth, where she actually quartered herself for a month upon the mother of Gebhard’s dead wife, and afterwards from Nürnberg, she sent him several letters, in which she tells him the state of her health, how well she was received, and how soon she hoped to get a place, and then recommends herself to the “kind recollection of her revered master;” or talks about “her darling child,” sends it kisses, and asks after its health. It is clear that she hoped no less than to be recalled by Gebhard, and that the true purpose of her letters was to put this into his head by every means in her power as frequently as possible. She was equally lavish of her letters to several other persons. Among others she wrote to Glaser and offered him her services again as housekeeper. After waiting in vain both at Baireuth and at Nürnberg for a recall, she went to Mainbernheirn in Franconia, where she hoped to be received by her son-in-law, a bookbinder called Sauer. But he had meanwhile divorced her daughter, who was in the house of correction for stealing and swindling, and was celebrating his second marriage on the very day on which his former mother-in-law arrived at his house. This disagreeable coincidence soon caused her to leave Mainbernheim, and return to Nürnberg, where she was immediately arrested on the 18th October, 1809. On searching her person two packets of tartar emetic and one of arsenic were found in her pocket.

We will postpone for the present the history of her life, which came out on her examination at Culmbach and at Nürnberg, though only piecemeal and in very general terms. Neither would it answer our purpose to follow the long course of examination, as it would be impossible to describe the cunning and adroitness with which the criminal contrived to evade all questions and remonstrances, or the patience, prudence, and skill with which the judge enclosed her within narrow and narrower circles, until she was no longer able to resist the truth. From the 19th October, 1809, till the 16th April, 1810, she resolutely denied every accusation connected with the charge of poisoning. On the last-named day she appeared before her judge with perfect composure, believing that all the evidence against her was exhausted, when he opened the proceedings with the unexpected announcement that the body of Glaser’s wife had been dug up; that upon minute investigation she was found to have been poisoned with arsenic, and that there was the strongest ground for suspicion that the poison had been administered by the prisoner. After the judge had represented this to her in various forms during two whole hours, her courage at length gave way. She wept, wrung her hands, protested her innocence, and endeavoured to mislead the judge in broken and unconnected sentences which she uttered with great rapidity and in evident terror, and at length confessed that she had twice given poison to Glaser’s wife, at the same time interweaving with her confession an atrocious calumny. The words had scarcely passed her lips when she fell as if struck by lightning, rolled upon the floor in strong convulsions, and had to be carried out of court.

The poisonings which Anna Zwanziger partly confessed and partly was proved to have committed, were as follows:

Justice Glaser, a man upwards of fifty, had lived for several years separate from his wife, from no fault of his own, when, on the 25th March, 1808, he took Anna Zwanziger into his service, at the recommendation of his son. She soon contrived to ingratiate herself with her master, and to place herself upon a footing almost of equality with him. She had not been long in his service before she began to be very officious in endeavouring to effect a reconciliation between him and his wife, partly indeed without Glaser’s knowledge or consent. Not satisfied with using all her powers of persuasion to induce Glaser to take back his wife, she opened a secret correspondence with the latter, who was living with her brother at Grieshaber, wrote to several friends of the family in order to induce them to assist in the work of reconciliation, among others to the neighbouring Catholic priest at Holfeld, enclosing a piece of money, with the request, Protestant as she was, that a mass might be read for the success of her undertaking.

She at length succeeded in persuading the wife to return, and the husband to receive her. Madame Glaser left Grieshaber, and, a few days before her arrival in Kasendorf, she wrote to one of her relations to announce that on the following Wednesday a formal reconciliation would take place between her husband and herself.

On the 22nd July, 1808, Glaser went to meet his wife at Holfeld, and on returning with her to Kasendorf he was met by a brilliant reception which had been prepared by Anna Zwanziger to celebrate the reconciliation. All Kasendorf was in commotion: the floors of the house were strewn with flowers, and the doorposts and walls hung with garlands; the bed was decorated with wreaths, and on it was pinned an ornamental sheet of paper with the words

The widow’s hand
Hath joined this band.

The poetry and the writing were Anna Zwanziger’s.

The real motive for her uncalled-for interference in this affair is obvious. In spite of her age and ugliness, she expected no less than that Glaser would marry her in the event of his wife’s death, and she herself confessed that she hoped by this murder to secure a provision for her old age.

Thus she acted the pious part of a peacemaker merely with the view of getting Glaser’s wife into her power, and welcomed and caressed her victim in order the more quickly and safely to sacrifice her.

Madame Glaser had been only a few weeks in the house of her husband, who treated her with the greatest kindness and affection, when Anna Zwanziger began to put her scheme into execution. On the 13th or 14th August, she put, as she declared, half a teaspoonful of arsenic into some tea which stood at the fire, and gave it to Madame Glaser, who drank it, and soon after was seized with vomiting. “When I gave her the arsenic in the tea,” said Zwanziger, “I said to myself, I must make my old age comfortable, and if the poison does not do her business this time, why I will give it her again till it does.” And accordingly a few days afterwards, on the 15th August, between four and five in the afternoon, she dissolved a large dessert spoonful of tartar emetic in a cup of coffee, and invited Madame Glaser into her room to drink it. She did so, and drank her death. That night she was seized with vomiting and pains in the intestines, which increased in violence, and in ten days she was a corpse. “When,” said Zwanziger, “I had mixed the poison in the cup, and saw how thick it was, I said to myself, Lord Jesus! this time she must surely die.”

It is highly characteristic of Zwanziger that in her confession she endeavoured to implicate Justice Glaser in crime; she accused him of having instigated her to murder his wife, of being privy to the attempt with the tea, and of having given her the tartar emetic to put in the coffee, with the words “There, do you give it to her; such carrion is no loss.” In consequence of this statement, Justice Glaser was arrested and involved in the examination, which, however, terminated in his complete acquittal.

About a week before the first attempt on Glaser’s wife, a certain Wagenholz, with his wife and son, came to call on the Glasers, and stopped to supper. Soon after, the whole party were taken ill with sickness and vomiting. Next day Zwanziger gave the remains of the food to the son of Harbach, the watchman, and he too was so sick as to be confined to his bed for some time. It is uncertain whether her object was merely to try the effect of her poison preparatory to her more important scheme, or whether the guests were unwelcome to her and she wished to punish them for coming uninvited, and her master and mistress for receiving them too graciously. However this may be, she denied the charge altogether, at the same time taking the opportunity of throwing fresh suspicion upon Glaser. “He was,” said she, “as savage as Satan himself against Wagenholz and his wife, and I thought at the time that he must have put something into the food, for I was very sick and ill myself.”

After Madame Glaser’s death, on the 25th September of the same year, 1808, she was taken into Justice Grohmann’s service. Here her envy and jealousy were immediately excited by the two messengers Lawrence and Johann Dorsch, who, besides their official duties, rendered various domestic services to Grohmann. Moreover she asserted that they constantly teazed and laughed at her, and it vexed her that they drank too much beer. “I determined,” said the prisoner, “to spoil their appetite, and took four pitchers of beer, two of which I mixed with tartar emetic, and the other two with a larger dose of arsenic; my intention was to give them the contents of these pitchers by degrees, not in order to kill them, but only to make them sick. I once set one of these poisoned pitchers before them, but they did not like the taste of the beer, and drank very little of it, after which they emptied another pitcher, which contained no poison.”

The two Dorschs felt no bad effect whatever, and Zwanziger never repeated the attempt, probably because her attention was speedily directed to a more important object.

In the spring of 1809 Justice Christopher Hoffmann, of Wiesenfels, visited Grohmann, who was then ill in bed. A few glasses of beer, which tasted flat and unpleasant, were given to him, but he cannot remember by whom, and immediately after he went to see Gebhard. Scarce had he arrived at Gebhard’s house, when he felt very sick and went out into the air, whereupon he was seized with violent vomiting. The prisoner denied having poisoned him intentionally, but said that she put the pitchers which she had mixed with poison for the Dorschs into the cellar with the rest of the beer without marking them, and that she was unable to distinguish the poisoned from the unpoisoned beer. “Thus then,” said she, “it is possible that he may have drunk some of the poisoned beer by accident, but it certainly was never my intention even to make him sick, for he was a very respectable and excellent man, for whom I had a great regard, arid who had always shown me every respect, as also had his wife.”

One day Madame Schell and her husband went to see Grohmann, and she drank a cup of coffee. During the course of her visit at Grohmann’s she fainted and vomited the prisoner denied having given her any poison, and there was room for doubt, as Madame Schell did not remember distinctly whether she was taken ill before drinking the coffee or after.

It was not juridically proved that Grohmann died by poison, but the unusual symptoms that appeared during his last illness, the traces of arsenic found in the exhumed corpse, and the opinion of the physicians attached to the court, rendered it not only possible, but highly probable. A probability, amounting almost to certainty, pointed out Anna Zwanziger as the poisoner. A person who had already poisoned one woman, who was in the constant habit of dealing with poisons, and who kept a large store of poisoned drink ready in Grohmann’s house, which she had, according to her own confession, already used to the injury of two persons on the very slightest provocation, such a person would look upon such a deed as a commonplace occurrence. Moreover she was constantly about her master while suffering from gout; sought to keep away those who wished to wait upon him, and was angry when others gave him his medicines. These suspicions were strengthened by her violent demonstration of grief at Grohmann’s death, and the cries and lamentations with which she made the whole house resound, more especially whenever any stranger came into the room. Nor are her motives for murdering him difficult to guess. Ill as he was, Grohmann intended to marry the daughter of the neighbouring Justice Herrgott, at Dachsbach. Grohmann’s courtship and the prospect of his marriage were highly distasteful to Anna Zwanziger, and she showed this in various ways. Every letter that went to or came from Dachsbach was watched, waylaid, and examined. Grohmann once told Madame Schell that he was by no means satisfied with his housekeeper; that “she imagined every letter he received contained some offer of marriage, and that, old as she was, she had actually taken it into her head that he would marry her.” John Dorsch also said, “Whenever I went to the house, and asked after the health of her master, her constant answer was, ‘Why, he is always ill, and yet, to be sure, he wants to marry.’ She talked in the same strain to Grohmann’s sister : “Your brother’s intended is accustomed to a merry life, and will never be happy in such a quiet place as Sanspariel, with nothing to do but to be always mixing draughts.” At length there was a report in Grohmann’s house that the banns had actually been published, and that the bride was expected in eight days; this threw Zwanziger’s tongue and temper into a state of extraordinary excitement. Just at this time Grohmann was taken ill, and in a few days he died. If we consider these circumstances and the woman’s character, the following explanation appears extremely probable: That she, who never entered any man’s service without reckoning upon him as her future husband, indulged like hopes of Grohmann. But when, spite of all the flattery and subservience by which she had hoped to worm herself into his good graces, she found herself disappointed, anger against her master, envy of the young girl whose good fortune she envied, hatred of them both, and of the marriage which she foresaw would cost her her place these were sufficient to induce a person of her disposition to resolve upon punishing Grohmann by death, and his intended bride by depriving her of her bridegroom and thus to avenge her jealous fury upon them both. The most charitable interpretation of which her conduct admits, is, that she administered the poison to him with the object of keeping him continually so ill as to prevent the marriage, and by making herself necessary to him as a nurse, of securing the permanence of her situation. She denied having poisoned Grohmann intentionally, but admitted that he accidentally drank some of the poisoned beer which she kept ready for the Dorschs. When she set the poisoned pitcher before them, they refused to touch it, and placed it on a table with the other pitchers intended for Grohmann and his visitors. “The three remaining poisoned pitchers,” she continued, “I placed in the cellar with those containing the sound beer, and, as I had not marked them distinctly, the pitchers got mixed, so that I could no longer distinguish between those which were poisoned and those which were not. It is therefore very possible that Grohmann may have drunk some of the poisoned beer, in the same manner as Hoffmann also did. I cannot deny that he vomited very often. But Grohmann was much too valuable to me that I should injure him purposely; he was all in all to me; and what he ate, that I ate too. He was my best friend, and never offended me, so that I had nothing to revenge upon him.”

According to the strict letter of the law, the intentional poisoning was not clearly proved, but no unprejudiced person could entertain any doubt of it. How improbable is the statement by which she attempted to explain away her crime! Grohmann is “her all in all; her best friend;” and yet she leaves a pitcher of poisoned beer in his way; she knows that the pitchers of poisoned and sound beer are mixed together in the cellar, and yet, regardless of the consequences, she places those which may possibly be poisoned before her sick and “highly treasured best friend!”

On the 24th May, 1810, the body of Madame Gebhard was again disinterred and shown to Zwanziger, in the churchyard at Wonsers. She touched the right hand, saying, “Peace be with your ashes! I wish I lay in the grave by your side; I should there be freed from my woes!” She was then led to Grohmann’s grave. “Yes,” said she, “this is the grave of Justice Grohmann! With his death, as with Madame Gebhard’s, I had nothing to do.” Madame Gebhard, however, was, as she afterwards confessed, actually poisoned by her. She therefore probably had as much to do with Grohmann’s death as with Madame Gebhard’s; and her asseverations at his grave may be considered as a sort of veiled and half ironical admission that she was as innocent of his murder as of Madame Gebhard’s. In Gebhard’s house, which she entered on the 13th May, 1809, as housekeeper and monthly nurse, her career of guilt was still more rapid.

Scarce had she been in the house four days before she selected the lying-in woman as her victim. “Because,” said the prisoner, “Madame Gebhard was very cross, treated me roughly, and scolded me for having, as she said, neglected the housekeeping, I resolved to poison her.” On Wednesday the 17th May, Zwanziger accordingly went into the cellar, where she poisoned two pitchers of beer, one with as much tartar emetic as she could take up between the fingers of her right hand, and the other with a still stronger dose of arsenic. On the same day a glass jug was filled out of the first pitcher for the lying-in woman; and Gebhard himself, unconscious of what he was doing, repeatedly handed the poisonous draught to his wife. On Friday the 19th May, the day before her death, the contents of the second pitcher were placed before the sick woman, who drank but little. “I did not give her the poison to kill her,” said Zwanziger, “but only to plague her by making her sick, because she had plagued me. I knew very well that the beer could do her no harm. Had I thought that Madame Gebhard died by my fault, I would have laid myself in the grave beside her; for she had always been fond of me; she was my best friend, and always helped me byword and deed; she praised me wherever she went, and was invariably kind to me. We were like two sisters; we constantly met and talked about economical matters.” The malice and duplicity exhibited in this statement surpass all one can believe of human depravity, and it presents a very remarkable parallel to her declarations about Grohmann. She confessed that she intentionally gave poison to her “best friend her sister her friend in word and deed,” Madame Gebhard; and on the other hand she asked, how could she have wished to poison Grohmann, who was her “best friend her all in all.”

No one can doubt that her assertion that she did not give Madame Gebhard poison with the intention of causing her death, was a mere lie. Why, if she did not want to destroy her, did she, after the first pitcher was exhausted, give to her mistress already dangerously ill the beer containing a still larger dose of poison? Nor does her assertion that she did it to revenge insult and unkindness at all agree with any other part of the evidence. It was completely proved by the evidence of a number of witnesses, and by several passages in letters found in her commode, that she had conceived the same wishes and formed the same scheme with regard to Gebhard as she had already done with regard to Glaser and Grohmann; and although she had no ground for hope that Gebhard would marry her, still there was always the possibility that if left a widower he might be induced to do so; and to a person of her character this was sufficient reason for putting his wife out of the way.

Towards the end of August, as we have already stated, Beck, a shopman, and the widow of the secretary Alberti, dined with Gebhard, and were poisoned. The prisoner confessed this charge. She said that Beck had occasionally teased and laughed at her, and that she gave him some beer mixed with arsenic out of the same pitcher from which Madame Gebhard had been poisoned, and which, when half empty, she had merely filled up with fresh beer. She declared that it was never her intention to kill him, but only to punish him for laughing at her. “I must confess,” said she, “that it was good fun to see people who had teased me made very sick.” She also acknowledged that Madame Alberti drank out of the same pitcher, but added, that it was not her intention that she should do so, for that she dissuaded her from it, and gave her a cordial and some coffee after she had been made sick by the poisoned beer.

She denied having poisoned the messenger Rosenhauer with wine, but confessed having done so with beer. She said that she had an antipathy to Rosenhauer because he told tales against her, and that she gave him some of the same beer that she gave to Beck a few days later, in order to punish him; adding that on both occasions she did no more than fill up the pitcher from which Madame Gebhard had been poisoned.

With regard to the charge of poisoning Rosenhauer’s lad, she did not deny the deed, but only the means alleged. She said that “it was contrary to common sense to suppose that any one could be poisoned in brandy, which is so clear that the least grain of dust could be seen in it; but that as Kraus had always been very rude to her, she gave him a glass of the poisoned beer to make him sick.” Her statement is in direct contradiction to the fact that Kraus was taken ill after drinking some muddy-looking brandy given him by Zwanziger; whereas he affirmed that she had frequently given him beer, from which he had never perceived any ill effects.

It is likewise proved that on the 1st September, Gebhard, Beck, his brother, who had been poisoned by Zwanziger only a few days before, the burghermaster Petz and the clerk Scherber, who were assembled on the skittle-ground, were all taken ill after drinking some beer which was sent by Zwanziger, at her master’s desire, and out of his cellar. Zwanziger resolutely denied any criminal intention; she asserted that she did not know how it happened; “that perhaps some sediment might have remained in the bottom of the two pitchers originally prepared for Madame Gebhard, that they may have been filled up afresh, and that she may have sent them by accident.” Nothing can be more improbable than this statement and nothing more certain than her guilt, according to all the rules of experience and common sense. She, to whom, according to her own confession, it was “great fun” to watch the torments of the people whom she had poisoned, might think it vastly droll to spoil the sport of a whole party and be entertained by the mere thought of their pains, contortions, and wry faces; not to mention that among them was Beck, whom she hated, and on whom she had played the same trick only a few days before.

Nor is her statement that she did all this with the same two pitchers, into which she had put poison on the 17th May, without adding any fresh arsenic to the old sediment, at all more credible; if it were true, they must have strangely resembled the widow’s cruse of oil. First, Madame Gebhard was. destroyed by their contents; next Beck and Madame Alberti each drank several glasses, after which they were both violently ill; then Rosenhauer and Kraus; and finally a party of five persons, who were all taken ill, and most of whom felt the effects of the poison for months. The following circumstance gives the key to a far more probable explanation: On the evening before her departure from Gebhard’s house, after he had taken the keys from her, she went into the cellar with Scherber, the clerk, in order to show him, what he could easily have found without her, the place where the candles were kept. As Scherber was going out again with the candles, she took up a little earthen jar, saying that she would take it with her, for that it had stood there for a long time past. She then gave it to the housemaid, and told her to wash it; and in doing so the latter perceived a hard white deposit, about one-eighth of an inch thick, in the bottom of the jar. This was in all probability the vessel in which she prepared the poison for the beer as often as she wanted it. She denied any concern with the sickness which attacked the two maid-servants, Hazin and Waldman, after drinking the coffee. On the other hand, she confessed that she put poison into the salt-box in the kitchen on the evening before she left Gebhard’s house. “I must confess,” these are her own words, “that on the evening before my departure I mixed the contents of the salt-box which is used in the kitchen with arsenic, in order that after I was gone everybody who stayed in the house might get some of it, and also in order to get the maid into trouble. I took a pinch of arsenic out of my pocket, went with it from my bed-room into the kitchen, whence I carried the salt-box into the servants’ hall, and dropped the arsenic into it while I stirred the salt three times, and made some joke about it.”

Now the store of salt in the barrel was likewise found to contain a considerable admixture of arsenic, and out of this very barrel Zwanziger had with her own hands filled the kitchen salt-box. There is scarce room for doubt that she who put poison into the one put it into the other; and yet she asserted her innocence in the face of all this evidence. “I can only suppose,” said she, “that several persons have conspired to destroy me.”

With regard to Gebhard’s child, an infant six months old, “her darling,” as she called it, to which she was accused of having administered arsenic in a biscuit and some milk, under pretence of affection, she stated that she did not give it anything in the biscuit, but that she put “just the least bit of tartar emetic” into a coffee-cup full of milk, of which she gave the child a few spoonfuls, and then threw away the rest, on perceiving that the tartar was not entirely dissolved. She says that she had no design upon the child’s life, but only wanted to make it feel sick, so that it might cry and be uneasy, and thus induce Gebhard to send for her back from Baireuth to quiet it: she then adds, that she waited in this hope at Baireuth for four weeks. That her account of the motives which led her to commit this crime is in the main true, is proved by various passages in several of her letters to Gebhard; but her endeavour to extenuate her guilt is as evident in this instance as in all the preceding ones; for the maid-servant Hazin states that Zwanziger gave the child a biscuit soaked in the poisoned milk, which filled not quite half a coffee-cup, instead of a whole one, and which she let the child drink right off, instead of, as she said, giving a few teaspoonfuls.

It appears strange that this woman, after confessing, as she well knew, more than enough to ensure her sentence of death, should have endeavoured till the very last to explain away and gloss over her chief crimes, and, in the face of the most complete evidence, have altogether denied her lesser offences. It seemed impossible to her false and distorted nature to be quite sincere, or to utter a truth without associating with it a lie.

When Anna Zwanziger fell into the hands of justice, she had already reached her fiftieth year; she was of small stature, thin and deformed, her sallow and meagre face was deeply furrowed by passion as well as by age, and bore no trace of former beauty. Her eyes were expressive of envy and malice, and her brow was perpetually clouded, even when her lips moved to smile. Her manner was cringing, servile, and affected, and age and ugliness had not diminished her craving for admiration. Even in prison and under sentence of death, her imagination was still occupied with the pleasures of her youth. One day when her judge visited her in prison, she begged him not to infer what she had been from what she then was, for “that she was once beautiful, exceedingly beautiful.”

The following story of her life is founded partly on the testimony of witnesses, and partly on her autobiography, which filled eighteen closely-written folio sheets.

Anna Schönleben (English Wikipedia entry | the slightly more detailed German) was born at Nürnberg, on the 7th August, 1760, at the sign of the Black Cross, an inn belonging to her father, whose name was Schönleben. He died only a year and a half after her birth, and before she was five years old she lost her mother and her only brother. After her mother’s death she was put to board with an old maid at Nürnberg, and two or three years later she went to live with an aunt at Feucht, who, she says, was a second mother to her; at the end of two years more she was sent back to Nürnberg to live with the widow of a clergyman. At last, when she was about ten years old, her guardian, a rich merchant, took her into his house, where she received a very good religious education, and learnt writing, reading, arithmetic, and the rudiments of the French language, besides all kinds of needlework, in which she acquired extraordinary skill.

She had scarcely completed her fifteenth year when her guardian determined to marry her to a notary named Zwanziger. She did not like her future husband, who was already past thirty, and for a long time she avoided him and rejected all his offers. At length, however, her guardian’s persuasions subdued her resistance, and in the nineteenth year of her age she became Zwanziger’s wife.

Married to a man whom she feared and disliked, and who moreover was always engaged either in business or in drinking, leaving her to lead a life of solitude and monotony, which contrasted most disagreeably with the gaiety of her guardian’s house, she endeavoured to divert her melancholy by reading novels. “My first novel,” said she, “was the Sorrows of Werther,’ and it affected me so much that I did nothing but weep; if I had had a pistol, I should have shot myself too. After this I read Pamela and Emilia Galotti.” Thus uncultivated and frigid natures excite their imaginations to represent as really felt emotions they are incapable of feeling. Such natures strive to deceive themselves as well as others by a mere grimace of sensibility, till at last it becomes so habitual to them, that they are really incapable of distinguishing truth from falsehood, and end by poisoning the very source of truth, the natural feelings. Hypocrisy, falsehood, and malice are fruits easily produced, and fearfully soon matured in a soul accustomed to disguise its real feelings under assumed ones; and thus it is that sentimentality is perfectly consistent with total hardness of heart, and even with cruelty.

The pleasures of sensibility were soon superseded by enjoyments more congenial to her character; she came of age, and her property was delivered into the hands of her husband, who spent it in amusements, in which, as was but fair, he permitted his wife to take part. They gave dinners, concerts, balls, and fête champêtres, and spent their days and nights in a constant round of dissipation.

A few years of this kind of life exhausted her fortune. She now had two children to support, and her husband was a confirmed drunkard, who often drank ten bottles of wine a day, and always wanted to be at the tavern; he was as irritable and tyrannical when money for this purpose was not forthcoming, as he was obliging and indulgent when he got it. The admirer of Pamela, she who had wept over the Sorrows of Werther, now offered her person for hire. “But,” said she, “I always had the delicacy to admit none but men of rank and discretion; for from my youth upwards my principle has ever been to stick to those who could advance my fortunes; and thus, I had the good luck to receive a great, deal of assistance from many distinguished men.”

After about two years, Zwanziger contrived a scheme for a lottery of watches, which for a time restored their fortunes. This improvement in their circumstances immediately brought with it a return to habits of dissipation; the course of life which Zwanziger had entered from want and for money, she now pursued from habit and inclination. A scandalous and expensive connection with a Lieutenant von B gave rise to a violent domestic quarrel.

Zwanziger left her husband, and went to her lover’s sister at Vienna, but soon returned to Nürnberg in consequence of her husband’s representations, where, at her lover’s instigation, she commenced an action for divorce against her husband, and obtained it after a short suit. On the very day after the proclamation of the divorce she remarried him, and, according to her own statement, lived with him very contentedly till the day of his death. She says that she ended by being positively attached to him, for that on several occasions he had shown “a very noble way of thinking, and a susceptible heart.”

On the 20th January, 1796, Anna Zwanziger was left a widow, after eighteen years of marriage. Her husband died after a short illness, and she was suspected of having poisoned him, but this suspicion was not confirmed on investigation.

Ever since her husband’s death Zwanziger’s life was one tissue of misfortunes, follies, vices, and, finally, crimes. Her patrimony was consumed, and every other source of income dried up. She was unable to collect in all more than 400 florins. With this sum she went to Vienna, as she gave out, to establish herself as a confectioner. Failing in this, she became housekeeper in several considerable families. She then grew intimate with a clerk in the Hungarian exchequer, “of very fine sensibilities,” by whom she had an illegitimate child, which she put into the foundling hospital, where it died soon after. She returned to Nürnberg after an absence of a year and a half. She had at first no intention of remaining long in her paternal city. But one day a certain Freiherr von W called upon her, and offered his protection, his friendship, and his love. She perceived, as she said, that in the Freiherr she had found a “very noble man,” and thereupon hired a private lodging. Here she was constantly visited by her protector, who provided her with money; but, according to her own account, respected her virtue. She added to her means by making dolls.

This connection lasted about three months, when the place of housekeeper to one of the ministers resident at Frankfurt was offered to her. Her noble protector at Nürnberg was so generous as not to stand in the way of her promotion, and she set out for the place of her destination with 100 florins, which he gave her. She did not, however, remain in this situation above two or three months, chiefly owing to her dirty habits and want of skill in cookery. According to her own statement, indeed, she stayed there a year and a half, and left her place for quite different reasons.

She then hired an apartment over a hairdresser’s shop at Frankfurt, for a month: entered the service of a troop of equestrian performers, whom she quitted at the end of eight days, as they were going to Bamberg, and returned to the hairdresser at Frankfurt, where a merchant took her for a short time into his family as nursemaid all this within the space of a few months. So many misfortunes in succession, added to the insupportable thought of having fallen from her station as mistress of a house and family to the condition of a servant, worked so strongly on her feelings as to cause her to behave like a mad woman. She wept, laughed, and prayed by turns. She received her mistress’s orders with a laugh, and went obediently away, but never executed them.

In her extreme need she applied by letter to her noble friend the Freiherr, who accordingly again offered her his protection, and on her arrival at Nürnberg received her with open arms. “But, to her
astonishment” so she would have it believed “she now found a great alteration in his manners. He, a married man, grew free in speech and conduct, and at last so far forgot his dignity” as to cause her to have the prospect of becoming a mother.”* As soon as her protector was informed of this fact, his manner became colder and his visits less frequent, and she soon ascertained that he paid far greater attention to an actress of considerable reputation in Germany, who was then at Nürnberg. This shock, as she pretended, brought on a miscarriage; and not content with this, on the following day she borrowed a lancet from the people of the house and opened a vein in each arm, but, as she said, “was stopped in the execution of her purpose, and lost only a teacupful of blood.” The owner of the lodging called upon Freiherr von W , told him what had happened, and showing him the fatal lancet, induced him to visit this female Werther on the following day. The Freiherr appeared, but not as a penitent. When the teacupful of blood was shown to him, he laughed at her folly, and after a scene of violent reproaches on her side he turned his back upon her, and never saw her again. Burning for revenge, she collected his letters and sent them to his wife. She then went with Siegwart in her pocket, and accompanied by her maid, to the Pegnitz, resolved, as she asserted, to drown herself. She seated herself on the bank of the river, and read Siegwart, till she carne to the song “Mein leben ist so traurig,” &c., whereupon she jumped into the stream. Two fishermen who were near at hand rescued her, with no other injury than a thorough wetting. A change of clothes was immediately brought her, and the wet ones were carried to the Freiherr as evidence of her second attempt at suicide.

The maid who conveyed them received from the Freiherr 25 florins, with the recommendation to her mistress to quit Nürnberg as soon as possible. She accordingly went to Ratisbon that very night, without even returning to her lodging.

It is evident that the object of these two attempts at self-destruction was the same. She let herself blood with no intention to bleed to death; and jumped into the water merely that she might be pulled out again. Nevertheless she ascribed, and no doubt truly, her hatred of mankind to the faithless and hard-hearted conduct of her protector. She said in one of her examinations, “It is all Freiherr von W’s fault that my heart is so hard. When I opened my veins and he saw my blood, he only laughed. And when I reproached him with having once before ruined a poor girl who drowned herself and her child by him, he laughed again. My feelings were terrible, and when I afterwards did anything wicked, I said to myself, No one ever pitied me, and therefore I will show no
pity to others

At Ratisbon she lay ill for three weeks of a fever; she then went to Vienna, thence back to Nürnberg, and finally into Thuringia, where in 1804 she entered the service of Kammerherr von S at Weimar, as housemaid. According to her account all the servants in the house were hard worked and ill paid, for which reason she soon got tired of it and resolved to leave it secretly without giving warning, and to carry away something “to make herself amends.” “My plan,” says she, “succeeded admirably. One day while my master and mistress were at dinner, I was told to play with the child to keep it quiet. I accordingly went with it into the drawing-room, where there was a small round table with a drawer, in which were a diamond ring, a number of pearls, earrings, jewels, and other such trinkets. Where, thought I, such things as these are left for a child to play with, it is clear that they are not much valued; if they were, they would be locked up. At that moment the child was playing with a ring-case, and, after rolling it to and fro, put it into my hand; I opened it, and on seeing the ring I felt as if some one stood beside me and said “Keep it!” I obeyed the inspiration, put the child to sleep, and quitted the house and the town before my master and mistress had left the dinner-table.” This ingenious romance, in which she ascribes a deed which she had unguardedly owned to be premeditated, to the sudden inspiration of an evil spirit, and which is moreover calculated to give an unfavourable idea of the habits of order and care of her mistress, is utterly inconsistent with the very prosaic account of the affair given by the latter, who declares that the ring was taken out of a locked escritoire, the key of which was kept in her own work-basket.

Having escaped from Weimar with her booty, Zwanziger took refuge with her son-in-law Sauer, a bookbinder, at Mainbernheim. Scarcely, however, had she been three days in his house, when a newspaper fell into his hands containing an advertisement from Weimar for the apprehension of his mother-in-law on the charge of having stolen a diamond ring. He immediately turned her out of his house, and on the same day she went to Würzburg, whence she had the audacity to write to the master whom she had robbed, reproaching him for bringing her into misfortune by this public advertisement. And indeed it had fallen upon her like a thunderbolt; her name was dishonoured, she was outlawed and civilly dead; and in order to be tolerated among men she was forced as it were to cease to exist in her own person, and from this time forward she exchanged the name of Zwanziger for her maiden name of Schönleben.

She wandered about Franconia for some time, staying now in one place and now in another, and finding temporary shelter and assistance chiefly among people of rank and education. At length, in the year 1805, she found a provision in the little town of Neumarkt, in the upper Palatinate. She established herself there to teach needlework to young girls, got a number of pupils, besides earning a good deal by sewing, and, according to the testimony of the magistrates, won universal good will by her industry and her decorous behaviour. But her fate, or rather her restless discontented spirit, would not suffer her to remain quiet. Unhappily for her, old General N. came to stay a while at Neumarkt. She contrived to insinuate herself into the old gentleman’s favour, who descended to the closest familiarity with her, and on one occasion promised to provide for her. She was again filled with the memory of bygone days, in which she enjoyed the protection of “distinguished noblemen,” and fancied that, old as she was, those days were now about to return. She already dreamed of going to Munich as the mistress of “his Excellency.” She indulged these visions with feelings of perfect security, as she had “always heard that the Catholics nearly always kept their word.” General N. left Neumarkt, and soon after she wrote to him, but received no answer. Some time after she wrote again, and falsely told him that she was with child. But instead of an answer, she received, through the hands of a clergyman, a trifling sum of money to stop her importunities. Not yet discouraged, she left Neumarkt, where she had found peace and support for a whole year, and went to Munich to present herself in person before his Excellency, but was refused admission. She wrote a letter to him from the inn, but received a verbal answer through a secretary or servant to the effect that she was no longer to trouble his Excellency with her foolish impertinence; he also sent her a small sum of money for her travelling expenses.

Thus forced to leave Münich, she went to several different places in succession till her destiny led her to Pegnitz in 1807, and from thence to Kasendorf and Sanspareil, the scene of her greater crimes.

In her youth this woman showed herself irresolute, coquettish, superficially accomplished, and perverted by reading sentimental novels. Always the slave of circumstances, she at first gave herself up to folly and dissipation, until she gradually sunk into vice, and at last sold her person for money; and thus, with honour and self-respect, she lost her last social restraint and support.

Her vanity, which she dignified with the name of delicate sensibility, drew her towards the higher classes; she was often compelled to please and attract men whom she did not like, to assume a cheerful countenance among strangers by whom she was repulsed and humbled, and to smother the passions which were raging within her. She was too restless to live honestly by the work of her hands in quiet and retirement, and too proud to be satisfied as a mere domestic servant; she therefore affected great zeal in the service of her various masters, and endeavoured to place herself upon such a confidential footing with them as to preclude all exercise of authority on their part. Thus, always acting a part, and forced to appear different to what she really was, she learnt the art of accommodating herself to those with whom she lived, and lost what little truth and honesty was still left in her. She became false, cunning, smooth-tongued, and hypocritical. There was a smile upon her lips, while within there was burning hatred; her mouth spoke of God, while her heart took counsel of Satan; she sowed hatred, while she spoke the words of conciliation; her praises were calumnies, and her calumny was concealed in praise; when forced to speak the truth, she invariably coupled with it a lie. But she was not yet prepared to become a poisoner, and a compounder of poisons, as she showed herself at Kasendorf and Sanspareil. With no worse a character she might still belong to the world; with these vices a man may command a distinguished place in the best society, as they frequently form the basis of what in fashionable life is called knowledge of the world.

But Zwanziger thought herself unfortunate, and in her this feeling severed all the ties of human sympathy. Persecuted by destiny, or rather by the consequences of her own faults and vices, her ever ready self-love led her to ascribe every hope deceived, and every evil that befel her, to the malice or the cruelty of mankind. With such dispositions as these, is it surprising that her heart should soon be filled with envy and mischief?

After being for twenty years a wanderer on the face of the earth, nearly fifty years of age, and still homeless, friendless, and only endured among men by concealing her real name, she now anxiously sought a resting-place and a provision, and that not as the maid-servant she now was, but as the mistress of a house which she had formerly been. She could no longer endure to belong always to others, and never to herself; continually to cringe and flatter, and to affect zeal in the service of those whom in her heart she hated; to be always dependent and subservient, while her soul was filled with the recollection of bygone days, in which she was the object of attention and flattery. She was resolved to escape from this position, or at all events to find some compensation for it.

But no means of acquiring independence presented itself to her within the pale of social order, till at length she discovered the secret of a hidden power, by the exercise of which she might not only emancipate herself from restraint, but also rule unseen and uncontrolled. This secret power was poison.

As Zwanziger never made a complete and sincere confession, we have no means of knowing at what time and on what inducement the idea first occurred to her whether suddenly or by slow degrees whether she at once formed a systematic plan, or whether it developed itself little by little and almost unconsciously in her mind. Her confession almost always leaves us in the dark with regard to the secret springs which guided her actions, but the actions themselves are so numerous and so clear, that we may trace them to their source with perhaps as much certainty as the most open confession could do for us.

Thus much is clearly proved by her whole course of action, that we cannot attribute it, as in the case of ordinary criminals, to any one ruling passion, or to one especial motive. Her attachment to poison was based upon the proud consciousness of possessing a power which enabled her to break through every restraint, to attain every object, to gratify every inclination, and to determine the very existence of others. Poison was the magic wand with which she ruled those whom she outwardly obeyed, and opened the way to her fondest hopes. Poison enabled her to deal out death, sickness, and torture to all who offended her or stood in her way — it punished every slight — it prevented the return of unwelcome guests — it disturbed those social pleasures which it galled her not to share — it afforded her amusement by the contortions of the victims, and an opportunity of ingratiating herself by affected sympathy with their sufferings — it was the means of throwing suspicion upon innocent persons, and of getting fellow-servants into trouble. If she flattered herself with the prospect of marrying an already married man, at her will wives descended into the grave, and left their husbands free for her. She grudged the bride her bridegroom, and the wedding-feast was held in vain. In time mixing and giving poison became her constant occupation; she practised it in jest and in earnest, and at last with real passion for poison itself, without reference to the object for which it was given. She grew to love it from long habit and from gratitude for its faithful services, she looked upon it as her truest friend, and made it her constant companion. At her apprehension arsenic was found in her pocket, and when it was laid before her at Culmbach to be identified, she seemed to tremble with pleasure, and gazed upon the white powder with eyes beaming with rapture. This love for poison may perhaps in some degree explain why she, who had confessed the most atrocious crimes and was under sentence of death, in her written memoirs speaks of her deeds as “slight errors,” accuses of cruelty and injustice those who could bring destruction upon her for the sake of such “trifling offences,” and boasts of her “piety” as only “too great,” and as the origin of all her misfortunes. So true is it that habit reconciles us to everything, and that we are inclined to excuse the most atrocious crimes when they are committed by one we love.

On the 7th of July, 1811, the court at Bamberg sentenced Anna Margaret Zwanziger to have her head cut off by the sword, and her body to be afterwards laid upon the wheel.

The sentence of death received the royal confirmation, accompanied by the command that the exposure of the body on the wheel be omitted.

Zwanziger received her sentence without any perceptible emotion, and signed the papers presented to her with a firm hand. She passed the three days which remained to her of life with perfect composure. She confessed to her judge that her death was fortunate for mankind, for that it would have been impossible to her to discontinue her trade of poisoning. On the day before her execution she wrote, in the presence of the judge, a farewell letter to one of her friends at Nürnberg, in which she thanks her in measured terms for the friendship she had shown her, begs her forgiveness and sympathy, sends her love to other persons, and concludes thus: “I must now end; the hour will soon strike at which my woes will cease. Pray for me. The 17th of September is the day fixed for my death, on which I shall receive from God the reward of my actions. I have already ceased to belong to this world.” She wished to prove to the judge her sense of the kindness he had shown to her by the strange request that he would allow her, if it were possible, to appear to him after her death, and to give him ocular demonstration of the immortality of the soul. She remained constant to her character on the day of her execution. She listened to her sentence with the greatest composure, and without shedding a tear. While it was read she held her handkerchief before her face, as the crowd put her to shame; and when the wand was broken over her,** she took courteous leave of the judge and officers of the court, as of some every-day company.

A short time before her execution, the judge appealed to her conscience to confess the innocence of Justice Glaser; but she persisted in her slanderous accusation that he had participated in her first murder, and with this lie upon her soul she laid her guilty head upon the block.

* This was probably a mere pretext to attach her lover to her more firmly.

** “Breaking the wand” in Germany answers to “putting on the black cap” in England.

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1723: Hermann Christian von Wolffradt, Chancellor of Mecklenburg-Schwerin

Add comment September 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Hermann Christian von Wolffradt was beheaded by the German duchy of Mecklenburg which he had long served as a minister of state.

Pomerania, the territorial strip along the south of the Baltic Sea,* has often been divided in its history — as it is now (between Germany and Poland) and as it was then (between Sweden and the emerging Prussian empire — with Mecklenburg-Schwerin still an independent principality destined eventually to be subsumed into Prussia/Germany). Various products of the noble Wolffradt house lived and served the different realms that planted flags in Pomerania; our man’s father, also named Hermann von Wolffradt, was chancellor of Swedish Pomerania.**

Our Hermann Christian was a chip off the old block, but since he got a slice of the patrimony on the Prussian side, he climbed the ranks of the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

He was a fixture in the court of Duke Friedrich Wilhelm I (not to be confused with his contemporary Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, Frederick the Great’s severe father). But Wolffradt’s relationship with Friedrich Wilhelm’s son and successor, Karl Leopold, proved to be a strained one even as Wolffradt reached the position of Chancellor in 1721. This was no great distinction, as Karl Leopold’s relations were rocky with just about everyone; he called in Russian troops to beef with the Swedes, and so alienated the Mecklenburg estates that by 1728 the Holy Roman Emperor had him deposed.

Karl Leopold might have first suspected his chancellor — whose wife was incidentally also Karl Leopold’s mistress — of conniving with the duchy’s knights against him in the 1710s. By 1721 the duke was on his guard against his minister once more, and contrived to convict him of disloyalty and have him beheaded at Dömitz.

* Its name derives from the Slavic “po more” — “by the sea”.

** And our executed Hermann’s younger brother Carl Gustav von Wolffradt was a general in the Swedish army, while Carl’s most notable son was Erich Magnus von Wolffradt, a Prussian general.

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258: St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage

Add comment September 14th, 2015 Headsman

The Christian bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, was condemned by Roman authorities on this date and immediately beheaded.

Not one of your dubious ancient martyrs fogged with legend, Cyprian was a major public figure in his own time; dozens of epistles and treatises of his survive. An epidemic that ravaged the Roman Empire in the 250s and 260s is known from his description of it; hence it is remembered as the Plague of Cyprian.

The real-life Cyprian had different plagues to fight.

The essential challenge of Cyprian’s day — and the one that would see him to martyrdom — was the onset of anti-Christian persecution after the relative tolerance of the 240s. Cranky senator turned general Decius claimed the purple in 249 on a programme of traditional values that included a demand that all* obtain a magistrate’s certificate confirming that they had performed public sacrifice to the pagan gods. We don’t want anyone tempting divine vengeance here.

The Christian community had grown, little molested of late, to encompass many peaceable adherents who were not necessarily prepared to sell their lives over a stick of incense. Now, it fragmented under the Decian persecution — which was applied by different governors with varying levels of severity. Some Christians made the requisite sacrifices; others paid bribes to get the paperwork. Some fled to hiding: Cyprian himself did so, and some Christian ultras criticized him for failing to embrace martyrdom.

Decius died in 251, leaving the Christian minority with a controversy over how to handle the so-called lapsi who had made some concession to the idols of Rome: perspectives arrayed from the most lax (welcome everyone back with minimal hassle) to the most punitive (expel them all: this was the Novatian heresy). Cyprian had a middle-ground position in this dispute; his De Lapsis preserves his intervention, accepting readmission but under conditions of suitable penance administered by the clergy.

In such a case there remains only penitence which can make atonement. But they who take away repentance for a crime, close the way of atonement. Thus it happens that, while by the rashness of some a false safety is either promised or trusted, the hope of true safety is taken away.

But you, beloved brethren, whose fear is ready towards God, and whose mind, although it is placed in the midst of lapse, is mindful of its misery, do you in repentance and grief look into your sins; acknowledge the very grave sin of your conscience; open the eyes of your heart to the understanding of your sin, neither despairing of the Lord’s mercy nor yet at once claiming His pardon. God, in proportion as with the affection of a Father He is always indulgent and good, in the same proportion is to be dreaded with the majesty of a judge. Even as we have sinned greatly, so let us greatly lament. To a deep wound let there not be wanting a long and careful treatment; let not the repentance be less than the sin. Think you that the Lord can be quickly appeased, whom with faithless words you have denied, to whom you have rather preferred your worldly estate, whose temple you have violated with a sacrilegious contact? Think you that He will easily have mercy upon you whom you have declared not to be your God? You must pray more eagerly and entreat; you must spend the day in grief; wear out nights in watchings and weepings; occupy all your time in wailful lamentations; lying stretched on the ground, you must cling close to the ashes, be surrounded with sackcloth and filth; after losing the raiment of Christ, you must be willing now to have no clothing; after the devil’s meat, you must prefer fasting; be earnest in righteous works, whereby sins may be purged; frequently apply yourself to almsgiving, whereby souls are freed from death.

This is more or less the position the Church as a whole arrived at — a fairly liberal readmissions policy in the scheme of things. Unfortunately for Cyprian and his flock, the question would soon grow pressing once again: the emperor Valerian resumed the persecution in 257.

Cyprian was first sent into exile, then brought to Carthage for examination at a villa thronged with his supporters, who are said to have roared in support when Cyprian refused to sacrifice and demanded, “Let us be beheaded with him!”

The bishop attained his hieromartyr‘s laurels directly after the verdict, with Carthage’s Christians clamboring alongside him to the execution grounds. Afterwards, the faithful collected his remains and interred them lovingly, erecting a church over the bones that the Vandals would eventually ravage.

Even in his death under persecution, Cyprian’s biography reflects the growing weight of Christianity in Rome — not least in the fact that it was consequential enough to attract imperial backlash under the right circumstances. The reluctance of provincial magistrates to make hecatombs of their neighbors whatever the edicts demanded has been widely noted — like the proconsul Antoninus, who sent away confessing Christians who wished to solicit their own martyrdoms with the exasperated words, “if you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?”

“The life of Cyprian is sufficient to prove that our fancy has exaggerated the perilous situation of a Christian bishop,” Edward Gibbon wrote — a paradoxical observation to make of a martyr, but we notice that Cyprian’s noisy Christian supporters don’t seem to have been harried even in the midst of the prelate’s execution. Thereafter, “the funeral of Cyprian was publicly celebrated without receiving any interruption from the Roman magistrates; and those among the faithful, who had performed the last offices to his person and his memory, were secure from the danger of inquiry or of punishment. It is remarkable, that of so great a multitude of bishops in the province of Africa, Cyprian was the first who was esteemed worthy to obtain the crown of martyrdom.”

* Jews were exempted; Romans had respect for the antiquity of that monotheistic religion which was not extended to the novel concoctions of Christianity.

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1824: Johann Christian Woyzeck, non compos mentis?

Add comment August 27th, 2015 Headsman

Johann Christian Woyzeck was publicly beheaded on this date in 1824 for fatally daggering his lover in a jealous wrath.

An orphan to whom the Napoleonic Wars gifted to the rudderless youth the stopgap profession of soldiering, but once the fighting stopped, Woyzeck wandered back to his native Leipzig and gave rein to his many vices.

Suicidal, drinking heavily, and unable to hold down steady work, Woyzeck frequently abused his special lady friend, the widow Johanna Christiane Woost. He would later say that he was often urged by voices in his mind to slay her — and on the night of June 21, 1821, after she canceled a rendezvous, he did so at last.

A pathetic exit from life turned out to be an entrance into judicial and literary history.

There was no question but that Woyzeck’s hand had taken Woost’s life, but proceedings against the killer dragged on for three years as courts vacillated on his mental competence. Woyzeck had been wildly depressed and owned to hallucinations and unbalanced moods that his contemporaries could readily recognize as falling near the pall of madness.

Nevertheless, Woyzeck had initially been slated for execution in November 1822 based on the evaluation of celebrated Leipzig physician Johann Christian August Clarus, but another doctor — academics will recognize the irksome intervention of reviewer no. 2 here — horned in with a missive questioning the conclusion.

That stay invited an 11th-hour stay and five more examinations worth of billable hours for Dr. Clarus, who studied up his man again and came to the same conclusion: that Woyzeck, though disturbed, was cogent enough to bear responsibility for his actions. It was in the end by this verdict that the executioner’s sword-arm swung.

The lost soul’s end on a Leipzig scaffold on this date would eventually inspire the writer Georg Buchner to pen the play Woyzeck. Though left unfinished when Buchner died young, the play has been frequently staged down to the present day, and even adapted for the silver screen by Werner Herzog:

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1792: Barnabé Farmian Durosoy, royalist journalist

Add comment August 25th, 2015 Headsman

Litterateur Barnabé Farmian Durosoy was guillotined in Paris on this date in 1792.

Playwright, poet, and (most problematically) journalist, Durosoy‘s newspaper Gazette de Paris took issue with the French Revolution’s radical and anti-clerical turn — incurring the dangerous denunciation of Marat.

Durosoy had the boldness to denounce in print the 10 August coup whereby Georges Danton and the Paris Commune* toppled the monarchy.

“If these rebels dare to degrade the king then they dare to judge, and if they judge then their verdict is death!” Durosoy thundered.

He would not even live long enough to see his prophecy fulfilled: the Gazette was immediately suppressed and Durosoy brought to trial as “cashier of all the Anti-revolutionists of the interior.” (Carlyle)

He was the first journalist guillotined in revolutionary France — noting that he died as a royalist ought on the feast day of St. Louis.

* No, not that Paris Commune.

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1572: Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland and rebel

Add comment August 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, lost his head for treason.

The latest patriarch of a northern family illustrious in rebellion, little Tom was all of nine years old when his father the 6th Earl of Northumberland got his own head lopped off for rising in support of the Pilgrimage of Grace.

That was back in 1537, but the ensuing decades had scarcely settled the realm’s religious strife … much to the profit of these here morbid annals.

Like his father, Thomas Percy was a chip off the Old Religion’s block. That suited everyone just fine as the young man earned his spurs in war during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary. Everything got awkward again when Mary died childless and left England to the Protestant daughter of Anne Boleyn.

Catholic hopes accordingly attached themselves to Mary, Queen of Scots, who soon became mired in — and then defeated by — a civil war. While Mary still fought her corner there was at least a Catholic monarch afoot in the land; when she was beaten she had to surrender herself to the English.

Rightly supposing that Elizabeth would prove extremely reluctant ever to set Mary loose ever again,* Percy teamed up with another discontented northern Catholic, the Earl of Westmoreland, to launch the aptly-named Northern Rebellion. The object of this revolt was to liberate the Catholic queen and if possible restore Briain to the Church

Forasmuch as divers disordered and well-disposed persons about the Queen’s Majesty, have, by their subtle and crafty dealings to advance themselves, overcome in this Realm, the true and Catholic Religion towards God, and by the same abused the Queen, disordered the Realm, and now lastly seek and procure the destruction of the Nobility; We, therefore, have gathered ourselves together to resist by force, and the rather by the help of God and you good people, to see redress of these things amiss, with the restoring of all ancient customs and liberties to God’s Church, and this noble Realm. (Soure)

This rebellion was handily defeated and not a few of the couple thousand followers cobbled together by the aristocrats faced summary nooses for their treachery (for instance, 66 of the garrison that the rebel lords made bold to plant at Durham were executed when that city was recaptured). The lords, however, escaped to Scotland and sought passage out of England. Westmoreland made it;** his partner was caught in Scotland in 1572 by Regent Moray and turned over to English justice.

Herafter, hopes of Catholic restoration reposed not in civil war but in conspiracy … where they fared just as poorly.

* She never did: Mary made her exit from prison courtesy of the scaffold.

** Westmoreland died in the end the penniless — but never-executed — exile dependent of the King of Spain. Westmoreland’s wife, however, would live to see her brother Thomas Howard executed for the 1572 Ridolfi Plot, another Catholic conspiracy.

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1575: Charles du Puy-Montbrun, unequal

Add comment August 13th, 2015 Headsman

The intrepid Huguenot commander Charles du Puy-Montbrun was beheaded on this date in 1575.

We turn for this account to a 19th century history in the public domain by Henry Martyn Baird:

Whatever military advantages the Huguenots obtained in various parts of the realm were more than outweighed by the death of “the brave Montbrun.”

This daring and energetic leader, the terror of the enemy in Dauphiny, had just defeated a large body of Swiss auxiliaries, upon whom he inflicted a loss of eight or nine hundred men and eighteen ensigns, while that of the Huguenots scarcely amounted to half a dozen men.

But his brilliant success in this and other engagements had made Montbrun and his soldiers more incautious than usual.

They attacked a strong detachment of men-at-arms, and mistaking the confusion into which they threw the advance guard for a rout of the entire body, dispersed to gather the booty and offered a tempting opportunity to the Roman Catholics as they came up.

Montbrun, who, too late, discovered the danger of his troops, and endeavored to rally them, was at one time enveloped by the enemy, but would have made good his escape had there not been a broad ditch in his way. Here his horse missed its footing, and in the fall the leader’s thigh was broken.

In this pitiable plight he surrendered his sword to a Roman Catholic captain, from whom he received the assurance that his life would be spared.

The king and his mother had other views.

Henry, on receiving the grateful news of Montbrun’s capture, promptly gave orders that the prisoner be taken to Grenoble and tried by the Parliament of Dauphiny on a charge of treason.

Vain were the efforts of the Huguenots, equally vain the intercession of the Duke of Guise, who wished to have Montbrun exchanged for Besme, Coligny‘s murderer, recently fallen into Huguenot hands.

Henry and Catharine de’ Medici were determined that Montbrun should die. They urged the reluctant judges by reiterated commands; they overruled the objection that to put the prisoner to death would be to violate good faith and the laws of honorable warfare.

Catharine had not forgotten the honest Frenchman’s allusion to her “perfidious and degenerate” countrymen.

As for Henry, an insult received at Montbrun’s hands rankled in his breast and made forgiveness impossible. Some months before, the king had sent a message to him in a somewhat haughty tone, demanding the restoration of the royal baggage and certain prisoners taken by the Huguenots.

“What is this!” exclaimed the general. “The king writes to me as a king, and as if I were bound to obey him! I want him to know that that would be very well in time of peace; I should then recognize his royal claim. But in time of war, when men are armed and in the saddle, all men are equal.”

On hearing this, we are told, Henry swore that Montbrun should repent his insolence.

In his glee over the Huguenot’s mishap he recalled the prophecy and broke out with the exclamation, “Montbrun will now see whether he is my equal.”

Under these circumstances there was little chance for a Huguenot, were he never so innocent, to be acquitted by a servile parliament.

Accordingly Montbrun was condemned to be beheaded as a rebel against the king and a disturber of the public peace. The execution was hastened last natural death from the injury received should balk the malice of his relentless enemies.

A contemporary, who may even have been an eye-witness, describes the closing scene in words eloquent from their unaffected simplicity.

He was dragged, half dead, from the prison, and was carried in a chair to the place of execution, exhibiting in his affliction an assured countenance; while the Parliament of Grenoble trembled and the entire city lamented. He had been enjoined not to say a word to the people, unless he wished to have his tongue cut off.

Nevertheless he complained, in the presence of the whole parliament, of the wrong done to him, proving at great length his innocence and contemning the fury of his enemies who were attacking a man as good as dead. He showed that it was without cause that he was charged with being a rebel, since never had he had any design but to guarantee peaceable Frenchmen from the violence of strangers who abused the name and authority of the king.

His death was constant and Christian. He was a gentleman held in high esteem, inasmuch as he was neither avaricious nor rapacious, but on the contrary devoted to religion, bold, moderate, upright; yet he was too indulgent to his soldiers, whose license and excesses gained him much ill-will and many enemies in Dauphiny. His death so irritated these soldiers that they ravaged after a strange fashion the environs of Grenoble.

The death of so prominent and energetic a Huguenot captain was likely to embolden the Roman Catholic party, not only in Dauphiny but in the rest of the kingdom. In reality, it only transferred the supreme direction in warlike affairs to still more competent hands.

The young lieutenant of Montbrun, who shortly succeeded him in command, was Francois de Bonne, better known from his territorial designation as Sieur des Lesdiguieres, a future marshal of Henry the Fourth.

Although the resplendent military abilities of Lesdiguieres had not yet had an opportunity for display, it was not long before the Roman Catholics discovered that they gained nothing by the exchange.

Lesdiguieres was as brave as his master in arms, and he was his master’s superior in the skill and caution with which he sketched and executed his military plans. The discipline of the Huguenot army at once exhibited marked improvement.

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1908: Grete Beier, who wanted the fairy tale

Add comment July 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Marie Margarethe (Grete) Beier, the daughter of the late Mayor of Brand-Erbisdorf, was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1908 for murdering her fiance. While her crime was banal, the consequent spectacle lit up newswires all the globe ’round.

Despite the marquee half of this contradictory headline in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser (Aug. 26, 1908), the execution occurred behind prison walls. About two hundred tickets were distributed to members of the public (all men), but thousands of applicants (which included many women) were denied them. These “ticket holders rushed in pell mell in their eagerness to get the best places. Men fell and fought wildly.”

Secretly carrying on with a lover named Johannes Merker, Beier (German Wikipedia link was forced by her parents — a working-class couple made good — into pledging her troth to a respectable engineer named Heinrich Pressler.

With “the face of an angel and the heart of a fiend”* the charming Beier contrived a plan to truly have it all: on May 13, 1907, she visited her would-be husband and spiked his drink with potassium cyanide — then to be sure of her project, had him close his eyes and open his mouth on her flirty promise of a sweet surprise. Then she shoved his own revolver between his lips and fired, abandoning at the scene of her crime a forged will to her benefit, a forged suicide note lamenting a purported affair with a vengeful Italian woman, and forged love letters corroborating the latter, fictional, relationship.

She was some weeks on towards her way to getting away with it — the coroner did indeed take Herr Pressler for a suicide — before suspicions as to the dead man’s testament led police to set a watch on her and unravel the web. Grete Beier confessed, in an unsuccessful gambit to secure mercy.

She reportedly died bravely, albeit slightly appalled by the size of the audience that had been admitted to gawk at her disgraceful finale.

Detail view (click for the full image) of the courthouse yard at Freiburg being readied for Grete Beier’s beheading. Image via the invaluable Bois de Justice.

* Her feminine fiendishness was greatly exacerbated to contemporaries by stories that she had also aborted three bastard children.

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