1783: Johanna Catharina Höhn, by Goethe’s vote

8 comments 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.

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1772: Susanna Margaretha Brandt, Faust inspiration

2 comments January 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Susanna Margaretha Brandt was beheaded with a sword in Frankfurt am Main for murdering her infant child.

The orphaned maid (German Wikipedia entry), not yet 26, had the previous August given birth to the child of a passing goldsmith who had drugged and seduced/raped her.

Brandt got rid of the child, and when caught hysterically attributed the murder to infernal influence.

Faustian Bargain

Affecting as Brandt’s small tragedy might be, she is remembered today not in her own right but because of her proximity to a 22-year-old lawyer living a few hundred yards from her cell: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Several of Goethe’s family and friends were directly involved in Brandt’s case, and her death through seduction and infanticide are widely taken (pdf) to have inspired the character Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust: the character and the infanticide plotline are additions the German author made to an age-old legend.

Goethe began Faust in this same year of 1772, and continued reworking it throughout his life.

And it was a historically timely juncture to incorporate the baby-killing angle into the old Satanic pact story: infanticide was the subject of philosophical and juridical debate, with the use of capital punishment in infanticide cases sharp declining in forward-thinking German states.

Infanticide likewise became a trendy literary topic; Faust is only the best-known example.

“Seduction, and during the second half of the century infanticide, are possibly the most popular themes in eighteenth-century German literature by men,” according to Susanne Kord.*

Lessing’s Sara Sampson and Emilia Galotti, Schiller’s Luise Millerin (Kabale und Liebe), Goethe’s Marie Beaumarchais (Clavigo) and countless other bourgeois heroines die as a direct result of a man’s — often a nobleman’s — sexual desire. Goethe’s Gretchen (Faust), Heinrich Leopold Wagner’s Evchen Humprecht (Die Kindermorderin), Lenz’ Marie (Zerbin) and many others are put to death for committing infanticide.

Like the woman-as-child, the woman-as-childkiller, fictional or not, teaches sexual morals; mounting the scaffold, the woman admits her guilt, speaks her warning, and, incidentally, absolves society of all blame.

That might be a little too pat. But despite rendering a sympathetic character in Margaret, Goethe’s own biography suggests the problematic nature of this widespread fascination with illicit sexuality.

The writer 11 years later found himself in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in position to help decide whether another infanticide should live or die.

Goethe voted for Johanna Catharina Höhn’s execution.

* “Women as Children, Women as Childkillers: Poetic Images of Infanticide in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Spring 1993. More in this vein on Goethe in “Infanticide as Fiction: Goethe’s Urfaust and Schiller’s ‘Kindsmörderin’ as Models” by Helga Stipa Madland, The German Quarterly, Winter 1989.

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Unspecified Year: Faust’s Gretchen

6 comments May 2nd, 2008 Headsman

In Goethe’s Faust (original German | English), the title character’s lover on this date spurns his rescue and is put to death for killing their illegitimate child.

In the text, Faust and Mephistopheles celebrate Walpurgisnacht. The next day — “dreary day,” Goethe has it — the hero realizes his Faustian bargain is coming due, to the indifference of his infernal patron. (This is the work’s only scene in prose.)

FAUST

In misery! In despair! Long wretchedly astray on the face of the earth, and now imprisoned! That gracious, ill-starred creature shut in a dungeon as a criminal, and given up to fearful torments! To this has it come! to this!—Treacherous, contemptible spirit, and thou hast concealed it from me!—Stand, then,—stand! Roll the devilish eyes wrathfully in thy head! Stand and defy me with thine intolerable presence! Imprisoned! In irretrievable misery! Delivered up to evil spirits, and to condemning, unfeeling Man! And thou hast lulled me, meanwhile, with the most insipid dissipations, hast concealed from me her increasing wretchedness, and suffered her to go helplessly to ruin!

MEPHISTOPHELES

She is not the first.

Faust nevertheless browbeats the devil into infiltrating him that night into the prison where Gretchen (a German nickname for Margaret, Margarethe, or Marguerite), terrified, mistakes him at first for the executioner who will come for her in a few hours:

Risen at Dawn, Gretchen Discovering Faust’s Jewels — a scene from Gretchen’s seduction by Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

GRETCHEN (on her knees)

Who, headsman! unto thee such power
Over me could give?
Thou’rt come for me at midnight-hour:
Have mercy on me, let me live!
Is’t not soon enough when morning chime has run?

(She rises.)

And I am yet so young, so young!
And now Death comes, and ruin!
I, too, was fair, and that was my undoing.
My love was near, but now he’s far;
Torn lies the wreath, scattered the blossoms are.
Seize me not thus so violently!
Spare me! What have I done to thee?
Let me not vainly entreat thee!
I never chanced, in all my days, to meet thee!

Yet she refuses to flee with him — sensing the change in his character, fearful of living as a fugitive, resigned to a death incurred by her own culpability.

Day? Yes, the day comes,—the last day breaks for me!
My wedding-day it was to be!
Tell no one thou has been with Gretchen!
Woe for my garland! The chances
Are over—’tis all in vain!
We shall meet once again,
But not at the dances!
The crowd is thronging, no word is spoken:
The square below
And the streets overflow:
The death-bell tolls, the wand is broken.
I am seized, and bound, and delivered—
Shoved to the block—they give the sign!
Now over each neck has quivered
The blade that is quivering over mine.
Dumb lies the world like the grave!

Faust has had innumerable interpretations in performance, typically omitting the intervening “dreary day” scene, which makes the prison sequence appear to take place at the conclusion of Walpurgisnacht. The prison confrontation, for instance, caps a Gounod opera:

In F.W. Murnau‘s masterful 1926 silent adaptation, the sentence is carried out by burning rather than beheading. This film is in the public domain and available in its entirety free online:

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