Tag Archives: july 30

1913: August Sternickel, terror

Arsonist-murderer August Sternickel was executed by Prussia on this date in 1913.

Sternickel was a miller by training and a thief by inclination, having launched his career in malefaction by stealing from dormitories and swindling on the marriage market.

In 1905, now a released convict nearing 40, Sternickel found work at a Silesian mill and crossed the criminal Rubicon by murdering the owner in order to rob him. He burned down the mill in an (unsuccessful) attempt to conceal the crime and fled Silesia in a (successful) attempt to evade the authorities.

These were still formative years for the bureaucratic state’s capacity to fix and monitor the identities of its subjects, and Sternickel was able — despite the evidence given against him by his confederates — to vanish into the shapeless agricultural workforce, where farmers starved for manpower were little inclined to question a capable hand. From this fluid obscurity, he inflicted during free hours here and there what one contemporary described as his “Sternickel-Schrecken” (“Sternickel-Terror”) on isolated farms. There he could rob and assault with impunity; in 1909, he murdered a hay dealer in the course of a scam, again torching the scene; in 1912, he killed an employer who got too nosy about his missing identification papers, and his wife as well, and even strangled the estate’s luckless 16-year-old milkmaid when she happened upon the murder scene.

It was this last affair that finally resulted in his capture and prosecution, with a sure verdict that Sternickel declined to appeal. The Royal Prussian executioner Lorenz Schwietz cut his head off in Frankfurt an der Oder on July 30, 1913.

1789: Giovanna Bonanno, la Vecchia dell’Aceto

On this date in 1789, the Sicilian poisoner Giovanna Bonanno was hanged in Palermo.

Portrait of an Old Woman, by Giorgione (c. 1500-1510)

Bonanno (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) had borne the unremarked burdens of the poor into her ninth decade; her life prior to the brush with infamy is all but dark to us save a suspected marriage record from 1744. She seems to have scrabbled her way by beggary and folk magic.

In 1786, she chanced upon the formula to concoct a lethal yet subtle draught from white wine vinegar and arsenic. (She never divulged its precise composition.)

For a few years in the late 1780s this vinegar of our latter-day Locusta became the hit choice for the choice hit. It was the ideal concoction: victims couldn’t detect it and doctors couldn’t diagnose it — so dissatisfied spouses, overeager heirs, rivalrous lovers, keepers of grudges, and all other manner of winnowers beat a path to her door.

Inevitably this business was betrayed as word got about; although it would surely have occurred by means of some other leak soon enough, in the event it happened when Bonanno’s delivery-woman realized that her parcel was intended for someone that she knew, and warned him.

As usual, it was the purveyor who bore the brunt of the law, as suppliers and clients alike damned her for a sorceress as well as a poisoner. Although hanged for her crimes, La Vecchia dell’Aceto — “The Old Vinegar” — entered instantly into Sicilian folklore; Italian speakers might enjoy Luigi Natoli‘s novel of that title.