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.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1676: Malin Matsdotter and Anna Simonsdotter, ending a witch hunt

6 comments August 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1676, two starkly contrasting women were executed for sorcery in Stockholm.

Anna Simonsdotter Hack — also known as “Tysk-Annika” — is the forgotten one of the pair, who played the expected role of a condemned witch and meekly gave herself over to the judgment. There were rewards for good behavior: Tysk-Annika had her head cleanly lopped off.

Malin Matsdotter, however, did not plan any reciprocal back-scratching with the men who came to kill her.

Accused by her own daughters of carrying their children — Malin’s grandchildren — to Satanic masses, “Rumpare-Malin” obstinately refused to cop to the charge. (Naturally, not confessing was a further indicator to the court that Satan was fortifying her defiance.) Without a confession, the authorities couldn’t assuage themselves by giving her the easy-ish death of decapitation; the law required burning at the stake.* A sack of gunpowder around the neck to speed things up was the best they could offer her.

Matsdotter maintained her innocence to the stake, frustrating the confessors, and when one of her daughters called on her to admit the crime, “she gave her daughter into the hands of the devil and cursed her for eternity.”

And maybe it worked. Judges may well have been wearying of the eight-year-old witch craze, but Matsdotter’s discomfiting end was the turning point; the cases dried up, existing sentences were overturned, and the clergy was summoned to draw a line under the proceedings by announcing from the pulpits that witches had been driven out of Sweden for good. Only one more witchcraft execution ever took place in Sweden — and that in 1704.

By the end of 1676, several of the most notorious accusers in the witch trials were being hunted for perjury by those very same courtrooms. Reportedly, Matsdotter’s daughter was herself executed for her fatal accusation.

* Previously, the law had not allowed a witchcraft execution without a confession, and in a notable case a few years before Matsdotter’s burning, two other women had escaped death by refusing to confess. Evidently, they closed that loophole.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Sweden,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

May 2019
M T W T F S S
« Apr    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!