‘Murderesses in German Writing, 1720-1860: Heroines of Horror’ by Susanne Kord

Chapter 1 – Criminal women: on bodies, paradoxes, performances and tales – This book chooses to focus on murderesses because they embody a number of paradoxical principles. Murderesses, in particular, were extremely rare; therefore, they were the least likely of all criminals to receive a positive portrayal from the press. Thanks to the discourse on women and violence, women were often paradoxically constructed as being both inherently violent and incapable of aggression.

 Chapter 2 – The evil eye: witches – The belief in witchcraft was still widespread during the Enlightenment, a fact evident in the trial of Anna Göldi. Much was made about the physical characteristics of witches, and for Anna, she was often described as having the ‘evil eye’. Paradoxically, the belief in a magical ‘evil eye’ could even be implicitly linked to great talent, as is the case with the poet Anna Louisa Karsch.  Though a respected female poet, Karsch’s piercing gaze and fabled ugliness were often cited as indications of her poetic genius. Descriptions focusing on her intense stare were pejorative, meant to invoke the image of the evil eye and perhaps hint at a possible otherworldly source for her tremendous talent. Also, contemporary depictions of her had distinct witch-like features, a fact even Karsch noted for herself and worried over.

Chapter 4 – Pride: husband killers – The murder trials of Maria Katharina Wächtler and Christiane Ruthardt had considerable social significance. For one, both women found themselves at the center of political debate (for Wächtler, it was the validity of torture; for Ruthardt, it was the need for capital punishment). Secondly, each case was followed by news media such as pamphlets, serials, stories, prints, etc., and so they had a big social impact. Here, both consequences were aided by popular and sensational literature. In the pamphlets of the day, neither woman was accurately represented. Instead, they became characters to the public and were only interesting for their refusal to conform to stereotypical female-gender norms. This popularity and interest in the strange nature of these women brought more people into the sphere of public debate. The paradoxes these women’s cases represented were that they were perpetrators of violence, yet victims of the State, and as both deserving of punishment for their deeds, yet also deserving of admiration for their composure during trial.

Chapter 5 – Shame: child killers – Prior to the 18th century, seduction and its consequences were a source of humor, and stories about it usually ended in either the celebration of the seducer’s wit and cunning or the girl’s parents let the two marry each other as they wish. The conceptual change that occurred in stories of seduction during the 18th century was that the girl’s inexperience was reinterpreted as ‘virtue’ rather than funny ‘naiveté’.  Accompanying her loss of virtue was a sense of shame that ultimately led to her death. Often these women also had childlike qualities, traits that were probably emphasized in order to evoke pity in her sad fate and also to serve as a model for teaching sexual morality to women and girls. In literature dealing with the subject of infanticide, guilty mothers also took on a childlike innocence and naiveté. In these texts, the resulting shame from an illegitimate pregnancy also robbed the woman of her will to live. Shame and death were linked, and the women in these stories used death as a way to avoid the shame of seduction. Analyzing these stories against their contemporary social context can reveal that their characteristics were products of male fantasy – ‘male’ because women’s participation in infanticide was minimal, and ‘fantasy’ because it didn’t take into account other possible motivating factors (sociological, historical, economical, legal, etc.). The reality was that the majority of women accused of infanticide never confessed to it. Literature on the subject and the debate surrounding it converged on the subject of shame as a motivating factor, but the reality was that even when shame-inducing penalties were abolished, infanticide still continued and shame was rarely listed as a reason in court documents.

The debate surrounding infanticide continued because it forced thinkers to reconsider a number of issues: the death penalty and its purposes, the status of children born out of wedlock, and the status of unwed mothers. Infanticide was also particularly problematic for the way it contradicted traditional female roles: it seemed to negate femininity by rejecting maternal instincts and also seemed to express it by emphasizing ideas of shame and virtue.

During the 18th century, Dorothea Altwein and Catharina Höhn were tried for killing their newborn babies. Both cases were problematic for their procedural irregularities. In Dorothea’s case, judges selectively chose what facts they wanted to believe or disbelieve, and evidence for the trial was either ignored or unexplored and unconfirmed.  In Catharina’s case, her defense was openly ridiculed. These two cases demonstrated how ideas about infanticide and femininity influenced the nature of the cases prosecuting it.

Chapter 6 – The female self: poisoners – There are two general ideas about murders conducted through poison. The first is that such murders were mainly committed by women, and the second was that women’s preference for poison was rooted in their feminine ‘nature’. However, statistics show that women made up only half or fewer of all poison murders. Some possible explanations for these ideas was that though women committed only a small fraction of murders, a large enough amount was done through poisoning that women were stuck with the characterization, and that women had a practical monopoly on food preparation (a major method of administering poisons) until the 20th century. Perhaps accounting for this discrepancy between reality and common notions was the widely discussed nature of female criminality and their representation as natural killers.  Writings about poisoners focused on the ‘character’ of a woman rather than that of the actual poisoner.

One famous female poisoner was Gesche Gottfried, who murdered a number of her family members during the early 19th century. What was particularly striking about her case was that her motives remained unexplained even to this day. Since motive could not be determined, her character was used instead. Written works following the case focused on her character as a way to explain the killings. What they focused on was her seeming absence of character at all, and that any kindness done by her was just the impersonation of a good woman. An analysis of documents about her case can further reveal that it was her crimes against femininity that led to her arrest – officers only decided to follow up tips after inquiring into claims about her adultery. Her rejection of her traditional roles also played a big role in her conviction. Through eliminating her family, Gesche broke ties with the only functions that society gave her, and that was unacceptable.

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