Stuart Readings

‘Suicide by Proxy: The Unintended Consequences of Public Executions in Eighteenth-Century Germany’ by Kathy Stuart – Suicides by proxy occurred when people committed murder with the intent to bring about their own deaths through execution. This was done in order to avoid the eternal damnation of a direct suicide.  One driving force behind such a crime was the rituals that offered criminals salvation just before their executions – clergymen heard their confessions, absolved them, and offered Eucharist. This way, those destined for execution went to death prepared to meet God, unlike most Christians for whom death was unpredictable and could come whether they were ready for it or not. Suicide by proxy occurred more among Protestants, but despite religious devotion, the cases had common trends: girl children made up the majority of victims (children were often the targets of such crime because they were believed to be at an age of innocence, thus ensuring their entrance into heaven); women made up the majority of perpetrators; and victim and murderer often shared food (which invoked parallels to a criminals’ last meal before execution, a practice which expressed criminals’ peace with the sentence). In response to suicides by proxy, governments resorted to non-lethal forms of punishment. Such response is indicative of the unique nature of the crime, in that rather than being a deterrent, the prescription of capital punishment for murder was used instead by people wanting to die but unwilling to kill themselves.

‘Chapter 4 – Melancholy Murderers: Suicide by Proxy and the Insanity Defense’ by Kathy Stuart – People who wanted to die but were unwilling to kill themselves sometimes murdered another person in order to be executed. This is known as suicide by proxy. Sometimes, though, perpetrators could escape capital punishment by using an insanity defense.  When it came to proving insanity, village opinion and testimony were key players. Social standing and reputation as indicated by villagers interviewed could shape how authorities applied the defense in trial. In general, men were more likely to benefit from an insanity defense, as were married people over single people. Because they were many levels of authority involved in such a trial, varying authoritative bodies could reach different verdicts about the fate of the perpetrator. Courts closer in proximity and relation to the victim tended to focus on reputation when deciding a verdict, whereas courts farther away focused more on facts. Leniency based on insanity was offered most frequently during the 17th and early 18th centuries, when the crime of suicide by proxy was relatively new, but as courts became more familiar with it, they were less likely to grant insanity-based pardons. Instead, authorities emphasized the premeditation and malice of such killers and sentenced them to death most of the time.

”The Devil Wants to Steal his Heart’: Murderers’ Self-Perception in Eighteenth-Century Germany’ by Kathy Stuart – There were certain trends to cases involving suicide by proxy: it was a crime perpetrated by common people, Protestants outnumbered Catholic perpetrators, and most who committed such crimes were women. Perpetrators could be split into two categories: those who had suffered from a long malaise and were considered mentally disturbed; or those who fell into despair due to a certain event or circumstance.  For those in the second category, the list of reasons for committing such murders is lengthy: the loss of worldly honor; the shame from public taunts, insults, and/or mockery; and unrequited love or marriage plans gone awry. Most circumstances fit a general storyline: first a humiliation, then the frustrated desire for revenge, next the weariness of life, followed by the murder of an uninvolved third party. The focus of the story was the loss of honor.

‘Trampling Crucifixes: Suicidal Iconoclasm in Baroque Vienna’ by Kathy Stuart Suicides by proxy could also be accomplished by committing blasphemy (a variant seemingly unique to Austria). In the governing law code (the Ferdinandea), blasphemy was at the top of the list and it was extensively punished.  There were three levels of blasphemy and corresponding levels of punishment. Suicides by proxy through blasphemy were considered second-degree blasphemies (which meant to blaspheme directly against God and Mary or the saints with dishonorable words or deeds). For this crime, a beheading after amputation was recommended by law. The high rate of persecution of blasphemers was due to the high religiosity of the ruling Hapsburg family. If one committed blasphemy, it was considered a crime against the Hapsburgs as well as being a crime against God.


‘Rituals of Retribution’ by Richard J. Evans; Ruff

Introduction – There has been a change in way society has dealt with deviance – prior, punishments were very violent and focused on the body; now, sentences are more custodial and capital punishments are swift rather than drawn out. There are many theories as to why that happened. Michel Foucault argued that public punishments declined and became less violent as disciplining power was taken out of the hands of the sovereign and diffused throughout the whole of the society. The publicity of punishment was meant as a representation of the sovereign’s power over the people. Penal reform during the 18th c. gave rise to a new diffuse economy of power within society itself, and so individuals became the supervisors of each other and themselves. Norbert Elias argued that a ‘civilizing process’ was responsible. During the medieval period, power was exercised in a direct and personal way. As states began to form, ruling elites began to formalize their feelings and behavior, ‘civilizing’ themselves. Such self-control eventually made its way down throughout society, and so emotion and the operation of bodily functions were restricted to the private realm. In this context, those that were unable to restrain themselves in public were labeled insane and confined to asylums. Pieter Spierenburg argued that as states became more stable, people were more able to share their experiences and started to see themselves in the person of the offender, which influenced demands for reform. Also, as bureaucracy grew, the state also grew more impersonal, and so punishment in turn was less visible and more impersonal as well. Philippe Ariès argued that changing attitudes of death were responsible. During the Middle Ages, death was ‘tamed’ and people could prepare for it. As nature was brought under more control, beliefs in the afterlife declined, and the sense of destiny shifted from the collective to the individual. So, death began to be removed from the public domain. By the second half of the 20th c., death had become a private and concealed affair.

Chapter 1: Theaters of CrueltyThe intention behind cruel punishments was to destroy the offender’s body so that nothing remained. Often, the scars of punishment were used as identifiers by the general populace. Because central authority was ineffective in Germany during the 16th c., apprehension and punishment depended on the community. By the late 17th c., Germany was becoming a more ordered society, and crime decreased. Because they were less frequent, executions became occasions for even more emphatic demonstrations of state and community power.  They became highly ritualized and ceremonial. Here, death sentences where persons were bound and bodily movement was constricted were dishonorable deaths (as opposed to beheading, which required no touch from the executioner, something that brought great dishonor in itself). All this served as an example of respect for the Sovereign’s power and authority.

Chapter 2: Rites of Blood – Executions were sometimes preceded by rituals that were meant to reconcile together all those involved in the punishment. A last meal may be shared among the criminal, the judge, the criminal’s family, etc. This sharing expressed the criminal’s peace with the sentence, and absolved those involved of any guilt. The criminal and executioner could also reconcile by sharing a drink together. The ideas governing these actions was to have malefactors thank the authorities for their sentences, and that a criminal’s ‘good death’ absolved the community of its blood guilt and canceled out the ‘bad death’ of the victim. It also assured the community that the criminal’s soul would not return. Because of a criminal’s sudden death, there was a belief that their life-potency was still present in their bodies, and so some executions involved some extraordinary practices, such as the selling of the criminal’s blood to the crowd. In Germany, executions were highly ritualistic and represented community solidarity in the face of transgression. They were characterized by massive turnout rates, but such events rarely became chaotic.

Chapter 4: Farewell Songs and Moral Speeches – State-approved printers commemorated executions through notices in the paper, pictures, and pamphlets. Street balladeers also provided entertainment during executions, and would sometimes perform the ‘farewell speeches’ of dead criminals (these were mostly fabricated, though). As the higher classes withdrew from sharing in the manifestations of popular culture, these ‘farewell speeches’ became more strict. Balladeers had to announce the crimes of the dead, portraying them negatively. Even execution broadsheets changed, and there was a new concentration on the moral and educational failings of criminals. Because ‘farewell speeches’ may have prompted onlookers to identify with criminals, they turned into ‘moral speeches’ on the dangers of criminal life. They helped legitimize the torture and execution processes. In response, balladeers methods changed and they composed their own entertainments for the occasions. However, they made sure that they reflected official attitudes. Folk songs were sympathetic to criminals, and help provide an indication of the attitudes of common people to murder and execution. They had a different agenda, and were based on the realities of life.

Comment on Ruff: this chapter was a refresher and seemed to hit on points already discussed earlier in Spierenburg, Evans, and Kord. I did have one question, though, about the people exempt from judicial torture (pregnant women, young children, etc.): how were their confessions gained if they couldn’t be tortured?