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.

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2 thoughts on “Stuart Readings

  1. Here’s information for two of the articles:
    – Kathy Stuart, “Suicide by Proxy: The Unintended Consequences of Public Executions in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Central European History, 41 (2008), 413-445.

    – Kathy Stuart, “Melancholy Murderers: Suicide by Proxy and the Insanity Defense,” in Ideas and Cultural Margins: Essays in Honor of H.C. Erik Midelfort, edited by Robin Barnes and Marjorie Plummer (Aldershot, Hambleton: Ashgate, 2009).

    The other two articles were drafts written by my professor. That’s most likely why there’s trouble finding some of them.

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