Murder, Suicide and the Macabre

We discuss a macabre trend from the 1700s in Germany in this special Halloween episode of Unfold. To avoid eternal damnation for the sin of committing suicide, a number of people began committing child murder so they could be forgiven by a priest before being executed. In this Unfold episode, we look at how imagined child murders can create a culture of actual killings. Warning: this subject matter might not be suitable for all audiences.

In this episode: 

Kathy Stuart, associate professor, UC Davis Department of History

 

Transcript

Audio transcriptions may contain errors.

Amy Quinton Halloween is right around the corner, Kat. Are you going to be doing anything? 

Kat Kerlin Yeah, you know, I'll be doing the whole trick-or-treating thing with the kids and dealing with the fallout as I eat half their candy. 

Amy Quinton Right. Do you know the meaning of Halloween? 

Kat Kerlin Yeah. Doesn't it mean like All Hallows' Eve? 

Amy Quinton Yeah, did you know that? I didn't know that. The celebration on the eve of All Hallows' Day. In Western Christianity, it's the time when you remember the dead, including Saints, also known as a hallow or holy person. So the word Halloween came from Saints evening. 

Kat Kerlin Yeah, I have heard that. 

Amy Quinton And some say—because I looked it up in Wikipedia— that it started before Christianity and has roots from a pagan festival called Samhain in Celtic-speaking countries. The ceremony marked the end of harvest and the beginning of the dark half of the year and a time of year when the boundary between this world and the other world, the world of the dead, thinned. 

Kat Kerlin Oh, that's a little spooky. Are we going to be telling old ghost stories in this episode of Unfold? 

Amy Quinton Oh, much worse than that, because all of what we are about to unfold is true. It is not a ghost story. 

Kat Kerlin Names have not been changed to protect the innocent? 

Amy Quinton Nope. It is a dark moment in European history. It begins in 18th century Germany. 

Kat Kerlin Why? What happened in 18th century Germany? 

Amy Quinton It's very unsettling. Morbid. 

Kat Kerlin Death? 

Amy Quinton Murder. 

Kat Kerlin Murder? 

Amy Quinton The killing of small children. 

Kat Kerlin Jeez, that's awful. 

Amy Quinton And suicide. 

Kat Kerlin Also awful. 

Amy Quinton Precisely. That's why this special Halloween episode of Unfold is called 'Murder, Suicide and the Macabre.' It's also got fornication, child murder, sex with the devil, executions, witches, blood libel and briefly Qanon. 

Kat Kerlin Good times. This is going to be so fun. Perfect for Halloween. 

Amy Quinton Coming to you from UC Davis, this is Unfold, a podcast that breaks down complicated problems and unfolds curiosity-driven research. I'm Amy Quinton. 

Kat Kerlin And I'm Kat Kerlin. So we begin in 18th century Germany? 

Amy Quinton Yes, Kathy Stuart, a history professor at UC Davis, has studied one particular macabre trend from that period of time, which she will unfold for us. It's 1704. We're introduced to a 30-year-old serving woman named Agnes Schicken.

Kathy Stuart Agnes Schicken. So she was a young woman in Wertenbach, which is a Protestant territory in Germany in the Holy Roman Empire. And she is wandering the countryside, walking from village to village. 

Amy Quinton She was outside one of these villages when she came across, in her words, four beautiful little boys playing together along the roadside. 

Kathy Stuart So she encounters these groups of children playing and she tries to convince them to walk with her into the forest to go for a walk. And the other kids, most of the kids say, 'No.'  They won't go. And one little boy agrees to walk off with her alone into the forest. 

Kat Kerlin He went off with her alone. I, I would kill my kid if he ever did that. He would he would know better. 

Amy Quinton The boy is a seven-year-old named Hans and he's the son of a local cow herder. And everything about that day seems innocent, at first. 

Kathy Stuart And she spends the afternoon with him and they have a wonderful time and they go for walks. And there's this tender scene where she has the little boy on her lap and she is actually delousing him, which is a very tender, moment of tenderness. 

Kat Kerlin That that's a moment of tenderness? So I guess it's like grooming, maybe?

Amy Quinton Apparently. But then it starts to get late and little Hans wants to return home for the evening. At that point, Agnes throws the child violently to the ground. 

Kathy Stuart Then she takes out the knife and she's going to murder the boy. And the boy becomes frightened and he begs for his life and he even prays a prayer to appease her. 

Amy Quinton Twice, Agnes is moved by his prayers 

Kathy Stuart And for a moment she seems to be ready to abandon her plan. But then she's embittered and she decides to go through with it, and she cuts his throat and then she says to him, "You are a sweet angel before God." 

Amy Quinton Agnes says this apparently just after cutting the boy's throat so deeply that she could look down into his neck. 

Kat Kerlin Amy, this is making me sick. Like, why on earth would she do this to an innocent child? 

Amy Quinton Well, she immediately turns herself in. Later in her confession, Agnes says the child was now saved and that she had only done it so she could also leave this world. She wanted to be executed. 

Kat Kerlin She was suicidal. 

Amy Quinton Right. 

Kat Kerlin Why didn't she just kill herself rather than someone else? 

Amy Quinton Because suicide was a sin, one worse than murder so the suicidal, like Agnes, thought it was better to be executed. 

Kathy Stuart The prohibition to commit suicide prevents many of these people from actually going through with what we can call direct suicide, because contemporary's call, suicide by proxy, indirect suicide. And quite explicitly, they articulate the idea that if I go through with this suicide now, I am damned forever and this pulls them back from the brink. But then they find this other option where they can remove themselves from the world and avoid damnation. And that's the fundamental logic that explains suicide by proxy. 

Kat Kerlin Agnes then wasn't alone in committing indirect suicide or suicide by proxy? This was a trend among the suicidal?

Amy Quinton A pretty dark one that many historians have overlooked. Kathy scoured through archival criminal testimony and found more than 300 cases in Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries. 

Kat Kerlin She says suicide was worse than murder. But isn't murder also a sin? I mean, how can murderers avoid eternal damnation? 

Amy Quinton It makes sense if you believe in salvation in Christianity, which says that as long as sinners repent their sins before they are executed, it's a get-out-of-hell-free card. Kathy says executions, which were typically a public beheading, were like an express elevator to heaven.  

Kathy Stuart Something happened to criminals in preparing them for death that turned them from a malefactor into a penitent, poor sinner where they were absolutely cleansed of sin. And so what they would do is they would take the Eucharist. They would have confession. They would have absolution. They would have incredibly intensive spiritual counseling in the three days before their death. And then they go to their execution in a kind of virtuoso performance together in cooperation with the clergymen who are accompanying them. And they give this virtuoso performance of willing death. 

Kat Kerlin But Agnes could have killed anyone in order to be executed. Why a child? It sounds particularly gruesome. 

Amy Quinton Yes. And it turns out the perpetrators of suicide by proxy intentionally chose children as their victims. 

Kathy Stuart Committing the worst crime, which is what child murder kind of is, makes it is also part of the logic of this crime because you are the deepest, most abject sinner and then you are cleansed. So it's the contrast from the most profound sin to being completely cleansed that is performed in this type of crime. 

Amy Quinton Also, the thinking back then was that children are young and innocent and would easily attain salvation. In the minds of those committing these crimes, they were saving these children. 

Kat Kerlin And that's why Agnes said the child she killed was a "sweet angel before God." 

Amy Quinton Right. And another gruesome fact is the way most of these children died. Their throats were slit. 

Kat Kerlin Yeah, it's incredibly violent. We don't have to go into detail. 

Amy Quinton Kathy's research found some cases where blunt axes were used to cut the victim's throat. 

Kat Kerlin Amy, stop. 

Amy Quinton That was the case with Agnes. 

Kat Kerlin Why does it seem like most of the children were killed by having her throat slit? 

Amy Quinton Well, Kathy says it's because these suicidal child killers conceive of the murder as a ritual sacrifice. 

Black and white drawing of child with throat slit.
An artist's illustration of a child that was murdered and the murder weapon. 

Kathy Stuart When my perpetrators of suicide by proxy slay a young child in this ritual manner, always involving the slitting of the throat like Abraham almost did to Isaac, right, and like lambs are sacrificed in that way. Always that's how you do it. You cut the throat. That's how it's done. So it makes sense. It's aesthetically appealing to them. 

Amy Quinton She says there's a stomach turning sentimentality in this culture at that time to the slaying and suffering of an innocent and a fascination with child sacrifice. 

Kathy Stuart And this is something that goes back to the medieval period with the blood libel, the myth of Jewish ritual murder, and it continues during the witch hunt when one of the main crimes that witches were accused of doing was the cannibalizing of young children and infants at the witches Sabbaths. 

Kat Kerlin Whoa. OK, I just have to clearly say here that these ideas are myths. I mean, Jewish people do not ritually murder Christian children and drink their blood, nor do witches eat children. 

Amy Quinton The point is this line of thinking permeates the culture at this particular period of time. 

Kat Kerlin What ends up happening with these people who commit suicide by proxy? 

Amy Quinton Most are publicly beheaded, 

Kat Kerlin So they get their wish. I imagine beheadings were common back then. 

Amy Quinton Public executions were a big deal, a 1700s equivalent of a rock concert. Kathy gave me an example of what they looked like in Hamburg, Germany, at the time. 

Kat Kerlin Oh, I don't wanna hear this. 

Amy Quinton No Kat,  just picture this scene. 

Kathy Stuart There were thousands, even tens of thousands of people in attendance and the streets were full and the execution procession passes through the city streets and then passes out of the city gate, out into the field, beyond the city walls, where the the tools of capital punishment are set up. 

Kat Kerlin And dare I ask, what were the tools of capital punishment? Was this like a medieval torture chamber? 

Amy Quinton Actually, people were far more violent about death in the 1700s than in medieval times. In Hamburg beheadings took place on a permanent stone structure —like a monument. It was called a Ravenstone. 

Depiction of a public beheading from 18th century Germany
This artist's illustration shows an executioner about to behead the convicted on the Ravenstone in Hamburg, Germany in the 1700s. A body is strapped to a big wagon wheel in the background.

 

Kathy Stuart They would cast your body in a shallow grave at the foot of the Ravenstone if they bury you at all or worse, they would behead you and then they would kind of weave your body into a big wagon wheel. And so you're literally kind of, your mangled body is woven into this wagon wheel, which is put on a very tall post and then displayed to the elements indefinitely over many years. So it's called a Ravenstone because the birds come and pick at the bodies that are there on display. And that's the reason why. 

Kat Kerlin Thanks for the visual. How does Kathy know all this detail of Hamburg in the 1700s?

Amy Quinton Extensive archival research. She also found little pamphlets which were apparently like souvenirs for spectators at executions. These were illustrations of the crime that had been committed. Kathy tells me that during this time, overwhelmingly, more women than men were suicidal child killers. 

Kat Kerlin Why is that?

Amy Quinton It's complicated. First, it's the beginning of morals policing. Fornication, if you're unwed is a crime. So even women who are victims of rape or incest were subject to noncapital criminal punishment. Unwed mothers began committing neonaticide to try to hide their crime. So they get executed. And then... 

Kathy Stuart And then we can add on regular infanticide cases because as bastardy becomes more stigmatized and as actually it becomes more difficult to get married because of economic barriers, more and more women die on the scaffold for infanticide.

Amy Quinton And then... 

Kat Kerlin There's more? 

Kathy Stuart And then let's throw in witchcraft. 

Kat Kerlin Witchcraft! Ah! This is a Halloween episode! 

Amy Quinton Kathy says it wasn't too much earlier in history that women were executed for being witches. Some witch executions were still happening. And what do witches do, Kat? 

Kat Kerlin They eat children just like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. So they're child killers, too, 

Amy Quinton Witches also have sex with Satan. They are lustful beasts. 

Kat Kerlin This is crazy. I mean, people back then really had a high opinion of women so it would seem. 

Amy Quinton It gets worse. As all of these executions of women are happening and seemingly it's all their fault, too, it's in their "nature," then guess what happens next? 

Kat Kerlin I don't know if I want to know. What could possibly be worse?

Amy Quinton The more women who witness other women executed for killing children, the more they themselves want to kill children and be executed for it. It encourages suicidal child killings. 

Kathy Stuart And so as more and more women die on the scaffold and women in the audience see them die, they internalize this discourse and they think of themselves as capable of this crime. But then they can find release from this dilemma because on the one hand, there's the discourse of how diabolically-dominated they are, but on the other hand, they just go through this ritual and then they're completely cleansed and pure and they can go straight to heaven and they can also escape some of the unbearable circumstances of their lives. 

Amy Quinton By the late 18th century. Hamburg, Germany, has acquired what Kathy calls a sad notoriety for child murders far beyond its borders, with about 82 suicidal child murders in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

Kathy Stuart Think about Hamburg. Hamburg, at various points, was about the size of Davis. And now imagine if in the city of Davis, every year or every other year you had some ritual child murder. And in some years in the city of Davis, you would have two or three in a year. Based on these case studies, it's pretty widespread. 

Kat Kerlin Wow. And I thought Hamburg was just famous for inventing hamburgers. OK, Amy, so how did these suicidal child murders come to an end? 

Amy Quinton Well, different cities tried different things. Some decided to make executions worse for these women. 

Kathy Stuart They legislate in various forms in other ways, saying if you do this, we're going to do extra bad executions, like we're going to cut off your hand before we behead you or we're going to tear your flesh with red hot tongs before we behead you. But all of this doesn't work because these people don't care. They just want to be destroyed. And if there's a little bit more destruction that does not deter them, 

Kat Kerlin Oh, my God! Why don't they just put an end to executions for this crime? 

Amy Quinton Kathy argues that governments were bound by divine law. If you murder someone, you commit sin and you must die for it. Blood for blood. In Hamburg, they very much believed that you should punish sinners in the presence of all, so that others would be afraid. 

Kat Kerlin So they just kept executing women. 

Amy Quinton Yeah, but Kathy says a couple of things begin to happen by the late 1700s. First, more men begin committing suicide by proxy and are beheaded. 

Kat Kerlin Well, this just keeps getting better. 

Amy Quinton But governments also begin to redefine unwed mothers who commit neonaticide. They go from being killers to suffering from mental illness. 

Kathy Stuart As young women see fewer young women dying on the Ravenstone, the desire for themselves to die this death diminishes. Also, there is a change in the discourse about the nature of women. 

Amy Quinton And this part Kat, you're going to love. 

Kathy Stuart By the time we get to the 1770s, women are weak. They're not particularly rational. They're kind of dumb. Can they really be held accountable?

Kat Kerlin Ah! This whole thing is just extremely disturbing to me. 

Amy Quinton Courts also ended the participation of clergy at the Ravenstone and the religious taboo against direct suicide diminishes. 

Kat Kerlin So what happened to Agnes Schickin, the suicidal child killer we talked about in the beginning of this episode? 

Amy Quinton Well, she was not beheaded, which was unusual. She was found to be afflicted with melancholy in the highest degree and was sentenced to flogging inside prison. 

Kat Kerlin Oh, good, a much better way to treat the mentally ill. 

Amy Quinton You know Kat there are modern day lessons I think we can learn from these suicide by proxies. 

Kat Kerlin Oh gosh. Like what? 

Amy Quinton Well, let's explore this fascination with child murder that they had back then. That still lingers in certain parts of society today. 

Kat Kerlin What are you talking about? 

Amy Quinton These QAnon conspiracy theorists seem to be obsessed with it. They believe a group of Satan- worshiping pedophiles are trying to control our politics and media. And they allege, obviously falsely, that in addition to molesting children, members of this elite group, which are mainly Democrats, kill and eat their victims to extract a life extending chemical called Adrenochrome. Sound familiar? 

Kat Kerlin Whoa. So just like the anti-Semitic fantasy of blood libel? 

Amy Quinton And the children-eating witches. 

Kat Kerlin Now, that is truly spooky. 

Amy Quinton Happy Halloween. 

Kat Kerlin You can find more episodes of Unfold on our website at ucdavis.edu/unfold. 

Amy Quinton I'm Amy Quinton. 

Kat Kerlin And I'm Kat Kerlin. Thanks for listening. 

Amy Quinton Unfold is a production of UC Davis. It's produced by Cody Drabble. Original music for Unfold comes from Damien Verrett and Curtis Jerome Haynes. If you like this podcast, check out UC Davis's other podcast, The Backdrop. It's a monthly interview program featuring conversations with UC Davis scholars and researchers working in the social sciences, humanities, arts and culture. Hosted by public radio veteran Soterios Johnson, the conversations feature new work and expertise on a trending topic in the news. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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