NL 2009/02

"To avoid the disgrace"
Goethe's Gretchen is based on a historical case.

Susanne Margaretha Brandt wears a ‚complete death costume’, consisting of a white bonnet, a white linen jacket with black borders, a matching skirt, white gloves, a folded napkin and a lemon. On January 14, 1772, in front of St. Katherine's church at the court square in Frankfurt, the 26 year old executioner Johann Heinrich Hoffmann cuts off her head in one fell blow of the sword, for which he is praised: "He carried out his office well and according to that which God and the authorities required." Had the execution not gone well and had he thereby prolonged the suffering of the unhappy one, "he would have been apportioned responsibility and punishment."


God and the authorities sentenced the young maiden to death because she kept her pregnancy secret and deliberately murdered her newborn baby, "in order to avoid disgrace and chastisement for giving birth to an illegitimate child." She works at an inn and till now has given the woman who employs her no reason for complaint. A traveller from Holland who had been passing through and whose name she did not even know, had given her wine. He perhaps even mixed it into her drink, and seduced the submissive woman. The lemon that she carries during the execution is a double symbol: On the one hand it stands for bittersweet love, on the other it is supposed to protect ‚the poor sinner’ form evil spirits.


Mayor and Counsel of the Free Imperial City Frankfurt-On-The-Main return the death verdict for two reasons, namely that it is deserved according to divine and worldly law and also that it may serve as "an abhorrent example" to others. The legal basis for the decision is the first German book of law, the so called Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, or C.C.C. .  It was established as Imperial law in the year of 1532 at the  Regensburg Diet under Karl V and remained in place until the end of the 18th century, in some cases even enduring into the 19th century.


Johann Wolfgang Goethe cannot stop thinking about the execution of the poor, unmarried young woman, who is his age and is moved to immortalize her as the seduced ‚Gretchen’ in his Faust. In the same century two further death sentences are executed in Frankfurt, namely in the years 1745 and 1758, and both times also connected to infanticide. As Frankfurt is a a modern and enlightened city, the death by drowning stipulated by law is changed to ‚death by sword’.


According to tradtional trial records, Susanne Brandt evokes the pity of both judges and her defense lawyer who recognize her as a poor and helpless young girl who is nothing, has nothing, and can do nothing – she has been set up. Yet infanticide cannot be tolerated, for which reason the execution as described above was carried to serve as an ‚abhorrent example’ to others

The execution is also a measure of social hygene. Yet it is clear that the community could make further provisions and  Frankfurt is especially abundant in terms of charitable organizations. For this reason Court Council for the Defense of Susanne Brandt, Dr. Marcus Christoph Schaaf, expresses the wish that an orphanage be established: " Then every debilitated woman who is tempted to lay a hand on her offspring, whether fearing disgrace or due to lack of necessary sustenance, could find a sanctuary allowing her to happily avoid sorrowful worries... ." May the unhappy little Brandt be the last one attempting to avoid the loss of her honor by submitting herself to the danger of a far greater loss."


Quotations from Siegfried Birkner, Das Leben und Sterben der Kindsmörderin Susanna Margaretha Brandt, Insel-Verlag, 1975 and Kirsten Peters: Der Kindsmord als schöne Kunst betrachtet. Eine motivgeschichtliche Untersuchung der Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts, 2001


Come to our discussion about the fates of women who committed infanticide and other ‚unhappy girls’ at the Museum for Contraception and Abortion, Monday - Wednesday 2PM – 6PM at Mariahilfer Gürtel 37, 1150 Wien.