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History of Medicine: One woman’s poison

11 Mar, 2010
Portrait of Gesche Gottfried. Image credit: Wikipedia

Portrait of Gesche Gottfried

With the era of personalised medicine approaching it’s becoming clearer that what works for one person won’t necessarily for someone else: one man’s (or woman’s) medicine could even be another man’s poison.

That was well demonstrated in a wry and witty lecture given by Susanne Kord, Professor of German, at one of the UCL Lunch Hour Lectures. She was taking a look at how female poisoners have been represented historically in German writings.

Particularly illuminating are the reflections of male criminologists and psychologists in the last century on poison as a quintessentially female weapon. For example, criminal psychologist Hans Gross wrote in 1911 that “every murder, save that by poison, requires courage, the power to do, and physical strength. As woman does not possess these qualities, she spontaneously makes use of poison.” When investigating such a crime therefore, he suggests that “our first suspicion should be directed toward a woman or an effeminate man.”

However, Professor Kord pointed out that fewer than half of recorded murders by poison were committed by women, and suggested such theories might reveal more about the male fear of women than the nature of women. After all, the very first biblical interaction between an unsuspecting man and a woman involves her giving him a poisoned apple. Investigations into murder by poison could therefore transmute into investigations of the cunning and baffling female psyche.

As an example, she discussed the case of German poison murderess extraordinaire, Gesche Gottfried, who during her life in Bremen from 1785 to 1831, killed off her parents, both her husbands, all her children, her best friend, and sundry other characters she knew.

The dignity and forbearance she showed in coping with the deaths of so many people close to her – and the tenderness with which she nursed them on their deathbeds – won her the admiration and compassion of her fellow townsfolk. Prayers were said for her in the market place and she was given the soubriquet ‘the Angel of Bremen’ for her virtue, charity and piety, as a member of the community, mother, daughter, wife (and, as Professor Kord drily pointed out, widow).

In another irony, although at least 15 people who were close to her died and as many more in her vicinity became severely ill, it was not the shocking number of deaths surrounding her that finally brought the Angel of Bremen to the attention of the authorities. It was the fact that she committed adultery by living with her second husband whilst the first was still (surprisingly) alive. To the society of the time therefore, her reputation as a woman – and her sexual misconduct – were the first signifiers of her ‘criminal’ psychology rather than the mortality rate of her family.

What is most fascinating about Gesche Gottfried is the fact that all her murders appear to have been utterly without motive. During her trial, court records show that she clearly remembered the day and time on which she poisoned each of her victims, the food she gave them (homemade veal stew, buttered bread and sausage, and chicken and plums were some of the examples she cited). She also remembered which rooms they vomited and died in.

Yet when pressed for a reason, she appeared to be as much at a loss as her questioners. Asked about the death of her first husband, she requested another day to ‘think it over’. About other people she had poisoned she said in genuine bafflement, ‘I can’t come up with a reason, God only knows why.’ Sometimes she provided an answer that was unrelated to the question. Of her eight year old son, she said, ‘I took the decision to poison him in the morning and did it immediately.’ In an apparent attempt to help the court, she sometimes tried to come up with seemingly credible reasons, pretending that she killed for revenge, or love, or money. But as a wealthy, independent woman who made only minimal financial gains from her murders, such reasons seemed unlikely.

The lawyer defending her, Hans Voget, came to the conclusion that Gottfried was entirely empty inside. The roles she had played – as mother, wife and charitable community member – were all superbly acted. But acted was all they were. To illustrate his point, he recalled how she never touched the Bible in her cell unless she heard someone approach it, when she would hastily pick it up and open it – and how she avoided the chaplain by lingering on her chamber pot until he went away again.

It is literature, rather than legal writings, that, in Professor Kord’s opinion, has come closest to explaining Gottfried’s motives. A poem by Adelbert von Chamission called Die Giftmischerin (poison murderess) written in 1828, the year of Gottfried’s arrest (and beautifully translated by Professor Kord), describes a woman who rejects the roles that society inflicts on her by poisoning those around her and, from the scaffold, returns to the nothingness (not heaven or hell) of which she was made.

Professor Kord noted that Gottfried’s trial involved a debate about free will – in terms of her ability to make the decision to break society’s rules. It did not, however, consider her ability to create a life for herself beyond that. One by one, she eliminated all her roles – mother, daughter and wife – but continued to play them to the end. The more we see our roles as unsuitable for ourselves, the greater the deception we have to practice in a society that insists we play them, seems to be the moral of this particular tale.

The 'Spuckstein' (Spitting Stone) in Bremen. Image credit: Wikipedia


If so, Gottfried’s personal remedy to improve a life in which she felt alienated was certainly poison to those around her. And to show that angels really do have feet of clay, the City of Bremen now sports a ‘Spuckstein’ (spitting stone) placed in the paving stones where the scaffold from which Gottfried was hanged had been situated. Visitors to the city today are invited to show their contempt for her by spitting on it.


Professor Kord has just published a new book, Murderesses in German Writing, 1720–1860: Heroines of Horror and a video of the event is available to view at the UCL website.

Article written by Penny Bailey, Writer, Wellcome Trust

Image credits: Wikipedia (Portrait) and Wikipedia (Spuckstein)
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