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  • A Poisoned Chalice
  • Kathy Stuart
A Poisoned Chalice. By Jeffrey Freedman. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2002. Pp. xvii, 236. $32.95. ISBN 0-691-00233-9.)

Jeffrey Freedman has written an engaging microhistory of an alleged poison plot in late eighteenth-century Zurich. On September 12, 1776, as many as 1200 parishioners were crowded into Zurich's cathedral to partake in Holy Communion. It happened to be the Day of Prayer and Repentance, one of only four occasions in the reformed liturgical calendar scheduled for the Lord's Supper. As the wine was distributed, however, communicants found it murky and foul-tasting. The wine was quickly exchanged and the sacrament proceeded without further incident, but the authorities suspected poisoning.

Once rumors of poisoning circulated in Zurich—though not before—numerous communicants claimed that they had taken ill. Local doctors and chemists performed chemical analyses of the tainted wine. Chemistry at this time, however, like medicine, was considered a "dirty," inexact science, as opposed to "pure" Newtonian physics. It relied on subjective evidence of the senses—smell, texture, taste—rather than objective mathematical calculation. Despite the revolution in chemical understanding brought about by Lavoisier at this time, in Zurich the analyses relied on traditional methods. Though one analysis was inconclusive, two others did find poison—though not the same poison: one identified arsenic, the other mercury. But neither arsenic nor mercury was present in high enough concentrations to cause serious harm; a pair of doves fed the tainted wine showed no symptoms. Though rumors of deaths from poisoning abounded in Zurich and abroad, the official investigation found that no deaths could be blamed on the poisoned wine. Nonetheless, the government took the poisoning as a "fact" and launched a criminal investigation.

The incident almost immediately became a cause célèbre, both in Zurich, where the highest government officials conducted the investigation, and in the wider German-speaking world, where the affair was publicized in the press. Freedman's reconstruction of the investigation as it played out in Zurich and in the German press sheds light on particularities of the German Enlightenment, the Aufklärung, and raises questions about the authority of science, the nature of evidence, the clashing world views of orthodox clergy and proponents of the Aufklärung, the role of the "public sphere," as well as fundamental religious and philosophical problems debated by leading figures of the German Enlightenment.

The affair aroused such passions at home and abroad in part, Freedman suggests, because it evoked a "mythic narrative," bringing to mind hoary tales [End Page 157] of host desecration, well poisoning, and ritual murder. Jews might well have served as obvious scapegoats on whom to blame the poisoning, but Jews had not resided in Zurich since they had fallen victim to mob violence in the wake of a well-poisoning accusation in the fourteenth century. The next best choice was "gravedigger Wirz," a member of a low-status trade considered "dishonorable" in some parts of the empire, though not in Zurich. Wirz had motive and opportunity. The Antistes, Zurich's leading clergyman and one of the first to drink of the tainted wine, had previously scolded the gravedigger for his job performance, and for this Wirz harbored deep resentment. Wirz could easily have entered the cathedral by night to poison the wine, accessing the nave from the watchtower where he also served as bell-ringer. But Wirz did not confess, and since there was not enough circumstantial evidence against him to justify the use of judicial torture, there was no case against him. Wirz was released, and the mystery of the poisoned communion wine remained unsolved.

Meanwhile the case sparked a veritable pamphlet war in the German press. The two main protagonists in this debate were Johann Caspar Lavater, a conservative Zurich pastor and vigorous foe of the Enlightenment best known for his works on physiognomy, and Friedrich Nicolai, publicist of the Enlightenment, editor, bookseller, and author. Lavater's best-selling sermons explained the poisoning as a sign of the general moral decay brought about by the pernicious influence of the Enlightenment, which had watered down the truths of revealed Christianity in favor of pale, "reasonable...


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