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  • Sex Scandals, Sexual Violence, and the Word on the Street:The Kolasówna Lustmord in Cracow's Popular Press, 1905–1906
  • Nathaniel D. Wood (bio)

In late imperial central and eastern Europe, sexual scandals reached the public, as elsewhere, by means of three major channels: traditional conversation, public trials of offenders, and the pages of the popular press. The most important of these sources was the popular press, which typically shaped the contours of discussion by breaking the stories, providing their narrative structure, determining which ones became sensations, and reporting their denouement in the courts whenever they made it to trial. In disseminating the language and concepts of the judicial and medical communities regarding transgressive sexuality, the popular press mediated the way that the vast majority of citizens understood "scandalous" sexuality. Yet the popular press did not entirely dictate the tone and structure of sex scandals. It relied heavily on its relationship with the public, which not only consumed but often discovered and informed the outcome of the stories. In an effort to establish its legitimacy, the popular press acknowledged that it was part of conversations, already begun "on the street." It inserted itself into a traditional space of popular news sharing, reacting to and at times spreading gossip itself.

Although coverage of sexual deviance was frequently sensationalistic and inaccurate, it does not mean—as critics at the time and ever since have maintained—that the popular press was merely disseminating false consciousness, bilking the masses of their money, or spinning scandals instead of paying attention to "more important matters." Coverage of sexual scandals in the fin de siècle popular press—particularly in the case of local stories—was often part of an ongoing conversation about morality and propriety as well as the thrills and dangers of modern urban life. [End Page 243]

This article explores the conversation between the popular press and the public on issues of sexual deviance and degeneracy by analyzing one major scandal, the "sexual murder" (Lustmord) of nine-year-old Marya Kolasówna in the suburbs of Cracow in 1905, while contextualizing it with current medical and legal discourses and related news stories. It offers a careful reading of the way that the press reported the story, paying particular attention to narrative style and the papers' perceived relationship to the "word on the street." Of particular importance was the tendency of the popular press—following the Austrian authorities, who classified the murder as a Lustmord—to emphasize sex and sexuality in its coverage of the story, despite the fact that no documented sex had taken place. (According to the definition of Lustmord, the murder is itself a source of sexual pleasure and often serves as a substitute for the sex act.) As such, the Kolasówna murder gave citizens a new way to think about violence against women and children, as arising from "sexual urges or temporary insanity." Coverage of the Kolasówna murder further reveals the way that the popular press mediated between the authorities and the public, contributing to public conversations about sexuality and violence in the city. It demonstrates the common desire to assert stability and order in the face of sexual danger by making it seem abnormal or distant. Finally, because of the clear contribution from the public and the press's constant reference to public input, the Kolasówna case offers evidence of the existence of a nascent public sphere among the otherwise atomized citizens of a burgeoning metropolis.

Fin de Siècle Cracow and the Popular Press

In 1905 Cracow, a primarily Polish-speaking city in the Austrian province of Galicia, was transforming from a relatively small provincial city into a modern metropolis.1 Between 1890 and 1905 Cracow's civilian population grew by 37 percent (from 69,130 to 94,735) as migrants from the surrounding towns and countryside poured into the crowded city seeking work.2 Modern urban infrastructure, including running water, electric streetcars, and electricity, had appeared during the past few years. In 1904 Juliusz [End Page 244] Leo, an energetic, forward-looking deputy mayor and university professor, became mayor. Chief among his modernizing aims was the creation of "Greater Cracow" (Wielki Kraków), the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 243-269
Launched on MUSE
2011-05-18
Open Access
No
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