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Reviewed by:
Susanne Kord, Murderesses in German Writing, 1720–1860: Heroines of Horror. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. 266 pp.

Kord’s study of female criminality and cultural history is a thrill to read, not only for its wonderful insights, well-documented discussion, and lively arguments, but also for the logical order within the chapters and varied nature of the content. The title of her book is descriptive in calling its material “German writing”—signaling its utilization of not just literature but all kinds of written records—but misleading in the sense that the focus strays from the murderesses themselves. The content includes the legalistic and scientific, the popular and the literary, the uncanny and the sensationalistic. Instead of serving as the focal point of each chapter, the featured “heroines of horror” provide insights into female criminality and also into criminality in general. Each chapter focuses on a crime type that is mainly or exclusively in the domain of the feminine and pairs that with a legal topic, such as criminal psychology, the death penalty, interrogation techniques, and torture—all central issues in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany and most of Europe. The case studies include the Medvegya outbreak (the case that brought vampires into Western European consciousness), the “busiest female vampire” of all time (54), and the last woman in Europe to be executed [End Page 293] as a witch. Thus, though these and most of the other featured cases are largely forgotten today, even in academic circles, they represent not niche examples extracted to support a thesis but central cases in their day.

Chapter 1 lays out the purpose of the book, setting up an interpretive framework, goals, and the cultural and historical context. Chapter 2, about witchcraft, offers an insightful history of trials and an outline of how “witchcraft moves into the discursive underground” in the eighteenth century (33). Chapter 3 highlights the central role that gender plays in the history of vampire accounts. In the first part of chapter 4, about husband-killers, I had hoped for more substantial discussion on the representation of Maria Wächtler’s deviant behavior. The topics with heavy emphasis—interrogation techniques and employment of torture—as well as the contrast between court record and pamphlet versions, while very interesting and engaging, seemed to illuminate little about women or crime, or about Wächtler specifically. This chapter improves, however, with the more detailed exploration of the Ruthardt case and with the many comparisons to the previous case, which enrich that discussion both in terms of its significance for criminal and cultural history and its portrayal of gender roles. Concluding the chapter, Kord offers an excellent synthesis, stressing the important role of these two female criminals in the aesthetics of horrific literature and as an impetus to social change.

Chapter 5 examines women guilty or accused of infanticide. The central role of shame in these accounts allows for a much more personal exploration of the women’s feelings and of the progression in their portrayal. Kord’s most interesting section addresses shame, or lost honor, in a feminine context, which serves as a tacit counterpoint to similar phenomena in a masculine context, epitomized, perhaps, by Schiller’s “The Criminal of Lost Honor” (“Der Verbrecher aus verlorener Ehre”). Without making it the thrust of her discussion, Kord invites such comparisons along gender lines by ushering in pertinent historical artifacts, well-placed and adorned with skillful and engaging argument. Chapter 6 leads off boldly by dispelling the myth of poisoning being primarily a female mode of murder; and the last chapter, though interesting, devotes itself more to the ritual of execution and confession than to analysis of female criminals themselves. Furthermore, a clear feminine aspect to executions or confessions does not emerge from the discussion, disappointingly. The many detailed examples are indeed exclusively female but could have just as easily been male to support the various points. One provocative idea is the assertion that the “mob” at public executions represents a feminine entity (with the state being masculine).

The book ends without a summation or conclusion, consistent with how Kord positions it in the introduction as a collection of essays and as “more...


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