Venomous women of the 19th century

Thursday 19 February 2009

Though a worldwide sensation at the time, little is known today about the `Angel of Bremen’ – a German serial killer who wiped out her entire family over a fourteen year period.

The author of a new book on murderous German women will reveal the tale of a 19th century `poison murderess’ and explore why poison is presumed to be the `quintessential woman’s weapon’, at a lecture in St Andrews today.

Professor Susanne Kord will recount the tale of Gesche Gottfried, who killed fifteen people between 1813 and 1827.  Gottfried, who was the last person to be executed in Bremen on 21 April 1831, killed all of her victims by arsenic poisoning – among them were her three children, parents and two husbands.

Professor Kord, of University College London, said, “What fascinates me about Gottfried is her apparent lack of motive and what others have made of this, and of course that this case took place before there were legal or psychological or medical ‘models’ to explain such behaviour, which were all still very much under construction when Gesche distributed poison like alms.

“What is also interesting is that poison is presumed to be the quintessential woman’s weapon, and a predilection for murder by poison an integral part of a female gender identity.”

Professor Kord is interested in the way in which deviant women – murderesses, witches and vampires – are perceived and represented by society; and what it considers the norm for acceptable female behaviour.  She has also examined the way in which the emancipation of women was perceived to be linked to their crimes.

Before finally being convicted and hanged for her crimes, Gottfried was dubbed the `Angel of Bremen’ because of her devoted nursing of the victims during their time of suffering.  Her killing spree started with her first husband in October 1813, followed by her mother, two daughters, father, son, brother, second husband, fiancé and several friends, finally ending on 24 July 1827.

Although at the time, the murders were a media sensation, not only all over Germany, but as far afield as North America and China, little has been made of the case in recent years.  Professor Kord tracked the story down via a bunch of dusty handwritten manuscripts in the Staatsarchiv Hamburg and will tell the story in a new book published later this year, `Murderesses in German Writing, 1720-1860′.

Professor Susanne Kord will deliver the lecture Venomous Women: Poison Murderesses in Nineteenth-Century Germany at the University’s Department of German at 5.15pm tonight (Thursday 19 February 2009).   






Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Gayle Cook, Senior Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email

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