Millennials, and the generation that followed them, have often been painted as self-obsessed, image-conscious, fixated on the picture that they present to the world.
Despite what the media attempts to convey, however, they are no more conceited than any other generation to precede them.
One only need look at the sad tale of Gesche Gottfried to understand that we’ve always been vain creatures.
“One only need look at the sad tale of Gesche Gottfried to understand that we’ve always been vain creatures.”
Gesche Margarethe Timm was born in the prosperous northern German city of Bremen in 1785, part of the former Hanseatic League of cities. While her background was modest – her father was a tailor – she was a pretty young thing, who had ambitions of making it on the stage.
Theatre, you see, was booming at the time, and a generation of German language dramatists were helping to propel actors to a kind of stardom that would not be seen again for decades. Gesche even attended singing and dancing lessons in order to hone her skills.
These dreams, however, were not to be.
Gesche’s father had her married off young to a saddler, Johan Mittelberg. Mittelberg was not supportive of his young bride’s ambitions – indeed, he spent most of his spare time in the alehouses of the city, drinking and whoring his money away, much to Gesche’s dismay.
“Mittelberg was not supportive of his young bride’s ambitions – indeed, he spent most of his spare time in the alehouses of the city, drinking and whoring his money away, much to Gesche’s dismay.”
Gesche, however, was not destined to endure Mittelberg’s neglect for long.
In October 1813, soon after Mittelberg admitted that they were destitute, he died of an agonizing malady. Just over a year later, tragedy struck again, with two of Gesche’s children, plus both of her parents, dying painfully in the space of two months.
‘The Angel of Bremen’
To many in Bremen society, it seemed that death was stalking poor Mittelberg’s widow, taking all the family she had. The dignity with which she bore such suffering was remarkable. Indeed, many spoke of the tireless devotion with which she ministered to her dying family, calling her the ‘Angel of Bremen’.
It must be said that until now, nothing seemed that out of sorts. Diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diptheria were known to wipe out entire families in the European cities of the early 19th century. Gesche just seemed to have more than her fair share of grieving to do.
“Gesche just seemed to have more than her fair share of grieving to do.”
It wouldn’t do to have such a young woman living the rest of her days as a widow, though, and Gesche soon took up with a wine merchant, Michael Christoph Gottfried. He was there to comfort her as illness claimed another son, as well as her brother.
Inevitably, it would seem, Gottfried himself sickened and died in July 1817.
Again, the widow Gottfried followed the cortege to the cemetery.
Respite at last?
After so much death and trauma, it seemed that Gesche was finally spared from death’s shadow for a time. The next few years she lived alone in the comfortable home that she had shared with her recently deceased husband, fashionably dressed, yet reserved – stoically bearing the hand fate had dealt.
Fate was tempted in 1823, however, when Gesche’s neighbour, Paul Thomas Zimmermann, proposed to her. Before long, however, he lingered in agony before dying.
Gesche resolved herself at this point to being alone – albeit with the home that Zimmerman had left her in his will.
The next few years, the thirty-something Gesche attempted to maintain the comfortable, fashionable lifestyle her two deceased husbands and fiance had bequeathed to her. This involved taking out a series of loans, and selling off some of her properties.
“In what must have seemed a predictable fashion to the more observant around her, this was when a series of acquaintances and friends began to sicken and die.”
Gesche managed to juggle costs for a while, but things came to a head in 1825, when creditors began to knock on her door. In what must have seemed a predictable fashion to the more observant around her, this was when a series of acquaintances and friends began to sicken and die around her.
Her secret revealed!
It was her neighbour Johann Rumpff, one of those she had sold her properties to, that discovered the truth about Gesche in early 1827.
Served a salad by her one night, Rumpff noticed a number of oily white grains among the leaves. When a ham dish was served a few days later with the same substance sprinkled over it, Rumpff took a sample to a doctor friend of his for analysis.
While this was during the very early days of toxicology, Rumpff’s doctor friend was quick to identify what had been added to the food – arsenic. Not only that, but a form smeared with fat known as ‘mouse butter’, used as a pest poison for rodents.
“While this was during the very early days of toxicology, Rumpff’s doctor friend was quick to identify what had been added to the food – arsenic.”
While an investigation was quickly launched, Gesche realised she was now under suspicion and managed to slip away to Hannover for a time. Justice would not rest, however and eventually she was tracked down and arrested in late March, 1828.
The ensuing court case would demonstrate that Gesche had poisoned sixteen people over the space of fifteen ood years, making her an early documented serial killer. She was sentenced to death, but surprisingly, remained under lock and key in the Bremen gaol for three years until the sentence was carried out.
“Indeed, Gesche claimed to see the spirits of her dead family in her cell.“
While she waited to die, early predecessors of forensic psychologists questioned Gesche about her motivations. From what we can tell, she was motivated by an almost pathological desire not to lose the image she had built around herself – the woman of substance, bearing the tragedies around her with a quiet determination and affluent poise. She simply could not bear the thought of falling from grace, of becoming ‘less’ than she thought herself to be.
She did regret the killings, however Indeed, Gesche claimed to see the spirits of her dead family in her cell, night after night, tormenting her. She told her gaolers this right up to her execution.
The sad end of Gesche Gottfried
Gesche met her fate on the 21st of April, 1831. The square outside Bremen’s cathedral was packed as she was led onto the scaffold and placed on the guillotine. She was finally on stage in front of the whole city.
“Her performance was short, but memorable.”
Her performance was short, but memorable.
It took a long time for Bremen to stop talking about Gesche Gottfried. As the last public execution in the city, her crimes and subsequent execution gained a degree of infamy in the city that no other did.
Indeed, if you visit Bremen today, you can find what is known as a ‘Spuckstein’, or ‘Spitting Stone’ set into the pavement outside the cathedral, where her scaffold once stood. Generations of Bremen folk have shown their contempt for the murderess with a gob of spit.
Personally, I think Gesche would be horrified that this is her lasting legacy, the final image she presents to the world.