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Death and a Maiden
Infanticide and the Tragical History of Grethe Schmidt
William David Myers
“The story Myers has to tell is a fascinating one and he skillfully constructs a strong narrative as he unravels testimonies and follows step-by-step the investigation, the machinations of government, the protests of the maiden’s family, and the role played by the lawyer who defended her. With the talent of a good mystery writer, Myers holds us in suspense as to the outcome of the case until the very end.”—Mary Lindemann, University of Miami
“Myers deftly guides the reader through the methods used by investigators to collect information and the way that historians can ask questions and set contexts with these kinds of sources. For this reason, the book should find a strong readership among undergraduate and graduate students interested in early modern criminal history and scholars approaching complicated criminal cases for the first time.” —German Studies Review
On the feast of St. Michael, September 1659, a thirteen-year-old peasant girl left her family’s rural home to work as a maid in the nearby city of Brunswick. Just two years later, Grethe Schmidt found herself imprisoned and accused of murdering her bastard child. Filled with political intrigue, Death and a Maiden tells a fascinating story that began in the bedchamber of a house in Brunswick and ended at the court of Duke Augustus in the city of Wolfenbüttel. No one was ever able to prove conclusively that Grethe had been pregnant and no infant’s body was ever found to justify her prosecution. But, from one accusation, Grethe’s tale spiraled outward to set a defense lawyer and legal theorist against powerful city magistrates and then upward to a legal contest between that city and its overlord, the Duchy of Brunswick, with the city’s ancient liberties hanging in the balance. Myers weaves the story of Grethe’s arrest, torture, trial, and sentence for “suspected infanticide,” into a detailed account of the workings of the criminal system in continental Europe, including the nature of interrogations, the process of torture, and the creation of a “criminal” identity over time. He presents an in-depth examination of a system in which torture was both legal and an important part of criminal investigations. This story serves as a captivating slice of European history as well as a highly informative look at the condition of poor women and the legal system in mid-17th century Germany. General readers and scholars alike will be riveted by Grethe’s ordeal.
William David Myers is Associate Professor of History at Fordham University and author of “Poor, Sinning Folk”: Confession and the Making of Consciences in Counter-Reformation Germany.
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