Sophie Weingarten was born in Glatz (now Kłodzku), a city in Lower Silesia, Prussia, the daughter of the secretary of the Austrian legation. Her father having lost his position, at the age of 19 she married the much older counselor of the Supreme Court Theodor Ursinus. She lived with him in Stendal until 1792 and afterwards in Berlin. Privy Counsellor Ursinus died there, suddenly, on 11 September 1800, a day after celebrating his birthday. His wife came under suspicion for not summoning a doctor, after the medicine she administered to him made his condition worse.
During her marriage Sophie had started an affair with a Dutch officer named Rogay, possibly with the consent of her elderly husband. He left Berlin for a time, but later returned and died three years before her husband. At the time his death was attributed to tuberculosis. It was later discovered that shortly before his death Sophie Ursinus had purchased a quantity of arsenic.
On 24 January 1801 an aunt of Sophie Ursinus, Christiane Witte, died in Charlottenburg after a short illness, leaving her a large inheritance. It was again later discovered that Sophie Ursinus had purchased a large quantity of arsenic shortly before her aunt had died.
At the end of February 1803 Sophie Ursinus's servant, Benjamin Klein, became ill, after having quarreled with her sometime earlier. She gave him an emetic, then soup, which made him worse. He became suspicious and when she gave him some plums, he secretly had them examined by a chemist, who confirmed that they contained arsenic.
Sophie Ursinus was arrested and soon came under suspicion of having poisoned her husband. His body was exhumed but at the autopsy the examiners, the chemist Marti Heinrich Klaproth and his assistant, Valentin Rose, could not confirm that he had been poisoned with arsenic. But there was a suspicion, from the general condition of the bodily organs and convulsive contraction of the limbs, that arsenic had been used to poison him. She was next charged with murdering her aunt. Again the body was exhumed but this time the examiners, contrary to what the doctors had said at her death, had no doubt that the aunt had died from arsenic poisoning, and that Sophie Ursinus had administered the poison.
The trial for murder ended on 12 September 1803. In her attempt to save her life and honour Sophie Ursinus had disputed every point, but was found guilty of the murder of her aunt and the attempted murder of her servant, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. She was allowed a certain amount of comfort while in prison in Glatz, and was even allowed to have parties with guests and dress in fine clothes. She was pardoned after thirty years in 1833 and rejoined the upper-class society of Glatz until her death in 1836.
The work of Valentin Rose in proving that the victims in this case were actually poisoned showed that the evidence of doctors who were present at death was not sufficient. In 1836 the Marsh test, a highly sensitive method in the detection of arsenic, was developed by the chemist James Marsh.
[Image: detail of “Portrait of Charlotte Ursinus” - until 1945 in the Museum of Kłodzku, now in a private collection]
FULL TEXT: There are a few subjects that present to the psychologist more curious traits, and more subtle enigmas than lady poisoners. The character is so opposed to all our ideas of feminine feeling and affection, that, except under circumstances of extreme excitement, resentment of slighted attachment, blind jealousy, or revenge of injured honor, its existence would seem hardly possible, If we search for motives, we find them to be generally of the most selfish and grovelling kind. They are, commonly, to put out of the way some or all of the people around who have money to leave. Other base passions come into play; but Mammon, the basest spirit that fell, is generally at the bottom of their career. It is amazing the variety and amiability of character that is worn for years, to cover the foul fiend within. For long periods these female vampires live in the heart of a family circle, wearing the most life-like marks of godliness and kindness, of personal attraction and spiritual gifts; caressed, feted, honored as the very pride of their sex, while they are all the time calculating on the lives and purses of those nearest, and who should be dearest, to them.
Some of these modern Medeas have played the part of the fashionable, or the aesthetic;— some, of the domestically amiable; some, of the devoted attendant on the sick and the suffering. Heaven defend us from such devotion! May no such tigress smooth our pillow; smile blandly on us in our pains which she cannot take away, though she has the satisfaction of knowing that they will take us away; and mix with taper fingers the opiate of our repose! Amid the most stealthy-footed and domestically benign of this feline race, were the widow Zwanziger, and Mrs. Gottfried, of Germany. They were amongst the most successful, though not the most distinguished, in this art of poisoning. They went on their way, slaying all around them, for years upon years, and yet were too good and agreeable to be suspected, though death was but another name for their shadows. Funerals followed those fatal sisters as certainly as thunder follows lightning, and undertakers were the only men who flourished in their path.
The widow Zwanziger was an admirable cook and nurse. Her soups and coffee had a peculiar strength; her watchful care by the sick bed was in all hearts; she kissed the child she meant to kill, and pillowed the aching head with such soothing address that it never ached again. Mrs. Gottfried was so attractive a person that her ministration was sought by people of much higher rank than her own; she was so warm a friend that she was a friend unto death, and one attached soul after another breathed their last in her arms. Husband after husband departed, and still her hand was sought, and still it practised its cunning. At length, in her four-and-fiftieth year, she was detected, and arrested. In prison, she walked amid the apparitions of all her victims, wept tears of tenderness over their memory, and finished by desiring that her life might be written; so that, having lost everything else, she might yet enjoy her fame.
All women of this class have had an extraordinary degree of vanity — and, what is more, they have had a perfect passion for their art — The Marchioness de Brinvilliers was an enthusiast in the composition of the rarest poisons, of which her accomplice, Sainte Croix, was so eminent a compounder. The admiration of her beauty, the distinctions of her rank, afforded her but a feeble satisfaction in comparison with that of watching the operation of some subtle lethal essence. She certainly was not the mere marchioness, but the princess of poisoners; and yet it remained for Madame Ursinus to give additional touches of perfection to this peculiar character. She was at once a lady of fashion, a pietist, a writer of useful tracts, a poetess and a poisoner. Through all the dangers of these various careers, she lived to the good old age of 76, and died — lamented! Brinvilliers, Zwanziger and Gottfried confessed that they were conquered by their crimes ; but Madame Ursinus, branded in public opinion, continued to defy it, and conquered even that; and to the very last gasp persisted in playing the heroine. Nay, more, without confession, remorse, or penitence, she strove in her own way and with no trifling success, to achieve the reputation of a saint. Surely, it is worth while to dig up from the rubbish-neap of the Prussian criminal court, a few fragments of the history of such a woman.
The widow of Privy-councillor Ursinus lived honored and courted in the highest circles of Berlin. Her rank, and the reputation of her husband, whom she had lost but a few years, her handsome fortune, her noble figure and impressive features, together with her spirit and her accomplishments, made her a center of attraction in the society of the time. She lived in a splendid house, and her establishment, in all its appointments, was perfect. We may imagine the sensation created by the news of her arrest.
Madame Ursinus was seated in the midst of a brilliant company on the evening of the fifth of March, 1803, at the card-table, when a servant, with all the signs of terror in his face, entered, and informed her that the hall and anteroom were occupied by police, who insisted on seeing her. Madame Ursinus betrayed no surprise or emotion. She put down her cards, begged the “party with whom she was engaged at play to excuse the interruption, observing that it was some mistake, and that she would be back in a moment.
She went, but did not return. After waiting some time, her partners inquired after her, and learned, to their consternation, that she was arrested and carried off to prison, on a charge of poisoning.
A confidential servant, Benjamin Klein, had complained in the preceding month of February of indisposition. She gave him a basin of beef-tea, and some days afterwards some medicine in raisins. This, so far from removing his complaint, increased it; and when his mistress, a few days afterwards, offered him some boiled rice, he said he could not eat it, and was much struck by observing that she carefully put it away where no one else could get it. This excited in his mind strong suspicions that there was something in the food which was detrimental to health, and associated with his condition. He resolved secretly to examine his mistress's room and cabinet, and in the latter he found a small parcel, with the ominous label — Arsenic.
The next day his attentive mistress brought him some stewed prunes, which she recommended as likely to do him good; and this time he accepted them with apparent thankfulness, but took care that none of them should enter his mouth. He communicated his suspicion to the lady's maid, in whom he had confidence; and she quickly carried off the prunes to her brother, who was the apprentice of a celebrated apothecary. The apprentice communicated the prunes and the suspicion to his master, who tested them, and found them well seasoned with arsenic. The apothecary very soon conveyed the discovery to the magistrate, and the magistrate, after hearing the statement of the servant and the lady's maid, arrested the great lady.
People, of course, now began to look back on the life of this distinguished woman; and it was remembered that her husband and an aunt, to whose last days she had paid assiduous attention and whose wealth had fallen to her, had gone off suddenly. Madame Ursinus was at once set down as a second Brinvilliers, and wonderful revelations were expected. The general appetite for the marvelous became ravenous and insatiable. There appeared almost immediately — it is wonderful how quickly such things are done — a book, by M. Frederic Buchholz, entitled the “ Confessions of a Female Poisoner, written by herself,” which was rapidly bought up and devoured, as the veritable confession of the Ursinus.
But, alas, for the hungering and thirsting public, Madame Ursinus was not a lady of the confessing sort! She was a clever, far-seeing soul, who had laid her grand plans well, and bad allowed no witnesses, and feared no detection. True, if she had poisoned her husband and her aunt, witness of the poison itself might be forthcoming; but the chemical tests for poisons were not then so well known as they are now. The bodies were disinterred and examined, and no trace of poison was found. The state of the stomach and intestines was most suspicious; but the doctors disagreed as to the cause, as doctors will; and so far Madame Ursinus was safe.
But, there was no getting over the fact that the prunes intended for the cautious Benjamin Klein had arsenic in them; and the Ursinus was too shrewd to attempt to deny it. On this point she did confess, promptly, frankly, and fully. But then, she meant no harm, at least against him. She had no intention of murdering the man. What good could that do her? — he had no money to leave. No; her motive was very different. In early life her affections had been thwarted through the obstinacy of parents; she had married a man whom she highly esteemed, but did not love; another friend, whom she did love, had died of consumption; and she was disgusted with life. The splendor and gayety which surrounded her were a hollow splendor, a wearisome gayety. She had been prosperous, but that prosperity had only accelerated her present mood. She bad outlived the relish of existence, and had resolved to die. Ignorant, however, poor innocent soul! of the force of this poison, she wanted to learn how much would be sufficient for its object; and therefore she had done as young doctors are said to do in hospitals — made a few experiments on her patient, the unfortunate Benjamin Klein. She had given him the very minutest quantity, so as to be quite safe, and had cautiously increased the successive doses—not with the least intention to do him any permanent harm, but to ascertain the effectual dose for herself. She would not for her life have hurt the man. In society she had been noted for sensibility — for the almost morbid delicacy of her nerves and the acuteness of her sympathies. That was all. As to the charges of having administered poison to her nearest connect ions, she treated the calumny with the utmost indignation. The judges were puzzled ; the Ursinus was resolute in her protestations of her innocence; and the public were at a disagreeable nonplus.
And what really had been the life and character of the Ursinus? Sophia Charlotte Elizabeth Weingarten was the daughter of a so-called Baron Weingarten — who, as secretary of legation in Austria, had, under a charge of high treason, crossed to Prussia, and assumed the name of Weiss. Friiulein Weingarten, or Von Weiss, was born in 1760. While residing in her teens with an elder married sister, wife of the Councillor of State Haacke, at Spandau, occurred that genuine love affair which her parents so summarily trampled upon. She was called home to Stendal, and, in her nineteenth year, married to privy-councillor Ursinus. The privy-councillor was a man of high standing, high character, and most exemplary life; but, unluckily, all these gifts and graces are often conferred upon or acquired by men who do not possess the other qualities that young ladies of nineteen admire. The worthy councillor was old, sickly, deaf, and passionless. In fact, he was a dull, common-place, diligent, unimaginative pack-horse and official plodder; most meritorious in his motives, and great in his department of public business; but just the last man for a lively handsome girl of nineteen. On the other hand, he had his good qualities, even as a husband. He had no jealousies, and the most unbounded indulgence.
Soon after their marriage they removed to Berlin, where, amid the gay society of the capital, Madame Ursinus soon contracted a warm friendship for a handsome young Dutch officer, of the name of Rogay. Rogay, in fact, was the man of her heart. She declared, with her usual candor, in one of her examinations before the magistrates, that she was made for domestic affection. That as there was no domestic affection between herself and her departed husband, neither he nor she pretended any. They agreed to consider themselves as a legal couple, and as friends, and no more. As to Captain Rogay, she made no secret of it that she clung to him with the most ardent feeling of love.
This attachment, the privy-councillor — the most reasonable of men — so far from resenting, encouraged and approved. He wished his wife to make herself happy, and enjoy life in her own way; and there is a long letter preserved in the criminal records, which he himself wrote on her dictation, to the beloved Rogay, on an occasion when he had absented himself tor some time, urging him to renew his visits, and that in the most love-like terms, the tenderest of which the old man underlined with his own hand.
But Rogay came not, he removed to another place, and there, soon after, died. Here was now another subject of suspicion. Rogay had cause to keep away; while she had fawned on him she had killed him. But here the testimony of two of the most celebrated physicians of the day was unanimous that the cause of Rogay's death was consumption and nothing more. 1 he physician attested that he had attended Rogay while he was living aud suffering under the roof of Privy-Councillor Ursiuus; that Madame Ursinus displayed the most unequivocal affection for him; that she attended on him, gave him everything with her own hand, and that no wife could have been more assiduously tender of him than she was. She called herself Lotto in her communication with him; not only because her name was Charlotte, but because she was an enthusiast of the Werter school, and loved to be of the same name as Werter’s idol. But yet Rogay withdrew himself and died alone, and at a distance.
Three years after the decease of Rogay died Ursinus himself. Old he was, it is true, but he was in perfect health. The kind wife made him a little festival on his birthday, and in the night he sickened and died. He had taken something that disagreed with him — but what so common at a feast? Madame Ursinus sat up with him alone; she called not a single creature; she hoped he would be better; but the man was aged and weak, and he went his way.
The year after, followed as suddenly her maiden aunt, the wealthy Miss Witte. One evening her doctor left her quite well, and in the night she sickened and died. The Ursinus was quite alone with her, called no single domestic, but let the good lady die in her arms. Both the bodies of the husband and the aunt, now Klein's affair took place, were disinterred and examined. There was no poison traceable, but the corpses were found dried together as if baked, or as if they were mummies of a thousand years old. The skin of the abdomen was so tough that it resisted the surgeon's knife, and the soft parts of the body bad assumed the appearance of hard tallow. The hands, fingers, and feet were drawn together as if by spasms, his skin resembled parchment, and the stomachs of both bore every trace of injury and inflammation which had reduced them to au inseparable mass. Yet, the eminent doctors declared that poisou was not the cause of death in either case, — but apoplexy or — in short, that there was not the remotest symptom of poison.
So instead of the pleasure-loving multitude obtaining a spectacle and a fate, the whirling sword of the executioner and the falling head were exchanged for perpetual imprisonment, and the handsome wealthy widow of forty was sent to spend the remainder of her days in the fortress of Glatz.
Here she assumed a new character. Her par of the interesting woman of fashion was played out; she had become interesting beyond her wish, and fate had now assigned her another part,—to defend her life and reputation. There was a call to develop her power of fortitude and of intellect, and she embraced it; not only before the tribunal of justice, but in her whole conduct through the thirty long years which she continued a prisoner.
No sootier had she entered on her quarters in the prison of Olatz, than she set about writing an elaborate defence of herself. In her room, which was the best the fortress afforded to its captives, and which she was allowed to furnish according to her pleasure, she placed a little table under the narrow window in the massy wall, and arranged upon it everything that was necessary for literary labor. She was surrounded by books; not only for refreshment of her mind, but for laborious research and instruction. In this defence at which she labored, for she was by no means satisfied with that of her paid advocates, she now discovered the uncommon abilities with which she was endowed. If any one had ever entertained a doubt of her powers of reasoning and calculation, of the clearness of her foresight, and the acuteness of her penetration, that doubt was here at once dispelled in the most convincing manner. She proved herself so profoundly vast in the law, that she now struck her legal advisers with astonishment, as she had done the judges on her trial. Her defence, which was addressed to her relatives, presented her in the new character of a masterly writer and legal scholar. This defence is still extant, and no defence of a murderer, not even that of Eugene Aram, is a more striking specimen of talent and of well-assumed virtue and virtuous indignation.
“Scarcely,” she says, “can I call to mind, without the overthrow of my understanding and the utter prostration of my whole being, the accusation of being the murderer of my husband and aunt. My innermost soul becomes worked with terror at the recollection of the moment when I was seized with all the horrors of death by the opened graves of my beloved relatives; when surrounded by all the pangs of a deadly cruelty, and pursued by the furies of a thousand-tongued imprecations, I heard myself cursed as the destroyer of those who sank so safely to slumber in my arms. Had Providence then heard the sole wish of my heart, the sole voice of my superhuman anguish, that moment would have annihilated my life and sufferings, and yet have flung the light of the sun on all the evidences of my innocence, which now, however, is made plain by other means.
“In vain have I been for ten long months pursued, martyred, broken to pieces, crushed in soul and body by the reproach of that shamefully horrible crime, and exposed to all the contempt and malice of the public. In vain have the graves of my loved ones been opened, the repose of the dead violated, and proceedings taken in the first capital of Europe, in this age of knowledge and humanity, under the eyes of the most amiable and kind-hearted of kings, that have no example, and with posterity will have no credence. In vain have I, unhappy one, been represented by inhuman writers as a monster and a terrible warning: in vain have I been painted, in the blackest and most venomous of colors, as a lesson to my own, and a dark eternal memory to after times; in vain have I been a thousand times murdered and tortured — the highest authorities, the clearest evidence pronounce me guiltless.”
In the prison she was allowed a female companion, and was often visited by distinguished strangers, whom so far from shrinking from, she was ever eager to see, never failing to describe her misfortunes in vivid colors, to assert her innocence, and intreat their exertions for her liberation. Many of these, however, thought that the lot of the poisoner who rustled in silk and satin over the floors of the fortress — compared with that of other convicts, who for some rude deed done in a moment of passion labored in heavy chains, welded to carts, or with iron horns projecting above their brows, sweltered in deep pits—had nothing in it of a severity which warranted an appeal to royal mercy.
But in her seventieth year, the royal mercy reached her. She was liberated from prison, but restricted for the remainder of her life to the city and fortress of Olatz. Here she once more played the part, not of a poisoner, but of an innocent woman and an aristocratic lady. She again opened a handsome house, and gave entertainments; and they were frequented! Nay, such was her vanity, that she used every diligence to draw illustrious strangers into her circle. An anecdote is related on undoubted authority, which is characteristic. At one of her suppers, a lady sitting near her actually started, as she saw some white powder on a salad which was handed to her. Madame Ursinus observed it, and said, smiling, “ Don't be alarmed, my dear, it is not arsenic.”
Another anecdote is not less amusing. Immediately after quilting her prison, she invited a large company to coffee. An invitation to coffee by the poisoner, as she was called in Glatz by old and young, was a matter of curiosity, the grand attraction of the day. All went: but one individual, who had been overlooked in the invitation, out of resentment planned a savage joke. He bribed the confectioner to mix in the biscuit some nauseating drug. In the midst of the entertainment, the whole company was seized simultaneously with inward pains and sickness, gave themselves up for lost, started up in horror, and rushed headlong from the house. Glatz was thunderstruck with the news, which went through it like an electric flash, that the Ursiuus had poisoned all her guests.
Regardless of these little accidents, the Ursinus lived a life of piety and benevolence; so said the jailor of the fortress, and her female companion. She sought to renew her intercourse with her sister, Madame von Hocke, saying : “We are again the little Yette and little Lotte; our happy childhood stands before me.” But the sister kept aloof, and the wounded, but patient and forgiving Ursinus exclaimed: “Ah! that life and its experiences can thus operate on some people, by no means making them happier. God reward us all for the good that we have been found worthy to do, and pardon us our many errors!”
She died in her seventy-seventh year; and her companion declared that she could not enough admire the resignation with which she endured her sufferings through the aid of religion. She left her considerable property partly to her nephews and nieces, and partly to benevolent institutions. A year before her death she ordered her own coffin, and left instructions that she should lie in state with white gloves on her hands, a ring on her finger containing the hair of her late husband, and his portrait on her bosom. Five carriages, filled with friends and acquaintances, followed her to the grave, which was found adorned with green moss, auriculas, tulips, and immortelles; an actual bower of blooms. When the clergyman had ended his discourse, six boys and six poor girls, whom the Ursinus had cared for in her lifetime, stepped forward and sang a hymn in her honor. The gravedigger had little to do; female friends and many poor people to whom she had been a benefactress, filled the grave with their own hands, and arched the mound over it. It was a bitter cold morning, yet the churchyard could scarcely contain the crowd. And thus the poisoner passed away like a saint.
[“The Ursinus,” The Western Literary Messenger, Buffalo, N. Y., Volume 25, Sep. 1855, pp. 216-19; based on Mrs. Catherine Crowe, from: Light and Darkness; or Mysteries of Life, in 3 volumes, London, Henry Colburn, Pubs, 1850.]