Gesche Margarethe Gottfried, born Gesche Margarethe Timm (6 March 1785 - 21 April 1831), was a serial killer who murdered 15 people by arsenic poisoning in Bremen and Hanover, Germany, between 1813 and 1827. She was the last person to be publicly executed in the city of Bremen.
Gottfried’s victims included her parents, her two husbands, her fiancé and her children. Before being suspected and convicted of the murders, she garnered widespread sympathy among the inhabitants of Bremen because so many of her family and friends fell ill and died. Because of her devoted nursing of the victims during their time of suffering, she was known as the “Angel of Bremen.” [Wikipedia]
EXCERPT: The noted woman Gottfried, who lived in Bremen a quarter of a century ago, might rank first among scientific poisoners. She was a widow of fascinating appearance in her youth beautiful; in more advanced life still attractive by those preparative and decorative arts of which woman knows so well how to avail herself. But fatality seemed to attend her. All connected with her sickened and died in strange ways. Two husbands, her father, her mother, her brother and several children disappeared in a short period of time it was her lot to order no less than thirteen coffins from the undertaker, who lived opposite her, and all for near and dear friend? Gottfried faithfully nursed them during their painful illness. She was an object of pity and sympathy, while she seemed wonderfully resigned to the inscrutable decrees of Providence. A perfect Niobe in her “childless woe” she appeared to be, and a Niobe she was, for her heart was as hard as that celebrated statue. Received into good society, her company was courted by persons of rank and consideration.
Twice a widow, she still had suitors. She had a well furnished house, an easy fortune; but still she continued to drink of the cup of affliction, and was still pitied and prayed for. A model of the tender affections, she loved intensely, but her love seemed to kill every object on which it alighted. The venerated parent, the manly husband, the beautiful children withered and died.
A Mr. Rampff and his wife, though dissuaded by friends, took lodgings in the same house with Madam Gottfried. She was all kindness to them and theirs. But Madam R. was seized with vomiting, and died under the assidious nursing of this disguised Alecto. The children and servants met the sane fate, and received the same attentions. She gave them all their death-potion, and smoothed their dying pillow. Mr. Rumpff himself was seized; he ransacked the house from garret to cellar to find the cause; he believed there was some decaying substance, some fetid exhalation, … which did the mischief: he had the boards lifted and the walls examined, all in vain; but at length a white powder was observed, on a bit of meat which had been left, and it proved to be arsenic. Madam G. was arrested, imprisoned, and though at first affecting great horror at the idea of being accused as a murderess, finally confessed to all, and to much more than she said she could remember! She was sentenced to be beheaded, and that head, preserved in spirits, and her skeleton in a case, may now be seen in the museum at Bremen.
[“Deaths by Poison.” (From the Milwaukee News), The Kenosh Times (Wi.), Feb. 11, 1858, p. 1]
More cases: Female Serial Killers Executed
Victims (from Wikipedia)
- 1 October 1813: Johann Miltenberg (first husband)
- 2 May 1815: Gesche Margarethe Timm (mother)
- 10 May 1815: Johanna Gottfried (daughter)
- 18 May 1815: Adelheid Gottfried (daughter)
- 28 June 1815: Johann Timm (father)
- 22 September 1815: Heinrich Gottfried (son)
- 1 June 1816: Johann Timm (brother)
- 5 July 1817: Michael Christoph Gottfried (second husband)
- 1 June 1823: Paul Thomas Zimmermann (fiancé)
- 21 March 1825: Anna Lucia Meyerholz (music teacher and friend)
- 5 December 1825: Johann Mosees (neighbor, friend and advisor)
- 22 December 1826: Wilhelmine Rumpff (landlady)
- 13 May 1827: Elise Schmidt (daughter of Beta Schmidt)
- 15 May 1827: Beta Schmidt (friend, maid)
- 24 July 1827: Friedrich Kleine (friend, creditor; murdered in Hanover)
She was extremely afflicted when she saw the unbecoming dress she was to wear on the scaffold, and put it on with the greatest reluctance. She died a hypocrite, as she had lived, affecting a piety and repentance she evidently did not feel. When her head fell beneath the sword of the executioner thousands of voices from the assembled multitude hailed the triumph of that earthly judgment which sent her to her great account before her Heavenly Judge.
CHAPTER II of Catherine Crowe, Light and Darkness, 1850 –
FULL TEXT: In the year 1825, a gentleman, named Rumpff, established himself in a house in Bremen, which belonged to and was also inhabited by a widow lady named Gottfried. She was by universal consent a charming woman; her manners were fascinating, and her person, which in her youth was said to have been extremely beautiful, was still very attractive and agreeable.
She was, however, unfortunate. Two husbands, her father, her mother, her brother, and several children had all died within a very short period of time. She had actually had the pain of herself ordering thirteen coffins of the undertaker who lived opposite to her—and these for her nearest and dearest friends. She had, it is true, had the consolation of nursing them all during their last sicknesses—a duty which she had discharged with the most exemplary assiduity and tenderness. Every body pitied her; religion was her refuge, and a pious resignation to the inscrutable decrees of Providence alone supported her under these multiplied calamities. Her case, in short, excited so much commiseration, that she was publicly prayed for in church by a minister of high reputation and signal piety.
She was not only received in good society, but although originally born and wedded in the burgher class, her company was courted by persons of high rank and consideration. She had had many suitors; had been twice married, and was now forty years of age; still she was by no means without claimants for her hand. Her personal agremens, elegantly furnished house, and easy fortune, rendered her a desirable match; and the parents of the enamoured youths wished nothing better than to have Madame Gottfried for a daughter-in-law. But she declined their proposals. On his death-bed she had promised her dear Gottfried, of blessed memory, never to give that hand to another; and she intended to keep her word.
Still, with all these extraordinary advantages and recommendations, her ill-fortune was undeniable; every body connected with her died. Some people looked upon her as a sort of Job, a monument of suffering and patience; one whom the Lord had selected to chastise for the good of her soul, and to furnish a lesson of resignation and submission to mankind. She herself took this view of the case; whilst others secretly hinted that they had heard there was something poisonous in her breath, which was fatal to those who inhaled it.
It was not without many expostulations from his friends, that Mr. Rumpff established himself in the house of this amiable but ill-starred lady. He, however, was no believer in stars, good or ill; and had no idea of resigning a residence that suited him, on such absurd grounds; and for some little time he certainly felt he had every reason to congratulate himself on his decision. The most gratifying relations established themselves betwixt his family and the friendly widow, who seemed to have nothing in the world to do but to make herself agreeable to them. Her kindness to the young people was quite remarkable; but, unfortunately, at the end of eight weeks, this general joy was interrupted, by the death of Madame Rumpff, who was seized with a vomiting shortly after her confinement, which carried her off in a few hours.
Nothing could exceed the attentions of Madame Gottfried; she never quitted the bedside of the dying woman, whose best consolation, in her last moments, was, that she left behind her so kind a friend to protect her orphans and comfort her bereaved husband. The hopes and wishes of the departed mother were, in this respect, fulfilled to the letter. Madame Gottfried managed the house, overlooked the servants, cherished the children, and, by her pious exhortations, allayed the anguish of the father. In the family she always went by the appellation of aunt Gottfried.
But ill-fortune still clung to her. The maid, and the nurse who had been engaged to take care of the child, became extremely ill; and the latter finally quitted the house, declaring that she saw clearly that she never should be well whilst she remained in it
Presently, Mr. Rumpff’s journeymen and apprentices began to vomit; and some months after his wife’s death he was himself seized with a similar indisposition. A healthy and strong-minded man, he exerted himself to struggle against the malady; and even fancied that the boys who worked in his manufactory, but ate their meals in the house, were merely diverting themselves by aping him, when he heard them straining and vomiting too.
But resistance was vain; he could keep nothing on his stomach; every thing he ate caused him the most excruciating agonies, and his formerly blooming health declined from day to day. Neither the remedies he had recourse to himself, nor those of the physician, were of the least avail. He grew worse and worse; he lost the use of his fingers and toes; his body was as weak as an infant’s; and his mind seemed to be threatened with a similar degree of imbecility. He racked his imagination to discover the cause of these extraordinary inflictions, and, like a man seeking for some hidden treasure, he ransacked every corner of his house from top to bottom. He never thought of poison; but he fancied there must be some decaying substance about the house, that exhaled a vapour fatal to the health of all who inhabited it. He had the boards lifted, and the walls examined; but in vain; nothing could be discovered.
At length the strong mind so far gave way, as to admit a doubt, whether there might not indeed be some unknown and invisible influences—some spirits of ill, that pursued mankind to their destruction; wasting their bodies and withering their minds. But here again aunt Gottfried came to his aid; she watched over him like a mother; bade him trust in God; and when he described to her his sleepless nights of anguish, she earnestly wished him such sweet rest as blessed her own pillow.
This state of things had continued for upwards of a year, and nobody believed Mr. Rumpff would be long an inhabitant of this world, when, having ordered a pig to be killed for the use of his family, the butcher sent him a small choice bit of the animal to taste, by way of specimen. As the pork was not only very good, but sat more easily on his stomach than anything he had lately taken, he deposited the remains of it in a closet, for his next day’s luncheon. He was rather surprised, however, on going to take it from the cupboard, to find it was not as he had left it. He had placed the rind underneath, but it had since been turned; and, on looking more closely, he was startled by perceiving some grains of a white powder sprinkled over it; the more so, that he immediately remembered to have remarked the same appearance on a salad, and on some broth which had been lately served to him.
On the former occasions, he had applied to his good housekeeper, aunt Gottfried, to know what it was; and she had declared it to be grease. But now, for the first time, a dreadful suspicion possessed him; could it be poison? He said nothing; but secretly sent for his physician; a chemical investigation soon revealed the mystery—the white powder was arsenic.
The discovery was made on the 5th of March; on the 6th, after a cursory examination, Madame Gottfried was arrested. She was found in bed, and said she was ill; but they carried her away to prison, nevertheless.
The tidings of this most unexpected catastrophe soon spread over the city, and the dismay of its inhabitants was past all expression. A lady so beloved, so respected! So amiable, so friendly, so pious! Then came dark suspicions relative to the past—the strange mortality, the singular similarity of the symptoms that had attended the last illnesses of all who had died in that house. People scarcely dared whisper their thoughts —but the reality far exceeded their imaginations, and the proceedings against Madame Gottfried disclosed a tissue of horrors, which, all circumstances considered, seems to surpass those of any case on record. Her crimes, combined with her successful hypocrisy, and powers of fascination, were so terrific, that in the orderly and pious city of Bremen, to this day, strange rumours and superstitions survive amongst the people, connected with the history of “Aunt Gottfried.” They believe that she tickled her children to death, in order to make a poisonous broth of their flesh; that there was a vault under the house, unknown to all but herself, where she prepared her poisons, and performed all sorts of devilish deeds; that she had the evil eye, and had slain innumerable children by merely looking at them; and they were, moreover, thoroughly convinced that she was born a murderess from her mother’s womb, and inherited from her parent two books, which contained instructions for all sorts of demoniacal practices.
It is not to be wondered at that the ignorant should have sought in the supernatural an explanation of a phenomenon which confounded the experience of the most enlightened.
On being conducted to the city prison, Madame Gottfried denied all knowledge of the crime she was accused of; but a secret here came to light that astonished the beholders little less than the previous disclosures. Before being conducted to the cell in which she was to be confined, she was, according to established regulations, placed in the hands of the female attendants to be examined; and then, to their amazement, it was discovered that the lovely and admired Madame Gottfried was nothing but a hideous skeleton. Her fine complexion was artificial—her graceful embonpoint was made up of thirteen pairs of corsets, which she wore one over the other; in short, everything was false about her; and when stripped of her factitious attractions, she stood before the amazed spectators an object no less frightful from her physical deformities than from her moral obliquity.
The effects of this exposure upon her own mind was curious; her powers of deception failed her; the astonishment and indignation she had assumed vanished: she attempted no further denials, but avowed her guilt at once, not in all its fearful details,—it took two years to do that. She gave the narrative of her crimes piecemeal, as they recurred to her memory; for she had committed so many, that one had effaced the other from her mind. Even at the last, she admitted that she was by no means certain of having mentioned everybody to whom she had administered poison.
She was the daughter of a lady’s tailor, or man-milliner, called Timm—a man of the most industrious and orderly habits, an assiduous reader of the Scriptures, and regular attendant at church. She and a brother, who entered the world at the same moment as herself, were born on the 6th of May, 1785. The young man was wild, and joined the army of Napoleon; but Gesche was a model of perfection. Her person was delicate— almost etherial, her countenance open and attractive, with a smile of benignity ever on her lips, her movements were graceful, her manner bewitching, her demeanour modest, and her conduct unexceptionable. She was held up as a pattern to the young, and Father Timm, as he was called, was considered blest in the possession of such a daughter.
One thing, however, seems pretty clear, namely, that although the parents led unexceptionable lives, and were what is commonly called highly respectable people, and though the daughter received what is ordinarily considered a virtuous education, the whole was the result of mere worldly motives. There was no foundation of principle,—no sense of the beauty of virtue, nor delight in its practice for its own sake. The only object recognized was to gain the approbation and good-will of mankind; and when Gesche Timm found she could attain that end as well by the simulation as by the reality of virtue, she chose the former as the easier of the two.
Her first initiation into crime seems to have been by the way of petty thefts, which she practised on her parents, and of which she allowed her brother, whose frequent misdemeanors laid him more open to suspicion, to bear the blame. Five years of impunity at length emboldened her to purloin a considerable sum belonging to a lady who lodged in the house. Father Timm, as usual, fell upon his son; but the mother, who appears by this time to have got an inkling of the truth, bade him hold his hand, and she would presently tell him who was the thief. Accordingly she went out, and, returning in about half-an-hour, said she had been to a wise woman, who had shown her the face of the real delinquent in a mirror. Whilst she spoke, she fixed her eyes significantly on the “angel of a daughter,” who, finding she was discovered, had the prudence to discontinue her practices. The affair, however, was hushed up, and Gesche’s character remained as fair in the eyes of the world as before.
At twelve years of age, her school education being completed, she was retained at home to do the house-work and help her father. She also kept his books; and made herself so useful by her diligence and her readiness as an accountant, that he was more than ever delighted with her, and was induced to commit his affairs more and more to her management; an advantage of which she did not fail to avail herself after her own peculiar fashion: meantime, she was cheerful, obedient, pious, and charitable. She was her parent’s almoner, and was taught to believe that the prayers and blessings of the poor were the sure passport to Heaven—a persuasion that influenced her whole subsequent life; for whilst she administered poison with one hand, she administered charity with the other, secure in the belief that the good she did would efface the evil. She had tears, too, ready upon all occasions; she wept when her father prayed and sang his morning hymn; and she wept when her victims, writhing in anguish, called on God to pity them and release them from their pains.
Yet, was she a woman of no violent passions. She was neither avaricious, luxurious, nor even sensual; although later in life her lapses from chastity might have given colour to the suspicion. She was cold, calm, and self-possessing. Her ruling passion was vanity, and an inordinate desire to be admired and respected in the small and humble sphere that surrounded her.
Her amusements were dancing, in which her parents allowed her to take lessons, and acting plays wherein she greatly distinguished herself. As she was the prettiest, and also the cleverest amongst the young people, the best parts were assigned to her, as well as the most ornamental attire the theatrical wardrobe could produce; so that each representation became to her a triumph, and was anticipated with the most eager delight. However, the truth was, that Gesche’s whole life was acting; and there have been very few such consummate comedians seen, either on the boards, or the larger stage of the world. For forty-three years she maintained her part to such perfection, that no suspicion had ever entered into men’s minds that she had any other character than the one she appeared in.
In order to augment her attractions and powers of pleasing, she was desirous of learning music; but Father Timm not only thought this expense beyond his means, but considered so refined an accomplishment ill adapted to a girl who had to do the work of a house-servant, and daily appear before the door with a broom in her hand. He, however, proposed that she should learn French, and she made an apparent progress that delighted her master; but like everything else about her, it was only apparent. She had considerable aptness, but no application. Study wearied her, so she employed an acquaintance to prepare her lessons for her, desiring him to be careful to leave an error or two, to avoid suspicion. The little she picked up of the language, however, helped her to play her part in life, when she had risen into another grade of society.
Gesche, or Gesina, as she now called herself, had rejected several offers of marriage, when being one evening at the theatre with her friend Marie Heckendorf, she was persecuted by the too obtrusive attentions of a stranger, who appeared by his air to be a person of some distinction. A young neighbour of the Timm’s family, whose name was Miltenburg, stepped forward to protect her, and see her home; and from that occasion an intimacy sprung up between them which terminated in marriage.
Though the son of a man in exceedingly good circumstances, and in point of condition a very advantageous match for Gesina, young Miltenburg’s reputation was not quite intacte. He had been drawn in at an early age to marry a woman of very indifferent character, who had introduced him into a good deal of dissipation and loose company. The wife was dead, but the vices she had encouraged had not died with her. The young man’s health, as well as his morals and his father’s fortune, were injured by the life he led; and in spite of her humble station, old Miltenburg was delighted to accept so virtuous and exemplary a daughter-in-law as Gesina. He testified his approval by a handsome settlement; and whilst the young lady and her parents exulted in this unexpected stroke of fortune, the world in general lamented that so lovely and incomparable a creature should be thrown away on an exhausted debauchee.
The marriage ceremony was performed in Mr. Miltenburg’s picture-gallery. Over Gesina’s head hung a fine Madonna and Child by one of the old masters; on one side of it, Jesus distributing the bread and wine; on the other, a head of St. Peter:—it was exactly on that spot that she afterwards poisoned her mother.
The young bride had no regard for her husband; but the circumstances of the marriage gratified her vanity and self-love to the utmost. She brought peace into a house where there had been nothing but strife and contention. Her virtues shone the brighter from the dark ground of her predecessor’s vices. She was exalted into a goddess; father and son worshipped her, and power and dominion were given to her over the whole household. Her husband made her superb presents, and sought by all manner of pleasures and indulgences to make her amends for those imperfections which he was conscious his dissolute life had entailed upon him, and which incapacitated him from winning the affections of a young bride.
In the present case, however, it is extremely problematical whether there were any affections to win; but her vanity soon found a suitor, if not her heart. A young wine-merchant, of the name of Gottfried, whom she met at a ball, took her fancy, and an intimacy sprang up between them, which seems to have met with no opposition on the part of the husband. A second lover, named Karnov, was equally well received. Previous, however, to these lapses from duty, she had several confinements, the results of which appear to have been an extraordinary degree of leanness; a defect which she remedied by putting on an additional pair of corsets, as occasion required. The seventeen pairs which were found in her wardrobe at her death, were sold in Bremen for so small a sum as two groschen; people being unwilling to have any thing to do with them. It was supposed they were endowed with some magical properties. They had certainly done a great deal of harm to their possessor; for she had materially injured her health, and aggravated the defect she was so anxious to conceal, by compressing her waist with them.
Gottfried appears to have been a good-looking, agreeable, light-hearted, and rather accomplished man. He had a well-selected library, played the guitar, and published two volumes of songs. Her inclination for him seems to have approached more nearly to a passion than any she ever entertained; whilst his assiduities appear to have been chiefly prompted by his flattered vanity, and a desire to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of Miltenburg’s house.
These comforts and pleasures, however, were in some jeopardy, from young Miltenburg’s improvidence and inattention to his business; and his wife began to question with herself seriously, what was the value of his life; and what was the use of his living at all, with a constitution so ruined as to be incapable of any enjoyment. About this period, namely, in 1813, old Miltenburg, the father, died, as it was afterwards established, from natural causes; but this was her first introduction to the grim tyrant, and she seems to have been determined to make herself thoroughly familiar with his features at once. She astonished everybody by her constant visits to the chamber of death, and the manner in which she contemplated the features, and pressed the hands of the deceased.
From this time the idea of getting rid of her husband gradually ripened into an uncontrollable desire; but she was at a loss how to set about it. In the meanwhile, in order to augment the interest felt for herself, and reconcile the world to his loss, she maligned him on all hands; whilst she supplied herself with money, by robbing both him and other persons who lived under the roof with her, and exercised her extraordinary powers of dissimulation, by averting all suspicion from herself. She was still, in the eyes of the world, the most charming and exemplary of women.
Her resolution to despatch her husband, who, whatever his faults were, was only too kind and indulgent to her, was confirmed by a fortune-teller, whom, about this time, she consulted. The woman told her that everybody belonging to her would die off; and that she would then spend the remainder of her life in prosperity and happiness. She afterwards said that her choice of the means was decided by seeing a play of Kotzebue’s, in which some very amiable and interesting hero attains his objects by poisoning everybody who stands in the way of them. She, however, from a remarkable degree of delicacy towards her own conscience, always avoided the use of the offensive words murder or poison—she had recourse to the dainty paraphrase of “giving a person something.”
She now recollected that her mother used to combat the rats and mice, with which her house was infested, by arsenic; and, under pretence that she wanted it for the same purpose, she asked for some. The mother gave it her, bidding her be very cautious to keep it from the children. After an interval, during which her heart seems to have failed her, she administered the first dose to her husband, at breakfast. When he had finished his repast, the poor man went out, whilst she “ascended the stairs, and looked out of the window after him, wondering whether he would be brought home dead.”
He was not brought home, but returned of his own accord, and took to his bed; where she continued to “give him something,” as occasion required. The sufferings of the unfortunate victim were frightful, and for the last four days she kept out of his room; not, as she admitted, from any conscientious pangs, but from an apprehension that he would suspect her; but she stood at the door, listening to his cries and groans. Unhappily for the many she afterwards conducted through the same path of anguish, to the grave, she was not suspected. On the contrary, he died, committing his wife and children to the care of Gottfried.
She was very apprehensive that the appearance of the body might have suggested some unpleasant ideas to the mother, who had so lately supplied her with arsenic; and when they were nailing down the coffin, she thought “Miltenburg would surely awake with the knocking!”
But no such unfortunate events interfered with her plans. Her father undertook to settle her affairs, and, when all was arranged, she found herself a rich widow. She had suitors too, and offers of marriage, but her preference for Gottfried, who, before her husband’s death, had become an inmate of the house, and still remained so, continued undiminished. He, however, made no proposals; and her parents having openly declared that she should never marry him with their consent, she began to entertain serious thoughts of removing that obstacle, “by giving them something too.”
Remorse of conscience she had never felt; the only feeling that occasionally clouded her satisfaction in the success of her schemes, was the fear of discovery. As time advanced, and impunity gave her confidence, the apprehension in a great degree subsided. The extraordinary strength of her nerves is evinced by the following circumstance. She related, whilst in confinement, that shortly after the death of Miltenburg, as she was standing, in the dusk of the evening, in her drawing-room, she suddenly saw a bright light hovering at no great distance above the floor. It advanced towards her bed-room dqor, and then disappeared. This recurred on three successive evenings. On another occasion, she saw a shadowy appearance hovering near her: “Ach! denke ich, das ist Miltenburg seine Erscheinung!” “Alas! thought I, that is the ghost of Miltenburg!”
Yet did not this impression stay her murderous hand. During the rest of her life, and especially when in prison, she declared she was visited by the apparitions of those she had poisoned; indeed, it was at last the terror these spectres inspired her with, that won her to confession.
It is a very remarkable fact, that for several years Madame Gottfried had a servant girl, called Beta Cornelius, who was herself one of the most honest, industrious, innocent, and pure-minded creatures that ever existed, living in intimate and close communion with her, who yet continued to believe her an angel of goodness. So exalted, indeed, was the girl’s opinion of her mistress, that she became occasionally the unconscious instrument of her crimes; and so great was her respect, that she was silent about whatever she saw; and whatever she was desired to do, she did without question or suspicion.
In the meantime, Gottfried’s proposals were not forthcoming; and, believing him to be withheld by the objections her parents made to the match, on the one hand, and by the consideration of her having a family of children on the other, she thought it was time to remove these obstacles out of his way. She said that her resolution, with respect to her parents, had been fortified by the pious and frequently-expressed wishes of the old people, that neither might long survive the other. She also consulted several other fortune-tellers, who all predicted the mortality that was to ensue amongst her connexions. She made no secret of this prophecy, but, on the contrary, frequently lamented that she knew she was doomed to lose her children and all her relations. She always concluded these communications by pious ejaculations, expressing a most perfect resignation to the will of Providence. “God’s will be done! The ways of the Lord are inscrutable, and we must bow to His decrees,” &c.
About this time, Frau Timm, the mother, was seized with an indisposition, which continued for a fortnight, and inspired the daughter with lively hopes that the good woman was going to save her the trouble of helping her out of the world. She did not die, however; and, as this illness occurred just as the old couple were changing their residence, the invalid took shelter in her daughter’s house, to get out of the way of the bustle. Here she was lodged in a finelyfurnished apartment, which she remarked was much too grand for a humble body like her; but Madame Miltenburg, smiling, bade her fancy herself in childbed, a jest which so took the old lady’s fancy, that “ she shook her sides with laughter.”
Three days after this, Frau Timm, having requested her daughter to step home, for the purpose of fetching some little article she wanted, Madame Miltenburg discovered, amongst her mother’s household goods, a small packet of ratsbane, “which, it appeared to her, Providence had lain in her way.” She carried it away with her; and on the ensuing night she could not sleep for the thoughts this acquisition suggested.
However, the mother had a relapse, and again the daughter hoped she would leave the world without her aid; but again she was disappointed; and, becoming impatient, she mixed some arsenic in a glass of lemonade, the favourite beverage of the invalid. Just as she was about to administer it, her own little boy, Heinrich, came into the room with a book he had been reading, and asked his grandmother if it were true “ that the hand of the undutiful child would grow out of the grave.” Gesina said that the boy’s innocent question had cut her to the soul; but it did not stay her hand. As she presented the fatal draught to the old woman, three swallows flew into the room, and settled on the bed; the mother, smiling, said: “See the three pretty birds!” But the knees of the murderess shook, and her heart beat, for she thought they were the harbingers of death! She declared that such a thing had never happened before or since; that no swallows built about the house, or frequented the neighbourhood.
The poison did its work; the dying woman took the sacrament, and bade a tender adieu to her husband and daughter, committing her absent son to the care of the latter. She bade the old man rejoin her quickly in heaven; and he, pressing her hand affectionately, answered: “That in two months he would follow her.”
Gesina related that, whilst she was mixing the poison for her mother, she was seized with such a violent fit of laughter, that she was almost frightened at herself; but she comforted herself with the idea that “her mother would soon so laugh in heaven.” By the body, she felt neither pity nor remorse; she was, on the contrary, cheerful, and fortified in the resolution to remove all obstacles out of the way of her desires. Accordingly, on the day of the interment, which was the 10th of May, she gave her youngest girl, Johanna, some arsenic on a bit of the funeral cake. The child fell ill immediately. Mr. Gottfried quieted it with some wine and water, and put it to bed. An hour afterwards, when the mother looked into the cradle, the child was dead. A few days had only elapsed when she despatched her eldest daughter, Adeline, in the same manner. The little girl died in her arms; she was a beautiful child; and when she was gone, the mother had a picture, which happened to resemble her, handsomely framed, and hung in her own room, calling it “her beloved Adeline.”
The poor old grandfather was greatly affected by the death of the children, and he daily visited the grave where they and his wife were laid; but his daughter comforted him with her filial attentions. One day, about a fortnight after the death of Johanna, she gave him, when he called on her, a nice basin of soup. He relished it exceedingly; and told her that her tender care would prolong his life. When he had taken the soup, she accompanied him to his own house, and left him. That night she did not undress, or go to bed, for she knew she should be sent for.
In the morning, about four o’clock, the expected message came. Father Timm was very ill, and wished to see his beloved daughter. She went, and remained with him till he died. Several witnesses, who recalled the circumstances of the old man’s death, declared that whilst she attended him, she was not only calm, but cheerful. She remembered that wine and water had relieved the sufferings of Johanna, and went to fetch some for her father. When she returned, he was sitting on the ground, talking of his blessed wife, whom he said he saw sitting on the bed waiting for him. He died on the 28th of June.
These deaths caused neither suspicion nor surprise. Her little son Henry alone asked her why God took all her children from her. She said this question was a dagger in her heart, for Henry was her favourite child. This did not, however, prevent her poisoning him also in the ensuing month of September. He seems to have been a remarkably interesting boy, and his sufferings were so intense, that, monster as she was, she relented for a moment as she stood by his bedside. She sent for milk, which she believed to be an antidote; but the child died in inexpressible agonies. He also said he saw those waiting for him that had gone before. “Oh, mother!” cried he, “see Adeline there! She is standing by the stove. How she smiles on me. There is my father too! I shall soon be with them in heaven!” Was there any fiction so tragic as this!
The rapidity with which all these members of her family had descended to the grave, at length began to excite some notice, and her friends recommended a post-mortem examination of the last sufferer. The doctor declared the child had died from introsusception of the bowels; nobody thought of disputing his judgment; and no more was thought of the matter, except that the amiable Madame Miltenburg was the most unfortunate of women.
These events were followed by a very severe illness which attacked herself, and brought her also to the brink of the grave; without, however, producing any moral effect in her character. The only influence it had on her conduct was, that from this time she endeavoured to set up a balance of good works, that should outweigh her crimes. She not only relieved the poor that applied to her for aid; but she sought them out in all directions. Amongst other beneficent acts, she presented a sister of her father’s with a bit of land that had fallen to her with the rest of the old man’s property.
Her next victim was her brother, who returned very inopportunely from the wars, an invalid and a cripple. There were several powerful motives for putting him out of the way. She was ashamed of him in every point of view. He was not a creditable relation for so elegant a person as Madame Miltenburg; he would be an impediment to her marriage with Gottfried; and he would doubtless claim a share of the inheritance.
He arrived on the Friday; and on the Sunday following she poisoned him. He died, raving about his horse and his mistress; and crying “Vive l’Empereur!” This was on the 1st of June, 1816, a year after the decease of her former victims.
All obstacles were now removed, and yet Gottfried made no proposals, although she nursed him through a severe sickness, and her attentions to him were unremitting. At length, however, she became in the family way, and her honour was at stake. Once and again he promised to marry her, and still drew back; whether influenced by aversion, or an indistinct presentiment of evil, does not appear. For her part, passion was satisfied, and love extinct; but she wanted his name, rank and inheritance. She got her friends to interfere, and the backward lover, at length, gave his word. When they had been asked twice in church, however, she reflected that as he married her on compulsion, they never would be happy together; and that it would be advisable “to give him something too;” nay, that it would be better to do it at once. When he found himself at the point of death, he would assuredly marry her, and she thus secured the name and the fortune, without the burthen attached to them.
She poisoned him with some almond milk and arsenic, on the day the marriage was proclaimed, and the final ceremony was performed whilst he was writhing in agony. Before he died, he exacted from her a promise that she would never take a third husband; and she declined all subsequent proposals on the plea of this promise to her “blessed Gottfried.”
Nobody suspected her; who could have supposed that she had poisoned this long-desired husband on her wedding-day?
She was now Madame Gottfried, Countess of Orlamunde, and from the year 1819 to 1823 she made no use of her dreadful secret; but although she had removed husbands, children and parents out of her path, was she happy? No; she was alone and wretched. This she admitted in her confessions; and also that after the death of her little Heinrich she had often felt remorse. “She could not bear to see other people happy with their children; the sight of the joyous young creatures passing her house as they came from school pierced her to the heart; she would shut herself up in her room and weep; and when the clear moon shone over her head she would survey the estate of which she was now the sole possessor, and ask herself how she had earned it!”
But these glimpses of humanity were of short duration. It appeared that “the blessed Gottfried,” as she always called him, had debts; there were claims on his estate, and as she spent a good deal of money, and dispensed considerable sums in charity, she soon found herself in want of funds. At this period she seems to have formed a liaison with a certain Mr. X., a gentleman of family and fortune; but being an influential person, the particulars of his intimacy with her never transpired. Certain it is, however, that he lent her large sums of money, but fortunately for himself he made no advances without taking her bond for the debt. This precaution saved his life; she could have poisoned him, but she could not annihilate the papers. He was the only person connected with her who never tasted of her deadly drugs.
Her acquaintance with this gentleman seems to have introduced her to a great many pleasures. He gave her fetes and parties, presented her with opera tickets, and showered on her all manner of gifts and gallantries. To use her own expressions, “she began to live again; she forgot the past, and thought herself the happiest person in the world!” She had a great many suitors for her hand, and she was surrounded by friends who revered her as a suffering angel. She affected to be very religious; the poor blessed her, and the rich respected her. This was in 1819; and she looked upon these as some of the happiest days of her life.
The next person she helped out of the world was a gentleman of the name of Zimmerman. He wished to marry her, but marriage, as she admitted in her confessions, was by this time out of the question. Her whole life was a lie; there was no truth about her, inside or out. Her body was made up of paint and paddings, and her conduct was a tissue of deceit and hypocrisy. She could risk no close communion, nor intimate inspection; but although she could not marry him she could borrow money of him on the strength of his love. This she did, and as he had not the prudence of Mr. X., she poisoned him to get rid of the debt.
She also gave a few doses to her old friend Maria Heckendorf, who offended her by some untimely advice—not enough to kill the poor woman, but sufficient to deprive her of the use of her hands and feet, which, as she lived by her labour, was almost as bad.
After the death of Zimmerman she made a visit to Hanover, where she seems to have been received in the highest society, and to have been universally feted and admired. She received especial kindnesses from a family of the name of Klein, who were irresistibly fascinated by the charms of her manner. During her residence there she wrote the most affectionate letters to the suffering Maria Heckendorf, offering to pay the expenses of her illness, and recommending her resignation to the inflictions of Providence.
Her return to Bremen, however, was less agreeable. She there found her creditors troublesome, and she administered poison in greater or less quantities to a variety of people. One of the most lamentable cases was that of a young woman, a teacher of music, called Anna Myerholtz, who, by her industry, supported a blind father, eighty years of age. She attended the poor creature in her last agonies, and when her eyes were closed in death, she opened her desk and carried away all the little savings she had accumulated for the support of her now desolate parent.
About this time, being in company with a friend at the theatre, who shed tears at the tragedy of Hamlet, she bade her “not weep, for, thank God, it was only a play!”
To attempt to enumerate the number of persons whose health she utterly destroyed, without absolutely killing them, would be tedious. Every offence or annoyance, however insignificant, was requited with a dose of arsenic. Scarcely a person that came near her escaped when there was anything to be got by their deaths, though it were only a few dollars. Thus she despatched her good friend Johann Mosees, who had lent her money and wanted to marry her; her faithful servant Beta Cornelius, who had laid by a little hoard of fifty dollars; and the worthy Mr. Klein of Hanover, who had also assisted her with a loan to some considerable amount. Indeed she poisoned the whole of Mr. Klein’s family, but he alone died.
One motive for the crime which ultimately rid the world of this monster of wickedness, appears to have been despair. She began to apprehend that Mr. Rumpff suspected her. Indeed, at this time, she thought heaven and earth were leagued together to betray her, and it was satisfactory to learn that some of the agonies she had inflicted on others came home to herself at last. If a storm raged in the atmosphere, or a fire in the town—if a river overflowed its banks, or the neighbours quarrelled in the street, she thought she was the object of it all. She declared herself persecuted by the apparitions of her victims; and strangely enough sought refuge at the graves to which she had sent them.
But all this terror brought no repentance, nor even surcease; she still administered her fatal drug, and took away the lives of two innocent children; one, the foster son, and only consolation of her unhappy friend Maria Heckendorf.
She was arrested for administering poison to Mr. Rumpff, on the 6th of March, 1828. On her trial, it was clearly established that she had sent fifteen persons out of the world —how many she had incapacitated for living in it with comfort, it was impossible to ascertain precisely, but at least as many more.
With respect to her means of procuring, without exciting suspicion, so constant a supply of arsenic as she used, she bought it in jars in the form of ratsbane. On one occasion, some of this deadly mixture being offered for sale, when she was at Mr. Klein’s, she affected not to know what it was; and on being informed, she requested young Mr. Klein to purchase some for her, as she could not think of touching it herself.
Still, admitting her to have been the most consummate hypocrite that ever existed, her long impunity, and the success of her deceptions, seems incomprehensible. Not only did death follow upon her footsteps, but everybody died of the same malady and with similar symptoms. The persevering ill-luck that attended her, showing itself, however, in no shape but the mortality of her connexions, was a fact so remarkable that it had attracted general notice, and must have been known to many persons of discernment and intelligence in various grades of life; still no glimmering of the truth aroused them to the investigation of so inexplicable a circumstance.
The art, too, with which she caused the withered and hideous skeleton which enclosed the demon within her, to assume the appearance of freshness and embonpoint, is almost equally extraordinary; knowing, as we do, how extremely difficult it is to make art look like nature; and how easily we discern the fictitious from the real, whether in hair, teeth, form, or complexion. Had London or Paris been the scene of Madame Gottfried’s adventures, instead of the staid city of Bremen, we incline to think so valuable a secret would not have been permitted to die with her. Some enterprising artist would assuredly have purchased it by paying her counsel, and have thus secured his own fortune.
Besides the terrors she suffered from the supernatural visitations of her murdered friends, Madame Gottfried was tortured by all sorts of horrible imaginings. Aware of the universal abhorrence and execration of which she was the object, she feared that some strange and terrible death would be invented for her—as that she would be bound to the bodies of her victims, and laid alive in the grave with them; or that she would be flung as food to some wild beasts that happened to be exhibiting in the town at the time.
One of her most trying moments was when she was shown her picture, painted as she really was, stript of all her rags and patches, in the prison dress. The only comfort she derived was from the observation that her nose was still handsome.
Madame Gottfried was not led to the scaffold till three years after her apprehension. She wished very much to die before the moment of execution arrived, and attempted to starve herself, but had not resolution to abstain from food long enough for her purpose. She requested the attendants, in case they found her dead “to bind up her mouth and wipe the death damps from her face, that she might not look so hideous.”
She was extremely afflicted when she saw the unbecoming dress she was to wear on the scaffold, and put it on with the greatest reluctance. She died a hypocrite, as she had lived, affecting a piety and repentance she evidently did not feel. When her head fell beneath the sword of the executioner thousands of voices from the assembled multitude hailed the triumph of that earthly judgment which sent her to her great account before her Heavenly Judge.
Her head, preserved in spirits, and her skeleton in a case, are still to be seen in the Museum of Bremen.
[Catherine Crowe, Light and Darkness, 1850 [“In the year 1825” Vol. 3, Ch. II, p. 66]; excerpt reprinted in The Weekly Chronicle (London, England), Oct. 13, 1850, p. 6]
Excerpts on the subject of being “haunted”:
“She declared herself persecuted by the apparitions of her victims; and strangely enough sought refuge at the graves to which she had sent them.” [“Remarkable Female Criminals – The Poisoners of the Present Century. Second Part” (pp. 213 ff.). The Dublin University Magazine, Volume 29, Feb.1847, p. 222]
Remorse of conscience she had never felt ; the only feeling that occasionally clouded her satisfaction in the success of her schemes, was the fear of discovery. As time advanced and impunity gave her confidence, the apprehension in a great degree subsided. The extraordinary strength of her nerves is evinced by the following circumstance. She related, whilst in confinement, that shortly after the death of Miltenburg, as she was standing, in the dusk of the evening, in her drawing-room, she suddenly saw a bright light hovering at no great distance above the floor. It advanced towards her bed-room door and then disappeared. This recurred on three successive evenings. On another occasion she saw a shadowy appearance hovering near her— “Ach! denke ich, das ist Miltenburg seine Erscheinung!” “Alas! thought I, that is the ghost of Miltenburg.” She declared herself persecuted by the apparitions of her victims; and strangely enough sought refuge at the graves to which she had sent them.” [“Remarkable Female Criminals – The Poisoners of the Present Century. Second Part” (pp. 213 ff.). The Dublin University Magazine, Volume 29, Feb.1847, p. 218]
For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.
More cases: Female Serial Killers Executed