Imatges de pÓgina


A CRIMINAL TRIAL No one can forget Nürnberg who has ever, even for a few hours, rambled through its medieval streets. It remains a living type of the vanished past. Not a modern building is to be seen; for even those houses which were erected yesterday have been fashioned after the sixteenth century model, or earlier. Hence, although the situation of Saltzburg and Prague gives them a certain picturesque superiority over all other German cities, there is no city in Europe so interesting, so perfect an historical picture, as this Nürnberg, every house of which has a physiognomy of its own, every street of which is a panorama. The varied gables, the quaint windows, the high roofs, the fantastic galleries, towers, and doorways, with the endless effects of colour, make the streets a perpetual delight to the traveller. Here one feels thoroughly at home in the past. The lives of our forefathers become intelligible. One only needs a change of costume in the busy crowds to make the picture complete.

While no change whatever has come over the spirit of the architecture, there has, happily, a profound change come over the spirit of criminal law in Nürnberg; and if the lover of medieval institutions wants an illustration of those times which will make him join with the lover of progress in blessing the results of the wiser laws which in our day regulate society, imperfect, and in many respects still barbarous, as these are, let him attend to the narrative of the following Trial, which occurred in Nürnberg at the very close of the last century. Among criminal trials it has an exceptional interest, which is, however, more psychological than legal, and the mystery is even yet not cleared up.

On the 30th June 1790, at five in the morning, the merchant Johann


Marcus Sterbenk was awakened by his maidservant, with the unpleasant news that the doors of the house, and the counting-house, stood open, and that from the latter the iron cash-box had been stolen. As this cash-box contained two thousand gulden in silver (about two hundred pounds reckoning by our standard, but really a much larger sum in those days), the agitation of Sterbenk may be conceived. He hastened to the counting-house with his clerks and servants, found that a pane of glass had been removed from the window, which looked from the counting-house on the staircase, and that the door was wide open. The maid said that she had bolted the house-door overnight. The reader must remember that in Continental houses the housedoor, or porte cochère, is the entrance to all the dwellings contained in one pile of building; and, unlike our English houses, merely admits to the vestibule. The separate doors have to be unlocked after entrance has been effected through the house-door. In this case the house-door had no lock; nothing but a bolt, which the maid declared she had pushed into its staple. She had heard no sound whatever during the night, such as the opening of this door would occasion; but on descending in the morning to take in the milk when the milkwoman rang, she was surprised to find this milkwoman inside the house-the door having yielded to her accidental pressure. Alarmed, she looked to the counting-house door, and found that also open. She looked in, and found the iron cashbox missing.

It was at once evident that the robbery must have been committed by some one perfectly acquainted with the localities. This very pane of glass which had been removed was the same that, ten days before, Ster

* For the details we are indebted to the Neue Pitaval, edited by Hitzig und Häring, vol. xxi. p. 349-410. This voluminous work contains many interesting, and many trivial cases, all recorded with true German tediousness and want of method.

benk had ordered to be taken out when one of the clerks had lost the key of the counting-house, and it was necessary to open the door from within, which could be effected by a man's thrusting his arm through this opening, and thus reaching to the lock. A messenger, named Schönleben, remarked that this was very suspicious.

But whom to suspect? At present there was not a clue. The whole town rang with the news; and gossips on the door-steps and in beershops freely vented their hypothetical suspicions, as is usual in such cases. A shopkeeper swore that on the night in question about two o'clock he quitted the tavern zum Reichsadler, where he had been in jovial company, and saw two suspicious-looking fellows in the neighbourhood of the Sterbenk house, who crossed the Horse-market; a barber also swore that he saw two men that night near the house, and had asked them the time; a maidservant declared that she had seen a young man the day before standing opposite the house, considering it attentively. But as these witnesses could neither identify the persons they had seen, nor give any other clue, their attestations shed little light over the question.

Suddenly suspicion settled on Schönleben, the messenger, who had found the history of the pane of glass so suspicious. It grew and grew, till it became very like conviction. He happened to say to one of the shopboys that "if he could only be certain the cash-box had been carried across the Fish-market, as report said, he would easily trace out the rest." This remark, surely not very compromising, seems to have excited attention. It was remembered that his life had not been blameless; and the busy imaginations of men instantly built up a thousand probabilities to convict him. The very day after the robbery, his brother, a peasant living in a neighbouring village, had called upon him at the Sterbenk house, had spoken with him in an undertone, and then had quitted the town with his dung-cart-" of course carrying away the cash-box in this cart," as quick imaginations readily divined. It was further remembered

that some days before the robbery, Schönleben had twice made his appearance at the counting-house an hour later than usual, for which he could only give very unsatisfactory excuses; and the day after the robbery he had affected a forced jocularity, &c. &c. On such indications

was this man arrested.

It was clear that Schönleben could not alone have accomplished the crime. His accomplice was soon fixed on. It was Beutner, a poor spangle maker. The indications against him were these he was poor; he had assisted Schönleben to carry a load of wood into the Sterbenk house, and in doing so passed up the stairs leading to the countinghouse; arrived at the top stair, he was said to have paused there some minutes, looking intently into the counting-house, fascinated by the sound of the money he heard chinking there. This was asserted by more than one witness, although resolutely denied by him. It could only be from a desire to make himself familiar with the locality previous to his criminal attempt. He also was arrested.

The idea of arresting, imprisoning, and examining two men on such evidence as this will astound the reader; but he will be still more astounded on learning that the possibility of their being innocent was never entertained. They were assumed to be eriminals; and all that remained was to extort, or entrap, a confession of their guilt.

While the cumbrous procedure of those days was being carried out against these men, a new clue seemed to have been discovered, of far greater importance than any yet detected. A barber, named Kirchmeier, upon whom let the reader's attention be fixed, called on Sterbenk, and, under the seal of secresy, as regarded himself, declared that, "unless he was mistaken," he had, on the morning of the 30th June, seen a cash-box, very closely resembling that which was advertised in the papers as the one stolen, in the room of the gilder Maunert, who lived in the same house with Schönleben. Kirchmeier called a day or two after the 30th on Maunert, and

the cash-box was no longer visible. This Kirchmeier was a citizen of Nürnberg, the father of a large family, well-to-do in the world, bearing the character of an upright, religious man. His testimony was considered unimpeachable; a fatal credulity was the result. On the unsurported testimony of this man, human beings were not only imprisoned, bet tortured and destroyed.

Schönleben firmly denied any knowledge of the crime or the criminals; nor could he name any one on whom his suspicions fell, although he would say that Beutner, on the occasion of helping him with the load of wood, did ask where the counting-house was, and whether all the people in the house slept above. He knew nothing of Beutner's having stood looking into the countingMaanert, the accused, was mar- house, as had been asserted. He mo. The maher of two sons aged ten denied everything that was alleged and iter very poor, but hitherto against him, or explained it away. ar dameves relation. He was ar- There is one point in his evidence C and examined He denied which is noticeable, and was much that he have had any such cash- noticed-namely, that he described ha mitad is posses the cash-box in precisely the same Skrew Schoneber, kew terms as those employed by KirchNew Schenk's messenger, eier in reference to the box seen in SR GIT is Maunert's room. This gave addihaters wit and sons tional weight to the barber's testiA A 282 say such box bad mony; for, it was argued, how could Khmer, Kirchmeier, who had never been in Sterbenk's house, and consequently had never seen the cash-box there, accurately describe it, unless he had actually seen it? He described it precisely as the messenger who saw it daily; and what he described was, he averred, under the table in Maunert's room. Now Maunert and his wife distinctly denied ever having had any cash-box whatever in their

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share bim, he or the oven, strom box with green stripes the top painted with flowers, the lock ornamented with four painted oakleaves, which be now perfectly well remembered, and could describe. He over saw that box afterwards

Kirchmeier was so honoured a citi

em, and his statement was so exwh and so firmly insisted on by him, that inssmuch as he seemed from all possible motive in the ter, not bearing any malice tothe Maanerts, but, on the conying to their being, as far honest, truthful people, doubting his declaration red the heads of the Nürnrely not of the execuonce cast Maunert into yell, and his wife into condemned women.


Kirchmeier reiterated, and even added to his former statements, and declared himself ready, if necessary, to affirm them on oath. In those days the criminal law did not absolutely require witnesses to be sworn; only in extreme cases was the oath administered; and the punishment of perjury was very severe. The oath was a last step, when the evidence was otherwise imperfect. Now as the two Maunert boys, on being interrogated, and solemnly warned to speak the truth, persisted in unwavering denial of having ever seen such a box; and suggested that what the barber saw must have been a painted box filled with plaster cast medallions, which indeed was under the table, but not behind or near the door; this steady denial forced the court to administer the oath.

Kirchmeier again declared his readiness to take the oath, which he could do with a clear conscience. He was solemnly warned to consider what he said, to be quite clear with himself as to whether the box seen by him was really such a box as the one stolen; the severe punishment of perjury was rehearsed to him; and the oath was slowly read aloud to him. He remained unshaken. The despairing Maunerts on their knees implored him to have pity; adjured him by all that he held sacred not to ruin them; pointed to their children in hopes of moving him. Kirchmeier was immovable. In calm and solemn tones he took the oath. Nothing that was said made him swerve in his statement that he had seen the box. "That which I saw, I saw the green painted cash-box with green wooden legs, I saw in the rooms of the man who is now kneeling imploringly before me. I cannot help it. I am quite convinced that in this I am not mistaken. His blood be on my head!"

It was done. The oath had been taken. God had heard it, and would avenge it if false. The excitement was not confined to Nürnberg and Franconia; all Germany shared in it. Pamphlets, pictures, and discussions made it the talk of the day. The court, after Kirchmeier's solemn testimony, saw in the accused no

thing but hardened and obstinate sinners; the public shared this conviction. So high ran the feeling against all the accused on account of their obstinacy, that the mob smashed Schönleben's windows, and his youngest child was killed in its mother's arms by a stone.

Kirchmeier, the demon of this story, after his damnatory oath, communicated fresh indications of Maunert's criminality, which, of course, helped to confirm the prejudice against the unhappy man. He stated that some days after he had seen the box in Maunert's rooms, he had called on him and narrated how he had just seen Schönleben's wife carried through the crowd by the police, accused of having with her husband stolen Sterbenk's cash-box; whereupon Maunert said, "And what compensation will these poor people get if they are innocent?" Surely a very natural and humane question: too humane apparently for general appreciation then, since it was interpreted as a sign of guilt by a logical process not unexampled in public reasonings. A week later, the barber again called on Maunert, and showed him the newspaper in which a reward was offered for the detection of the criminals. Maunert remarked "How could Sterbenk imagine that the robber would be discovered merely if poor people were observed to have or spend more money than usual? He, Maunert, happened to have lately paid some debts, and was in possession of more money than usual; but he did not suppose that suspicion could fall on him on that account."

It cannot escape the reader as something peculiarly removed from modern jurisprudence, that not only should such implicit reliance have been placed on the barber's assertions, unsupported as they were, but that no suspicion seems to have been awakened at his remarkable freedom from all inculpation of Maunert till after Schönleben and Beutner had been examined. He declares that the very day of the robbery he saw the cash-box in Maunert's room. But he said nothing. When Schönleben was arrested, he called on Maunert, in continuance of friendly

relations with the man whom he must have suspected to be the thief. A week afterwards he calls again; and although all Nürnberg is discussing the question-Who is the thief?-and every one is freely suggesting suspicions, the barber is silent as to Maunert. Of this no notice seems to have been taken. Had the accused employed an advocate, it would have been duly insisted on.

A confession the court would have; and as Maunert obstinately refused to confess, he was ordered to be flogged. The flogging extorted nothing but groans and denials. He was flogged again; but, as the judicial report naively remarks, "although he showed an extreme susceptibility to the stripes, he was not to be brought to confess; on the contrary, stoutly maintained his innocence, but begged that a full investigation of his whole life might be made, which would show he had always lived honestly and above suspicion." Nothing of the kind was undertaken. In those days-the close of the "enlightened" eighteenth century it did not occur to men to ask, What compensation will the innocent receive if their innocence is proved }

After this a second search was made in Maunert's dwelling; but nothing was found which in any way bore on the robbery. Schönleben's dwelling was also searched with equally fruitless result. What was to be done? It was clear these men were guilty; but their obstinacy set justice at defiance. How extort a confession? Appeals to their terrors had been tried, and failed. Examination and cross-examination had been tried, and failed. Floggings had been tried, and failed. There remained only two resources: first, the Priest, and next-the Rack.

The power of the priest in extorting confession, even from the most hardened criminals, had often successfully been employed; accordingly, two celebrated Nürnberg theologians and preachers, Schöner and Fuchs, were commissioned to try their powers. The public expectation was raised by the news of this. Every one felt assured that, hardened as these criminals were, the spiritual

influence of such men as Schöner and Fuchs would be irresistible, and justice would at length be satisfied.

Alas! even this failed. The priests reported that the two sons, no less than Maunert and his wife, repeated that they knew nothing whatever of the cash-box, that Kirchmeier had perjured himself, and that God would even yet make their innocence manifest." And," said Schöner, "when I warned Maunert's wife of that judg ment which awaited her in another world, which none could escape however they might escape the judgment in this world; when I painted in glowing terms the terrors of eternal damnation, the immovable justice of the Lord, and the awful power of his decrees, she interrupted me with the exclamation, "To Him I appeal!' When I argued with her on the sad consequences which would ensue unless she confessed, not only that her imprisonment would continue, but that even harder measures would be adopted towards herself and family, she replied: And if they flog me to death, what is it? I want nothing more from this world, and care not to enter it again !'”

In this manner she encountered every exhortation, every argument, every reference to temporal or eternal justice. She was innocent; her husband and children were innocent; she could say nothing else.

The state of opinion was so inconceivably fixed against them, that we doubt whether any presumptive evidence would at that moment have had much weight, otherwise it is probable-but only probable-that this steadfast reiteration of innocence on the part of the whole family, under such severe trials of their firmness, would have suggested a doubt in their favour. It was true that the barber's evidence was explicit. But there was no other evidence; and against it might fairly be set that of the whole family, two of them young boys, who never swerved in their statements. There was one awkward circumstance, it is true: the barber swore he saw a cash-box; whereas the whole family steadily denied that any cash-box had been in their room. It was impossible to doubt the barber's state

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