History, Department of


Date of this Version



Central European History 45:4 (2012), pp. 769-770; doi:10.1017/S0008938912000714


Copyright © 2012 Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association. Used by permission.


At the time this book was published, reports of the Casey Anthony trial filled the news media, demonstrating that popular fascination with infanticide continues to the present day. Like Casey Anthony, Grethe Schmidt maintained her innocence despite being judged guilty by the public. The tremendous differences between the medical knowledge, judicial systems, and cultural values of seventeenthcentury Germany and twenty-first-century America mean that there are more differences than similarities between the two cases. In telling the story of an obscure German girl who was arrested for murdering her newborn baby in summer 1661, Myers raises broader questions of how societies define, convict of, and punish criminal behavior. Death of a Maiden is divided into two unequal parts. The first, longer part focuses on Grethe herself, a fifteen-year-old peasant girl who worked as a domestic servant in the city of Braunschweig. Myers uses the first few chapters to set the stage for Grethe’s story by describing the setting, both geographically and socially, of the alleged crime and by explaining the state’s concern with infanticide cases as a way of regulating female sexuality. He also discusses the assumptions that underlay the inquisitorial procedure followed by the authorities who investigated the case, most notably the presumption of guilt and the need to produce a confession that would establish the truth of the charges made against the accused. Myers then describes the series of interrogations ofGrethe’s employers, neighbors, and family members as the authorities tried to determine when the alleged crime occurred. This was a difficult task, because there was no evidence that Grethe had ever given birth to a child, let alone killed it. The immediacy of the story is heightened by translations from the interrogation records, many of them so cryptic that Myers needs to explain both their context and their content. Grethe admitted to having had sex once (and possibly not voluntarily) with the stepson of her employer, and others reported their suspicions that she had been pregnant, but she steadfastly denied having carried a baby to full term, nor could anyone attest to having seen a child. The failure to determine that an act of infanticide had occurred led the authorities to apply torture to Grethe. This resulted in an initial confession that contradicted most of the evidence provided by interrogation of witnesses. Only after a second round of torture did Grethe give a new confession that was vague enough to accord with the earlier testimonies and so to satisfy the authorities.