Why you should care
This is how religious belief led to an epidemic of dark, twisted murders.
Cicilia Johansdatter was disturbed. A 22-year-old housemaid, she’d become pregnant shortly after getting engaged to Friedrich Christian, a guardsman. Months passed, and her child was born, but the marriage? It never happened. This was 18th-century Denmark, where being an unwed mother was a good way to find oneself spurned by society.
To add to her woes, her fiancé had started acting strange — in recent weeks he’d turned cold and even stopped visiting her, signaling that the engagement was off. So on Feb. 25, 1744, with no more will to live, Cicilia found a way out: She slit her 4-month-old baby’s throat, and then put her hands on the dead child’s head and said she had died for it once and would die for it again, with pleasure. Cicilia was condemned to death, a verdict she gladly accepted, and a month later she was decapitated by sword, her head stuck atop a pole.
They looked in the books of Moses and found that if you killed somebody, God demanded that you had to be executed.
Danish historian Tyge Krogh
Suicide-murders, with suicidal people killing so that they themselves will be executed, fill the annals of early modern European history. So why didn’t the murdering misérables just kill themselves? At the time, a common religious belief held that “if you took your life, you had absolutely no chance of going to heaven,” says Jeffrey Watt, a history professor at the University of Mississippi. But if you killed someone else, you could repent before the execution and have your sins pardoned, he adds, shedding light on the murderous intent. Essentially, you’d have a better shot at getting past the pearly gates if you killed someone else rather than yourself. And children were the preferred victims because they were more easily dispatched, and because folks believed that their young, innocent souls were more likely to make it to heaven, Watt explains.
Such murders were particularly common in northern Europe and among Lutherans. Tyge Krogh, a Danish historian and author of A Lutheran Plague: Murdering to Die in the Eighteenth Century, says he discovered around 100 such cases in Copenhagen alone between the years 1697 and 1789. “It was a society that was deeply governed by faith,” says Krogh. With the Reformation in 1536, Denmark went from being Catholic Christian to being Evangelical Lutheran. The country’s laws were made stricter so as to reflect the new religious beliefs. “They looked in the books of Moses and found that if you killed somebody, God demanded that you had to be executed,” he adds. Execution became a sure outcome of murder, leading to a twisted consequence: suicide-murders.
Europeans saw suicide as a crime back then, and society believed that self-inflicted murder was a result of demonic possession. Corpses of individuals who had killed themselves were often subjected to punishment. “The body would be desecrated; it might be hanged, dragged on a hurdle, dumped in a river. They were not allowed funerary honors, not allowed to be buried in a regular cemetery. Instead, they’d be buried with victims of plague or criminals,” says Watt. So suicidal individuals, fearing eternal damnation and ridicule, had to get creative.
In most cases of suicide-murders, it was very obvious that individuals had an ulterior motive of being executed. Watt recounts a story of a man who was singing religious hymns on the way to the gallows. “He was joyfully marching toward his execution, believing that he couldn’t have done it himself because then he would’ve been damned,” he says.
When Danish authorities realized that by carrying out executions, they were basically encouraging such murders, they decided to take action. The new punishments they introduced were some of the harshest in history. “The convicts would be whipped or pinched with red-hot tongs on the way to the gallows. Their limbs would be broken with a wagon wheel or cut off, and their bodies were displayed in public,” says Krogh. The judiciary hoped this would be a deterrent to suicide-murders. But instead, it backfired: The convicts believed that the more they were tormented, the closer they’d be to securing a place in heaven. This left the state with only one option: to abolish the death penalty. So in 1767, Denmark passed a progressive law by which suicide-murderers wouldn’t be executed but instead would be condemned to a life of hard labor. This finally succeeded in discouraging the ghastly murders while also radically changing the debate around the death penalty.
By then, the social view of suicide was also changing in Europe, says Watt. In the late 18th century, as society became more secular, people started questioning whether suicide was really linked to demonic possession. “You began to see the medicalization of suicide. It was no longer caused by the devil but by insanity,” says Watt. Suicide, in other words, was transformed from sin to insanity.
It’s easy to dismiss the twisted phenomenon of suicide-murders as a thing of the past, given the evolution of religious belief and legislation, but it still happens today. In the United States, for example, we have “suicide by cop,” with suicidal individuals provoklng officers to shoot first. The gallows may have been replaced by guns, but the psychology is still just as tragic.