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LHMP #130 Eriksson 1985 “A Lesbian Execution in Germany, 1721: The Trial Records”

Full citation: 

Eriksson, Brigitte. 1985. “A Lesbian Execution in Germany, 1721: The Trial Records” in Licata, Salvatore J. & Robert P. Petersen (eds). The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 0-918393-11-6 (Also published as Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 6, numbers 1/2, Fall/Winter 1980.)

Publication summary: 


A collection mostly of case-studies of specific historic incidents or topics relevant to the changing understandings of homosexuality. Most of the papers address male topics. Only the three relevant to female topics are covered in this project.

Eriksson, Brigitte. 1985. “A Lesbian Execution in Germany, 1721: The Trial Records”

I still remember a conversation I had, quite some time ago, with a relative who was a social worker. She primarily worked with "troubled youth" who were in the system due to psychological or behavioral problems. Knowing that I'm a lesbian, she commented something to the effect (highly paraphrased) of, "I know that homosexuality is a mental disorder because everyone I work with who's gay is completely messed up." To which I replied, "Everyone you work with is completely messed up." My observation was, of course, over-broad, but hers was ignoring the highly skewed nature of her selection process. It's the same skewing that led the early sexologists--who often worked with people who were seeking treatment for unrelated psychological issues--to pathologize all same-sex desire.

Researching queer people in history has a bit of the same problem. When a group of people are marginalized and stigmatized, the contexts in which the nature of their marginalization is mentioned are going to be highly skewed towards the negative. Most of the clear and unambiguous medieval European data on women having sex with women comes from legal cases in which at least one of the women was on trial for that behavior. But that doesn't mean that every (or even most) such couples were prosecuted and punished. Nor does it mean that the types of behavior that triggered prosecution were universal or even necessarily typical for women who loved women. For example, both penitential literature and the discussions around these legal cases suggests that the use of dildos and gender disguise were more strongly condemned than other types of homoerotic activity. So the focus of trials on those types of activity may simply mean that those were the ones most likely to be prosecuted. Similarly, prosecutions for same-sex relations that involve violent behavior may simply be the cases most likely to have been pursued, rather than a correlation between same-sex relations and violence.

It's in this context that we should consider the case of Catharina Margaretha Lincken. Unless one believes that a certain religious hysteria (and mercenary cynicism), as well as domestic conflict are necessary conditions for a same-sex relationship, one must suppose that other, less tragic, couples existed in the same time and place, well under the legal radar. Lincken was a troubled individual with a complex history. But there were many more troubled individuals in 18th century Germany who didn't share her sexual orientation. The case is highlighted for us because a late 19th century sexologist found it useful to support his theories of sexual pathology. Viewed more neutrally, without the filters of prejudice, it is a fascinating, if ultimately tragic, story of someone who was out of step with her society in several different ways, and whose sexual transgressions may have been only the last straw for the authorities, rather than the primary offense.

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This is a translation of an 1891 publication of the summary of German trial records from1721. The 1891 publication is by Dr. F. C. Müller, a sexologist who added his own commentary from the point of view of sexual psychopathology. Eriksson’s translation omits this commentary and includes only the original trial summary. The summary was put together after the conclusion of the trial when the sentence was being sent to a higher authority for review. The history of the two defendants is long and complicated and touches on trangressions of religion, theft, and fraud, as well as the sexual allegations. There is some confusion of identity in the text, as both women are referred to as “defendant” and the descriptions sometime devolve into chains of she said/she said and she did/she did. But in general, Lincken is framed as the primary transgressor and Mühlhahn as the deceived innocent. As both women have the forenames “Catharina Margaretha” I have referred to them by their surnames.

Catharina Margaretha Lincken was 27 at the time of the trial. She was illegitimate (her mother was a widow) and she was raised in an orphanage in Halle. Her mother was aware of her whereabouts and activities, at least to some extent, and continued to be in contact with her into adulthood After leaving the orphanage, Lincken worked as a button maker and printer of cotton fabrics. During a journey, she disguised herself as a man “in order to lead a life of chastity” and attached herself to an ecstatic religious movement called “Inspirants” where she was baptized by a “so-called prophetess” Eva Lang and took on the name Anastasius Lagrantinus Rosenstengl. She had an ecstatic and somewhat violent religious experience at one of the meetings of the Inspirants after which she spent two years with them as a traveling preacher. The group believed in direct communication with God (direct confession and penance, randomly assigning the task of sharing Eucharist with no distinction of gender). The summary goes into great detail on the religious practices of this group. They are in some places refered to as “Quakers” but this seems to be a behavioral nickname rather than a specific connection with the Society of Friends (who don’t seem to have extended to Germany at this time). Lincken became dissatisfied with the results of her preaching, finding her prophecies didn’t come true and that her declarations of penances were contradicted by others. She was also experiencing hallucinations/visions during this period.

Lincken returned to Halle around 1705 and enlisted in the Hanoverian army under the name Anastasius Lagrantinus Beuerlein, or possibly Caspar Beuerlein. [It’s a bit hard to sort out in exactly which year the statement about Lincken being 27 was made, but if it were the time of her trial in 1721, then she was born in 1696 and would have been 9 years old when enlisting and even younger when traveling with the Inspirants. This seems implausible but no comment is made on it.] Three years later she deserted at Brabant (Netherlands) but was arrested near Antwerp and condemned to hang. She got off by disclosing her biological sex, with the aid of a letter from a Professor Francken in Halle. She then later re-enlisted in a Prussian company in Soerst, using the same male name as before. About a year later, Professor Franken [and one wonders exactly who he is and what his part is in this] wrote the priest of the garrison, outing her as female, and she was discharged.

She returned again to Halle and lived as a woman for part of a year, then again took on a male presentation and went to Wittenberg to join a Polish troop, under the name Peter (or Lagrantinus) Wannich. She was captured by the French during a campaign near Brussels but escaped. She served the next year with a Hessian troop in Rheinfels and got in a brawl but ran away to escape punishment. At some point during this she was also using the name Cornelius Hubsch. In addition to name changes, she alternated between presenting herself as a Catholic and as a Lutheran.

She returned again to Halle for three or four years of civilian life, working making flannel, spinning, and printing fabric. During this period she alternated between wearing female and male clothing. This resulted in some arrests, further intercession by Professor Francken, and a physical inspection at the Rathhaus to determine her physiological sex.

After this inspection, she returned to passing as a man (though not to the military) and in 1717 became employed by a stocking maker where she met Catharina Margaretha Mühlhahn. [Based on later testimony, they may have met in Halberstadt. In any event, it seems unlikely to have been in Halle since Mühlhahn had plausible deniability regarding Lincken’s biological sex.] The two became engaged and asked for the reading of the banns so they could marry. At the first reading, someone accused Lincken of having a wife and children in Halle [so presumably they’re somewhere else] but Lincken produced a letter from her mother and two witnesses to show that wasn’t the case. [Interesting that the witnesses could testify to her lack of a wife and children in Halle but weren’t aware of the gender issue. And one wonders exactly what aspect the letter from her mother addressed.]

After the wedding, Lincken used a leather strap-on dildo for sexual intercourse and there are detailed descriptions of how both of them experienced their sexual activity. In addition to penetration, they engaged in petting and fondling. Lincken testified that she had enjoyed sex previously with prostitutes when she was a soldier and “when a woman touched her, even slightly, she became so full of passion that she did not know what to do.” Also, “during intercourse, whenever she was at the height of her passion, she felt tingling in her veins, arms, and legs.” [This is by way of noting that intercourse with Mühnhahn was not simply an act for the purpose of disguise, but was driven by erotic desire.]

Mühlhahn testifies to having been somewhat less satisfied: that her genitals became very swollen and painful [from the friction of the device]. But Lincken countered that Mühnhahn had frequently held the “instrument” in her hands and inserted it into herself, and that when Mühnhahn’s mother and tried to break up the marriage, Mühlhahn had complained to her mother and returned to her spouse. [Note that none of this need be in contradiction. Domestic disputes are notoriously complicated.] But there is other evidence of conflict between them. One complained that the other wasn’t earning any money. [There is a fair amount of pronoun confusion here and both women are referred to as “the defendant”, so it isn’t entirely clear which one is accused of what.] There is a complaint that Lincken took clothing and linens belonging to Mühlhahn and sold them. Also a complaint of physical abuse, apparantly aimed at Lincken.

They went traveling, supporting themselves by begging. They separated and reunited. In Münster it seemed expeditious to be Catholic, so Lincken was rebaptized in the Jesuit church and they celebrated a Catholic marriage. But then, on traveling to Helmstadt, Lincken made a long confusing plea to a Lutheran authority, citing her early experiences with the Inspirants and requesting Lutheran instruction and baptism. Lincken seems to have been alone at this point, for she stated that she would go fetch her “spiritual sister” (i.e., her wife) from Halberstadt and bring her to Helmstedt for a Lutheran marriage. [There are some indications in the testimony that one might be paid a bounty for converting, and this was one of the charges against her: that she had fraudulently converted to take advantage of this. This makes the conversion activities make more sense, because if it were simply a matter of "fitting in" a mere statement and appropriate behavior should have been enough.]

Lincken found Mühlhahn with her mother in Halberstadt [so perhaps this is where they had originally met and married?] who both turned her away. Lincken then got into a fight with her mother-in-law, who accused her of being a woman, and in the process Lincken’s pants were ripped off and her strap-on revealed. Mühlhahn’s mother took the evidence to the law and made her accusation, resulting in the trial that is being documented.

Lincken testified that she’d first made the strap-on while in the Hanoverian regiment and had used it for sexual purposes with a number of women. She also claimed that Mühlhahn and her mother were perfectly aware that Lincken was a woman before the original marriage, and that Mühlhahn had removed the strap-on and played with it sexually at one point and that they had continued living together intimately after that and gone through their second marriage after that.

On being interrogated about how she would justify the various actions she was accused of, Lincken offered the following:

  • Yes, she wore men’s clothing, but so did other women, and she believed that cross-dressing was only prohibited for married women. [Presumably she didn't consider herself a "married woman" since she had married as a man.]
  • Yes, she had been involved in the Inspirant movement, because she considered it a holy life and wanted to be a prophet. [It appears that at some point since then the Inspirants had been outlawed.]
  • Yes, she had deserted the army several times and committed multiple perjuries, but she had already been punished for those.
  • Regarding her marriage to a woman “she thought she would be well able to answer this before God.” This statement is followed by a confusing story about her mother and the devil.
  • Yes, she’d acted as a man in having sexual relations with her wife and she hoped God would forgive her. She now realizes that she was deluded by Satan.
  • She denied that taking and selling her wife’s clothing and things was theft because the sale benefitted them both.
  • Regarding her multiple baptisms and multiple marriages in different religions, she asked God’s pardon and repented any sin and was willing to die for her error.

Mühlhahn’s testimony is more succinct. She was 22 at the time of the trial and had married Lincken in 1717 [i.e., at age 18]. On the wedding night, she had found penetration painful and despite multiple attempts it had not been successful for about a week. She became apprehensive about sex but hadn’t realized there was anything out of the ordinary going on. On one occasion in 1718, when Lincken was sleeping, she had inspected Lincken’s body and discovered the strap-on and confronted Lincken with it on waking. Lincken begged Mühlhahn not to betray her and Mühlhahn promised, but had become afraid of her. Lincken tried to convince Mühlhan that she (Mühlhahn) was pregnant, and then urged her to get pregnant by someone else. Mühlhahn testifies that she resisted participating in the various religious shenanigans, but confessed that she’d finally gone along with it in Münster and been baptized and then married as a Catholic—but that was before she learned Lincken’s true nature. [This doesn’t seem to fit the timeline, though.]

The interrogation with regard to the charge of sodomy includes a fairly detailed she-said/she-said exchange in which Mühlhahn takes the position of an extremely naïve and ignorant virgin who believed every implausible thing Lincken told her about the inconsistencies of the masculine presentation. In contrast, Lincken asserts with a number of specific incidents, that Mühlhahn was perfectly aware that Lincken was a woman.

Medical authorities are brought in to consider the hypothesis that Lincken is a hermaphrodite. On examination, they testify that there is nothing hermaphroditic, much less masculine, about Lincken’s body. They go further to assert that based on the size of Lincken’s breasts and the appearance of her genitalia, they conclude that she’s been sexually active with men. [This is nonsense on a medical basis, but it was brought in as evidence of Lincken’s morality.]

The defender representing the two women asked for nothing worse than life imprisonment for Lincken, and that Mühlhahn be released.  But the judgement was for Lincken to be executed by hanging and then to be burnt, and that Mühlhahn was to be tortured in order to ascertain the truth of her testimony.

The document then goes into a philosophical discussion of what penalties should apply and why, and an appeal is made to a higher court to decide the matter. (Including arguments as to whether decapitation, hanging, or burning is appropriate, or some combination thereof, and in what order.) One of the points of contention is whether “sodomy” can be committed with an artificial device, or whether the term only applies between when an enlarged clitoris is used for penetration (which is asserted as occurring only among Eastern and African women). There is a great deal of reference to classical and biblical texts and commentaries, as well as contemporary legal norms. The final conclusion was that Lincken was executed and Mühlhahn spent a brief period in a workhouse and then was exiled.

Time period: 

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