Saved by Her Corset: Feminine Fashion Foils the FiendA monster… roaming the streets….
With the moniker “Girl-Cutter,” he fills the city with terror….
With these words, the Bavarian newspaper Rheinbayer spread goose bumps among its reading public. It was April 1835 and a serial criminal was on the loose. Augsburg called him the Mädchenschneider, or “girl-cutter.” He didn’t kill. Instead, he took his pleasure by slipping a knife out of his coat and slashing young girls. He was a serial stabber, or piqueur, who terrorized Augsburg from 1819 until his arrest in 1837.
What makes this case particularly interesting is how one young girl was spared from serious injury. She was saved by her corset. The annals of true crime are full of women whose corsets – and the steel or whalebone stays in them – saved them from knives and bullets. But most of these stories are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is the earliest case I’ve found – and also the youngest victim saved by her corset. We’ll take a close look at her story, and then we’ll take a brief romp through other cases in which feminine fashion foiled the fiend.
Girl-Cutter of Augsburg
Augsburg’s girl-cutter typically attacked at night. Augsburg documented 39 attacks, but the perpetrator later admitted to 50. He stabbed his victims severely enough they required medical attention; some of them needed surgery. During the crime spree, women feared to leave their homes in the dark and men began to arm themselves.
Augsburg finally apprehended a vintner named Carl Bertle (sometimes spelled Bartle) in 1837 after someone recognized him. He confessed. Police found a variety of stilettos and knives in his apartment. Bavaria convicted Bertle and sentenced him to hard labor.
Brief sketches about the girl-cutter of Augsburg appear in psychiatric casebooks as an example of piquerism, the perverse sexual urge to penetrate the skin of others. The London Monster, who attacked women between 1788 and 1790, is another example of a piqueur.
Eight-year-old girl saved by her corset
The Bavarian newspaper article described an attack in 1835:
Augsburg, April 10. Yesterday morning at 10:00, six girls aged from about eight to ten years wanted to go to their sewing lessons with Madame Lesuire [sic]* in the Wintergasse [an alley]. They chose to take a shortcut through a frequently used passage by the garden of the brewery “Little Blue Tankard.” The path there isn’t very wide, so the girls had to walk in single file. The last one, the daughter of trade commissioner who has been gone on business trips for most of this year, was about to go through the little door that leads to the Hunoldsgraben [a street], when a man with green glasses and a black greatcoat, whom the other girls had likewise noticed, drew a cutting instrument from his coat and injured the poor child with a foot-long incision over her left armpit. Fortunately, her corset was made of particularly strong material so that the cut didn’t penetrate too deeply into her flesh. Although she bled severely, it wasn’t a gaping wound. Madame Lesuire, to whom the screaming girls ran, took the wounded girl immediately to the police, where all conceivable measures were immediately taken to catch the wretch, but unfortunately, the search has been fruitless.
Another source, Hitzig’s Neue Pitival, describes the wound as a light incision six inches long, leading from the left armpit to above the left breast. The victim was only eight years old. Although I was surprised that a girl as young as eight wore a corset, a period dictionary confirms that the German word used in the newspaper, Schnurleibchen, does indeed refer to a corset rather than a laced bodice.
The staying power of the corset: an overview of other cases
Here’s a snapshot of a few of the many other cases I found on the internet. Our eight-year-old girl wasn’t the only one saved by her corset!
1888, Barnsley, England. Mimi Matthews’ delightful history blog offers an example of an estranged husband who stabbed his wife after kidnapping their baby from her. He then invited her over to see the baby. When she arrived, he stabbed her. The stays of her corset were strong enough to break the blade – and save her life.
1890, Omaha, Nebraska. “Was saved by her corset,” reported the newspaper. William Schipp tried to shoot Dora Bowman in a lover’s quarrel, but the bullet struck her steel stay and fell to the ground. Schipp was convicted of assault and imprisoned.
1897, Troy, New York. “Saved by Her Corset Steel,” read the newspaper headline. A bullet deflected off a young woman’s undergarment and a young man admitted causing the shot while fooling around with a pistol. The strange part about the case was that he told the police the woman was his wife, and she denied knowing him. The man was arrested.
1897, Plainfield, New Jersey. A tramp entered the home of Mrs. A. Moebius while she was alone, preparing dinner, and demanded money. She refused. When she screamed, he stabbed her in the breast. Fortunately for her, the blade of the knife struck one of her corset stays and broke. She fainted and the tramp ran away.
1898, Wellington, New Zealand. One woman walked into a department store and shot her estranged business partner. The bullet ricocheted off the steel boning in the victim’s corset, leaving her alive to testify against the perpetrator.
1906, San Francisco. A stranger entered the rear of Mrs. George Alger’s house and tried to stab her. She told the police her corset saved her from injury and her screams drove him away.
1908, South Orange, New Jersey. Mrs. Edward H. Graves was saved by her corset when a neighbor cleaning his gun accidentally discharged it. She fainted. The physician who examined her determined that the bullet bounced off the steel in her undergarment.
1909, Chicago. Dr. Jennie A Beardsley, a physician, was stabbed twice in the breast and stomach when she answered a knock at her back door at night. “A steel ribbed corset saved her life,” the newspaper reported. The attack was part of a failed attempt at extortion.
1913, St. Petersburg, Florida. Two residents in a boarding house got into a row and one stabbed the other. The victim was saved by her corset, the newspaper wrote. “The blade of the knife, a vicious looking weapon, was broken by the force with which it was driven.”
No matter what their age, the women of the past had a message for criminals. No matter how feminine they appeared, they could be as tough as steel.
Do you know of any other cases of a crime victim saved by her corset?
* The teacher in the Girl Cutter case was Julie v. LaSuire, who appears in an 1859 Augsburg directory as an Arbeitslehrerin, or teacher of a trade. Her address was O. Hunoldsgraben 86.
Literature on point:
Rheinbayer, April 23, 1835, p. 195 (translation mine).
J.E. Hitzig, “Der Mädchenschneider in Augsburg,” Annalen der deutschen und ausländischen Rechtspflege 31:196-233 (1841)
Wilhelm Ludwig Demme, Das Buch der Verbrechen 281