It was so easy to get trapped. The city walls ensnared you and the gates locked you in.
If you wanted to commit a crime in one of Germany’s 19th-century walled cities, you’d probably want to case the place first and plan your escape. A typical town had only a handful of exits via the city gates. Some towns still closed their gates every night and posted the times in the newspaper.
The city of Ludwigsburg, for instance, closed its gates between 6 pm and 6:30 am during the second half of November, 1835. But, as we saw in the last post, if the townsfolk raised the hue and cry, you couldn’t count on an open gate. The watchmen could close the gates just to catch you.
But most towns offered great places to hide. Houses were built fairly close to each other, leaving narrow gaps between them. Those gaps, noted a 19th-century German investigator, could easily accommodate a skinny criminal. They were a perfect place to dismantle and conceal a weapon, rearrange clothing, or take cover until the commotion was over. Such a gap played a role in the case I’m writing about. It offered the assassin a great hiding place. But he managed to escape the walls, flee to the United States, and eventually take up arms at Robert E. Lee’s side.
Intelligenz-Blatt des Neckar-Kreises und Ludwigsburger Wochenblatt. 31 October 1835.
Text & images © Ann Marie Ackermann, September 2014, except for Roman city gate, shutterstock.com
City Gates & the Hue and Cry
It wasn’t easy for a criminal to escape from a walled city. In my last blog post, we looked at how the hue and cry – the victim’s cry for help – brought townsfolk out onto the streets to start chasing the lawbreaker. The city walls and closely spaced houses amplified the noise, making it an effective technique. But the hue and cry did something else. As the shouting spread from mouth to mouth, the cry often reached the city gates before the villain did. As soon it reached the watchmen, they slammed those gates shut.
An Aid in Criminal Investigations
Even if the pursuing citizenry couldn’t catch anyone right away, the ability to ensnare an unknown suspect within the city walls gave the investigator a tremendous leg up. He could require innkeepers and even private households to provide a list of their guests that, together with a register of the citizens, formed a finite list of suspects. The interplay between the hue and cry and medieval city structure thus played a significant role in Germany’s true crime history.
An integral part of any escape plan, then, had to include a hiding place or a way through the walls. Next week I’ll show you one of the places where criminals hid.
Which walled cities have you visited? How easy would it have been to escape?
Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum, Rothenburg o.d.T.. Justiz in alter Zeit, vol. 4, Schriftreihe des mittelalterlichen Kriminalmuseums Rotenburg ob der Tauber) p. 383.
Clemens-Peter Bösken. Das Ende der grossen rheinischen Räuber- und Mörderbande (Erfurt: Sutton Verlag 2011) p. 33.
Text & images © Ann Marie Ackermann except for first image from Notre Dame: shutterstock.com by Ana Menendez