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A Sensational Criminal Case and New Theories About Same-Sex Behavior

by Gert Hekma in History & Politics , 16 januari 2017

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
Length: 5 minutes

On the eve of the unification of Germany, the citizens of the Prussian capital Berlin attentively followed the reports on a serious sex crime. On a cold Sunday afternoon in January 1869, the five-year-old Emil Hancke had been lured away from his pals and was seriously abused and raped in an attic. Two years earlier, another boy had been killed under similar circumstances, in 1869 still an unsolved case.

This time, the Berlin police did not leave a stone unturned and arrested the suspected culprit - forty-seven-year-old Carl Ernst Wilhelm von Zastrow. He was the son of a Prussian general, a retired officer, and an amateur painter.

Zastrow was suspected of the rape, but not of the murder case from 1867. He kept maintaining his innocence. His trial led to much confusion, as in medical science, in the underworld of perverted lovers, and in the world of legislation, the conceptualization of homosexuality was in a state of flux.
Germany consisted of many different states, each with its own administration and laws. In Prussia and most other states, “unnatural and illicit sexual acts” were heavily penalized, but not in Bavaria, the Catholic empire of the fairy king Louis II.

 Karl Heinrich UlrichsSince 1864, the first gay activist ever, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, had been fighting a lonely battle against the criminalization of same-sex behavior. He was of the opinion that uranism, as he called homosexuality, was not unnatural but natural and should therefore not be a criminal offence. Ulrichs even had a formula for it: “anima muliebris in corpore virili inclusa,” a female soul in a male body.

The Urning, his name for homosexuals, was a sissy, the Urningin, the lesbian, a she-man.

Ulrichs was not the first to claim that gay men had something feminine, but was the first to develop a theory. He received little support.

Hungarian author KertbenyOnly the Hungarian author Kertbeny supported his plea. He also came up with a new name for the love between men: in 1869 he launched the word “homosexual.”

Neologisms were widely coined in those years. In 1869 Geigel, professor of venereal diseases, played with the concepts of “paedophilia” and “gynandromanie” (the delusion of being a she-man, a parody of Ulrichs’ formula). That same year, professor and psychiatrist Westphal introduced “conträre Sexualempfindung” (sexual inversion) - the very same professor who introduced “agoraphobia” in 1871.

Directly after Zastrow’s arrest, doubts about his accountability arose. Besides his pederasty, three other “defects” were held against him: his belief in the healing power of music, his religious Schwärmerei (originally a Protestant, he wanted to become Catholic or Jewish) and finally the fact that he would always carry his entire fortune with him while hanging out with riff-raff (Zastrow was never robbed). Immediately after the start of the trial it was adjourned: first the psychiatrists needed to conduct research. Three renowned doctors would draft expert statements: Liman, Skrzeczka and the before mentioned Westphal.

GH WestphalWestphal felt that sexual inversion, of which Zastrow was suffering, was a pathological condition, but that this did not rule out accountability. The two other doctors shared his opinion. The defendant also did not consider himself disturbed, on the contrary, he had taken note of Ulrichs’ work - which was found in a search of his library - and saw male love as something noble and natural. On that he disagreed with the Berlin police, who kept a register of all known pederasts in the capital, around 3000 according to the “Berliner Gerichtszeitung.” In the eyes of the police, every pederast was a criminal.

The prosecutor had very little evidence against Zastrow, which was also contradictory. The victim and his brother, who had seen the culprit, did not recognise Zastrow. A woman who saw the accused at the time of the crime near the attic, gave statements that were contested by other witnesses. The testimonies of local residents, who claimed to have met him in the neighborhood at the time of the crime, did not tally with other testimonies that saw Zastrow near his house, both an hour before and after the crime.

A police officer was ordered to cover the distance between his home and the crime scene by carriage: it turned out to be about half an hour, but at full trot. The main evidence finally became a cane found at the crime scene. Fingerprints could not be detected yet, so a series of witnesses were asked whether they recognized the cane as that of Zastrow. Most confirmed this, but not all. The cane was run-of-the-mill, so even that evidence was weak.

Finally eighteen witnesses were summoned who declared that Zastrow had indecently approached them; again not prove of the rape. They mostly seemed young working class men: a labourer, a shoemaker, an overnight watchman, a guard rail, a merchant, a soldier. It had let to sexual acts with only one of them, the others had rejected his proposals. It concerned affairs that had taken place some time ago, in one case thirteen years earlier.

Even these young men were asked by the judges whether they recognized Zastrow’s cane; they needed proof desperately. A large group of witnesses showed up, but a much larger group that did not come forward and had accepted Zastrow’s advances certainly could have been found. The statements showed that the defendant had been fairly bold and that it had not put him in danger. He had no prior arrests to his name, and had rarely suffered blows, even though he was not approaching men in cruising areas, but mostly in the working class of Berlin.

The press had such a field day on this matter that they introduced a new term for a homosexual rapist, the new verb “zastrieren.” Despite the solid defence, Zastrow was found guilty by the jury. The court sentenced him to fifteen years in prison and stripped him of his peerage. Zastrow died in prison.

With the unification of Germany, the ominous section 175 remained in the penal code, making unnatural fornication a crime (what it would stay for another century). Ulrichs moved to Württemberg, where Duke Charles surrounded himself with male American beauties, ignoring this new section. But times changed, and aristocracy was on the decline: in 1886, Louis II of Bavaria committed suicide, and the government of Württemberg expelled Charles’ loved ones from the country. Sometime later, Berlin’s court nobility was again hit by a number of homosexual scandals. The Western world was under the grip of a moral offensive, and Ulrichs moved further south to Italy, where uranism was not a crime.

1869 was a turning point in the bickering about homosexuality. The Zastrow case was pivotal in bringing all the pieces of the puzzle together: popular, medical, legal and homosexual prejudices. In the country where the squabbling would continue most lively, doctors and homosexuals were fighting the battle with neologisms. We own terms such as paedophile and sexual inversion to this period. Zastrieren did not make any dictionary, perhaps because homosexuals cannot rape with their female souls?




In the New Issue of Gay News, 335, July 2019

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