suicide by death penalty

here’s a strange — and sad — set of homicide statistics from sweden (stockholm) in the early 1700s — from manuel eisner’s Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime [pdf – pg. 112]:

“There is one major exception to this pattern [of male preponderance in serious violent crime-h.chick]. In early eighteenth-century Stockholm, women not only accounted for more than 60 percent of property crime offenders but also 45 percent of murder and manslaughter offenders and 41 percent of assault offenders (Andersson 1995). These are probably the highest female participation rates in serious violent crime found anywhere in the world. Scholars examining this phenomenon emphasize a combination of factors including — besides demographic imbalance — a highly specific cultural configuration, which embraced some kind of otherworldly calculus. More particularly, for fear of eternal punishment in hell, suicidal women appear often to have chosen to kill somebody else, usually their offspring, and then suffer the death penalty imposed on them by the judiciary (Jansson 1998). Homicide would bring them to purgatory for a limited period of time, after which they would enter heaven for eternity, which was definitely to be preferred to consignment to eternal hell because of suicide.”

=/

(note: comments do not require an email. galgberget [“gallows hill”] in stockholm.)

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25 Comments

  1. I have a distant relative from the period which I believe did something similar. I’m Danish rather than Swedish, but I browsed through Eisners book (or rather, the excerpt linked to above), and did not find any equivalent statistic for any of the surrounding countries.

    I’d no idea that Sweden was a hub for this kind of suicide-by-hangman, but it makes sense with regard to the romanticisation and horror surrounding suicide, and how seriously the religious abstractions of the act were taken. I’m related to an author named Karen Blixen, whose father committed suicide early in her life, and the letters which the female family members exchanged describing his decision are full of a peculiar mix of awe, horror, and a kind of respect which struck me as having a strong scent of “propriety”, for lack of a better word. IE, that the act seemed accepted and more-or-less romantically lionised, without much defensiveness, but implying that he seemed to have been “trying to” die by putting himself into dangerous situations for some time.

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  2. Perverse incentives are still at work today. In northern Europe liberal policies have made asylums for the criminally insane a rather comfortable way of life – you’ll have full upkeep in a hotel like institution so you can play video games for the rest of your life. The trouble is this is expensive so the more comfortable it’s made, the more the state tries to resist putting people in asylums, and now you basically have to kill someone in a really cruel way to get in.

    We’ve had several incidents of this, for example this guy…

    http://www.iltalehti.fi/uutiset/200902269151624_uu.shtml

    …murdered a randomly chosen 14-year-old girl in the middle of basketball practice stabbing her 47 times as she tried to run away. Motive? To get committed in one of those comfortable asylums. Or this guy…

    http://www.savonsanomat.fi/uutiset/kotimaa/varkauden-puukottaja-halusi-vankimielisairaalaan/1189630

    Stabbed a randomly chosen 17-year-old girl to death on the street next to a police station. “The man told of his motive that he wanted to get into a criminal asylum away from society. According to what he told he felt that bad.”

    Sweden would have plenty of examples too. I used to be against the death penalty but seeing nutcases like this over and over again I’ve changed my mind…

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  3. Holy crap, that’s unbelievable, Jaakko. I know how you feel when it comes to the death penalty, though. I used to be against it , but reality changed my mind. I still think that it should be used very carefully and sparingly, but it has to be an option.

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  4. My screen background on my laptop is a picture of Grace Kelly in her wedding dress, kneeling before the altar in prayer. I was talking with an older woman and demonstrating how to play DVDs when she saw the picture. The conversation turned to why the world is so f*cked up. I pointed to the picture and said “because women like that no longer exist, and men have no reason to work hard to get a woman.”
    White Male, 37, Divorced, Veteran SMP value: 7/10 (largely due to starting out as a Delta and having a relatively low status day job even so, I turn down offers from the mid 30s chicks-with-a-kid, and 40s cougars all the time) Would I get married again? Hell no.

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  5. Very interesting! One factor is that (according to Daly & Wilson) family killings are the type of homicide that is LEAST variable between cultures, so cultures with low homicide rates (like Sweden and Denmark) tend to have an extremely high proportion of family killings. Women are in most samples more likely to commit filicide than men, so perhaps the proportion of women is less surprising than if it involved non-family victims.

    One study I read (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2174580/) mentioned that among women with small children who commit suicide, 5% kill at least one of their children. I think it’s correct to see filicides (especially killings of children older than neonates) as often part of a suicide plan on the part of the mothers.

    Interesting to think of the death penalty as actually a positive incentive for suicidal people to kill others – especially given religious prohibitions of suicide. Cases like Andrea Yates in the US make it reasonable to also consider Christianity as perhaps creating incentives for filicide itself; if Hell is viewed as a real concern, the loving thing to do for one’s children is to protect them from this fate, even if it requires killing them at a young age.

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  6. The case of Christina Johansdotter is a poignant example.

    Interesting bits from Wikipedia:

    These suicide-executions represent quite a peculiar historical phenomenon, which developed its own customs and culture. At the end of the 17th century, executions were given a high pitched character in Stockholm; the condemned and their families bought special costumes, which were to be white or black and decorated with embroidery and ribbons, and paid for a suite to escort the condemned to the place of execution at Skanstull.

    The authorities greatly disapproved of all this, as the purpose of an execution was to put fear in people, a purpose which was destroyed by these theatrical performances, which, according to the government, gave the audience sympathy for the condemned suicidals, especially if they were female.

    King Gustav III of Sweden even contemplated replacing the death sentence with life in prison for female child murderers, simply because they were given such sympathy at the executions that the punishment did not have the intended deterrent effect.

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  7. @Sister Y:

    Judging by Steven Pinkers homicide data, Scandinavia in the early 1700s had similar homicide rates as Germany & Switzerland and Holland and a higher rate than England.

    @hbd chick*:

    It’s sad but it makes sense given the religious dogma. The women went to heaven eventually; the children went to heaven immediately. Everybody happy… The King, a champion of Enlightenment, actually contemplated abolishing the death penalty to deter women from this crime.

    It’s also interesting that women committed most of the property crime. This may relate to shoplifting, 40 percent of which is committed by women. For teenage girls, it’s above 50 percent and the population was younger in the 1700s. Not sure how that compares to other countries.

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  8. Lutherans aren’t supposed to believe in purgatory but many believe in it anyway.

    In Sweden Lutheranism was imposed from above and at first it was just a political move (much like England, the King had a long argument with the Pope and took the simple way out). It took a long time for the faith to actually change and purgatory would have been one of those beliefs that lingered since the punishments for immorality were of course one of the few things that priests always explained to people in great detail.

    Though by 1700 Stockholm should have been pretty damn Lutheran so…

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  9. @joe – “Isn’t Sweden a Protestant country? I thought only Catholics believed in purgatory.”

    the reference that eisner offers for that purgatory explanation is jansson 1998 which is From swords to sorrow: homicide and suicide in early modern Stockholm. unfortunately, a preview of this book is not available on google books, so i can’t check it. ack!

    like jaakko says, though, it did take some time for lutheranism/protestantism to fully take hold in sweden (see here and here for instance), so maybe the idea of purgatory took a while to disappear in the country. dunno.

    having said that, apparently there was an epidemic of murder-suicides across lutheran europe in the late 1600s-early 1700s (!) which many historians have connected to pietism and pietistic ideas on salvation. here from A Lutheran Plague: Murdering to Die in the Eighteenth Century [pgs. 79 and 45]:

    “Motives

    “The social reasons and the psychological state of the suicide murderers were very similar to those generally found among people who commit suicide. They were frequently suffering from unjust treatment by their employer or from their superiors, or from problems in their love life, or being forced to endure unbearable living conditions in prison or the army, or living in fear of punishment. These social motives were usually interwoven with mental instability or depression of some sort.

    “When these people chose not to kill themselves, but instead to kill an innocent child or a stranger, a basic precondition for this choice was, of course, the existence of the death penalty. The most common motive to which the murderers confessed in the courts was the wish to be executed. The religious discourse in which the executions were understood, however, added a number of attractions to the suicide crime, which enhanced the inclination of those wanting to commit suicide to seek the executioner as the tool for their purpose.

    “First, a religious person would fear to commit suicide, as suicide was a certain way for the soul to go to hell. To commit a murder was a terrible sin, but when the perpetrator envisaged herself as a weak person constantly tempted by the Devil to fall into misery, her deed became somewhat excusable. It was the fate of all people sometimes to succub to the Devil’s temptations and commit sins. When the murder had been committed, the murderer could focus on the salvation of her soul. The Church Ritual, the ballads, the preparation by the pastors and the religious staging of the executions all unanimously communicated the message that salvation was certain if you honestly repented your sins and truly believed in God when you breathed your last. In this religious understanding an aggravated death penalty would just be a greater ordeal, and in the mind of the count attending the execution of Michel Bloedorn, for example, the magnitude of the ordeal endured added to the certainty of the soul being saved.”

    *****

    “The religious discourse was rarely expresed in the court narratives, but indirectly it was present. A striking common feature of the perpetrators’ explanations to the courts was that they appeared to be utterly candid. The murderers not only freely admitted to the murder; they also told of their wish to be executed and apparently felt confident that the courts would pass the death sentence, despite their admission that they actually wanted to be executed. In addition — insofar as they were able to articulate their motives — they freely related the events and emotions that had led them to the fatal decision. They thus seemed to expect the co-operation of the courts and possibly even expected some understanding on the part of the authorities.

    “This peculiar candour and expectation of understanding finds its logic in the parallel religious discourse of the murder and its atonement. According to this logic, they could expect understanding and even sympathy for their position as sinful human beings continuously tempted by the cunning Devil and struggling for the salvation of their souls. The brief and random references to religious motives for the murders in the court records are unfolded in the ballads. Here the murders are explained as results of the Devil’s temptations, against which man is almost powerless. But when he provoked the murder, the Devil only won the battle and not the war, because God wants to save the sinner’s soul. At some point between the murder and the execution, the prisoner’s heart is opened to the word of God. When the murderers appeared before the court, they usually had — in their own minds — undergone this change and were eager to testify to their repentant state of mind by admitting their sins as openly as possible.

    “The penitent then turned to God and, trusting in His infinite mercy, awaited execution, confident in the belief that she would end up in Paradise with a crown on her head. This appealing narrative was the main content of the ballads and seemed to be accepted both by the murderers and by the spectators at the executions.”

    crazy.

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  10. @redzen – “I’m related to an author named Karen Blixen…”

    oh! you’re related to meryl streep! (~_^)

    @redzen – “…whose father committed suicide early in her life, and the letters which the female family members exchanged describing his decision are full of a peculiar mix of awe, horror, and a kind of respect which struck me as having a strong scent of ‘propriety’, for lack of a better word. IE, that the act seemed accepted and more-or-less romantically lionised, without much defensiveness, but implying that he seemed to have been ‘trying to’ die by putting himself into dangerous situations for some time.”

    huh. interesting. thanks for sharing!

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  11. @jaakko – “Perverse incentives are still at work today. In northern Europe liberal policies have made asylums for the criminally insane a rather comfortable way of life – you’ll have full upkeep in a hotel like institution so you can play video games for the rest of your life. The trouble is this is expensive so the more comfortable it’s made, the more the state tries to resist putting people in asylums, and now you basically have to kill someone in a really cruel way to get in.”

    oh, jeez. terrific. =/

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  12. @sister y – “One factor is that (according to Daly & Wilson) family killings are the type of homicide that is LEAST variable between cultures, so cultures with low homicide rates (like Sweden and Denmark) tend to have an extremely high proportion of family killings.”

    ah! that’s interesting. didn’t know that. thanks!

    @sister y – “…if Hell is viewed as a real concern, the loving thing to do for one’s children is to protect them from this fate, even if it requires killing them at a young age.”

    i imagine that that might’ve been the motive in some of these cases, although such thinking doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the pair of books on this history of these murder-suicides that i just skimmed (note: skimmed! so i could’ve missed it). of course, even if this were the motive in some of the cases, the mothers’ may not have mentioned it.

    it should be noted that some amount of the homicides connected to these murder-suicide cases were of children (or, less frequently, adults) who were not related in any way to the murderers. sometimes the murderesses just picked random kids off the street.

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  13. @adbge – “The case of Christina Johansdotter is a poignant example.”

    ah! yes. very interesting, thanks! more from that wikipedia entry:

    “Cases such as this were common; to murder a child was a common method used by many suicidal people. The reasons for this were religious. The contemporary religious belief were that suicide would send the soul to hell; however, an executed person, who confessed and repented his/her crime, was believed to go straight to heaven. Children were not just ideal victims because they easy preys due to their disadvantage in size and strength, but they were also believed to be free of sin and, thus, did not have to receive absolution before death in order to go to Paradise. In 18th century Sweden, wish to commit suicide was the most common reason for murdering a child, second only to unmarried women suffocating their newly-born infants after their secret birth.”

    no mention of purgatory (again). wonder if eisner misunderstood this part of it?

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  14. Actually, what made the Reformation in Scandinavia so remarkable was how quickly it went to completion, with virtually the entire population converted to Lutheranism by the end of the 16th century, as opposed to England, where significant pockets of Catholics remained until Catholicism again received toleration in the 19th century. So unless Eisner is citing a source that demonstrates the survival of belief in purgatory as late as the 18th century, I would conclude that he is simply ignorant of the intricacies of Christian theology and assumes that all pre-modern Christians believed in more or less the same things (Eisner sounds like a Jewish name, so that would figure).

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  15. The really weird thing is how they could be so sure it would work. What if God didn’t share their views of theology?

    (Theology is a dangerous subject: if you bet on the wrong horse you might end up doubly damned.)

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  16. This says something about the twisted “morality” of a religion that believes that suicide is a greater crime than the murder of another individual!

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  17. The point is not that suicide is intrinsically worse than other types of murder. The point is that suicide of its nature cannot be repented of. What these “murder-suicides” are doing is counting on the possibility of repenting of their murder before they are executed; if they killed themselves, they would not be able to repent and therefore will end up in Hell. Of course, any Christian theologian worth his salt would point out that, as long as the murderer still has suicidal intentions and is waiting for execution only as a means to satisfy their desires, rather than being truly sorry for what they’ve done and accepting execution as nothing more than just retribution, they have not truly repented of their crime and may still go to Hell.

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  18. “I’d no idea that Sweden was a hub for this kind of suicide-by-hangman, but it makes sense with regard to the romanticisation and horror surrounding suicide, and how seriously the religious abstractions of the act were taken.”

    Denmark was quite the hub as well, and it was these cases that led to the abolishment of biblical law.

    http://www.forskning.no/artikler/2012/mars/315725 (Norwegian)

    Norway escaped, but not for having different laws, but because Norwegians had (still have) the right to be judged by a local jury.

    If the jury found it to be a suicide, the family’s property would go to the King, while the responsibility for the now destitute family, would fall on the community the jurors came from. Norwegians was thus taken by the nix, instead of drowning, was temporary insane, if they hung themselves, etc.

    Temporary insanity was used a lot in Denmark as well, and probably in Sweden as well.

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  19. @jonathan – “Actually, what made the Reformation in Scandinavia so remarkable was how quickly it went to completion, with virtually the entire population converted to Lutheranism by the end of the 16th century….”

    yes, but, according to wikipedia (so it must be true!), the swedish lutheran church retained many roman catholic features/traditions until quite late (see here and here), so it is just possible that swedes still believed in purgatory in the 1700s. no idea though. one way that i do know that the swedes diverged from other protestant nations was that they kept the cousin marriage bans on the books — until very late — the mid-1800s, in fact. so perhaps sweden (scandinavia?) is a bit of a special case.

    like i said, though, a preview of the book to which eisner referred isn’t available on google books, and i’ve no other way of checking it, so i can’t tell from where i’m sitting whether he got it wrong or not.

    what you said here though…

    “The point is that suicide of its nature cannot be repented of. What these “murder-suicides” are doing is counting on the possibility of repenting of their murder before they are executed; if they killed themselves, they would not be able to repent and therefore will end up in Hell.”

    …is exactly the point made in A Luthern Plague, which i referred to in my comment above. nothing about purgatory in that book, although that book isn’t only about what happened in sweden.

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