Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


Moabit Prison in the 19th century (from:

Moabit Prison in the 19th century (from:

Due to a sudden bout of flu or some other nasty pest in our household I am making a little calendar U-turn here. But bear with me: murder is always a good topic for news. And punishment is even better. In this respect nothing has changed since 1885/1886.


At 11.15 PM on February 7th, 1886 a 44-year-old carpenter from Brakel, Peter Heinrich Schunicht, is sent to the so called Mörderzelle (Dead Man Cell) of Berlin “Pennsylvania”. That´s what Berliners called the no longer existing prison in Moabit, built following Panopticon principle and also used in Pentonville Prison in the US. With which the Kaiser was very, one could even say dead impressed…

Several hours later, at 5 AM of the 8th of February Maschinenmeister Bleise and his ten helpers – themselves residents of Moabit establishment – were done putting up a scaffold in the northern corner of the prison courtyard. When Schunicht got up from his bed, where he could hardly be expected to be really resting, some 80 people were already gathered outside waiting for the show of the day planned for 7.30 AM.

Only less a year earlier, on May 19th, 1885 in the morning Schunicht was still an average carpenter doing odd jobs in Berlin Kreuzberg. By midnight he was a blood-thirsty killer who murdered Johanna Weber (nee Pieper), a wife of a restaurant owner from Hedemannstrasse 8. And the horrific crime took place in Gneisenaustrasse 19. Murder with robbery said the newspapers and the court.

Why in Gneisenaustrasse 19? She didn´t live there and neither did she work. Since the records at Berlin State Archive describe the crime as Raubmord (murder with robbery), it would only be understandable that he came to her and not the other way round. Or so I thought. In his excellent book entitled “Psychology of Crime; Handbook for Legal Experts, Doctors, Teachers and Learnt Persons of All Professions” by Dr Erich Wulfenn (so obviously the next position of my looooong reading list), the author describes Schunicht´s crime as one (at least partly) of passion.

In the chapter on the murderer´s ability to feel or to experience empathy he says: “One murderer, on the very same day when he killed his victim, risked his own life to save a cat that was about to fall down from the roof. Into this same category falls the killer Schunicht. He, too, murdered his former lover in a horrific way. Yet before he left the crime scene, he gave seeds and water to her canary, lest the bird should die of hunger before the flat is opened again.”

That still does nothing to explain why the crime was committed in Gneisenaustrasse 19. Was it their secret love nest? Did he live there (his name not in the address book but that does not exclude the possibility)? Did she live there after all? Was there was a small bar in the house next to the dairy shop – which definitely existed at this number? Or did she run the Kneipe where today´s “Junction Bar” resides and live in a flat with access to number 18? Those are questions I cannot answer (yet) – if you should feel like digging in the past yourselves, I´d be more than grateful for help. My ability to analyse and deduct, not to mention to read anything below Font 20 on my screen is at the moment seriously limited by the wide range of chemicals I am swallowing to keep my ailing self upright in the chair (any unexpected series of signs on your screen: lots of xxxx´s, hhhwzetd´s, ur75zthdgvngh´s or anything else incomprehensible are most probably due to my head falling onto the keyboard).

But back to Mörder Schunicht. Saving the canary did not impress the judges enough to reduce the punishment he was now about to receive. Since the Kaiser also refused to show his clemency, at 7.30 AM Peter Heinrich Schunicht was led to the scaffold, where he greeted the judges, agreed to accept his fate and forgave the hangman (interestingly called Krauts), got half naked, laid his head on the wooden block and had a 11-pound blade drop on his neck with high speed and equally high precision. The whole procedure took less than three minutes. It was a quick farewell.

His body… pardon: body parts were collected and buried at the Municipal Poor Cemetary in Lichtenberg (later known as Zentralfriedhof Lichtenberg or Sozialisten Friedhof – Socialists´ Cemetary – where Wilhelm and Karl Liebknecht as well as allegedly Rosa Luxemburg were buried). Johanna Weber was most probably buried in Kreuzberg.

PS. Being high on medicine makes you restless: that is why several hours later I am still unable to get up from that chair and leave the research madness behind. Thanks to an exciting and highly successful browse through Berliner Gerichts-Zeitung AD 1885/1886 I have learnt that Schunicht was arrested by Kriminal-Kommisar Weien in a flat in Charlottenstrasse. Although he´s not in either of the address books for 1885 and 1886 (checked all the houses in the street…), he seems to have lived in Mitte. Before his execution he  had a bottle of beer and two Weizenbrötchen (white bread-rolls), which he ate without being hungry. He chain-smoked the whole night. And I need to lie down.


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