Edith Cavell – Spy Nurse

In World War I a nurse was executed for treason by a firing squad. Do you wonder how she ended up like that?
Please read on.

Edith Cavell’s life didn’t start out that extraordinarily. She was born in Norwich in 1865 as the eldest of four children. Although the family wasn’t exactly rich, her parents believed into sharing what they had with the less fortunate. A sentiment that stayed with Edith all her life. She was educated in several boarding schools, like quite a few girls with her upbringing, and after graduating started working as a governess. After a brief period of travelling however, her father fell sick and she decided to return home and care for him. This was when the seed of her wish to become a nurse was planted.

Eventually he recovered and Edith began her job as a nurse probationer in London Hospital when she was 30. It was a hard job, but it showed she had a real talent for it. She even earned a medal for her work during a typhoid outbreak in Kent! Edith was dedicated to her job, working in several hospitals and visiting patients in their homes.

In 1907, she was approached by Dr Antoine Depage, the director of a newly established nursing school in Brussels, who wanted her to teach there. Upon realizing how poorly trained Belgian nurses were (as it has been long regarded a male profession there) she accepted and packed her bags. Her teaching was strict and her standards high, but the hard work paid off. Even Queen Elizabeth asked for a nurse trained there when she broke her arm, giving the faculty the royal seal of approval. In 1910, Edith decided it was time for a professional nursing journal and promptly launched one herself, called L’infirmière. And so her reputation grew and within a year she trained nurses in 3 hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium. On the right, that’s her when she lived in Brussels. The dog on the right, “Jack” was rescued after her death.

Taking a break from her busy life, she was just visiting her mother (her father had died shortly before) when World War I broke out. Hastily Edith returned to Brussels to care for all the wounded soldiers that came flooding in. For her efforts she became matron of the hospital, overseeing the nurses’ activities and organizing them. In the picture you can see her amidst her nurse squad.

When the Germans occupied Belgium in 1914, Edith began sheltering soldiers – both, Allied and German – and helped them flee the country. Not only did she hide them in her own cellar until trusted guides were found to send them to the next station in the smuggling network, she also invented ruses for them to be able to flee safely. And that’s not all! Written on fabric and sewn into clothes and hidden in shoes, Edith and her organization sent military intel to the British. Unfortunately Edith was a generally outspoken person, so she wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. And in 1915 she was betrayed by a member of her network (who ironically was executed all the same) and arrested by the German military police.

For 10 weeks she was kept in solitary confinement but refused to talk. Eventually though, she was tricked. Her captors told her that her comrades had already confessed and if she did too, she could save them from execution. Naively she believed them. Edith signed her confession one day before her trial. Unfortunately she was a little too thorough, admitting not only to helping Allied soldiers flee the country but also sending them to a country at war with Germany – namely Britain, from where they would often send her postcards upon their safe arrival. Never leave a paper trail, people! Unfortunately the punishment for that crime was death, according to German military law (which, in times of war, did not only apply to Germans but to all people in occupied areas.) So she was sentenced to death by shooting.

Interestingly enough, quite a few countries had something to say about this. Not only did Great Britain try to save her (denying the espionage charge of course), but the formerly neutral countries of Spain and the USA objected to the sentence as well. Unfortunately they were powerless. And so on 12th October 1915, Edith Cavell was executed by a German firing squad. On the night before her execution, she said to the priest who gave her Holy Communion: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words were inscribed to the statue of her that still stands in St. Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square in London (see the picture). Her final words are recorded to have been: “Tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.”

As the mention of a statue in her honor might have indicated, killing Edith was a propaganda catastrophe for Germany. Even though Edith herself said, she had expected the trial’s outcome and believed it to be just (after all she had committed the offense she was charged for), she was hailed a martyr. In Great Britain her death was told over and over by newspapers, pamphlets and books (often not very accurately and always dropping her espionage activities) which instilled strong anti-German sentiments in the population. All because she was a woman and a nurse – the picture of innocence. Especially her fearless approach to death contributed to her popularity. 

One more quote of hers: “I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often it is not strange, or fearful to me!”

further reading: https://edithcavell.org.uk/

image credits:

Edith and her dogs: Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 32930)
Nurse Squad: Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 70204)
Statue: User Prioryman in Wikimedia Commons – Link

Katharina Henot – The Postmaster Who Was Burned As A Witch

Today I’d like you to meet Katharina Henot, Germany’s first female postmaster who was burned as a witch for economic and political reasons.

But let’s start at the beginning. She was born around 1570/80 to a wealthy family in Cologne (a city I live really close to by the way, it’s a local lady this time!), her mother coming from Dutch nobility. The family valued education and so most of her many siblings ended up with intellectual work, often in the church and one of her sisters joined the local convent. Originally being a silk merchant, father Henot managed to secure the job of reorganizing the country’s postal system, with Katharina and her husband (this is the only time her husband is mentioned anywhere) assisting him. Due to father Henot’s ambitious character however, his “supervisor” quickly got rid of him as soon as the job was done in 1603.

But the Henots fought. They fought for more than 20 years.

And finally, in 1623, they succeeded. Father Henot was reinstalled as postmaster of the city of Cologne. He had however reached the ripe age of 91 by that time, so Katharina took over (I suspect that her husband had died by that time). When he died two years later, the family was terrified to lose their licence again. And so they hid his passing, going as far as forging signatures when needed. For three months they managed, then they were found out. And her father’s adversary from before grabbed the opportunity. With plans to establish a central postal system, which would render the individual towns’ postmasters obsolete, he tried to take Katharina’s post from her. But she didn’t want to hear anything about it. And she went to court. Again.

And that’s when the rumours started. Nuns of the convent nearby (where not only her sister but also her daugher resided) reported being possessed, with Katharina being the one who had bewitched them. And even though she had always been giving generously to the church, her being a witch was soon the talk of the town. (This seems particularly odd to me because the nuns surely must have known her, being religious and having family members in the convent, but on with the story…)

You might have guessed it, Katharina did not take it silently. She wrote a letter to the archbishop, rejecting the accusations and urging him to inspect the circumstances at the convent. If he wouldn’t do that, she hoped that he would at least allow her to be judged by the clerical high court instead of the worldly one, which would most likely result in a mild punishment if she showed regret. These hopes were not to be fulfilled. Despite her knowing the archbishop personally and having lent him a big sum of money some time ago, he decided that her case was one for the worldly court – thus practically sealing her fate already.

Slowly running out of ideas, Katharina still did not give up. In consultation with her defense lawyer and supported by her brother, they planned a purgation process, which would basically allow her to swear herself free from the accusations (no, I don’t quite get that either). The formalities however took forever – apparently no one wanted to solve the situation quickly and above all, positively.

While still waiting for her purgation, Katharina was formally charged with witchcraft in early 1627. Two days later, she was arrested. Against regulations, she was denied medical aid, visitors and a proper defense in court. Her knowledge about law was dismissed, she wasn’t even told the exact charges. Her brother tried to have her released on bail, but was denied.

But even then Katharina did not break. Despite being crippled from torture and sick from the conditions in prison, she would not confess. She even managed to get out two letters to her brother, written with her left hand as her right had been paralyzed due to the torture. These letters chronicled her experiences in prison and once more declared her innocence, naming witnesses who could attest her. There was no answer.

On May 19, 1627 Katharina Henot was sentenced to death.

The accusations were “harmful magic, resulting in the death of five people, harmful magic in nature, feeding dispute, magical practices, divination (specifically with a divination rod) and sex with the devil.” These were backed by nothing more than the purportedly possessed nuns, the widespread rumors about her, the formal charge made by another nun and lastly the “confession” extracted from another alleged witch. A quick execution was pressed. And so, on the same day, she was hanged as a witch and her body burned (a little more merciful than the straight up burning).

This whole farce of a court is especially interesting: usually a witch could not be sentenced to death until she confessed – which was usually achieved with torture but since Katharina never confessed, this whole process is so wrong. She even declared her innocence one last time on the way to the execution site for heaven’s sake.

Her brother Hartger seemed to have had the same line of thought, as he chose to resign from his religious duties and asked for the trial records. His request granted at first, he ended up with only a few pages which did not give any new indication. The reasons why he was denied access to the papers are unknown, as is the true reason behind this odd witch hunt – the records did not survive the tooth of time.

It doesn’t end all bad though:

Many hundred years after her death, she is not forgotten in the city: her statue adorns Cologne’s town hall (1st picture: created by one of her descendants, Marianne Lüdicke, in 1988) and a street as well as a school are named in her honor. There’s even a movie (2nd picture: still from the movie “Die Hexe von Köln” from 1989 with Marita Breuer playing Katharina)!

But most importantly, in 2011 Katharina’s descendents achieved her official rehabilitation (and that of 37 other falsely convicted “witches,” male and female) – unfortunately almost 400 years to late. Still, I imagine she would appreciate it.

image credits:

statue: © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 – via Wikimedia Commons
movie still: “Die Hexe von Köln,” 1989 – TV Spielfilm archive

Marianne of Orange-Nassau – A True Free Spirit

Today I’d like to present to you one of my biggest personal heroines: Wilhelmina Frederika Louise Charlotte Marianne of Orange-Nassau (or Marianne for short).

Born in 1810 as Princess of the Netherlands her upbringing was already quite unusual for the time with her parents being loving and liberal. Her family’s residence was called “Het Loo,” which made me giggle.

Aged 20 (relatively late!) she was married to her cousin (not unusual), the youngest Prince of Prussia. It was quite a happy marriage at first, producing five children. The couple however was not really compatible, with her being a free spirit and him being more of military character. And when he began to entertain relations with mistresses, she was not willing to take it quietly (as was expected of her): After 14 years of marriage she demanded a divorce. She was denied however, with both the Prussian and the Dutch court trying to avoid a scandal. So she packed her bags and left.

She took her carriage and travelled Europe and her several estates, eventually falling in love with her coachman, Johannes van Rossum. When she got pregnant, she was finally allowed to separate from her husband – if only to avoid an even bigger scandal as she was not only pregnant with an illegitimate child but the father was well below her social rank as well. This was five years after she took off. 

She was now almost 40 (see picture on the right) and forbidden from entering Prussian ground for more than 24 hours at a time. This meant she was separated from her children as well as her own estates in the country. But Marianne was not one to give up.

She simply bought a castle right at the border, thus being able to visit her children regularly or have them visit her and managing her property. And she did well: her descendants became one of the richest branches of the dynasty.

Expanding her house by a gallery with about 600 artworks, she took in aspiring artists to support them and thus created a cultural and intellectual hotspot.

She also decided to raise her illegitimate son herself instead of giving him away, once again making the court wrinkle their noses. Van Rossum and her never married too – they just lived together. And she was never ashamed of it.

A woman ahead of her time, a loving mother, a badass businesswoman and always unapologetically herself.

image credits:

painting: by Jan Philip Koelman, 1846 – via Wikimedia Commons
photo: unknown – via Wikimedia Commons