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Crime Chronicles: The Poisonous Housekeeper

Always vet your employees

By Greg SeebregtsPublished 3 months ago 6 min read

Anna Schonleben, this isn't a name that many would be familiar with, which makes it a perfect entry for the Crime Chronicles series. Now, this one is probably going to be one of the shorter entries in the series so let's get to it.

A Rough Life

Anna Schonleben was born in Nuremburg, Germany in 1760. She had a run of bad luck throughout her life which, while it doesn't justify her actions, may shed some light on them. She was orphaned by 1765 and spent the next five years being shuffled around among different family members.

At the age of 10, she was passed onto a wealthy sponsor who helped her gain a good education. Five years later, at the age of fifteen, she was married to a 30 year old lawyer named Zwanziger.

The marriage was definitely not a happy one. Despite having two children together, her husband was a habitual drunk and eventually became unable to work - thanks to the alcohol. As a result, Anna became a prostitute to support her family. Now, when it came to her prostitution, she apparently had rather high standards - preferring wealthy clients (i.e. judges, and other men of power).

Her marriage to Zwanziger ended in 1796, when the lawyer died leaving Anna alone and penniless (thanks to his drinking) to care for her children. She subsequently opened a store which, unfortunately, failed miserably. It was around this time that her mental health began to deteriorate.

A Poisonous Housekeeper

With her store a failure, and her body beginning to show serious wear and tear, Anna took a job as a housekeeper for Justice Wolfgang Glaser in March of 1808. The Justice had hired her after his wife had left him, but the absent wife returned later that year.

Mrs. Glaser was a healthy young woman but, on July 22, she became VIOLENTLY ill. Her symptoms included:

  • Nausea
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea

Sadly, Mrs. Glaser never recovered and suffered a painful death on August 26, 1808.

On September 25, 1808, Schonleben left the Glaser family's service to work for a man named Grohmann in Sanspaareill. Grohmann was a 38 year old Justice who suffered with many health problems. Under Schonleben's care, the man seemed to recover.

Of course, things didn't stay that way and the Justice took ill in Spring of 1809. His symptoms were identical to those of Mrs. Glaser the year prior and he passed away on May 8, 1809, following eleven days of torment. Due to his well-documented health issues, the man's death was ruled as natural. Anna was apparently distraught over her employer's death, but I'm sure we know more or less where this is going.

Soon after Justice Grohmann's death, Anna was hired by the Gebhard family as a housekeeper. Mrs. Gebhard was heavily pregnant at the time and Anna seemed like the perfect helper. The Gebhard family welcomed a healthy baby girl into the world on May 13, 1809. Despite the fact that both mother and daughter seemed fine, Mrs. Gebhard fell ill just three days later on May 16. Her last words to her housekeeper were:

"Merciful Heaven! You have given me poison!"

She passed away on May 20, 1809 and her death was ruled as natural causes due to known health problems.

Finding Foul Play

So, that's 3 deaths over the course of a year or so and all of them occurring around Anna Schonleben Zwanziger. It's therefore no surprise that people began to suspect foul play on her part. Still, nobody said anything, and she kept working for the Gebhards.

On August 25, 1809, Justice Gebhard was entertaining two dinner guests who, soon after the meal, became violently ill with symptoms eerily similar to those the justice's late wife had exhibited. Additionally, a messenger and a porter had stopped by and had a drink - they too became ill.

Another incident occurred on September 1, 1809 which was almost identical to the previous one.

After the September 1 incident, at the urging of his ill guests, Justice Gebhard terminated Anna's employment. Before departing, however, Anna did some last minute chores, gave two of the maids some coffee and the five month old baby some milk and a cookie. All three subsequently became ill.

The two maids made full recoveries but the baby, unfortunately, passed away. One of the maids, Barbara Waldmann, remembered seeing Anna re-filling the salt box and the police were called. The salt was tested and found to be laced with high concentrations of arsenic. By that time, however, Anna had fled the area.

Arrest, Trial, and Execution

The discovery of the arsenic-laced salt, prompted an investigation into the deaths of Anna's previous employers. Arsenic was subsequently discovered in the body of Mrs. Glaser and the hunt was on.

Despite her best efforts, it didn't take long for the authorities to catch up with Anna Schonleben. She was arrested in 1809 in the city of Baireuth and charged with poisoning and 4 counts of murder. As far as her incarceration goes, all I could find was that it took 6 months to get a confession out of her.

There wasn't much in the way of info on her trial that I could find, except that it was held in the court of Bamberg, Germany. Apart from that, the only info I could find was the final sentence. On July 7th, 1811, the court sentenced Anna Schonleben to death by beheading.

She was led to the guillotine on September 17th, 1811 and, before placing her head on the block turned to the executioner and said:

"It is perhaps better for the community that I should die, as it would be impossible for me to give up the practice of poisoning people."

With that chilling statement, she placed her head on the block, the sharp blade of the guillotine came down, and ended the woman's reign of terror.

What was the Motive?

So, we've reached the end of the story, right? The killer did the crime, was tried, and executed. However, what was the motive? Well, I'd say it was simple jealousy. Let me explain.

Anna Schonleben had this idea that she was a real catch and deserved to have a wealthy, handsome husband. She was not, however, considered attractive by the standards of the time. Where does the jealousy come in? Well, she was looking for a husband while working as a housekeeper.

When marriage didn't happen, she felt slighted and poisoning her victims would've made death excruciatingly slow and painful. It was her way of getting back at the people whom she felt had wronged her. When she didn't get what she wanted - a husband - she would slip them some poison and move on.

Rough life or not, nothing will change the fact that Anna Schonleben killed four people - the youngest of whom was only five months old - and attempted to kill many others. These are only four that we know about as well, so there could be more victims out there that we don't know about. Still, at the end of the day, she met her end and justice was served.


About the Creator

Greg Seebregts

I'm a South African writer, blogger and English tutor; I've published 1 novel and am working on publishing a 2nd. I also write reviews on whatever interests me. I have a YouTube Channel as well where I review books, and manga and so on.

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