Gesche Gottfried is our murderess of the week, keeping with the theme of caretakers who poison and kill those who are under their care. Gottfried had killed anywhere between 16-30 people using arsenic between the years of 1813-1826, and was the last person to be publicly executed in Bremen, Germany.
Gottfried was born on March 6 1785 to Johann Timm and Gesche Margarethe Timme. She had a twin brother Johann Timm Jr, and her parents always preferred him to her. Now, like many other serial killers, people like to look back at Gottfried’s childhood to try and see how it affected her as an adult.
What’s interesting about Gottfried’s case in particular is that it seems like because of how she killed people, and just the general way her parents treated her, a lot of people have begun to believe that she had Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
Basically, Munchausen’s by proxy is where a caregiver makes up or causes an illness/injury to someone under their care.
Gottfried’s father was a tailor, and her mother worked as a sewer/seamstress. But, surprisingly enough, despite their supposedly low or poor class status, Gottfried and her parents arranged a marriage between herself and a wealthy man who made saddles in 1806, Johann Mittenberg.
And this marriage was not a happy one. Mittenberg seemed to like drinking, prostitutes, and dance halls more than he liked spending time with his wife.
And sadly, by 1813, this marriage would be over. Gottfried became known as the “angel of Bremen”, as this beautiful blue eyed blonde haired 28 year old who doted on her sick husband despite all of his failures, nurturing him quite literally to his death.
Gottfried was now a widow with 3 children, but she was also very, very good friends with one of her dead husband’s friends, Michael Christoph Gottfried.
Now, Gottfried’s parents were not too happy with this interest she took. Apparently, Michael wasn’t a big fan of kids, and her parents were very, very vocal about their disapproval. They were the only obstacle in Gottfried’s marriage to Michael. At least, until first Gottfried’s mother, 3 and 6 year old daughters, father, and 6 year old son died within the span of May, June, and September of 1815.
Childless, with no family to support her, the town’s sympathy was only growing. While this may look suspicious to us now, this was back in a time where epidemics routinely took the lives of many families who lived in unhygienic and crowded conditions.
Honestly I think now more than any other time is when we can understand how quickly sickness spreads through a community.
So no suspicions were raised, and now all barriers holding Gottfried back from marrying Michael were disposed of, and their relationship would continue.
Until 1816, when Gottfried’s twin brother returned from a war that left him injured and with destroyed faculties. He’d fought in the war against Napoleon, and now that he was discharged he wanted to claim the inheritance his parents had left him. And, since he was the favored child, he was left significantly more.
Gottfried couldn’t have that, and on Jun 1st, 1816, she cooked him a dinner of fish and arsenic. He died not too long after.
Arsenic used to be so easily found. It was commonly sold at drug and corner stores as a form of rat poison, and was nearly tasteless. Gottfried’s go to for incorporating her poison was to use “mouse butter”, which was a mix of fat and arsenic that created a butter like substance often used to kill rodents and other pests.
Now, not long after her brother’s death, Gottfried found out that she was pregnant. And with this revelation, her new lover Michael decided he was done with the relationship. Gottfried wasn’t having that, and began mixing this mouse butter into his meals. He didn’t die at first, but fell completely under her whims and was considered “invalid”. They were married so that she could continue to care for him, but ultimately he died in July 1817. The baby she was carrying would also turn out to be stillborn.
After Michael’s death, Gottfried hit a dry spell where nobody close to her died. It wasn’t until 1823, when her funds began to run out, that she started resorting to her old methods.
She was proposed to by her neighbor, a merchant named Paul Zimmerman, who proposed spring of that year.
It wasn’t long after that she made a trip to the pharmacy, where they were advertising their “mouse butter” on sale. To test it, and see if it was “the real thing”, she made a sandwich for her fiance, who began to get sick and continued to get worse until he died on June 1st, 1823. Luckily, he’d remembered to add her in his will before he died, so she ended up getting his assets.
After his death, it seems that Gottfried started actively looking for more and more victims.
When she ran out of funds, she ended up selling the house to a wheel maker, Johann Rumpff, under the condition that she was allowed to stay on as a tenant. She soon became close to the family as they moved in, helping take care of the house and being referred to by the children as their “aunt”, and caring for them when their parents were busy.
She even helped take care of Mrs. Rumpff, when she got sick, until she died on December 22nd, 1826. Yes, that “mouse butter” was coming in handy.
Except, Johann Rumpff was suspicious. This only increased when one day he found strange white grains in a salad that Gottfried had served him. He refused to eat the salad, and a few days later noticed the same white grains, and this time he saved some and later gave them to a doctor. This doctor confirmed it was a “considerable amount of arsenic”, and she was arrested on March 6th, 1828.
Unfortunately, at that point she had claimed the lives of 2 others, and also had dosed her latest victim, Friedrich Kleine, to the point that even though she was caught Kleine still died.
She was jailed for 3 years in a cellar under the town hall in Bremen. The judge, Franz Friedrich Droste, was reportedly fond of her and treated her with pity.
Gottfried was found guilty of the murders of 16 people, although her own estimate was somewhere around 30. She was given a death sentence, and on April 21st, 1831 she was sent to Domhof Square. There was a scaffold covered in black and she was directed to the podium and sat on a stool. There, she was beheaded, and her body displayed on museum in Domhof. The reason? To raise money for an orphanage.
Gottfried’s was the last public execution in Bremen, and her skeleton was last reported to be in the Department of Pathology of Bremen in 1912.
One way that Gottfried is remembered in Bremen is at the central city square. There, you will see a “black stone” in the roadway, where the platform that Gottfried was beheaded once stood.
To demonstrate their disgust towards Gottfried and her cruelty, the city placed this black stone and encourage those who see to spit on it. Nowadays, people do it even though they may not necessarily know the story behind it.