Letter 121e

121e. Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring to Christian Gottlob Heyne in Göttingen: Frankfurt, 8 April 1793 [*]

Frankfurt, 8 April 1793

Quite by chance I just witnessed the Clubbists from Mainz, Worms, and Bingen being led away to the fortress Königstein; [1] three carriages brought up the rear, in one of which sat Madam von Esebeck [2] — in the second Madam Forkel with her mother, and in the third Madam Böhmer with her daughter. [3]

Yesterday I heard from Madam Forkel and Madam Böhmer, who had me summoned, that they were being handed over to the Mainz tribunal and were to be taken to Königstein. — They have been neither interrogated nor as yet informed in any other way why they were arrested and are now to be incarcerated at Königstein, —

I myself was simply unable to bear the sight of these unfortunate women today enough to approach more closely and speak with them, turning away instead and returning home. —

The Clubbists had to make the journey on foot, albeit after the chains had first been publicly removed from Professor Blau, Candidate Scheurer, and the pastor of Cassel [Castel]. — Dr. Köhler was allegedly also led away with them. [4]

It truly pains me that these women did not take my advice and leave immediately, to which end they were even given a day and a half here. “What do they intend to do to us, what have we done?” was their response when I told them they should set out on foot were it not otherwise possible and leave what was for them an extremely dangerous place, a place where the names Böhmer and Wedekind elicited such vehement hatred. [5] Even in Mainz I was already often hearing that because the state of war would excuse all the excesses of the French, now the other side, too, would be permitting the same for itself as a means of justified requital.

Madam Wedekind, the old, doubtless innocent woman, will in all likelihood soon fall victim to this undeserved treatment, since her health is already quite ruined. [6]

Public bitterness toward the Clubbists is utterly without limit. Great God, what gruesome wishes have I not had to listen to during these days from people whose lips I would never have anticipated being soiled by such things. Men and women who affect a religious disposition have absolutely no notion of compassion now, let alone love of one’s enemy.

Madam Böhmer has written to her father-in-law.

Should the administration in Hannover [7] not intervene on behalf of these unfortunate persons — namely, Madam Wedekind, Madam Forkel, Madam Böhmer — at least to the extent that their trial be expedited and they not have to wait too long for what may be severe justice — then I hope my own fears are unfounded, namely, that they might be forgotten and, if they are indeed innocent, not already have suffered excessively in any case because of the incarceration. —

Although I intend to do what I can here by advocating quick justice, there are just so many other things waiting to be done as well — provisioning the army etc. . . .


[*] Source: Forster’s Briefwechsel mit Sömmerring, 616–17. As in letter 121d, several of the persons mentioned in this letter play a role in the satirical play The Mainz Clubbists in Königstein. Back.

[1] Königstein im Taunus, a town and fortress located ca. 15 km to the northwest of Frankfurt am Main in the Taunus Mountain Range (here also with Hattersheim, where Caroline was initially detained, and Kronberg, where she will later be under house arrest (Bibliographisches Institut von Leipzig, Umgebung von Frankfurt [1894]):


After the French general Adam Philippe de Custine occupied Mainz on 21 October 1792, Electoral Mainz troops also surrendered the Königstein fortress to Custine, located on a hill overlooking the town. After Prussian and Hessian troops retook Frankfurt on 2 December 1792, the French occupation troops in the Königstein fortress were unwilling to surrender. Hence on 6 December 1792 both the town and the fortress were bombarded, the town itself being largely destroyed by Prussian artillery, the fortress remaining essentially intact (here in a later postcard from a contemporary watercolor illustration):


The French troops finally surrendered on 8 March 1793; here a depiction by Johann Christian Berndt with the fortress in essentially the condition in which Caroline would have experienced it, Die französische Besatzung gibt die Festung Königstein auf und ergibt sich der preußischen Armee, 1793; Goethemuseum, Freies Deutsches Hochstift Frankfurt am Main, Inv. Nr. III-12446; Historische Ortsansichten, Landesgeschichtliche Informationssystem Hessen (LAGIS) (French officers surrender at left, prisoners of war at center, in columns):


On 21 March Electoral Mainz troops reentered the town, relieving the Prussians. The fortress Königstein now became the central remand prison for French sympathizers, whereby not only the fortress prison as such, but also other parts of the complex were used for incarcerating suspected sympathizers such as Caroline and her traveling companions. Sanitary conditions eventually became so bad that the following year, on 17 November 1794, prisoners revolted with a hunger strike but were unable to effect change.

After the fortress changed hands over the course of the ensuing wars, the French retook it on 11 July 1796 but were unable to hold their position after the French army suffered serious defeat in the Battle of Amberg on 24 August 1796. The French decided to destroy the fortress, but while being filled with explosives on 7 September 1796, the 32-meter deep cistern in the middle of the fortress complex exploded prematurely, killing the entire explosives team but only partially destroying the fortress itself, which was never rebuilt. Part of its building materials were used instead to rebuild the town. The fortress ruins can still be visited today (postcard from ca. 1900):



[2] Otherwise unidentified; possibly the wife or a relative of the minister Johann Friedrich von Esebeck. Back.

[3] Auguste was not quite eight years old at the time, yet would not be the only child in the prison during this episode (Königl Grosbritanischer Historischer Genealogischer Calender für 1794; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):


Although Sömmerring claims to have witnessed this event, he nonetheless seems not to have known (or noticed) that Meta Forkel’s future husband and the father of the child she bore in October 1792, namely, Johann Heinrich Liebeskind, was sitting in the carriage with Meta and her mother (Monika Siegel, “Ich hatte einen Hang zur Schwärmerey,” 119). Back.

[4] A certain Dr. Köhler from Werstatt was apparently mistaken for the Köhler who, as Sömmerring remarks elsewhere, was in fact an arch-Jacobin; the latter Köhler seems to have been secretary of the Jacobin Club in Mainz for a time. Back.

[5] Because of the association with Georg Christian Wedekind (Meta Forkel’s brother, Madam Wedekind’s son, Wilhelmine Wedekind’s husband) and Georg Wilhelm Böhmer (Caroline’s brother-in-law), both of whom were well-known Mainz Clubbists. Back.

[6] Although Madam Wedekind’s age is unknown, there is no indication she perished in Königstein as Sömmerring — dramatically — insinuates. That said, both she and Meta Forkel (and the latter’s infant son, Adalbert Liebeskind) were not released until after Caroline and Auguste (Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Thomasius sichert die Matronen gegen den Scheiterhauffen [1800]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Chodowiecki Sammlung [7-533]):


Here a remarkably similar period scene of the sort Johann Heinrich Liebeskind may well have experienced when encountering Meta and her mother in their Königstein cell ([?] Schnorr, Mann trefft seine verhaftete Geliebte [1794]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. A1: 451):


See his detailed account of conditions in the prison during this episode. Back.

[7] As a native of Göttingen, Caroline was a subject of the Electorate of Hannover. See the chapter on Lower Saxony in the supplementary appendix on Germany in the late eighteenth century, esp. the section on the Elector of Hannover. Back.

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott