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Mass Murder: The Wagner Case


D URING THE NIGHT of September 4, 1913, There was a general outcry of horror about
the citizens of Muehlhausen (a village his deed, and public opinion demanded his
of W#{252}rttemberg, southwest Germany) were execution. A violent newspaper debate raged
awakened by several large fires. As they ran because Wagner’s life was spared when it
into the street, they were met by a man, his was recognized, during the pretrial examina-
face covered by a black veil, who was tion, that he was mentally ill. He was com-
armed with two pistols. He shot with great mitted to an insane asylum, where he spent
accuracy and killed eight men and one girl the rest of his life, 25 years.
immediately; 12 more were severely injured. Indignation was expressed against psy-
Then his two pistols ran out of ammuni- chiatric opinion in general, and personal
tion, and he was overpowered and beaten attacks were directed against the psychia-
down with such violence that he was left trists (Dr. Robert Gaupp of the University
for dead; however, he was only uncon- of T#{252}bingen and Dr. R. Wollenberg of the
scious. He had 198 more bullets in his pos- University of Strassburg) who had examined
session. The innkeeper identified the mur- the murderer and had given the expert opin-
derer as his 39-year-old brother-in-law, who ion that he was not responsible in the legal
had been a schoolteacher in this village sense( 1, 7). When Professor Gaupp pre-
more than ten years earlier. The rage and sented him before a psychiatric meeting in
terror of the population changed to horror 1932, there were newspaper articles protest-
when Wagner confessed that during the pre- ing that this might be a first step toward
ceding night he had quietly killed his wife releasing Wagner from custody( 6).
and four children. A phone call to the local
When the news of the mass murder in
police (in Degerloch, near Stuttgart) con-
Austin, Texas, in August 1966 reached Ger-
firmed this.
many, the horror about the Wagner case was
He also confessed that he had come to
immediately revived in newspaper and mag-
Muehlhausen to take revenge on the male
azine references. Certain similarities can be
inhabitants for their scorn and disdain for
recognized: seemingly well-functioning, in-
him. However, even while lying severely
wounded and exposed to the hatred of the telligent, and ambitious men, leading exem-
attacked people, he noticed that no one em- plary middle-class lives, had quietly ac-
ployed the term of abuse that would refer cumulated arsenals of weapons, practiced
to his sexual sins, which he felt had been the sharpshooting, and had made many other
cause of all the persecution, ridicule, and arrangements for carefully planned mass
condemnation. murders. There had been nothing in their
behavior, up to the day of the dreadful deed,
that might have warned their families,
Dr. Bruch is Professor of Psychiatry, Baylor Uni- friends, or co-workers that a dangerous crim-
versity College of Medicine, Houston, Tex. 77025. inal was living among them. Both men had
This condensation of the Wagner case was pre-
pared with the permission of Professor Robert spent the preceding day in a quiet, relaxed
Gaupp, Jr., and the Department of Psychiatry, way with their families and friends. (The
University of TUbingen.
The author wishes to thank Drs. Lawrence C. Austin murderer was killed and left no letters
Kolb and James W. Montgomery for the use of or other writings that might have given a clue
New York State Psychiatric Institute library works
related to this paper. to his motives.)

Amer. J. Psychiat. 124: 5, November 1967 [147]


Wagner as Murderer However, in the beginning he passionate-

ly protested against the idea of his being
Wagner had spent the evening of Sep- mentally sick. He remarked sarcastically:
tember 3, 1 9 1 3, with his landlady and her “If I am insane, then a madman has been
daughter, a young teacher, sitting in front teaching all these years.” This statement
of the house admiring the calm summer was not without foundation. He had an ex-
evening. During the preceding week he had cellent record as a teacher; the village where
written a series of letters which were not he had taught for ten years before his last
mailed until September 4, when he was on position considered him the best teacher it
the way to Muehlhausen; among them was ever had.
one which contained a complete confession During the pretrial examination many of
of all his crimes. It was addressed to the his friends, former fellow students and
largest newspaper in Stuttgart and was to be teachers, and members of the various com-
used as an editorial. munities in which he had lived were inter-
He killed his wife and four children be- rogated in great detail; they described him
fore the morning dawn, as quietly and pain- as an admirable citizen, dignified, somewhat
lessly as possible. After he had cleaned him- quiet, more soft-minded than rough. Only a
self, he rode by bicycle to the railway few had noted a certain amount of stand-
station in Stuttgart, from there by train (bi- offishness and affectation. All commented
cycle in the baggage car) to his home town, on the fact that in a region in which a heavy
Eglosheim, near Ludwigsburg, to visit his dialect was spoken by educated and un-
brother. He told his sister-in-law that he was educated alike, he insisted on using high
going by bicycle to Muehlhausen to bring German, even in his private life.
his children back from vacation. In retro- His examiners, the judge as well as the
spect she remembered, as probably unusual, psychiatrists, were simply overwhelmed by
that he had carefully inspected the house. the contrast of the horrible, carefully
Wagner had planned to return to his planned mass murder and their personal
brother’s house the following night with the impression of the murderer as a polite, in-
intent of killing him and his family and of telligent, sensitive, grief-stricken man who
burning down his house as well as the house was quiet and rational in all he said-except
in which he had been born. As a final step he when he defended his deed as the inescap-
had planned to proceed to the royal castle able outcome of the persecution he had
in Ludwigsburg, overpower the guards, set suffered.
fire to the castle, and die in the flames or This fateful chain of events had its begin-
jump off its walls, thereby terminating his ning, according to his self-accusation, with
own life. one or more sodomistic acts in the late sum-
Wagner shared the popular opinion that mer of 1901, when he was 27 years old. At
he should have been put to death, and he no time did he give exact information about
was vituperative in expressing his hatred this; he felt that putting it into words would
against Professor Gaupp, in whom he had be an insult to all humanity. His secretive-
confided the motives for his deed and who ness was so strong and persistent, and stood
had then expressed the opinion that he was in such contrast to the openness and clarity
mentally sick and therefore not responsible. with which he discussed all other events of
As time progressed and after he had finally his life, that suspicion has been expressed
accepted as unalterable his fate of remaining that these experiences never took place but
in a mental hospital, a confidential, even were delusional.
friendly relationship developed between him Gaupp, who knew him best, was con-
and Professor Gaupp. He discussed openly vinced that something had taken place,
and exhaustively every aspect of his life probably under the influence of alcohol
with one important exception. He also gave when Wagner returned from the tavern to
his literary works and biography to Profes- his modest lodgings. Before this he had felt
sor Gaupp, who reported on them in sev- persistently and excessively guilty about
eral publications(2, 6). masturbation, in which he had indulged since

[148] Amner. J. Psychiat. 124: 5, November 1967


the age of 1 8. At times he would consider village schoolteacher. However, there was
this the onset of his miserable fate(6, 7). every indication that he loved his children.
Of decisive importance was the fact that He was described as unusually indulgent
his sexual urges and acts stood in irrecon- with them and extravagant in his gifts,
cilable contrast to his high moral standards something he explained later as due to his
and ethical concepts. His deep sense of knowing that they had only a short time to
guilt never diminished and was projected in live.
a fateful way to the outside. Whatever his The first years in his new position were
“crime,” it remained completely unknown. relatively free of tension as long as he did
However, he soon began to make certain not believe that they “knew” about his sex-
“observations” and to “hear” certain slan- ual crime. But he never forgot what he had
derous remarks, which led to the unshakable done. His pessimistic mood led to a recur-
conviction that his “crime” was known. He rence of hypochondriacal complaints. In
felt himself continuously observed, mocked, 1904 his whole existence became so intol-
and ridiculed, and lived in constant dread of erable that he decided to travel to Switzer-
arrest. He was determined not to suffer this land and to end his life. He wanted to drown
public shame and humiliation, and therefore himself in a lake, creating the impression
he always carried a loaded pistol. When he that he had suffered a stroke. However, this
took his final examination as a teacher in plan miscarried: he was too cowardly to
December 1902 and also on his wedding commit suicide. Then he planned to throw
day in December 1903, he had two loaded himself before an oncoming train; here, too,
pistols with him, so convinced was he that his courage failed him. About this episode he
his arrest was imminent. wrote in his autobiography: “I have played
Possibly to defend himself against further around with death, the way I always play
sexual deviations, he began an affair with around, until I become deadly serious.”
the innkeeper’s daughter, which soon had Gradually he began also to make “obser-
consequences. It became known and led to vations” in Radelstetten and felt convinced
his being transferred in December 1902 to that the people of Muehlhausen had com-
a poor, isolated village, Radelstetten, where municated their “knowledge” to the people
he remained for nearly ten years. Even be- at his new location. He could notice it
fore this punitive transfer he had felt that because of certain insinuations and the cc-
he had always been sent to inferior posi- casional arrogance which some allegedly
tions. showed against him. He felt caught in the
old dilemma: there was never a direct state-
Wagner as Husband, Father, ment, but he “heard” pointed remarks
and Teacher containing hints. He knew if he reacted he
would be publicly humiliated.
His future wife gave birth to a girl in the The few times he tried to pin someone
summer of 1903, and he married her (with down, the intent was absolutely denied. So
many inner misgivings) in December 1903. he felt helpless: he had to hide his rage
He felt that he no longer loved her and that and shame under a veneer of contentment,
she was intellectually not his equal; he con- but he was inwardly filled with hatred and
sidered her more a servant than a wife. vengeance. What enraged him most was that
However, his friends and neighbors testified people did not talk about him because they
that he treated her kindly, though she gave morally disapproved his deed; rather, they
him much provocation. She objected to his entertained themselves by talking in this ob-
spending money and time on his literary scene way and in smutty insinuations.
interests. Gradually the conviction ripened that
There were five children; the last died at there was only one way out. He must kill
the age of two months. He was unhappy himself and his children, out of pity to save
about the birth of each child and felt con- them from a future of being the target of
fined by the financial hardship of a large contempt and evil slander and to take re-
family subsisting on the meager income of a venge on the people of Muehlhausen who

Amer. I. Psychiat. 124: 5, November 1967 [149]


had forced him to this horrible deed. his strategy, much like a commander plan-
Throughout his life he adhered to this dis- ning a military action. He kept detailed
tinction. Incredibly painful as it had been diaries on all his plans. But over and over
to kill his loved ones, he considered it an again he shrank away from their execution.
act of mercy. In his biography he spoke of He could not bring himself to kill his
himself as “the angel of pity” who would children, although this was what he con-
save them from malicious insinuations and sidered his inescapable duty. His wife had
a life of disgrace and torture. It was not his to be killed first because she would inter-
own sexual aberration and their also falling fere with his killing the children.
victim to it but the slander that drove him to In 1912 he was transferred to Degerloch,
his deed. At no time did he show the slightest a suburb of Stuttgart, quite remote from
remorse about their deaths: “They were his previous places of activity. He enjoyed
best taken care of when they were dead” the stimulation and cultural activities of the
(6,7). large city. But the need to commit the deed
But he decided they should not die with- became more urgent because here too he
out revenge. Since the men of Muehlhausen could “observe” that people “knew” of his
had started and spread the slander, they crime. There was no place where he could
had to die. In a life that as a whole had find refuge from their contempt; the people
been a series of depressing and frustrating of Muehlhausen had made it impossible for
disappointments, he was grateful that it had him to lead a decent life of work and
been given to him to avenge his terrible tor- orderliness and to gain recognition as a
ture and suffering. He was disappointed to literary figure and great dramatist. In a mys-
learn that he had killed only nine people. tical way he interpreted an earthquake in
Even in 1938, when he knew that death from the summer of 1913 as a warning to his
advanced tuberculosis was imminent, he wife and children that death was hanging
still felt that he had been justified in his over them.
action-that even if he had killed all of
them it would not have balanced the suffer- Wagner as Dramatist
ing that had been inflicted on him.
At times when he was confronted with Since his student days literature had been
irrefutable evidence that nobody had known his great love and avocation. He craved
anything about his aberration or had spoken literary success, not only during the frugal
evil of him, he might be temporarily shaken days and the narrow life of a village school-
in his conviction, but it soon reappeared. master, but even more after he was confined
Shortly before his death, when his physician for life to a mental hospital. He read ex-
asked him whether he recognized now that tensively, and study of his library cards
he had been acting under a delusion when revealed an educated literary taste. At first
he killed all these people, he admitted: “Yes, he wrote poetry, imitating Heinrich Heine,
I know I was sick and that my reasoning whom he also admired for his satirical
was delusional.” Yet a few days earlier he social comments. It is noteworthy that this
had said: “I could not live on the outside was the only part of his life about which he
amongst people. It would be intolerable expressed regret later on, after anti-semitism
torture to hear them talk about me. Even had become an integral part of his delusional
here, in the institution, I heard them talk system(5, 6).
six months ago, that I was a sodomist He turned to drama as more in keeping
[Tierfickerj”(6). with his inner state of mind at about the
Beginning in 1906 or at the latest in same time that he became preoccupied with
1907, he developed a plan for destruction murder. He chose Biblical and historical
and murder which was put into action in themes. He attempted to express his own
September 1913. He collected and carefully preoccupation by dramatizing the suffering
hid weapons and all other objects needed of the Nazarene and Nero’s burning of
for his plan, practiced sharpshooting in re- Rome. These violent dramas served also to
mote parts of the woods, and worked out prepare him for his horrible deed. He felt

[150] Amer. I. Psychiat. 124: 5, November 1967


that his native disposition was soft-hearted, the ninth of ten children (the youngest
not bloodthirsty at all; he could not even see surviving) of an incompetent peasant who
blood without becoming sick. He should was given to excessive drinking and gran-
have carried out his plan much earlier, but diose talking and who died when this child
he felt that he was “too weak.” So he tried was two years old. Due to drinking debts
to retrain himself and wrote homicidal the homestead had to be sold. His mother’s
dramas with gory details, to a large extent second marriage ended in divorce, when he
with the intent of putting himself in the role was seven years old, because she was pro-
of murderer and arsonist. miscuous. He was known in the village as
He spoke of these years of training as a the “widow’s boy” and suffered from de-
continuous hard struggle, with his inner na- pressions, suicidal thoughts, and nightmares.
ture protesting against what he felt was his But it was recognized early that he was
duty and ordained fate. Finally he had in- unusually intelligent and with the aid of a
doctrinated himself to such an extent that public stipend he studied to become a teach-
the execution went “like clockwork, quite er. His passion for literature began during
mechanically.” He acted as though under a his school days.
compulsion, like “having been pushed into During the first few years after his com-
it,” and described his mental state as “apa- mitment to the asylum, he used all his
thetic and excited at the same time”(7). energy to plead for a reopening of his case
During these years he also strove for so that he would be condemned to death
literary recognition. When he could not find and executed. He did not accept his fate
a producer or publisher for his plays, he as unalterable until the director of the hos-
had them printed at his own expense, except pital permitted him to read the extensive
those which even the printer refused as too report of the two psychiatrists(7) in which
blasphemous. During these years his friends the gradual development of his delusionary
and colleagues noted his peculiar behavior system was documented point by point and
when under the influence of alcohol. After the opinion was expressed that his continued
three or four glasses of beer, he seemed to hatred for the inhabitants of Muehlhausen
change completely and became either moody made him dangerous, therefore in need of
or grandiose and loquacious. With great pas- confinement for life. He was depressed about
sion he would talk about his three favorite this, but then wrote to Professor Gaupp to
topics: God and religion (he declared him- apologize for his former abusive language.
self an atheist and would have nothing to When he finally acknowledged that no
do with them); free love, which he ad- retrial was possible and that his wish to
vocated with insulting cynicism; and his great fight at the front (World War I) and to die
dramas, of which he spoke in the highest for his country would not be fulfilled, he
terms. turned again to literature to find relief from
His profession of schoolteacher was not his inner torment. He rewrote some of his
satisfactory to him. He considered himself old poetic works, developed a glowing
in all seriousness as one of the greatest patriotism, and wrote long documents for the
dramatists of his time and spoke with con- High Command. He was deeply depressed
descension of those whose works were per- about Germany’s defeat and took an active
formed. He compared himself to Shakes- interest in later political developments.
peare, Schiller, and Goethe. Occasionally Then followed several years in which it
he would comment that one day he would seemed that the paranoic affect had dimin-
become a famous man and do deeds that ished. He worked studiously on a new drama
would astound the world. Nothing was made which he called “Wahn” (“Delusion”),
of this bragging, since the next day he would based on the life of King Ludwig II of
perform his work in the accustomed quiet Bavaria. He was bitterly disappointed when
and conscientious way. this drama, which he considered his best
Though he never succeeded in having work, was not accepted for stage production,
his work published, his productivity appears and he felt deeply hurt that his work aroused
remarkable. He came from a small village, only the interest of psychiatrists, as the

Amer. I. Psychiat. 124: 5, November 1967 [1511


product of a sick mind, and not that of man, not because he had committed murder
literary persons( 3). and had been declared insane but because
The beginning of a new delusional system he had failed to find acclaim as a literary
can be traced to the fact that a drama by figure. He continued to write until he was
Franz Werfel, which also dealt with the weakened by progressive tuberculosis.
influence of mental illness on human de- He died in 1 938, 64 years of age. At
velopment, was produced in Stuttgart. He autopsy his brain showed no gross pathol-
was convinced that Werfel had stolen it ogy; it was sent for microscopic study to
from his own drama, or that he had based Professor Spatz and no abnormal findings
it on his (Wagner’s) life, or had had access were reported. Wagner had been highly re-
to the court files, etc. His preoccupation spected in the institution where he had spent
that other successful writers had stolen from 25 years after having committed mass mur-
him became more elaborate and was also der. The attendant who had been in closest
retrogressively active. He felt that the movie touch with him summarized his impression:
“Ben Hur,” shown before he had become “He was a good man”(6).
known through his murders, had been based This case is considered a classic in the
on his “Pictures from Ancient Rome,” and German psychiatric literature. It has served
that publication dates in other works had to illustrate that paranoia needs to be con-
been altered to hide the fact that they had sidered separate from dementia praecox-
been plagiarized from his life and works. He that it is not the product of some pathological
suspected, and then confirmed, that Werfel process but the outcome of complex psy-
was Jewish(4, 5, 6). chological reactions( 1, 2, 5, 6). Professor
Gradually he became convinced that there Gaupp, who spent a lifetime trying to under-
was a Jewish conspiracy to deprive him of stand the psychological forces of this man’s
the honest and deserved reward for his background, character, and experiences,
poetic activity. In a fateful way political concluded his series of papers with the
events in Germany intermingled with his statement that in spite of all the efforts to
delusional reasoning. When he learned that follow his mental processes, there remains a
the Jewish lawyer who had defended him part that is beyond human comprehension.
was debarred after Hitler came to power, he
interpreted this as one more proof that this
1.Gaupp, R.: Die wissenschaftliche Bedeutung
Jew had handed over the documents about des Falles Wagner, Munchen. Med. Wschr. 61:
his case to Werfel for exploitation( 5, 6). 633-637, 1914.
He joined the Nazi party in 1929 and *2. Gaupp, R.: Der Fall Wagner: Eine Katamnese,
zugleich em Beitrag zur Lehre von der Para-
took great pride in having been the first in-
noia, Ztschr. f. d. ges. Neurol. u. Psychiat. 60:
mate of his hospital to do so. He followed the 312-327, 1920.
racial decrees and persecution with much af- 3. Gaupp, R.: Die dramatische dichtung eines
fect and self-justification. From a historical Paranoikers den Wahn,
#{252}ber Ztschr. f. d.
perspective there is probably no more chill- ges. Neurol. u. Psychiat. 69:182-210, 1921.
*4 Gaupp, R.: Vom dichterischen Schaffen eines
ing aspect to the lengthy reports on this
Geisteskranken, Jahrb. d. Charakterologie 2/3:
case than a sentence written by Gaupp in 199-225, 1926.
1938: “In his views of the psychic degen- 5. Gaupp, R.: Em Paranoikerschicksal und seine
eration of family and folks he (Wagner) Bedeutung f#{252}r
die Paranoialehre: Kongressre-
port, Tiibingen, Zbl. f. d. ges. Neurol. u. Psy-
has succeeded in clearly perceiving and for-
chiat. 67:514-516, 1933.
mulating many concepts which only today 6. Gaupp, R.: Krankheit und Tod des paranoi-
have found their just recognition, particularly schen Massenm#{246}rders Hauptlehrer Wagner:
in regard to racial hygienic measure”(6, p. Eine Epikrise, Ztschr. f. d. ges. Neurol. u.
80). This was intended to illustrate that Psychiat. 163:48-82, 1938.
Gaupp, R., and Wollenberg, R.: Zur Psycho-
Wagner had remained lucid and logical in logic des Massenmords: Hauptlehrer Wagner
his thinking, except for his delusional sys- von Degerloch. Berlin: Julius Springer, 1914.
tems, and had not become demented.
Even though many of his paranoic no- * These references were made available by Erwin
tions coincided with what had become the W. Straus, M.D., to the Committee of Psychiatric
Factfinders appointed by Governor Connally of
law of the land, Wagner died an embittered Texas to investigate the Whitman case in 1966.
[152] Amer. J. Psychiat. 124: 5. Novemnher 1967