Secondary Source Document – Women’s Rights

Read this secondary document, “Prostitution, Corporal Punishment and Liberalism in Germany,” in order to get background on women’s roles in Modern History.

706       CHAPTER 22 Ideological Conflict and National Unification, 1815-1871


Prostitution, Corporal Punishment, and
liberalism in Germany

In March 1822 municipal authorities in the north-
ern German city of Bremen arrested Gesche
Rudolph, a poor, uneducated 25-year-old woman
for engaging in prostitution without registering
with the police. Ever since the days when troops
from five different European states had occupied
her neighborhood, Rudolph had been selling her
sexual services as her only form of livelihood.
After her arrest she was not given a formal trial,
but was summarily expelled from the city and
banned from ever returning. Unable to earn a liv-
ing through prostitution in a village outside the
city, where she resided with a brother who physi-
cally abused her, Rudolph returned to the city,
where she was arrested once again for prostitu-
tion. This time she was sentenced to 50 strokes of
the cane and six weeks in jail, after which she was
once again expelled from the city. Returning
again to Bremen, she was arrested in a drunken
stupor in a whorehouse and subjected to a
harsher sentence of three months’ imprisonment
and 150 strokes before another expulsion. This
pattern of arrest, punishment, expulsion, and
return occurred repeatedly during the next two
decades, with the number of strokes rising to 275
and the period of imprisonment to six years. Dur-
ing a portion of her prison sentence she was
given only bread and water for nourishment.

Rudolph’s arrest in 1845 at the end of a six-
year imprisonment and her subsequent expulsion
and return to Bremen led to the appointment of
a liberal lawyer, Georg Wilhelm Croninq, to rep-
resent her. After reviewing her case and calculat-
ing that she had been whipped a total of 893
times and imprisoned for a cumulative period of
18 years, Gronlnq appealed her sentence to the
senate of Bremen on the grounds that her treat-
ment was not only futile but immoral. His a~al
addressed an issue that went far beyond this par-
ticular case or even the prosecution of the crime

of prostitution. Croninq’s action raised the con-
troversial issue of the legitimacy and value of cor-
poral punishment, an issue that divided liberals
and conservatives, who had. different notions of

Until the eighteenth century the penal sys-
tems of Europe had prescribed corporal punish-
ments, administered publicly, for most crimes.
These punishments ranged from whippings and
placement in the stocks for minor offenses to
mutilation, hanging, and decapitation for
felonies. They were justified mainly on the
grounds that they provided retribution for the
crime and deterred the criminal and those who
witnessed the punishment from committing fur-
ther crimes. These two main functions of retribu-
tion and deterrence are the same functions that
capital punishment allegedly serves today. Cor-
poral punishments were also intended to humili-
ate the criminal by violating the integrity of the
body and subjecting the prisoner to the mockery
and sometimes the maltreatment of the crowd.
The torture of suspects to obtain evidence also
served some of these functions, although judicial
torture took place during the trial, not as part of
the sentence.

The entire system of corporal punishment and
torture came under attack during the eighteenth
century. Prussia abolished torture in 1754, and
the Prussian General Law Code of 1794 elimi-
nated many forms of corporal punishment. This
code reflected the concern of Enlightenment
thinkers that all such assaults on the body were
inhumane and denied the moral dignity of the
individual. Because most of the people who
incurred corporal punishment were poor, the sys·
tem also violated the liberal principle of equality
before the law.

Despite these efforts at reform, the illegal
administration of corporal punishment by pub-
lic and private authorities continued in Prussia
and the other German states. Conservatives,


A man receives the sixth of thirty lashes in 1872.

who had a different notion of justice from that
of liberals, defended these sentences. For them
any reference to natural rights and human dig-
nity were “axioms derived from abstract philan-
thropic speculation.” The president of the
Prussian police, lulius Baron von Minutoli,
expressing the conservative position on the
issue, claimed that corporal punishment was
more effective than imprisonment in preventing
crime, as it alone could instill terror in the

It was apparent that in the case of Gesche
Rudolph, 893 strokes had not instilled terror in
her or deterred her from her crime. The Senate
made the young woman Croninq’s ward and
suspended her sentence. Groninq arranged

for Rudolph to live in the countryside under

the strict supervision of a competent country-
man. This compromise solution at least broke
the cycle of expulsion, return, and punishment
that had failed to reform her. We do not

know whether she gave up her life of

Ideological Encounters in Europe, 1815-1848   707

Soon after Gesche Rudolph
became Groninq’s ward, the liberal
critics of corporal punishment in
Germany celebrated a victory. King
Frederick William IV of Prussia for-
mally abolished the practice in May
1848. Shortly thereafter the Frank-
furt Parliament included freedom
from physical punishment by the
state in its Declaration of the Basic
Rights of the German People. Most
German states and municipalities,
including Bremen, wrote this right
into law in 1849. The failure of the
Frankfurt Parliament, however, and
the more general failure of liberalism

in Germany after 1849 led to a
strong conservative campaign to
reinstate corporal punishment in the
1850s. They succeeded only in main-
taining corporal punishment within

the family, on manorial estates, and in the pris-
ons. Liberalism had not succeeded in com-
pletely establishing its standard of justice, but it
did end exposure to public shame as a punish-
ment for crime.

For Discussion

  1. Why did liberals object to corporal
  2. In addition to inflicting physical pain,
    corporal punishment produces social
    shame. What is the difference between
    social shame and legal guilt? In what ways
    does shame still play a role in punishments

Taking It Further

Evans, Richard. Tales from the German Under-
world: Crime and Punishment in the Nine-
th Century. 1998. Provides a full
account of the prosecution of Gesche