This Strange Trend In 17th & 18th Century Denmark Had People Committing Murder Just To Be Executed

A woman slit the throat of her own baby. A soldier shot a sailor on the street in broad daylight. A mother killed three of her children. These crimes were part of a wave of suicide-murders in the 17th and 18th centuries - a wave that swept through much of Europe but was especially common in Denmark. Insane though it may sound, people used to commit murder just so they could get executed. They even researched what crimes incurred the death penalty to guarantee they would die.

During that time in history, suicide was not only a crime - it also meant your soul would be condemned to Hell for eternity. Unlike people who committed public suicide, suicide-murderers were terrified of killing themselves - and so they committed capital crimes punishable by death. Unlike the suspicious suicides in history, these murderers were upfront about their crime and their motivation. One man even sang on his way to the gallows because he was so happy that he was about to die.

Shockingly, suicide-murders were common at the time for religious reasons, as murderers justified their actions by pointing to Martin Luther himself. And the crime wasn't uncommon - hundreds of people killed others just so they would be executed. How did people justify killing to guarantee their own deaths? And how did Denmark stop the crime wave caused by murderers who wanted to state to execute them? This bizarre and shocking trend was serious enough that it took well over a century to fix.


  • A Mother Killed Her Baby To Escape A Horrible Predicament
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Mother Killed Her Baby To Escape A Horrible Predicament

    On February 25, 1755, Cicilia Johansdatter slit the throat of her four-month-old baby. She didn't try to hide her crime. Instead, she sat with her hands on the dead baby's head, declaring that she would happily die for her crime. After being convicted of murder, Cicilia was decapitated with a sword and her head was stuck on top of a pole.

    Why did Cicilia kill her child? She was a 22-year-old housemaid, an unwed mother at a time when there was a strong stigma against having a child out of wedlock. Her fiance had stopped visiting; the engagement was off. But Cicilia was still trapped with a young baby. She was suicidal, but if she committed the act herself, she would be condemned to Hell. So Cicilia killed her child and happily walked to her execution.

    As shocking as this sounds, she wasn't the only person committing suicide-murder.

  • Christianity Has A Long History Of Condemning Suicide
    Photo: Gustave Doré / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Christianity Has A Long History Of Condemning Suicide

    Medieval Christians agreed: people who committed suicide were damned to an eternity of suffering in Hell. Before the word "suicide" was coined in 1651, it was called self-murder, and like other forms of murder the penalties were harsh. In antiquity, suicide had been met with understanding, but the Christian condemnation of suicide dated back to at least the sixth century. "He that kills another [may only kill]... his body, but he that kills himself kills his own soul," theologians argued, stating that suicide was even worse than murder. Canon law even made it illegal to give suicide victims Christian burials.

    Dante's Inferno similarly declares that violence against self is worse than violence against others. Victims of suicide are condemned to live as twisted trees, deprived of the bodies they harmed on earth.

  • Most Suicide-Murderers Killed Children
    Photo: Theodor Hildebrandt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Most Suicide-Murderers Killed Children

    As suicide-murderers looked around for people to kill, they most often chose children as their victims. Three-quarters of the victims identified by scholar Tyge Krogh were children under the age of 10. Many were killed by their own suicidal parents. Most of the dead children were killed by slitting their throats, while others were thrown into the canals of Copenhagen. And most of the murderers were women.

    There was another twisted benefit to murdering children: child-killers were more likely to get the death penalty, guaranteeing that the suicidal murderer would get his or her wish.

  • Martin Luther Started The Suicide-Murder Trend
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Martin Luther Started The Suicide-Murder Trend

    Martin Luther was a religious reformer who split the Catholic church by founding the first Protestant denomination, which was named after him: Lutheranism. But in promoting a new theology, Luther created the twisted trend of suicide-murders that would sweep through Europe's Lutheran countries, especially Denmark. 

    As scholar Tyge Krogh explains in A Lutheran Plague: Murdering to Die in the Eighteenth Century, Luther promoted a very literal interpretation of the Old Testament. The text was clear: the punishment for murder was the death penalty. But murderers who repented their sins could be saved from eternal damnation. The result was hundreds and perhaps even thousands of cases of suicide-murders in Denmark alone. Krogh found 100 cases in less than 100 years just within the city of Copenhagen.

  • Laws Against Suicide Were Incredibly Harsh, Too
    Photo: Paolo Veronese / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Laws Against Suicide Were Incredibly Harsh, Too

    In addition to the religious prohibition on suicide, there were also harsh laws against suicide by the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1554, when Sir James Hales, an English judge, committed suicide after Queen Mary's government forced him to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, he was seen as a criminal. The state declared: "the forfeiture of the goods and chattels, real and personal, of Sir James shall have relation to the act done in his lifetime." In other words, the English Crown seized all of his property.

    England legally classified suicide as a crime starting in the 10th century. By the 14th, courts commonly seized the property of suicide victims. The justification - the punishment would prevent suicides - was rooted in the idea that suicide was a crime against the state: "The king hath lost a subject... [and had] his peace broken."

  • The Gallows Were Better Than Suicide Because You Could Repent
    Photo: Pieter Brueghel the Elder / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Gallows Were Better Than Suicide Because You Could Repent

    Murder was against the law, too, of course. The penalty for committing murder was almost always death by execution. But there was one big difference between murder and suicide in the minds of 17th-century Europeans. Murderers could beg forgiveness for their crimes just before death. Repenting before being executed meant that even a murderer could go straight to Heaven instead of Hell.

    People who committed suicide had no "get out of Hell free" card - you couldn't repent suicide before killing yourself. For centuries, many Europeans justified committing murder in order to save their own souls - even if it meant killing an innocent person.