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.
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.
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.
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 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.