1912: Spree Killer Captured

September 1, 1912 – In the woods near the Swiss town of Romanshorn, fugitive Hermann Schwartz (24) was apprehended after a wild two-day shooting spree (August 30 and 31). He had shot over 100 rounds, killing 7 people and seriously wounding 6 others.

It’s a century-old story we have here, but one disturbingly similar to some very recent tragedies. History does not always change very much.

In 1912, this Swiss rampage killing immediately made international headlines. The local photographer in Romanshorn was smart enough to sell a picture with the infamous killer’s portrait – and a marker for the exact location where, after a manhunt with bloodhounds and a final shootout, he had been overpowered:

Hermann Schwartz


Schwartz was an ex-soldier with known psychiatric problems. He grew up as a roaming kid without a father, and in his school years already got a reputation for being difficult, ill-tempered and unbalanced. People said that as a child, he used to torture animals (but perhaps this villainous touch was added to the story in retrospect). As a member of a paramilitary club, he always carried a weapon.

Shortly before the fatal events, on August 26, he had been ready to take part as a reservist in a military exercise. But his sister had been concerned about him: she warned the authorities that she thought he was mentally not well enough to go through with that. When the regimental doctor indeed judged him unfit for military duties, Schwartz had completely freaked out.

Still, when they sent him back home, somehow people let him take both his service pistol and his military rifle with him.


The shooting was triggered when four days later, on August 30, a policeman went to see Schwartz after complaints about him harassing a local woman. In the ensuing brawl, Schwartz shot a butcher’s boy who tried to interfere.

For the next two days, beleaguered by security forces, he kept shooting from his first-floor windows at everyone who moved in the street. Then, having killed six, he escaped into the woods (where he killed one more of the party hunting for him).

Below is an Austrian newspaper article from September 1, 1912, detailing events hot-from-the-press while Schwartz was still on the loose. The header reads “Terrible Bloodbath by an Insane”. The article stressed that we had to do with a complete madman who seemed to have suddenly lost his mind.

Hermann Schwartz in the news

After his arrest that same day, Schwartz had to be protected from a furious mob intent on lynching him.


After the killing, Schwartz was extensively examined by several psychiatrists who judged unanimously he was suffering from severe mental illness: most likely something like “dementia”, or in today’s terms, schizophrenia. On their recommendation, in his trial he was quickly found to be not guilty because of insanity. The verdict implied that he should be locked up in an asylum for life.

And this is indeed what was done.

Schwartz was put in the psychiatric clinic of Münsterlingen, at the shore of the Bodensee lake near Konstanz. In the early-1900s picture postcard below, it’s the huge walled compound: everything at the other side of the railway line.

Münsterlingen Irrenanstalt (Psychiatric Clinic) about 1900

We’ve already seen a few more times here how some people will live to a very old age in a psychiatric clinic, spending decades there. This certainly goes for Schwartz. He died in the clinic in 1971, at the age of 83.

I would like to know exactly how he was treated during his almost 60 years as a psychiatric patient in the clinic. Was he cured, to some extent? Did he settle down, in some way? Or was he just kept dulled and numb by heavy sedation, as was done so often with schizophrenics at that time?

Unfortunately I could find no information about all this. It looks like once he was safely locked away, people lost interest. They all were fascinated by what this man had done in a few days of terror – not by the long remainder of his life. Even though that remainder was tragic as well, in a different way.


  • The above newspaper clipping is from the Vienna newspaper Die Neue Zeitung, September 1, 1912, archived online at the site of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.
  • There is a very brief “Romanshorn shooting” Wikipedia entry with references that show that in September 1912 main American newspapers also reported about it.
  • The psychiatric clinic of Münsterlingen is still operating at the same location today. The old postcard that shows the asylum in Schwartz’s time is from a Swiss newspaper article about another topic: the history of illegal medication trials in this clinic (later, in the 1950s).
    Source article: Brutalität war an der Tagesordnung, in the online newspaper St. Galler Tagblatt, January 15, 2013. Perhaps I will get back to this unrelated topic some other time.


1996: Christine Pascal

August 30, 1996 – Suicide of French movie actress Christine Pascal (42). She killed herself by jumping from a window of the psychiatric clinic at Garches, near Paris, where she had been admitted five days before because of serious depression.

Christine Pascal

Pascal was a prominent, successful, and well-loved figure in the French movie scene. She worked not just as an actress (playing since 1974 in at least 25 French movies, with directors such as Bertrand Tavernier) but she also wrote scripts and directed films herself.

One of her own films was the prize-winning Le Petit prince a dit (1992) about an estranged couple whose child is dying from cancer.

In several of her films autobiographical elements or psychological difficulties formed a main theme: expressed, for example, in the ever-problematic clash between our sudden sexual impulses and our deeper love emotions.

A very sensitive person herself, Pascal was also known for her depressions and suicidal tendencies. When in 1984 an interviewer asked her the question – a really dumb question, in my opinion – how she would prefer to die, she bluntly replied: “By killing myself, when the time has come”.

Christine PascalChristine Pascal in the 1977 movie Des Enfants Gatés
(scripted by Bertrand Tavernier and herself)

Court Case

Pascal’s tragic death led to a remarkable court case. It turned out that in the days before her death the depressed actress had openly told several people in the psychiatric clinic, including nurses, that she was thinking about killing herself. Her husband, Robert Boner, held the clinic partly responsible for her death. He sued them for negligence.

When in March 2003 the judge came to a verdict, the clinic’s director was acquitted. But one of the clinic’s psychiatrists, Daniel Tap, was actually sentenced to 1 year in jail (suspended) and a fine of €10,000 for having done too little to prevent Pascal’s suicide.

The fundamental issues involved here make this a very interesting case indeed. One of the obvious questions is: can we sentence a clinical psychiatrist for, apparently, having underestimated the risk of suicide in one of his patients? Not surprisingly, right after the verdict the psychiatrist’s lawyer announced he would appeal.

Unfortunately, even after a lot of searching, I could not find out if this appeal actually came through, and if eventually this resulted in some change of the original verdict. So if you, my reader, happen to know how this case ended, please do tell us: add a comment.


The clinic at GarchesMain building of the psychiatric clinic at Garches


1905: Mary Jane Ward

The Snake Pit

August 27, 1905 – Birth date of American writer Mary Jane Ward.

Mary Jane Ward

In 1941, after a complete mental breakdown and a perhaps mistaken schizophrenia diagnosis, she was treated for eight months in the Rockland State Hospital, Orangeburg, New York.

In this asylum she got the full treatments menu: from the already old-fashioned hot baths or straitjackets, to the then-modern electroshocks, to the then still-primitive narcotic drugs, to the gentler alternative of psychoanalytic therapy sessions.

Exactly which one of these approaches did the trick is not quite clear, but eventually she was considered cured (more or less) and released.


In 1946 Ward published her third novel: The Snake Pit. In fact this was the highly autobiographic story of her terrifying stay in the asylum… and of how she there, for a while, almost fell in love with the psychiatrist who treated her.

A first edition of The Snake Pit

The book’s blurb explained the title:

Long ago men tried to shock the insane back into sanity by throwing them into a snake pit – a drastic treatment which by its sudden terror was sometimes successful. Modern methods, though superficially more civilized, often rely on the same brutal shock to achieve their results.

The Snake Pit offered not just a story and dialogs. It had very factual descriptions of asylum life, such as the cleaning chores assigned to female patients. Here is a quote about the asylum meals:

The routine of Ward Five was similar to what you had known in other wards. You bathed, that is, you were permitted to share a shower twice a week. Once a week you were fine-combed and once a week you could put in a store order. If you had credit at the store.
You had three meals a day. At breakfast there always was a bowl of glutinous cereal. At dinner there was a bowl of pale-brown stew, also sticky. At supper there was another sort of stew, but without the shreds of meat sometimes found in the noon mixture. The desserts were cottage puddings and custards and sometimes jello; on Sunday there was ice cream.
You assumed that the food was nutritious; there could be no other reason for serving it.
You were weighed once a week. After dinner. If you forgot what day was weighing day you could tell by the meal. Weighing-day dinner was always the biggest of the week. Virginia ate more bread and drank more water on that day. Dr. Kik and Robert had said she must gain weight.

The book immediately became a huge success. It also inspired others. According to some, reading this book was one of the experiences that stimulated Sylvia Plath to write her famous The Bell Jar (1963).


Within two years Ward’s book was made into a prize-winning Hollywood movie: The Snake Pit (1948) with Olivia de Havilland in the main role. Although inevitably it was meant to be a movie with a romantic storyline, efforts were made to reflect asylum reality as well as possible.

Movie poster for The Snake Pit

In preparation for her role De Havilland visited asylums, mingling with patients and closely watching therapies. Many scenes of the film were shot in an actual asylum: the Camarillo State Mental Hospital in California.


It has often been said that The Snake Pit, both the book and the movie, had such an impact that they contributed to reforms in American psychiatric hospitals. But I must note that it’s not at all clear to what extent this is actually true. Statements like this are a little hard to prove, anyway.

Perhaps a more important effect was that the book and film showed to a wide public that psychiatric patients were in fact just human beings, like you and me.

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake PitOlivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit              

During the rest of her life, Mary Jane Ward was hospitalized three more times for mental problems. She wrote five more novels, two of them with psychiatric themes. None of them would equal the success of The Snake Pit, however.

She died in 1981 at the age of 75.


  • 1940s drugs example: according to descriptions in The Snake Pit, one of the nastiest drugs Ward was forced to drink in the asylum was the strong and stomach-upsetting sedative paraldehyde.
  • Of the two asylums mentioned here, the Rockland State Hospital where Ward was admitted in 1941 does still exist, in the same imposing building: today it is the Rockland Psychiatric Center.
  • The Camarillo State Mental Hospital, the location for most of the film, closed down in 1997. Today some of its original 1930s structure is in use as a university building. See Wikipedia.
  • The Snake Pit is still under copyright, so you cannot yet download it as a free e-book. You can buy various print editions of The Snake Pit at Amazon, though.
  • In case you wonder: I myself certainly like Ward’s Snake Pit as a book, but as a literary achievement, I must say I like Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar much better.


1881: a Medal for Preventing Suicide

August 26, 1881 – This day, on the deck of the USS Leyden off the coast near Boston, Navy sailor Michael Thornton (25) saw a depressed fellow sailor jump overboard in a suicide attempt.

He jumped after him and saved his life, struggling to keep him afloat until a lifeboat could be lowered.

Medal of Honor (Navy version)Medal of Honor (Navy version)

It’s not unique for people to intervene in suicide attempts – and often, though sadly not always, after a while the rescued person will begin to feel grateful. But it’s fairly unique to get the highest American military medal, the Medal of Honor, for saving someone from suicide.

To put this in another way, between 1861 and today some 3,500 Medals of Honor were awarded – most of them for heroism in war situations. This might well be the only one for preventing a suicide.

Thornton received his medal three years later by General Order of the War Department, October 18, 1884:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Seaman Michael Thornton, United States Navy, for gallant and heroic conduct in jumping overboard from the U.S. Tug Leyden, near Boston, Massachusetts, 26 August 1881, and sustaining until picked up, Seaman Michael Drennan, Landsman, who had jumped overboard while temporarily insane.

Also Saved From Oblivion

We know nothing else about Michael Thornton, except that he was born in 1856 in Ireland. We don’t have a photo of him; we don’t even know when and where he died.

And we know even less about Michael Drennan, the “temporarily insane” sailor who tried to kill himself.

Thornton not just saved Drennan from suicide: his subsequent Medal of Honor also saved both of them from complete oblivion. If this award had not been recorded in the military archives, they (and what had happened that day) would have been utterly forgotten.

Footnote: the USS Leyden

USS Leyden (1898)The USS Leyden (the biggest one, in the middle) in 1898

The tug boat USS Leyden, built in 1865, would see real action when it got involved in two naval battles near Cuba, in the 1898 Spanish-American War.

As it happened, the ship gave cause for more Medals of Honor. In January 1903 it sank off Block Island, near the Rhode Island coast, in a dense fog. After the foundering, four of its crew (a seaman, the quartermaster, a fireman and the chief machinist) each got the Medal of Honor “for heroism at the time of the wreck of that vessel”: see Wikipedia.


1990: Judas Priest Acquitted

Killer Music?

August 24, 1990 – At the conclusion of a weird three-week Nevada court trial, this day the English heavy-metal band Judas Priest was found not guilty of having caused the 1985 suicide of two of their fans in the town of Sparks, near Reno.

Raymond Belknap and James Vance

There, Raymond Belknap (18, photo left) and James Vance (20, photo right) had tried to shoot themselves with a shotgun after listening to the 1978 Judas Priest album Stained Class during a beer-and-marijuana binge. Both young men were high-school dropouts with a complicated background: a history of drug abuse, some violence and psychiatric problems, and a fascination for guns.

Belknap killed himself instantly. Vance survived, but with a horribly disfigured face. He died three years later in a hospital where he had been admitted for depression. The cause of his death was a possibly suicidal overdose of painkillers that sent him into an irreversible coma.


In court the parents of Belknap and Vance, desperately looking for someone to blame for this awful tragedy, alleged that the Judas Priest song Better By You, Better Than Me contained a “subliminal do-it message” that had incited the two young men to commit suicide.

Their attorneys also referred to a statement by Vance himself. He died before the trial began, but had declared that while listening to Judas Priest “all of a sudden we got a suicide message, and we got tired of life.”

After the trial, one of the acquitted band members said in an interview that if they had really wanted to put a hidden message in a song, then of course it would not be a message to make their fans kill themselves, but rather to get their fans to buy more albums.

The Song

I must confess I’m not really a heavy-metal fan, but here is the disputed song (and its lyrics) so you can judge it for yourself. According to some, the supposed hidden suicide message could be heard better when playing the song backwards – I’m not going to do that for you.

Stained Class album by Judas Priest

Judas Priest – Better By You, Better Than Me

The Lyrics

you could find a way to ease my passion
you listen to the blood flow in my veins
you hear the teaching of the wind
tell her why I’m alive within
i can’t find the words
my mind is dead
it’s better by you better than me
guess you’ll have to tell her how I tried
to speak up thoughts I’ve held so inside
tell her now I got to go
out in the streets and down the shore
tell her the world’s not much living for
it’s better by you better than me
everybody knows
everybody knows
better by you better than me
you can tell what I want it to be
you can say what I only can see
it’s better by you better than me
guess I’ll have to change my way of living
don’t wanna really know the way I feel
guess I’ll learn to fight and kill
tell her not to wait until
they’ll find my blood upon her windowsill
it’s better by you better than me
everybody knows
everybody knows
better by you better than me
you can say what I only can see
you can tell what I want it to be
it’s better by you better than me
better by you better than me
you can tell what I want it to be
you can say what all they can see
better by you better than me


  • This song Better By You, Better Than Me from the 1978 Stained Class album was in fact no Judas Priest original, but their cover of a 1969 rock song by the English band Spooky Tooth.
  • After a hiatus between 1993-2003, the Judas Priest band is still active and productive. Their last album, Redeemer of Souls, came out last month (July 2014). Here is a link to their website: judaspriest.com.


1893: Dorothy Parker

August 22, 1893 – Birth date of American writer, poet, and satirist Dorothy Parker (born Rothschildt).

Dorothy Parker

Especially in the 1920s and 1930s she was a prominent author with her theater reviews, poetry and short stories, working for the Vanity Fair and New Yorker magazines. She became known for her wisecracks, her sometimes biting sarcasm and sharp jokes, both in- and outside her work. Initially she was also notorious for her turbulent love life.

Later she also became a prominent left-wing political and civil rights activist; she was one of the suspects in the early-1950s McCarthy anti-communist craze.

Perhaps partly under the influence of her last husband, Alan Campbell (an actor-screenwriter who was an alcoholic) in the 1950s she developed alcoholism problems herself. She had already been suffering from depressions for most of her life. At times, she used to refer to her suicidal tendencies in almost cynical or self-mocking ways.

Dorothy Parker

In all, Parker survived four suicide attempts: the first one was in 1923, by slashing her wrists after an abortion (most of her work would not exist if this attempt had succeeded).

In 1963 her on-and-off partner Alan Campbell ended his own life. Parker herself would die in 1967 from a heart attack, at the age of 74.

She left her estate to Martin Luther King, which explains why the last resting place of her ashes is now a memorial garden outside the Baltimore headquarters of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The memorial stone mentions that for her epitaph, she had suggested “Excuse My Dust”.


Dorothy Parker stampParker’s writings have always kept an appealing freshness without ever getting old-fashioned: she always remained a very popular author.

Even the federal government, that once suspected her of communist “un-American activities”, came to respect her. This postage stamp in her honor is from 1992. I think she herself would have mercilessly commented on its ugliness…

As a fitting conclusion, I cannot resist quoting her very well-known 1926 suicide poem Resumé:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.


  • There are scores of websites devoted to Parker and her writings, such as the one of The Dorothy Parker Society.
  • Much of Parker’s work can be read online or downloaded as an e-book. The External Links section of the Dorothy Parker Wikipedia page lists several online collections of her work.
  • If you just want to read a few of her poems, I recommend the Dorothy Parker page at the Poetry Foundation website.


1947: the Nuremberg Code

August 20, 1947 – This was the day when the judges of the international Nuremberg Court gave their verdict in the “Doctors Trial” against Nazi doctors who had conducted euthanasia killings or gruesome medical experiments with concentration camp prisoners. Several of the 23 defendants came off with acquittal or a prison term, but 7 of them got the death penalty.

As one out of these 7 worst ones, let’s highlight SS doctor Karl Gebhardt, who was 49 at the time of the verdict. This photo shows him in 1936 on the grounds of his Hohenlychen clinic:

Karl Gebhardt

In the course of wartime experiments with new antibiotics (sulfonamide) our kind doctor Gebhardt had hundreds of concentration camp inmates deliberately wounded and then infected.

To simulate battlefield wounds he had female prisoners shot in ways that were not yet lethal right away; he had the bones of male prisoners broken with a heavy hammer. Things like wood splinters or pus solutions were pressed into the wounds to cause inflammation. Most of his involuntary “research subjects” died after terrible sufferings.

On June 2, 1948 (less than a year after the death verdict) Gebhardt and the six others were executed by hanging in the Bavarian Landsberg Prison.

Nuremberg Code

During this Nuremberg Doctors Trial, some of the accused had tried to defend themselves by saying there was no formal rule differentiating between legal and illegal medical research methods. The judges had no option but to recognize this argument, although they were able to condemn most defendants on other grounds.

To address the legal gap, the verdict also introduced the Nuremberg Code stating 10 essential criteria for future medical research using human subjects.

Many countries came to accept this code as the basic legal requirement to be met in any medical experiments with human beings. For example, indirectly (via the so-called Helsinki Declaration) it was integrated in the United States Department of Health regulations.

Here is a very brief summary of this still-valid 1947 Nuremberg Code:


  1. Required is the voluntary, well-informed, understanding consent of the human subject in a full legal capacity.
  2. The experiment should aim at positive results for society that cannot be procured in some other way.
  3. It should be based on previous knowledge (like, an expectation derived from animal experiments) that justifies the experiment.
  4. The experiment should be set up in a way that avoids unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injuries.
  5. It should not be conducted when there is any reason to believe that it implies a risk of death or disabling injury.
  6. The risks of the experiment should be in proportion to (that is, not exceed) the expected humanitarian benefits.
  7. Preparations and facilities must be provided that adequately protect the subjects against the experiment’s risks.
  8. The staff who conduct or take part in the experiment must be fully trained and scientifically qualified.
  9. The human subjects must be free to immediately quit the experiment at any point when they feel physically of mentally unable to go on.
  10. Likewise, the medical staff must stop the experiment at any point when they observe that continuation would be dangerous.


Why is this 1947 Nuremberg Code an item here, in the history of mental health? Because it was, and still is, a bit problematic in a mental health research setting. Especially with respect to the all-important point 1.

As an example, take the not-uncommon scenario where a pharmaceutical company wants to test a new experimental antipsychotic drug with a group of subjects who suffer from severe schizophrenia. Or to test a new experimental antidepressant with a group of subjects who are seriously, clinically depressed… you can fill in other examples for yourself.

Pharmaceutical Testing

To what extent can we be sure that the consent of these mentally ill patients to partake in such a drug experiment is fully voluntary, well-informed, and understanding all the risks?

The answer is that probably, we cannot always be sure. Meaning that when it comes to doing drug or other therapy experiments in the mental health sphere, researchers may sometimes have to make a difficult choice.

They can either conduct the experiment with less ill, clearly consenting but also less suitable subjects. Or they can introduce, explain and conduct the experiment as best as possible with more targeted mentally ill subjects: this may not fully conform to the “understanding consent” clause of the Nuremberg Code.

Based on my own informal contacts with both academics and mental patients, my personal impression is that when it comes to using fully consenting human subjects in mental health research experiments, the Nuremberg Code is sometimes interpreted more in a liberal than in a literal way.

If this is a good or a bad thing, needs to remain a continuing point of debate.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 146 other followers

%d bloggers like this: