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:
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.
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.
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.