Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #97 Michelsen 1996 “Von Kaufleuten, Waisenknaben und Frauen in Männerkleidern: Sodomie im Hamburg des 18. Jahrhunderts”

Full citation: 

Michelsen, Jakob. 1996. “Von Kaufleuten, Waisenknaben und Frauen in Männerkleidern: Sodomie im Hamburg des 18. Jahrhunderts” in Zeitschrift für Sexualforschung 9: 226-27.

I confess that in reviewing material for this project I've had one major point of laziness and have stuck to publications in English. In many cases, this means I'm dealing with tertiary sources that summarize non-English research, especially when dealing with analysis of legal and historic records. German is one of the few languages I feel competent to read for research purposes, so I will make bold to include the occasional publication in that language.

* * *

The author is looking through 18th century civic records from Hamburg, Germany for data about same-sex relationships, primarily in legal contexts. The majority of the article covers male topics, but one particular example involving women is explored in some depth. The case of Ilsabe Bunck and Maria Cäcilia Jürgens initially appears in legal contexts, but later became sensationalized and is often treated in a moralizing or voyeuristic way.

Ilsabe Bunck lived for quite some time as a man using the name “Jungfer Hinrich”, serving as a soldier and twice marrying another woman. In 1802 she was executed for sodomy, among other charges, although the other charges seem to have been decisive in the severity of the penalty. Her initial motive seems to have been economic, as taking on a male presentation enabled her to enlist in the military. The author notes another similar example from Hamburg, Catharin Rosenbrock who served as a soldier for 12 years before returning to living as a woman in 1684.

Cross-dressing wasn’t necessarily associated with same-sex relationships, but it created the possibility for them. In some cases, the relationships may have been part of the disguise, however in some cases a sexual relationship was clearly involved. The case of Catharina Margaretha Linck is noted, whose life held several parallels to Ilsabe Bunck. Catharina had an adventurous life, serving as a soldier and marrying a woman named Catharina Margaretha Muhlhahn. In court testimony it was noted that the two had sexual relations using a leather dildo, and Linck described her desire for women very vividly: “During intercourse, when it was most intense, her veins, arms and legs tingled.”

Anna Ilsabe Bunck was married twice. She lived with her first wife, Maria Cäcilia Jürgens, for two years. The relationship ended when Ilsabe believed Maria to be involved with a man and became intensely jealous. Shortly after, she married her second wife, Anna Elisabeth Paust. In both cases, she performed sexually using an artificial penis made of leather or fabric, however all parties gave contradictory evidence on this during the trial. Ilsabe initially testified that she had been bewitched while in a brothel and had a real penis, which raised the question of whether she was a “hermaphrodite” (i.e., intersex) or had an enlarged clitoris. But then she said it had disappeared shortly after her arrest, or had fallen off a few years earlier. This version of the story seems to have been designed to convince the court that she had been a “true” man and therefore was not guilty of sodomy.

In addition to the physical relationship, there was evidence of a strong emotional component to Ilsabe’s role, as shown in her jealousy toward her first wife and the three letters she sent her after leaving. They alternated between asking for an official separation so that she, Ilsabe, could be free, and asking for a meeting to discuss it. The tone alternated between jealousy, anger, and renewed love, first pleading from her heart, and then threatening that her ghost would haunt Cäcilia day and night after death if she is refused.

The question of whether Ilsabe’s relationships fell under the sodomy laws hinged around whether penetration was involved, by whatever means. Other sexual activities between women were not considered sodomy, as such, and were not taken seriously. For that reason, legal proceedings of sodomy against women were rare and almost always involved one woman living as a man and having penetrative sex using a dildo. Such cases involved complex problems of definition and the arguments were often confusing. However if a finding were made for sodomy, the penalties in the Hamburg records were just as heavy for women as for men.

Ilsabe's sentencing mentioned sodomy, but her execution was justified by further offenses. In particular, she, Cäcilia and an apothecary named Johann Friedrich Jähner were accused of the murder of a woman whose headless body was found a few months before Ilsabe’s arrest. Subsequently, the body was identified as a peasant woman named Margreth Riecken, who had left her husband and lived for a time with Ilsabe in Hamburg and then disappeared. A close reading of the records suggests that the murder story was based on “confessions” extracted by torture. The defense identified numerous contradictions in the allegations but the court ignored these objections and proceeded with the execution. The three defendants were killed on January 23, 1702. The bodies of Ilsabe and Cäcilia were subsequently burned, in accordance with the accusations of sodomy and witchcraft, and Jähner’s body was broken on the wheel.

The article continues with a consideration of the contradictory attitudes towards female cross-dressing. It was seen as positive to the extent that the woman was taking on “manly” characteristics, but as negative to the extent that she usurped male privileges. An example from the 17th century is Queen Christina of Sweden, who enjoyed dressing in male clothing and was often described as “manly”. She was hailed as a “new Minerva”, but was also the subject of politically motivated accusations of having sexual relations with women. Although these were not proven, Christina had a very close, affectionate relationship with her maid-of-honor Ebba Sparre, which may well have been sexual.

Christina was protected to a large extent by aristocratic privilege. On the other end of the scale was a maidservant Greta who was noted as romantically pursuing other women and having a “masculine affect”. She was examined on suspicion of being a hermaphrodite but found to appear entirely female. Despite continuing harassment over her behavior, she was never tried for sodomy lived to a natural death.

Ilsabe’s neighbors and friends must have been aware of her disguise and not reported it to the authorities. There was one occasion when she came in women’s clothing to a woman who knew her from her time with Cäcillia who asked her about “your two women”, indicating that she was aware of Ilsabe’s gender role change and of her two marriages. Ilsabe’s downfall came from a motive of revenge: the arrest was at the behest of her second wife, Elisabeth, who had separated from Ilsabe after Ilsabe had seriously injured her with a knife during a fight. After this, Ilsabe’s neighbors turned against her. Songs published on the occasion of her execution held up her cross-dressing as a precursor to the further misdeeds she was accused of.

Time period: 

Add new comment