On January 28, 1869, Maria Steinecke, an unmarried, wealthy woman in her late sixties, died in her room in a hotel in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was not long before rumors began to circulate that Dr. Paul Schoeppe, a physician in his twenties, recent immigrant from Prussia and reportedly the lover of the elderly woman, may have caused her demise. When an autopsy of the body revealed traces of poison, the local authorities arrested the man on the charge of murder in the first degree. The accused was found guilty and punished with death. The date of execution was set for December 22, 1869.
My interest in the case was sparked when I came across a scrapbook in the archives of the German Society of Pennsylvania. In it were dozens of clippings from late nineteenth century German-American newspapers, all dealing with the trial of Paul Schoeppe. Additional research revealed that the case, and the accused, attracted national attention for several years. Indeed, it was even reported in the European press. I asked myself: Why did this particular murder trial arouse so much interest? What was it about the accused that motivated thousands of people to champion his cause? And what did the evidently passionate debates surrounding this criminal case reveal about American society in the post-Civil War period?
I published some of my research in the Journal of the Civil War Era 5 (1), (March 2015), pp. 97-125. The article, “German-Americans, Nativism, and the Tragedy of Paul Schoeppe, 1869-1872,”examines German-American reactions to Schoeppe’s murder conviction. The responses to the “Tragedy of Paul Schoeppe,” as one of the published trial reports was titled, show that German-Americans seized the case not primarily to save the young man from the gallows, but, more importantly, to exert ethnic pride, unify their community, and attack what they saw as persistent and overt anti-German sentiments in American society. In the process, they condemned the prosecution and conviction of the German immigrant as a shameful violation of the American principle of freedom and the image of the United States as a land of opportunity. You can read the article here: