Anna Koch murdered a rival and blamed the crime on her former lover. Illustration by Marco Heer
Anna Koch murdered a rival and blamed the crime on her former lover. Illustration by Marco Heer

Lies, torture, death: the case of Anna Koch

In 1849, Johann Mazenauer was suspected of murdering his girlfriend. The authorities in Appenzell wanted a confession and would use any means to get one. But they failed, as the woman was actually killed by the accused’s ex-lover.

Patrik Süess

Patrik Süess

Patrik Süess is a freelance historian.

Had she not attempted to sell the victim’s jewellery right after her death, Anna Koch from Gonten in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden would probably have got away with the murder, especially as it was initially presumed to be an accident. Who could’ve thought that Koch – a pretty, blonde girl of not even 18 – could have been driven by jealousy and covetousness to drown Magdalena Fässler, her love rival for the affections of Johann Baptist Mazenauer, on 7 June 1849 with her own bare hands in the pond near the church after a Corpus Christi service? Even the newspapers were shocked at the actions of the ‘female monster’. When she came under suspicion, Anna Koch accused her former lover of the crime – because, as he said decades later: If “a poor scruffy boy and a pretty young girl have to go to court, they’ll let the pretty young girl go – and lock up the poor scruffy boy”. Mazenauer, a bricklayer and chimney sweep, had been involved with Anna Koch for a time, but as she had often been unfaithful, he turned his attention to Magdalena Fässler, which evidently hurt Koch’s pride deeply, despite her infidelity. Koch had also run into debt buying a silver chain for her traditional dress.
Gonten in a print by Johann Jakob Rietmann, circa 1850.
Gonten in a print by Johann Jakob Rietmann, circa 1850. Swiss National Library
At first, Koch claimed that Mazenauer had found Fässler’s jewellery on the dead body and given it to her to sell. She then expanded on her story, saying that Mazenauer had killed Fässler and that he had explained his murderous plan to her beforehand. She said the 21-year-old Mazenauer was her fiancé and that they needed the money to be able to marry in the autumn. Finally, she claimed that she was expecting his baby. The court believed Anna Koch and assumed that Johann Baptist Mazenauer would soon confess. But as he fervently denied any involvement in the crime during ‘light questioning’ in Appenzell Town Hall, the judge quickly resorted to the heavy-handed approach, having him tied to the rack and whipped with a bull pizzle. For days. Or even weeks, as shown by the court records: “I tell you, I didn’t do it. I swear on my life... - Order: Subjected to 6 strokes of the cane. - I cannot confess to this crime… - Order: Another 6 strokes of the cane. - I tell you, I absolutely didn’t do it…- Order: 24 strokes of the cane. - I didn’t do it, for the love of God, I cannot confess to this. I’m sure the Lord would stand by me... - Order: Mazenauer is to be incarcerated and only fed bread and water.” While Anna Koch, who had also been arrested, was staying with the cantonal usher and eating at his family’s table, Mazenauer was held in a ‘dungeon’, in a wooden box in the attic of the town hall building, in which he couldn’t stand up and only had a tiny opening for air and for his food to be passed through.
A bull’s pizzle is a dried and twisted bull’s penis which was also used to whip animals and humans.
A bull’s pizzle is a dried and twisted bull’s penis which was also used to whip animals and humans. Wikimedia
The Appenzell authorities assumed, according to the old interpretation of the law, that a confession was the ‘queen of evidence’, that it was absolutely essential in order to convict someone – and that in order to obtain a confession, the infliction of physical pain was legitimate. In fact, in western and central Europe from the 13th to the 19th century, torture was a recognised ‘criminal procedural means to establish the truth in an interrogation process’. For Enlightenment thinkers, however, torture became the main target in the fight for more humane criminal justice systems. On the one hand, they viewed it as ineffective (prisoners will admit to crimes they did not commit just to end their suffering), and on the other, as incompatible with human dignity. The government of the Helvetic Republic was the first to introduce a Switzerland-wide ban on any kind of physical torture to extract a confession. But people soon switched to beatings as a ‘punishment for disobedience and lying’ because there was still a need to extract a confession. And what counted as torture anyway? Only the old methods, such as ‘strappado’ or the stretching rack? Or would strikes of the cane during the interrogation also count? ‘Disciplinary punishments’ such as beatings and punitive detention, were used as a ‘surrogate torture’ in situations where torture was officially prohibited.
Caricature of the 1845 investigation into the murder of Lucerne politician Josef Leu, in which the authorities took a somewhat brutal approach.
Caricature of the 1845 investigation into the murder of Lucerne politician Josef Leu, in which the authorities took a somewhat brutal approach. Swiss National Museum
After the Helvetic Republic, the conservative cantons, but also for example Zurich up until the Regeneration, resorted to the old criminal justice practice, including the use of torture in serious cases. Schwyz still practised regular torture in 1820, including the infliction of burns. And Zug still used thumbscrews and ‘strappado’ in 1869. And in Appenzell Innerrhoden, too, the whipping bench, where Mazenauer suffered in 1849, was still in use in the 1860s. This is because a number of legal scholars feared that the abolition of torture could hinder legal certainty and the effectiveness of criminal proceedings. In 1861, the conservative Zuger Volksblatt newspaper remarked defiantly in relation to the conviction of a murderer in Schwyz that ‘confrontations’ would not have been as effective, whereas despite all modern criticism, “the occasional infliction of ‘real terrors’ and the practice of psychological coercion has proven just as effective as before.” In other words, the newspaper believed that torture was more effective than a verbal confrontation. This was a widely-held view at the time because if there was no admission of guilt as supreme and absolutely essential evidence, what else was there? What would the new supreme evidence consist of? The fight for the abolition of torture was also a fight for the reassessment of circumstantial evidence in court cases and the free appraisal of evidence by the court, which could also hand down a verdict without a confession.
Excerpt from the Zuger Volksblatt of 1 May 1861.
Excerpt from the Zuger Volksblatt of 1 May 1861. e-newspaperarchives
Despite all the blows Mazenauer received on the whipping bench, he always denied having anything to do with the death of Magdalena Fässler. When Anna Koch suddenly escaped from captivity, the Appenzell authorities started to have doubts about her version of events. Koch, obviously plagued by a bad conscience, fled to the Austrian town of Rankweil in Vorarlberg, where she wanted to confess. But the local priest refused to grant her absolution unless she publicly confessed to her crime. Anna Koch then returned, stood before the court and admitted her guilt, more than five months after the crime. She claimed that her motive was ‘revenge’ on Magdalena Fässler. The records state the following: “So is he (Mazenauer) in fact innocent? – Yes, he is. – He therefore knew nothing about any of it? – He knew nothing. – Why did you accuse him then? – Because I cared about him.” She said she believed that he would take responsibility for the murder ‘for her sake’. On 29 November, the court imposed the death penalty on Anna Koch. Four days later, it was confirmed by the Grand Council of Appenzell Innerrhoden by 92 votes to 6. The Council did not see any mitigating circumstances, especially as Koch “had denied the facts for some time with reckless malice, and had come up with the most elaborate lies to shift the blame on to another person, namely Johann Baptist Mazenauer”.
Executioner’s sword belonging to Johann Baptist Bettenmann. This was the sword used to execute Anna Koch in December 1849 in Appenzell.
Executioner’s sword belonging to Johann Baptist Bettenmann. This was the sword used to execute Anna Koch in December 1849 in Appenzell. Museum Prestegg
Anna Koch’s execution on 3 December 1849 was a gruesome spectacle. The 18-year-old fought back in panic-stricken fear and had to be bound to the carriage that transported her to the execution site. When the death warrant was read out before the huge crowds, it was drowned out by Koch’s desperate screams. Because she resisted, the executioner ended up tying her plaits to a bar and lifting them up in order to behead her. A German newspaper reported, in disgust: “What brutality must be at play if people can watch someone in mortal agony (...) for an hour and a half? Is this supposed to be somehow morally instructive for people or can such a performance increase people’s disgust at the crime?” It was to be the last execution to take place in Appenzell Innerrhoden – and it left lasting scars. Two plays were written about the Koch-Fässler murder case in the 20th century and there’s also a yodel about Anna Koch.

No compensation for Mazenauer

Mazenauer forgave Koch her wrongdoing. When asked by the Grand Council whether he held a grudge against Koch, whether he forgave her and whether he demanded recourse, he replied solemnly: “I forgive her now and always.” Without realising, with these words Mazenauer waived his right to compensation from the canton as he was unaware of what was meant by ‘recourse’. As if the torture weren’t enough, to top it all off, the Appenzell authorities tricked him. “In the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, this is called criminal proceedings,” wrote the St. Galler Zeitung with a hint of sarcasm.
A broken man: Johann Baptist Mazenauer photographed in 1897.
A broken man: Johann Baptist Mazenauer photographed in 1897. e-periodica
The fact that such legal situations were still possible in the early days of the federal state was due to criminal justice being a purely cantonal matter. Many of the conservative cantons didn’t have a written code of criminal procedure for a long time; Appenzell Innerrhoden still conducted proceedings exclusively according to ancient tradition in 1897. And there was no criminal law applicable throughout Switzerland until 1942. While corporal punishment was already prohibited under the Federal Constitution in 1874, it probably continued in isolated cases for decades. Johann Baptist Mazenauer never fully recovered from the effects of the mistreatment to which he was subjected during his 24 weeks of incarceration. He suffered from chronic pain and other health problems for the rest of his life and died in Gonten in 1902 at the age of 74.

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