Disclaimer: This post is meant to share a piece of my client’s family history that he was kind enough to share – as well as to show how his different research methods can pay off. I absolutely do not condone or wish to glorify the actions taken by Sebastian Bauer in any way, shape, or form. – Katherine Schober
My Ancestor, the Serial Killer: A Story from Gary Haas
Sometimes there are extra notes scribbled in at the top or the bottom of your ancestor’s document. Usually rather small and written seemingly haphazardly, these comments can be rather daunting to translate, and it may be tempting to ignore them. But if you do decide to find out what they mean, you may just discover extremely juicy details of your ancestor’s past…
Gary, a retired accountant and family history researcher, did not ignore those scribbled two lines at the bottom of his ancestor’s marriage record. And he was very surprised by what he found.
Let’s Start at the Beginning…
Gary’s ancestors comes from Waldmünchen, Bavaria, Germany – and there are unfortunately few Catholic church records from there that have been digitized. Plus, the best documents about his ancestors were in German…for which he had limited skills. Gary knew that if he wanted to advance his family history, he would need to find a professional researcher who could locate the documents in Germany and who could translate them for him once she did.
Finding a Researcher…
On his quest for a researcher, Gary went on a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. There, he was able to find and hire an internationally-known researcher who volunteered at the library. She was born in Germany, German was her first language, she could read the German script, and she made periodic research trips to Germany. Just what he was looking for!
Over in Germany…
Once over in Germany, the researcher started searching the Catholic diocese’s archives in Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany. There, she happened to find an 1803 document on the wedding of his 4x-great-grandparents, Sebastian Bauer and Barbara Schmidhuber, from Ast, Bavaria, near the Bohemian border. But the document did a bit more than just report on their marriage…
The Big Reveal…
While most of the handwriting on this document looked clear to Gary, the two lines at the bottom of the document were a scrawl – but they piqued his interest.
Luckily, the researcher was able to translate the priest’s extra comment at the bottom of the page – and you’ll never guess what it said:
Dieser erdrosselte sein Weib 1813 – 20. Apr. u. wurde geköpft in Waldmünchen.
In case you don’t speak German, this translates to:
This man strangled his wife on April 20, 1813 and was beheaded in
Well, that’s not something you find every day. Gary knew he had to find out more.
The Research Continues…
Through Google searches, Gary was able to find many articles on Sebastian’s beheading. One search of Google Books (a great resource for everyone – https://books.google.com/) even found a two-page newspaper article describing Sebastian’s confession – a wealth of information!
“Historical account of the crimes of Sebastian Bauer from Untergrafenreid, who was sentenced to death because of the murder of his wife and his old father-in-law:”
Even though Gary does not speak German, he was able to get a rough translation of this Fraktur article using Google Translate by taking the following steps:
- Create a jpg image of the document
- Copy the jpg to Google Drive
- Right click on the jpg in Google Drive
- Open with Google Docs
- Copy and paste text to https://translate.google.com
While Google Translate couldn’t provide all the details, it did give him a simple understanding of the newspaper article’s content. He then had a professional translator fill him in with the intricate details….
What Led Sebastian to Murder? It’s All in the Article…
So what led Sebastian, a 38-year-old weaver and son of a tenant farmer raised in the Christian faith, to be executed for murder?
According to the article, it all started with his marriage to Barbara in 1803 – the record of which can be seen above. Two years later, in 1805, he apparently went into the woods with his 77-year-old father in law. In debt from drinking and gambling, Sebastian wanted his father-in-law’s money – sooner rather than later. He therefore hit his father on the back of the head with his stick, eventually killing him. He then drug the body behind the bushes and arranged him in a way that it would look like he had died of natural causes. He got away with his crime – at first.
Now, Sebastian and Barbara had six children – two of whom were living at the time of the execution – during their marriage. But at some point during this marriage, Sebastian became “friendly” with the oldest daughter of a tenant (for the purpose of this story, we’ll call her Johanna), and she got pregnant. Fearing the judgement of other people, and especially of Sebastian’s wife, the two tried to abort the baby, but to no avail. It was then that they made the plan to kill his wife.
They first tried by gradually poisoning her – but that was taking too long. Sebastian, and, as he claimed, Johanna as well, decided things needed to move more quickly. Weighing the decision in his mind all of Holy Week before Easter, he finally decided to strangle her in the night as she slept.
His first attempt – on April 19, 1813 – didn’t work. Barbara woke up, and was, of course, terrified. However, that didn’t stop Sebastian from trying the next night. On April 20, 1813, he strangled Barbara in her sleep. She was 29 years old.
In order to again make it look like she died of natural causes, Sebastian pulled her out of the bed and laid her on the floor. He then cried for help, acting so distraught that the neighbors said they truly felt sorry for him and for his loss.
Her 1813 death record states that she died of consumption – which goes to show that you can’t believe everything you read.
Two days later, Johanna moved in to his house. And less than two weeks later, the pair was married. But all of this began to make neighbors suspicious. His wife had just died, and two weeks later, he marries someone else? Furthermore, it looked like Johanna could be pregnant…
To quash these rumors that he may have killed his wife due to Johanna’s pregnancy, Sebastian and Johanna (again, according to his account) decided to try to abort the baby a second time. He went to several towns searching for rat poison, and eventually was able to purchase some for a few kreuzers. The next morning, while Sebastian was sleeping, Johanna took the poison. However, she began to throw up violently, and Sebastian tried to help her by giving her olive oil, milk, honey, etc. – but nothing worked. After 37 hours, both she and the unborn baby died.
Now Sebastian’s father-in-law, wife, and his new wife were all dead. Things were starting to add up, and people began to look at Sebastian with increased suspicion. The bodies of Barbara and Johanna were taken and examined by the authorities, and it became clear that the causes of death were strangling and poison.
After being discovered, Sebastian confessed to everything. He was sentenced to beheading by sword.
Apparently, the executioner’s first attempt was unsuccessful, causing Sebastian to jump up.
That’s not your average family history.
Yet Gary’s research continues…
Ten years after Gary’s shocking discovery about his ancestor, he had the chance to find out more. At Gary’s request, his cousin, who was in their ancestral area working on a book, teamed up with a woman from Wisconsin and her German husband, to continue researching this gruesome part of their family history over in Europe.
And guess who they found? The actual descendants of Sebastian’s executioner.
These descendants told them that executioners were at the lowest rungs of German society, and the fact the executioner botched the execution did not earn him any extra glory.
The team was also able to visit the community museum of the German town yielded what is purported to be the axe used to behead Sebastian (perhaps the sword was changed to an axe?)….truly a gruesome sight.
So what were Gary’s takeaways from his research project? He said:
- It’s important to look at the entire document. Can you imagine if I had just ignored those two extra sentences at the bottom of the page?
- I learned how important it is to know when to hire a professional to research and translate. While I can get the gist of the document with my limited skills, nothing beats a trained translator to get the full story. You never know what you’ll find in German records.
Thank you, Gary, for sharing your family story and your research strategies with us!
Contributor: Gary Haas
Gary Haas is a retired accountant who uses computer skills to research family and local history.
If you would like to know more about the Bauer family history, check out the book Johann Sebastian Bauer: History and genealogy of the Bauers of Sinzendorf, Englmannsbrunn and Untergrafenried, Bavaria, Germany and Plain, Sauk County, Wisconsin by Kenneth L. Kraemer.
This post contains an affiliate link, which does not affect you at all, but does help support my business as I earn a small amount from qualifying purchases as an Amazon associate. This in turn helps me to continue supporting you with educational (I hope!) genealogy content.
So you’ve discovered your family is from Germany…now what? If you’re anything like my family, you will want to go see the country for yourself.
My family is from Germany and Austria. Like many families, we can trace our ancestry to varying degrees. My mom’s side is relatively well-documented: her great grandfather came to the US from Esslingen, Germany in the 1800s, where he had owned a mill. There is both family lore and documentation to support the history. My dad’s side is more of a mystery: we know his grandparents both arrived in New York City, also in the 1800s, where they got married, had kids, and moved to the suburbs (the American dream, right?), but we can’t find much about their lives before their arrival. Like many immigrants, they may have wanted it that way. A fresh start, perhaps, that involved truly embracing their new country and its culture.
Whether your family history is well-documented or hard to find, there is plenty to be gained through travel. How? Read on for three different ways to do so.
- Take an Ancestry Cruise
For someone like my dad – who knows relatively little about his ancestry, but is eager to learn – something like the new Journey of Genealogy Cruise might be ideal. This cruise is the first of its kind; Ancestry.com and Cunard have partnered to offer a unique, in-depth genealogy experience. Passengers depart from London on November 4th and arrive in New York City after a seven-night journey across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2. This voyage follows the path of many American immigrants who sailed across the ocean to New York. It makes perfect sense that Cunard has partnered with Ancestry, because one in five immigrants who arrived in New York City did so on a Cunard ship. Passengers get an in-depth look at their own ancestry, using the resources provided and the expertise of the cruise’s special guests, which include genealogy, history, and ancestry experts. Upon arrival in New York, passengers can add a two-night extension to explore Ellis Island and historic Manhattan.
I can also personally recommend adding a trip to the Tenement Museum, which does an incredible job of showing what life was like for immigrants in New York. In particular, there is a tour called Shop Life that features a German family’s saloon from 1870s New York. Other tours feature immigrants from various backgrounds; all tours are well-researched and well-presented.
- Take a Guided Ancestry Tour through Germany
For someone who knows a little more about his or her family history, I might recommend something like a Go Ahead Tours trip through Germany. Go Ahead Tours has also partnered with Ancestry.com to create an itinerary that gives travelers a general overview of Germany with a specific focus on ancestry. The trip is twelve days long and travels north-to-south through Germany, from Hamburg to Munich. Stops between the two cities include Bremen, Cologne, Heidelberg, Nuremberg, Ansbach and Rothenburg. Special ancestry-related tours include the BallinStadt Emigration Museum, the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, and the Hessenpark Open Air Museum. Genealogists will help you discover more about your family history before your departure, and expert guides will help you experience Germany and its history and culture during your visit.
- Design Your Own Trip with a Travel Advisor
The benefits of a group tour are clear: a pre-set itinerary with interesting people and a guide helping you along the way. But group tours are not for everyone. Perhaps you would like to focus more specifically on your family’s place of origin, the dates you can travel don’t align with the tour dates offered, or maybe you just don’t like groups. If you fall into this category but you don’t know where to start when planning your trip, I highly recommend using a travel advisor. A good travel advisor can help you determine your travel priorities. He or she can work with you to create a custom itinerary, which gets shaped and polished through a dialogue until it is tailored to your interests and is just right for you.
My mom falls into this category: she is an enthusiastic traveler, but appreciates having someone help her work out the details. She loves having an itinerary that includes everything from hotel check-in information to details about where to park in a given city, along with pre-booked train tickets with instructions for finding her particular train. If I were to send her on a trip to explore her ancestry in Germany, we would focus her travels in Baden-Württemberg, where her family is from. If she wanted, I might set her up with a local church or office official who might be able to provide her with more historical records about her family in Esslingen. Her travel priorities tend to include experiencing the local culture, so I might encourage her to travel during an event like the Freiburg wine festival, or have her go to a Christmas Market in the winter.
Wherever your family is from – Germany, Austria, Switzerland, or Luxembourg – or wherever your interests lie – adventure travel like hiking or biking, or in cultural experiences like food, castles, churches, and town life – there is something to be gained from working with a skilled travel advisor. We can help you experience your family’s country of origin in rich detail, tailored to your specific interests.
Keri Forbringer is a Virtuoso Travel Coordinator with Luxury Travel Works based in Shrewsbury, MA. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Author’s Note: If you want more help transcribing your genealogy documents, join our Premium group – weekly access to live “office hours” where you can ask Katherine your transcription and translation questions – and get immediate answers.
It happens to all of us. We are feeling good about our transcription skills, happily deciphering our German document, when all of the sudden, a word appears that looks like this:
Alright, maybe not that bad, but sometimes it sure feels like it. So what can you do with these words that make you want to tear your hair out? Below, here are some tried and true tricks of the trade for when you can’t read a word:
1. Keep reading.
It sounds simple, but sometimes it’s the simplest things that work the best. Make some kind of mark in your transcription to note that you’ve skipped a word (I always write —-), and continue transcribing from that point. Many times your illegible word will be repeated in another section of your document, and this second occurrence of the word will be much easier to read than the first one.
2. Find a similarly-formatted record for comparison purposes.
For example, if your illegible word is part of a church record, look at the many other records on that same page. These records are usually all in the same format, and many times a word that is scrawled in your record will be much clearer in another record (who knows, maybe the scribe was in a hurry on the day of your ancestor’s baptism, but was in a more leisurely mood the next day). If it is a marriage certificate, look for another example of a marriage certificate that is formatted the same way.
Additional Tip: If you don’t have another record handy, try copy and pasting parts of your German transcription into Google Search Engine. Sometimes other genealogists will have posted their transcriptions and translations of similar records on forums or blogs, which Google Search Engine will then bring up. You can then check this transcription against your own record to see if there are any similarities, and, if so, if your difficult-to-read word then becomes clear.
3. Look to the next line.
Our ancestors often divided up words between lines, without using any hyphens or any other indication to mark this. Oftentimes the rest of your letters will be one line down, and then your word will make much more sense.
4. If the word you can’t read is a city or town, check if there are any types of headings or even stamps on your document.
Sometimes the answer is right there on the page, in incredibly easy-to-read type!
5. If one specific letter is illegible, scan your document to see if you have already deciphered a similarly-shaped figure in another word.
Perhaps you sight-read the word “Vater” (father), and by looking at that “r” in “Vater”, you then realize that the illegible letter in your current word might be an “r” as well. Another trick I employ is if a letter is written differently than the “normal” version of the letter, I will sometimes underline all instances of that strange-looking letter in my document. This then allows my brain to get used to the way this scribe writes the letter, making it easier to recognize in future words. Making a key for all these illegible letters can also be very helpful.
If you’d like more tips and tricks for deciphering German handwriting, check out my book with the same title: Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting or enroll in our brand new online German handwriting course. Best of luck with your transcriptions!