The Most Terrifying Victorian Children's Book
Today I’m going to share with you something that I happened to stumble across while looking into the bonkers Victorian Valentine cards we covered in one of our videos. Today I am sharing the story of Struwwelpeter which is frankly the most bizarre and horrifying childrens book I’ve ever come across… where naughty children are starved, disfigured and sometimes killed.
Because nothing does disturbing like the combination of Victorian morality, children’s education and German fairy-tale.
The book itself comes from the pen of Frankfurt psychiatrist Dr. Heinrich Hoffman in 1844, and I can only assume he was looking to increase the number of traumatised patients booking in for a consultation. It forms 16 pages of illustrated stories designed to highlight that children who misbehave have to face the consequences of their actions. So far so good.
Most of the lessons are quite understandable and have consequences that you and I can easily understand such as the titular character of Struwwelpeter himself. Peter is a boy who will not take care of his personal hygiene. He won’t brush his hair, have his nails cut and he definitely wouldn’t bathe and as a result he lives his days out being unloved. A harsh but truly understandable consequence of his lack of hygiene.
But then they get really bizarre and dark. Let’s take a few of these educational tales…
First up is Bosen Friedrich or ‘Cruel Frederick’ who is just plain nasty to animals. You know the sort, pulling the wings off flies, killing birds etc. But one day he beats his dog mercilessly, and as a dog lover I’m right behind this as the dog turns on him and chews his foot off. The next page shows us Frederick laid up in bed nursing his wounds and meanwhile the dog in totally unpunished and even gets Frederick’s dinner. Let that be a lesson as to where dogs sit in the pecking order.
Then we can move onto Kasper or ‘The Boy who would not have soup’. Casper refuses food with a foot-stamping tantrum that will be all too familiar to those of you with children of a certain age, or those of you who were children of a certain age. But, unlike many children, he stubbornly holds out for five days. The five days it takes to waste away and starve to death.
I look at this and can still hear my grandmother saying ‘There’s nowt else so you’ll starve’ – perhaps she’d read the book.
So far we’re looking at the logical, if extreme, consequences of your own actions but that’s clearly not harsh enough for our learned friend Hoffman. Who incidentally also writes under a pseudonym of Henrich Kinderlieb, the surname translates to ‘child friendly’ or ‘nice to children’… I disagree, but I digress.
If we take a look at “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb”. This is a small child, Konrad, who sucks his thumb, and is warned that he should have grown out of sucking his thumb.
But you know he just can’t resist…
So lo and behold, the terrifying Scissorman, appears and hacks off his thumbs. I MEAN REALLY????
This is not the only gratuitous injury inflicted on curious and demanding children. Harriet is completely incinerated by playing with matches and poor Flying Robert merely wanted to play out in the rain. He even took an umbrella, but he was blown away to his death by the storm.
Most of the stories and lessons within could easily form the sort of childhood parables we could see today, although the story about three racist boys who are turned black by a wizard’s magic inkwell is still uncomfortable reading. The lesson might be that they should accept difference, lest they find out what it’s like to be a victim of such abuse but even that lesson still displays the unacceptable racist tropes of its time.
What looks horrifying to us today was not exactly out of place in children’s teaching in the mid 19th century. There were very much two schools of thought. On one side there were the romantics who tended to view that a child was best served by freedom, experimentation and exploration and the other side of the argument, the more scientific side, which very much felt that morality had to be instilled into children as quickly and brutally as possible as it was not something they would discover themselves. In this Struwwelpeter is not alone, Grimm’s fairy tales are filled with abuse, assault and murder and even Hans Christian Andersen writes of a girl getting her feet sliced off as a punishment.
Given that background you can see why the book was a whirlwind success in its day and over the years it has been reworked with improvements in illustrations and also translated into over 35 languages. The English reworking has been placed in the public domain by the Gutenburg project and you can read that here.
Do enjoy disturbing the hell out of your kids won’t you?
Some of those reworkings have formed the basis of political and social satire starting as early as 1899 with the Political Struwwelpeter, then the story of ‘Swollen Headed William’ to parody Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914, and of course the Nazis gets the Struwwelpeter treatment in three editions in 1933, 1941 and 1943.
The example we have here is the 1941 book Struwwelhitler by Robert and Phillip Spence, under the pseudonym of Doktor Schreklichheit or Doctor Horror.
In this book we see several leading Nazis featuring in the traditional German morality stories. Cruel Frederick has been changed over to ‘Cruel Adolph’ who abuses his dog Fritz as described here:
“When patient Fritz in abject mood, complained that he was short of food, 'Be off!' cried Adolph, 'Greedy scamp! To Dachau Concentration Camp'.”
In similarity to the original story of cruel Frederick we can see Adolf getting his foot chewed off and lying in the recovery bed while his dog gets all the food, but note the subtle difference. Here, the doctor is feeding him rat poison just for good measure. The caption reads
‘So Adolf had to go to bed. The doctor came and shook his head. Remarked that he would soon be dead. And gave him nasty physic too. Precisely with that end in view’
The previously horrifying story of Little Suck-Thumb we discussed earlier is transformed to bring us the story of Little Joseph Goebbels and his poison pen. As Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels is portrayed as a small weasley Nazi man who scribbles lies, and as such the scissorman comes to take his thumbs so he can’t hold a pen. Genius stuff.
I find it not only bizarre and fascinating that this exists, but that a work that had been centrepiece of German folklore, culture and morality for over a century is used so breathtakingly to stab directly at the architects of the Third Reich’s culture and morality.
While it is mostly unheard of outside Germany these days, the influence of Struwwelpeter has stayed with us throughout the 20th century. Here is an American adaptation satirising Nixon…
...and if you take combine the scruffy character of Struwwelpeter himself and combine him with the scissorman, you get the 1990 Tim Burton classic Edward Scissorhands which gave Johnny Depp his first leading movie role…. And all from a 16 page children’s story from a German psychiatrist.
If you want to dive further into this world then you can visit the Struwwelpeter museum in Frankfurt.
Read it and don’t have nightmares. Thank you for reading.