Tyler Carrington’s micro-history Love at Last Sight opens like a work of true crime, with the unsolved case of Frieda Kliem, a 39-year-old seamstress murdered on 17 June 1914 in a forest on the outskirts of Berlin. The murderer was presumed to be a man she met through a personal ad, Paul Kuhnt, who made off with her keys and plundered her apartment. He was tried for her murder but not convicted. Carrington uses the case notes from the murder investigation to bring to light experiences that don’t usually make it into history books. Frieda’s life, especially her love life, he argues, reveals the tensions inherent in the urban middle-class experience during this period: between older and younger generations, between respectability and opportunity, between the public perception of events and reality.
Frieda arrived in Berlin from the country in 1902, aged 27 and unmarried. As a child she had lived with her parents in the north of the city, but at 14 she was sent, for reasons only hinted at during the murder trial – perhaps she was a difficult teenager – to live with her grandparents in a village on the Elbe, 75 miles away. The first few years after her return were marked by challenges characteristic of those faced by a single woman settling in a big city. She moved from apartment to apartment, only officially registering with the city authorities three years after her arrival. It seems likely that she lived with distant relatives – her parents died soon after her return to the city – or in short-term semi-legal sublets until she finally found an apartment near her workplace, on a street that years later would run beside the Berlin Wall. The area wasn’t affluent; her upright piano and family silver stood in stark contrast to her cramped surroundings.
In the years before the First World War, Berlin was a city of perpetual motion, with trams heading off in all directions and the streets full of people. Half the city’s population moved apartment every six months. ‘Everywhere the avenues are filled with yellow or green monsters,’ the Berliner Morgenpost wrote of ‘moving day’ at the end of September, ‘the moving trucks, crammed full, swaying dangerously back and forth, blocking the tracks of the Electric [the streetcar] and loathed by the taxis’. Berliners were proud of the bustle of the city, but wondered whether the commotion prevented them from forming lasting bonds. In his essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903), Georg Simmel observed in the city a ‘deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence’, noting that urban life is characterised by ‘the imponderability of personal relationships’.
Frieda took a sewing job working for another single woman, Hedwig, who ran her own clothes shop. They became close friends, so close that Frieda lent Hedwig the equivalent of £6000 from her inheritance. When Hedwig was shot dead by her lover in 1906 (Carrington doesn’t tell us any more about this other murder), Frieda lost her job, as well as her friend and a fifth of her inheritance. She moved into a new apartment and set up her own clothing business, which failed. According to friends interviewed by the police after her murder, Frieda then shifted her hopes to finding a husband. Carrington can only speculate as to the reasons she seems not to have seriously considered marriage before this. Were there no possibilities in the village of her teenage years? Were her energies entirely taken up with getting established in Berlin? Whatever the explanation, the pursuit of marriage became central from 1906. This didn’t stop her being choosy. Her friend Anna Selka recalled a failed attempt to set Frieda up with a man from the provinces, who Frieda thought wasn’t ‘good enough for her’: she ‘only wanted to marry a civil servant’.
Although marriage statistics show that Berliners were slightly more likely to marry than the German national average, the fact that the city contained a quarter of a million single men and nearly half a million single women of marriageable age caught the public imagination. In the city young women seemed not to need a husband: they could live independently, work and socialise as they wished, go home with someone they met in the street. Newspapers and novels considered the new opportunities for urban romance: a man and woman might meet for a moment but then fail to find each other again – falling victim to ‘love at last sight’. In reality, women who were open to meeting men in the street and forming fleeting relationships with them risked their reputation. Street encounters were a guilty pleasure, fine on the stage or in the pages of a book, but not the way to a respectable life.
Frieda doesn’t appear to have been too concerned about her reputation. Not long after moving to Berlin she became involved in the city’s cycling craze, taking off either alone or with friends to Falkenberg and Grunewald. Cycling was highly popular, especially among women (the production of women’s bicycles overtook men’s in the 1890s), but still frowned on. ‘Do not ride bicycles!’ Wilhelm II exhorted women in 1900. Newspaper columnists lamented the lack of femininity in cycling clothes and the nascent women’s movement adopted the bicycle as a symbol of independence. It was while cycling that Frieda met many of the people who would play important roles in her life, including Anna Selka and her best friend, Antonie Köhler. There were male acquaintances too. In 1904, Otto Buning, a widowed banker with four children, declared in a letter to her that ‘I am falling in love with you’; Frieda considered his marriage proposal for many years only to reject it shortly before she was killed. Emil Freier was another friend she met through cycling. He earned a good salary at the stock exchange and came close to Frieda’s idea of a husband. Her friendship with him extended beyond cycling: for a period, he visited her apartment almost every day; he helped her move; he offered to store her furniture when she went on an extended holiday. But he claimed his interest in her was only platonic, and got engaged to someone else. Frieda’s relationship with Otto Mewes, a three-times-divorced former factory manager who was living off two older French women in return for language and singing lessons, was the most unconventional. ‘She was careful to keep the details of their relationship secret,’ Carrington writes, ‘a fact that stood out to nearly every member of her circle of friends.’ She left him all her possessions in her will. But he was in his late fifties when they met, and she may not have considered him a candidate for marriage.
The new technology of the telephone brought people together too. Frau B., a telephone operator, first knew the man who would become her husband as someone who was friendly and polite to her between his frequent calls. She began to give him preferential treatment, and one day he showed up at her office and invited her for a walk. Her story was reported in a newspaper article celebrating the novel ways modern couples got together. By contrast, according to a columnist in the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger, a conservative daily newspaper, the advent of the telephone meant that lovers were ‘less patient, less able to abide a lull or delay in communication’: ‘Lovers with telephones don’t write letters.’ (Journalists say similar things about apps such as Snapchat today.)
Dancing was also said to encourage shallow relationships. Balls had traditionally been the reserve of the upper class. At the turn of the century new sorts of balls – working-class balls, widows’ balls, balls for the deaf, gay and lesbian balls – took place in the dance halls opening up across Berlin. (Clärchens Ballhaus, which features in Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, closed earlier this year, ostensibly for renovation.) Dance partners were for the evening, not for life. The parallel rise in the use of birth control and in the abortion rate suggests that ‘dating’ in this period implied more than a walk in the park. In Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei (sometimes translated as Flirtation), such relationships have little consequence for the prosperous Fritz and his friend Theodor in fin-de-siècle Vienna (so long as the woman isn’t married – Fritz’s downfall comes during a duel with a slighted husband). For unmarried women from working or lower-middle-class backgrounds, such as Schnitzler’s ‘das süsse Mädel’, casual dating leads to scandal. ‘I didn’t want to believe what Binder told me,’ Christine is told by her older, married, working-class friend. ‘Miss Christine isn’t the sort who goes out walking in the evenings with elegant young men. Now really, is that good company for a respectable young woman?’ For some urban women, the risk to their reputation was worth it if such encounters might eventually lead to an advantageous marriage (think of Frieda’s attempts at intimacy with Emil). Until then, they were something to keep hidden.
Nearing forty and still unmarried, Frieda began to pretend. In public she wore a wedding ring and introduced herself as a widow. (I know older unmarried women who wear wedding rings. I have never asked why, but I assume it’s because people ask fewer questions that way.) When Emil got engaged to someone else, her story that his lung condition prevented him from marrying her was exposed as a lie. Otto Mewes didn’t propose to her, Antonie told the police, because he didn’t think she would make much of a housewife: ‘She had little interest in constant work.’ But there is the puzzle of Otto Buning’s offer. If Frieda was desperate for a respectable match, why not him? According to friends, it was the prospect of becoming stepmother to his four children that made her turn him down.
In 1900 the new civil code had granted limited divorce rights, but ‘modern’ women’s desire for independence was at best understood as an indifference to marriage and at worst as meanness to male suitors. Similar worries in the media about men becoming Ehescheu – commitment-phobic – stand in contrast to the sources examined by Carrington. The diary of Ernst Schwarz, who became a successful businessman, reveals that he waited more than a year to marry the girl he loved because he couldn’t support her in the way he felt appropriate. Despite accounts of free-spirited romances, a stable marriage built on solid financial foundations remained the goal for most. The difference was that the independence and material prospects offered by a city like Berlin meant that some young men and women were willing to take the risk of delaying marriage in the hope of meeting their own raised expectations.
On 7 June 1914 a personal ad appeared in the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger: ‘Single widow, 35, wishes to make the acquaintance of a respectable gentleman for the purpose of marriage.’ This wasn’t the first personal ad Frieda had posted. Her friend Antonie confirmed to the police that Frieda ‘responded to personal ads and even wrote her own’ but that she only replied to men from ‘better circles’. Friends claimed that Frieda (actually 39 and not a widow) had become increasingly desperate in her search for a husband as it became harder and harder to survive on her small income. On the back of a note found among her papers was a list of names, alongside dates and times. On the front of the note was a response to her personal ad from a man who proposed they meet at a café on 9 June. A second letter from the same man, dated a few days later, contained an apology for not having been able to make the first meeting. He suggested they meet at the same café on Friday at noon, where she would recognise him by the old book he would be carrying. It was signed ‘Adolf Mertens’. Frieda had doodled ‘I want Adolf Mertens to marry me’ on the back and on another scrap of paper had written: ‘Adolf Mertens you will soon marry me.’ There are other indications that she felt she had found a good match. On 15 June Otto Buning responded to her formal rejection of his proposal. The next day she sent a letter to Otto Mewes telling him that she had been invited on a ‘Partie’ to Finkenkrug, west of Berlin – a double entendre, Carrington explains, that meant both an outing and a marriage match. She told a neighbour that life was looking up.
It’s not clear whether the café rendezvous took place or not, but Frieda arranged to meet Adolf in the forest at Finkenkrug on Wednesday, 17 June. She wore ‘a blue suit with white collar and black buttons, a white crêpe blouse over a white knit camisole and a light grey corset, black “reform” slacks over purple stockings with green hoops and black lace-up shoes … a black straw hat with a silk band and a small bunch of roses affixed to it’. She carried a green silk umbrella. There is no record of how she made her way to the meeting. Over a week later a forester found her body, so badly decayed that there was little to analyse in the post mortem; her jaw had been broken in three places. Apart from that, there were no discernible signs of trauma or foul play. The police noted a patch of flattened grass close to where her body was discovered, but it was impossible to assess her remains for evidence of sexual assault.
Nearly four months after the murder, 19-year-old Anna Piegors walked into a bank in a Berlin suburb and tried to withdraw most of Frieda’s (fairly pitiful) savings. Anna was stopped by the bank teller and told she was under arrest, at which point she said that she was withdrawing the money at the request of an older man, Paul, who had given her Frieda’s bankbook and was waiting around the corner. When questioned, the man gave the police his full name, Paul Kuhnt; ‘his age, 49; his occupation, retired pharmacist; his marital status, married with five children; and his address’, and admitted his criminal record. A search of his apartment uncovered a stash of letters from 38 different women, aged between 30 and 48, in response to a personal ad published in the Berliner Tageblatt on 29 June: ‘Senior teacher, Dr, widower, no children, 51 yrs, looking for spouse’, although the dates suggest that he responded to Frieda’s ad rather than the other way around. The police also found ‘six gold-plated coffee spoons; three silver soup spoons; two small spoons with decoration; and several pieces of tableware with black handles’: the items reported missing from Frieda’s apartment. Kuhnt told the police he had found them under the seat of a commuter train.
Despite their growing popularity, personal ads had a bad reputation. In 1913 Fritz Podszus, owner of Germany’s largest and oldest matchmaking firm, argued that the personal ad was ‘a characteristic symptom of our time, one that no cultural historian will be able to ignore’. By 1901 newspapers were dedicating an entire section of the classifieds to personal ads. The popular novelist Dora Duncker wrote a collection of short stories that consisted of personal ads and imagined responses to them. Up until 1890 such ads were rare, and the police suspected they were used largely to facilitate prostitution. Placing one wasn’t illegal, but it was embarrassing and potentially dangerous. The subtly defensive turns of phrase employed by ad writers betray the anxieties around using ‘this no longer uncommon method’ for ‘the purpose of an honourable meeting’ with the promise of ‘discretion’. Hans T., a postal worker, wrote in 1911 that when spouses explained they had met through a personal ad, they received ‘an ironic, somewhat disdainful smile’. At the time of Frieda’s death, Berlin was still rattled by the murder a year earlier of Emma Schäfer, another seamstress, who had responded to a personal ad posted under a false name.
Frieda’s murder was reported in the newspapers a day before news broke of the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The murdered seamstress was all but forgotten. In any case, there wasn’t much to report. Kuhnt was in prison awaiting trial while the police investigation dragged on, delayed by the difficulty of finding witnesses. Kuhnt’s lawyer, Walter Bahn, had defended infamous clients before, including Theodor Berger, a Berlin pimp found guilty of the rape and murder of a nine-year-old, and Frau von Schönebeck-Weber, who killed her husband, an army officer, in a jealous rage. But he was better known for defending the downtrodden: Kuhnt, who was eventually brought to trial a year after his arrest (he wasn’t permitted bail), and had a mountain of debts, could be seen as falling into this category.
The trial was held in two stages, a first sitting in October 1915 and a second in March 1916. Bahn sought to present Kuhnt as the embodiment of middle-class respectability, while destroying Frieda’s reputation. The evidence made the first strategy difficult: it transpired that Kuhnt had no training as a pharmacist, that he had squandered the money he received from his wealthy father and that his business had failed. His alibi for the day of the murder – he said he was in Leipzig collecting a cake – couldn’t be proved and his account of discovering Frieda’s silverware on a train was unconvincing. Kuhnt admitted to using aliases to meet women, but claimed he was trying to gather material for a novel – he hadn’t told his wife this because she would have laughed at him. He refused to admit having contacted Frieda, but his handwriting was identical to that in the note by ‘Adolf Mertens’ found in her apartment. Dismantling Frieda’s reputation was easier. Using the extensive material gathered by the police, Bahn was able to present her as morally unsound: secretive about her liaisons; romantically involved with more than one man; friendly with disreputable characters (someone testified that Antonie Köhler was a prostitute). Given her precarious financial situation, Bahn argued, there was a strong possibility she had killed herself – after all there was no conclusive evidence of murder. Her jaw could have been broken in a fall. Kuhnt’s wife spoke in his defence, as did Professor Kolbe of the Royal Museum of Natural Sciences. At the end of the trial, bizarrely, the prosecutor seems to have agreed with Bahn that the evidence for murder was too thin. ‘It is possible,’ Carrington writes, ‘that Frieda’s own advocate – the state – had turned against her on account of the disreputable, desperate, degenerate single woman the defence had made her out to be.’ Kuhnt was convicted of theft and cleared of murder. Having more than served his sentence in the months before the trial, he was promptly released.