Johann Christian Woyzeck

Johann Christian Woyzeck, a key figure in a murder case that took place on June 3, 1821 in Leipzig, Germany. Johann Christian Woyzeck was titled as a criminal after he confessed to stabbing his 46 year old wife to death. In a state of jealous rage he stabbed her a total of seven times.

Johann Christian Woyzeck had a tough upbringing, as well as being raised into poverty Woyzeck had a unsettled life, aimlessly drifting through a variety of professions; barber, solider, tailor, bookbinder, manservant, till finally he decided upon of the life of a criminal.

The murder case dragged on for years after, becoming sensational news. The majority of the legal delays were a due to the question of Woyzecks mental state before and after the crime. It was said that Woyzeck was mentally unstable and suffered from diminished mental capacity. This was the first time in German history that an insanity defence was used. Doctors were required to investigate his sanity further and report back to the courts. Forensic expert Dr. J.A Clarus examined Woyzeck over a three year period. Within the first three months of Woyzecks arrest, it was announced that despite his mental condition and behaviour Woyzeck was still capable of understanding the concept of ‘right and wrong’ and therefore would therefore take full responsibility for his actions and should receive punishment. Woyzeck was sentenced to death, however, a year and a half later this sentence had still not being carried out, therefore Dr. Clarus was to examine the prisoner further. Due to Woyzecks time as a prisoner awaiting a death sentence, his condition, though worsened was still regarding as sane enough to receive punishment.

A further eighteenth months later Woyzeck was beheaded. A public execution took place in the main square of Leipzig on August 27, 1824. This same year Dr. J.A Clarus published his findings which medically suggested that Woyzeck was borderline schizophrenic.

This true story is now loosely based on the famous play Woyzeck by George Buchner, written in 1836, but not performed until 1914. It is interesting to consider why Buchner may have used this particular case to influence his writing. During the period in which the crime of Johann Christian Woyzeck took place, Georg Buchner would have been seven years old, but as mentioned previously the crime produced a huge amount of exposure, Buchner potentially, could have read or seen some of these accounts. It seems relevant to compare Georg Buchner to character of Woyzeck. Perhaps Buchner himself could in some way relate to Johann Christian Woyzeck as person, therefore writing the character of Woyzeck in the play as a reflection of him

Although Woyzecks character was influenced by Woyzeck the person, maybe Buchner saw a side of himself in both. There are some connections between the key moments in Buchners life that may reflect or have at least influenced the play. For example, Buchner himself was involved in a crime, less malicious than in Woyzeck, Buchner was wanted for arrest after attempting to bring about a revolution, starting with the distribution of Der Hessische Landbote (The Hesse Country Messenger) Which was a pamphlet aimed at the peasantry, but also viewed as an act of treason. Buchner escaped arrest, but remained under strict police surveillance for his political undertakings. Also involved in Buchners rebellious politics, a man named Minnegerode, best friend of Buchner, who ended up taking the punishment. Buchner witnessed the torture and starvation upon Minnegerode that lead him to his death. The stress and guilt that Buchner carried triggered his gradual decline in sanity. Buchner died at the age of 23, from what was actually a survivable fever, however his mental state caused by his tormented conscience left him with no strength.

The fragmented play Woyzeck left behind reveals very similar reflections from Buchners own experiences. A clear observation that Woyzeck was not only based on the murder case of Johann Christian Woyzeck, but contains flashes on Buchners life as well.

The picture below is a German Newspaper Announcement. Translated into English at the right if the picture.

German Newspaper Annoucement:

The hereinafter named GEORG BÜCHNER, a medical student from Darmstadt, has       absented himself from the Judicial Enquiry into his alleged participation in treasonable activities by leaving the Fatherland.

The authorities, both at home and abroad, are hereby requested to arrest this man on sight and to deliver him safely to the office below.

Darmstadt 13 June 1835.

High Court Judge of the Archduchy of Hesse, appointed Judge of the Upper Hesse Court of Enquiry.


Height: 6 shoes, 9 thumbs (new Hessian measure)
Hair: Fair
Forehead: Prominent and Rounded
Eyebrows: Fair
Nose: Large
Mouth: Small
Face: Oval
Colouring: Fresh
Figure: Powerful, Slender
Special Peculiarities: Short-sighted


Websites: (Accessed on 02/03/11) (Accessed on 02/03/11) (Accessed on 02/03/11)

(Written By Amie)

3 thoughts on “Johann Christian Woyzeck

  1. To add to what Amie has already written and what also may be interesting for historical purposes. I have found a book by The Open University which holds this information;

    “Woyzeck is based largely on the published arguments of Clarus, the forensic doctor who examined the real Woyzeck, in defence of his finding that Woyzeck’s murder of his mistress was not due to insanity. This article was published in a medical periodical to which Buchner’s father contributed, and it is more than likely that Buchner had access to the relevant issue in his father’s home, for the case aroused considerable public interest at the time. There is also ample textual evidence that Buchner used this source; for instance, the actual words used by witnesses in Clarus’s account reappear in many places in Buchner’s play.” (1977, pg 23)

    In response to what Amie has stated, yes around the time there would have been great exposure to the case, but by Bucher’s father, more than likely, having the article concerning Woyzeck’s mental state this supplied Buchner with more information than he could have ever needed.

    Also within the Open University book it features the text of Clarus’s report. By reading it through I have noticed similarities, not just the words given by witnesses but also by situations they describe Woyzeck being in. For example whilst lodging with Knobloch, it was stated that “Woyzeck associated with her daughter, but had become jealous because of her frequent associations with soldiers” (1977, pg 27). From this we can see where Buchner may have got some of his inspiration from for the characters Woyzeck and Marie. Also within the case, it is said that Woyzeck claims to have heard voices and heard someone say to him “stab the Frau Woostin dead!” (1977, pg 29). Frau Woostin is the female that Woyzeck had formed a liaison with. This line can be seen in our Woyzeck play script, although slightly altered the intention is the same “stab the she-wolf dead” (2008, pg 122).

    Works Cited:
    The Open University (1977) The Beginnings of Modern Drama, The Open University Press: Milton Keynes
    Buchner, G (2008) Danton’s Death, Leonce and Lena and Woyzeck, Oxford University Press Inc: New York

  2. I’m really interested in the last part of this update, as it relates directly to the autobiographical aspect of our performance. Had our group gone on to do Theatre Company, it is this exact detail that we would have gone into, recreating posters and leaflets with such historical facts. I also find it fascinating from a character development point-of-view. Even though our performance is over now, when I look back at my character Buchner, I think I could have created a further context in my character consciousness of stress and fear of being arrested, guilt from his friends becoming imprisoned and exploring why exactly he felt such an affinity with Woyzeck that he wrote about his life. Thanks for this post, :] x

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