Saturday, August 1, 2015

Engel Christine Westphalen: Torchbearer for Women Writing True Crime

Engel Christine Westphalen

This week I have relinquished my slot to a fellow lawyer, Ann Marie Ackermann.  Ann Marie had served as a prosecutor in the United States before relocating to Germany where she worked for fifteen years as a legal and medical translator. She now researches and writes historical true crime. Her first book, “Death of an Assassin,” will appear with Kent State University Press in 2017. It tells the true story of a German assassin who fled to the United States and became the first soldier to die under American Civil War hero Robert E. Lee. You can visit Ann Marie’s historical true crime blog at

You might be interested in knowing what led me to put you in Ann Marie’s hands this week. We’d never met but I received a note from Leighton Gage’s wife, Eide, that Ann Marie had written to Leighton requesting the opportunity to post on MIE.  The request had come on July 26, 2015, the second anniversary of Leighton’s death.  When I read the post I saw it as right up our readers’ alley, but I wondered if I should bend our rules to post a blog from a yet unpublished novelist.  Then later that same day, Ann Rule, a lynchpin of Ann Marie’s post, passed way.  I took that as a sign that this was a force to publish.

And so, welcome Ann Marie, and thanks.

Ann Marie Ackermann

Two centuries at least. That’s how old the true crime genre is.

It was considered a male domain when it first emerged in France and Germany at the end of the 18th century, but within less than a decade, a woman broke in. Engel Christine Westphalen (1758-1840) bore the torch for all female true crime authors in the western world. And in many ways, her career mirrored that of America’s first and most famous true crime authoress, Ann Rule, who just passed away on July 26, 2015. Both had to fight their way into a man’s world. And both started by publishing under a pseudonym to keep their gender a secret.

Ann Rule’s editor knew her secret, but her readers didn’t. She published under the name “Andy Stack” because the true crime genre was a male realm. When she started writing articles for True Detective Magazine, a newspaper reporter warned her, “This is no job for a woman.”

In May 1975 she got her first book contract – to write about the mysterious disappearances of young women all over the Pacific Northwest. Five months later, police in Utah apprehended a friend of hers, a man she knew even before the murders started. His name was Ted Bundy, and Ann Rule published her book, “The Stranger Beside Me,” under her own name. Ann Rule chiseled her way through the ramparts defending the true crime genre, and as one of its masters, ushered a number of other female authors through the masonry.


Engel Christine Westphalen did not achieve immediate respect when her identity became public. When she got caught, the archers manning the genre’s turrets were none other than Germany’s famous poets, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Goethe aimed his shots below the belt. At her underwear.

By 1804, Westphalen had already become an accomplished author. She wrote plays, poetry, songs, and travel memoirs. But Goethe and Schiller, the vanguards of Weimar Classicism, had laid down some rules. Fiction was acceptable for women. But true crime belonged to the genre of historical tragedy, and that was the domain of men. Goethe, who described female authors as dilettantes, reacted strongly to women making forays into his territory.

The Death of Marat

But a controversial crime had caught Westphalen’s attention. On July 13, 1793, Charlotte Corday knifed the French journalist Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub. Jacques Louis David’s painting of Marat, dead, naked and bleeding, half hanging out of the tub, with his correspondence in his left hand and quill in his right, is one of the enduring images of the French Revolution. Corday was dispatched at the guillotine and Napoleon censored any literature about the event.

In Hamburg, Germany, Westphalen was safely beyond Napoleon’s reach, and she penned an anonymous drama about Corday in five acts. When Goethe discovered who the author was, he was furious. “The worthy author of this tragedy of Charlotte Corday would have better spent her time knitting a warm underskirt for the winter than meddling this drama,” he wrote.


Schiller’s reaction was more subdued, even though he might have been stung more deeply. Schiller, who is considered the father of the true crime genre in Germany, had also been planning to write a play about Corday, and Westphalen had scooped him. He commented, “Finally a Charlotte Corday, which I read with doubt and uneasiness; nevertheless my curiosity is great.” The world never got to hear Schiller’s further opinions. He died prematurely a year later.

In many ways Westphalen’s play prefigured the modern genre. She wove historical source material, such as Corday’s private correspondence and the trial transcript, into her dialogue. She presented her protagonist not as silent killer, but a rounded person, with comprehensible political motives, who could vocally defend them.

Westphalen never let Germany’s literary giants deter her. She penned another historical drama in 1805. In 1809 she began writing under her own name. After she published a volume of poetry about social issues, the city of Hamburg awarded Westphalen a medal.

Women are perfectly capable of wielding quills just as skillfully as knitting needles. Westphalen proved that by winning a literary stare down with Goethe. In doing so, she led the charge for all women who write true crime.

Literature on Point:

Stephanie Hilger, “The Murderess on Stage: Christine Westphalen’s Charlotte Corday (1804),” in Women and Death 3: Women’s Representations of Death in German Culture since 1500 (Clare Bielby & Anna Richards, eds.) (Rochester, NY: Camden House 2010) 71-87.

Ann for Jeff—Saturday


  1. Welcome, Ann, a fascinating story!

    I remember in the 1970s, a large kerfluffle: several science fiction authors got into a "dialogue" about female authors vs. male authors, and one famous author (Robert Silverberg, I believe) claimed that men and women simply wrote DIFFERENTLY, that he knew Tiptree had to be a man, as a woman could not possibly have written the stories credited to Tiptree. Unfortunately for him, a year or two later it came out that Tiptree was Alice Sheldon, and she was one of the great short-SF writers of the 1970s.

  2. Ha! That's a great story about Tiptree, Everett! And thanks for the warm welcome!

  3. Yes, a hearty welcome to you. I find the personalities fascinating, I've read them all my life, and this writing brings to life,

  4. Thanks, lil! The personalities are fascinating. I can't imagine getting into a fight with the likes of Goethe!