HomeDocument of the WeekThe Incarcerated Impostor

The incarcerated impostor: Sophie Menges in Stadtvogtei prison, letter 1842The incarcerated impostor: Sophie Menges in Stadtvogtei prison, letter 1842

This note was scribbled by the thirty years old Sophie Menges in 1842 in the old remand prison of the “Stadtvogtei” at the Molkenmarkt in Berlin. She had appeared as Miss Sophie Hereforth from English nobility and had worked as a lady’s companion and educator in bourgeois families, before she was accused of theft, imposture and forgery of documents. Lengthy investigations – published in a criminal report from 1847 – unmasked her as a forest warden’s daughter from Hesedorf near Hanover. But she insisted on her story all her life, which was about to end only two years later in Spandau penitentiary. This story can be read in very different ways: As a story of deceit or of a desperate struggle to overcome social borders and be accepted as a translator and writer. Menges was well educated, she read Greek and tried to get into contact with scholars in England and in Germany. She corresponded with Thomas Carlyle. But she always experienced nothing but rejection and contempt. She insisted on her fake identity and bombarded the prison staff with complaints. She claimed that the white walls of her cell dazzled her and she demanded potted flowers for the window sill.This letter to the Stadtvogtei director, which I have acquired a few years ago, does also belong into this context: “…I also ask for thin lock-hairpins 10 or 12 in length. If they cost only 2 pennies, I shall be in a big dilemma. Please excuse me and don’t get angry, but it is as impossible for me to put a sewing needle into my hair as it is for you to shave with blunt scissors…”The typical female impostor in a 1905 encyclopedia

This note and this story have attracted my attention. And today, Sophie Menges Hereforth opens my new series of people in Berlin and forms – with her forced stay in the Stadtvogtei at Molkenmarkt – the first coordinate in a Berlin city map, which will tell the stories of very different people in very different times in this wonderful city over the next few months. And I add a second coordinate from my blog post from 1 November 2015: Günther Schabowski’s famous appearance at the GDR International Press Centre at Mohrenstrasse 38 on 9 November 1989, which initiated the fall of the Wall.

(Click on markers for information; click on square symbol for larger map view)

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