Johann Christian Woyzeck was a Leipzig wigmaker and an impoverished soldier in Germany.
He was born on January 3, 1780 in Lepzig to middle-class parents whom he lost when he was thirteen years old. He traveled around as a wigmaker, barber, et cetera and then enlisted in the army. He was moved between several armies as a soldier. When his regiment got transferred to the Prussian army he asked for demobilization and returned to Leipzig to look for work.
He became a hairdresser but the times were difficult. He lived poorly. In the meantime he became close with Woost, a widow of a surgeon.
Relationship with and Murder of Mrs. Woost
Even before the infamous murder described in the play the couple’s relationship was not very healthy. According to notes by Henry J. Schmidt included in a version of Woyzeck:
Although she [Woost] was ‘not at all attractive,’ according to reports, Woyzeck periodically flew into jealous rages and attacked her. On one occasion he beat her with a shattered pot; at another time, finding her dancing with a rival, he threw her down a flight of stairs (Schmidt 103).
On the actual event that triggered the unfortunate murder:
On June 21, 1821, Woyzeck had arranged a rendezvous with Mrs. Woost, but he waited in vain because she had decided to go for a walk with a soldier named Bottcher. Toward evening the enraged Woyzeck had a wooden handle affixed to a knifeblade he owned. Shortly afterward he met Mrs. Woost and accompanied her home in a calmer frame of mind; but upon reaching the entrance to her house, she said, “What do you want from me? Go home! What if my landlord comes out?” Losing all control, Woyzeck stabbed her seven times, killing her immediately. He was apprehended a few minutes later without being able to dispose of his knife. To his captors he said: “God hope she’s dead. She earned it!” (103-104)
“The Soundness of Mind of the Murderer Johann Christian Woyzeck, Proven on the Basis of Documents According to the Principles of State Pharmaceutics”
A court physician named Johann Christian August Clarus examined and interrogated Woyzeck. He was proven guilty.
Woyzeck’s defense claimed Woyzeck was mentally disturbed. “The court…discovered that Woyzeck had been known to have visions and had claimed to hear voices, whereupon a new investigation was ordered” (104).
Clarus’s report on Woyzeck was entitled “The Soundness of Mind of the Murderer Johann Christian Woyzeck, Proven on the Basis of Documents According to the Principles of State Pharmaceutics”.
He [Clarus] found that Woyzeck was physically healthy except for evidences of high blood pressure. Woyzeck’s memory was good; he was receptive to questions and spoke clearly and openly about the events and motivations which led to the murder, but he maintained that he felt no remorse for his deed. Clarus stated that Woyzeck was by nature not a violent man- his jealous rages were isolated exceptions- and although on occasion he drank heavily, he was not a confirmed alcoholic. The only indication that Woyzeck was insane was his assertion that he was plagued by visions and voices (104).
Woyzeck claimed he saw visions and heard voices that directly related to Mrs. Woost. However, given Clarus’s report Woyzeck was pronounced sane enough for execution, which “raised a storm of controversy” (106).
For the murder he was condemned to death by sword and was publicly beheaded in a Leipzig square in 1824.
Schmidt, Henry J. Woyzeck from Woyzeck by Büchner, Georg. New York, NY: Avon Books, 1969. Print.