Ragtime’s Coalhouse is heavily based on writer Heinrich Von Kleist‘s short novel, Michael Kohlhaas. The novella is about Kohlhaas’s quest for justice after  an official named Junker Wenzel von Tronka illegally confiscates two of Kohlhaas’s black nags (horses). Similar to Coalhouse’s struggle, Kohlhaas is unable to seek legal redress and is thus forced to take more drastic measures. This is only the beginning of the parallel’s between Kleist’s Kohlhaas and the Coalhouse of Ragtime. Below I have laid out some of the similarities.

16th Century Original Kolhase Figure

Similarities Between Their Lives:

  • Mostly obviously: Pronunciation
  • Attempt to seek justice through the law and belief that laws are in place to protect the people
  • Sense of justice leads to criminal acts
  • More concerned about the principle and less about the material objects
  • Wives attempt to seek legal redress for them and consequently are killed
  • Have gangs
  • Fighting against someone who’s community ultimately turns against them
  • Are approached by prominent figures (Booker T. Washington/Dr. Martin Luther) and influenced to end their “madness”


Quotes from Michael Kohlhaas That Exemplify Both Characters

Lady of Justice held back by Lady of Mercy. This image epitomizes the differing opinions and the struggle of knowing what constitutes as "okay" when pursuing justice.

  • “Because I do not wish to remain in a land, dear Lisabeth [wife of Kohlhaas], where my rights are not protected. Better to be a dog than a man, if I’m to be kicked around!”
  • “Whoever denies me that legal recourse casts me out to live among the beasts of the wild; he puts the cudgel in my hand with which I must protect myself.”
  • “Honored Sir, it cost me my wife; Kohlhaas will show the world that she did not die for an unjust cause.”
  • “…the man in question had indeed, in a certain sense, on account of the measures taken against him, been cast out of the social contract…”