Serving Time at Heidelberg University's Student Prison

By Travel Writers

March 3, 2018 9 min read

By Sharon Whitley Larsen

I was in jail! And what better place to be on a rain-soaked day in Heidelberg?!

This was my first visit to this magical, romantic city of 155,000 in southwest Germany on the banks of the scenic Neckar River. As I sloshed through the cobble-stoned passages, trying to maneuver a wind-swept umbrella as well as carry a camera and small travel bag my guide suggested that we pop into Heidelberg University's Student Prison.

Excuse me?

I had no idea that this quirky jail — "Studentenkarzer"— housed at the prestigious Heidelberg University (the oldest in Germany, built between 1712 and 1728, with some 30,000 students today) was a popular tourist stop — especially after tourists have seen the glorious ruins of Heidelberg Castle and the city's highest point - Konigsfuhl — via the funicular, taking in the gorgeous view — as well as touring such sites as the Old Bridge, the Church of the Holy Spirit, Old Town and the Philosopher's Walk. In 2014 Heidelberg was named a UNESCO City of Literature.

Opened from 1784 to 1914, it was renovated and expanded during 1822-23 and a new cell, the largest, was added in 1886, along with a fireplace flue and the wooden staircase replaced by stone stairs. The prison was where rowdy students — generally from well-to-do families — were "sentenced" for kavaliersdelikte (minor infractions) for anywhere from three days to four weeks. (Until the mid-19th century, sentences could be up to a year.) The offenses could include drinking to excess, disturbing the peace, insulting authorities, bathing in public, illegal fencing duels, releasing farmers' pigs to run wild, smashing streetlights — basically behaving badly and driving the authorities nuts. In the 19th century, with some 20,000 population, there were 500 to700 university students.

For serious offenses students were given only bread and water the first three days. The cells, eventually dubbed various names — including Solitude, Palais Royal, Sans Souci and Villa Trall (there were also the Servant's Room and the Throne Room or WC) — were furnished with a bed, small table and wooden chair. Students were attended by a manservant before 7 a.m., and lights were out at 10 p.m. During the day, however, the students — members of various fraternities, dressed in uniforms with the university frat's trademark cap - were released to attend class lectures so their education would not suffer. Residing in the prison was sort of a badge of honor, and eventually friends, family and restaurants supplied food — and even beer and wine — so prison life could be somewhat civilized.

But to while away the time in their small cells, the lads began doodling and painting on the walls, jotting down their names and dates of their incarceration, writing poetry or general graffiti via various media, including oil paints and wax crayons. Notes were also carved on tables, beds, chairs, doors and windowpanes. (In 1983 all doors were removed and replaced by metal gates.)

From the 1823 regulations, imprisoned students were charged nominal fees for admission and release, daily attendance, heat and lights. When Mark Twain visited in 1878, he was fascinated that the university had a prison. In 1880 he published "A Tramp Abroad," which included "The College Prison": "The ceiling was completely covered with names, dates and monograms done with candle smoke. The walls were thickly covered with pictures and portraits (in profile), some done with ink, some with soot, some with a pencil, and some with red, blue and green chalks, and wherever an inch or two of space had remained between the pictures, the captives had written plaintive verses, or names and dates. I do not think I was ever in a more elaborately frescoed apartment."

He described a cell he visited as having "a window of good size, iron-grated; a small stove; two wooden chairs; two oaken tables, very old and most elaborately carved with names, mottoes, faces, armorial bearings, etc. — the work of several generations of imprisoned students; and a narrow wooden bedstead with a villainous old straw mattress, but no sheets, pillows, blankets or coverlets — for these the student must furnish at his own cost if he wants them. There was no carpet, of course."

Today visitors are in awe of the colorful paintings and quirky drawings, as well as the sayings, including one atop the first staircase landing: "Abandon every hope, you who enter!" from Dante's "Inferno."

Upon my release from the jail, I stopped at Cafe Knosel to purchase a "Student's Kiss" — a chocolate candy, its wrapper emblazoned with a profile replica of a capped uniformed university student ready to kiss his sweetheart. In 1863, Fridolin Knosel created a chocolate delight that students could give to young ladies as a token of affection when romantic public displays were discouraged. The charming shop, where tourists purchase the treats for souvenirs, is still run by family members today.

And as I took a bite of the sweet, I wondered if any of the student prisoners had them delivered to their cells. Just a thought!

WHEN YOU GO

The Student Prison (tickets include visits to the impressive Old Hall and University Museum as well): https://www.tourism-heidelberg.com/explore/historical-sights/historical-university-sights/student-jail/index_eng.html. There's a small gift shop, where visitors can purchase souvenir "University of Heidelberg" T-shirts.

I stayed at the charming Hotel Hollander Hof, with a view of the Old Bridge, the Neckar River and the Philosopher's Walk: http://www.hollaender-hof.de/index.php/en/

Zum Goldenen Hecht (next to hotel; popular with locals; cozy, with good German food): www.goldener-hecht-heidelberg.eu/

Simplicissimus (a gastronomic treat): http://www.simplicissimus-restaurant.de/en/restaurant-simpliciss.html

Cafe Schafheutle (lovely place where I had lunch): www.cafe-schafheutle.de/

Cafe Knosel: ("Student Kiss"): http://studentenkuss.com/English/geschichte.html

Tourism Heidelberg: www.tourism-heidelberg.com

Heidelberg Card: Valid for free public transportation and reduced entrance fees in various museums in Heidelberg City: https://www.tourism-heidelberg.com/destination/tourist-information/heidelbergcard/index_eng.html

Historic Highlights of Germany: www.historicgermany.travel; http://www.historicgermany.travel/en/historic-cities/heidelberg

 A typical cell at Heidelberg University's Student Prison contains a basic bed, table and chair—surrounded by colorful student artwork. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.
A typical cell at Heidelberg University's Student Prison contains a basic bed, table and chair—surrounded by colorful student artwork. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.
 The author and her husband are "incarcerated" at Heidelberg University's Student Prison. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.
The author and her husband are "incarcerated" at Heidelberg University's Student Prison. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.
 Those imprisoned at Heidelberg University's Student Prison — a popular tourist stop today — whiled away the time by doing detailed drawings. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.
Those imprisoned at Heidelberg University's Student Prison — a popular tourist stop today — whiled away the time by doing detailed drawings. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.

Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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