A Jolly Jail
Words and Images by Mark Luscombe-Whyte
In the unlikely setting of Heidelberg University, Mark Luscombe-Whyte finds an extraordinary monument to student life that summons a world of dueling, fraternities and drinking. Within the Karzer jail, or students’ prison, you will find rich embellishments that transform the establishment into a work of art.
As you mount the stairs to Heidelberg University’s Karzer jail, or students’ prison, you enter a long-lost world. The Karzer represents an era of duels, shadowy fraternities and students who spent most of their time dressing up in outlandish uniforms, haunting taverns and raising riot in the streets.
Students were sent to the Karzer for a range of misdemeanors, many of which seemed to have involved drinking extreme amounts of alcohol, as beer played an important role in the induction process for the various university fraternities. Students were usually sentenced to stays of between three days and a month, but they were allowed to continue with their studies and, while the conditions were Spartan, they could bring their own bedding into the cells. The incarcerated students could even send out for food and wine and visitors were allowed to come and go as they wished.
Duelling and fencing were also an important rite of passage for some of these fraternities, as only those who had fought the required number of matches could become fully fledged members. Regulations published in 1810 stated that anyone convicted of fencing should be confined for a period of 14 days at the Karzer and any spectators should be detained for three days. If you look at the old doors at the Karzer you will find numerous carte de visite of former prisoners, many with heavy scarring on their faces from a time when the scars were worn as a badge of honor.
Whilst tales of student misconduct are fascinating, it is how the inmates spent their time in the Karzer that draws us here. In his book, A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain devotes a lengthy appendix to “The College Prison”. Twain points out that “the ceiling was completely covered in names, dates and monograms done with candle smoke. The walls were thickly covered with pictures and portraits, 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 remained between the pictures, the captives had written plaintive verses, or names and dates.”
As Twain suggests, every single surface at the Karzer has been embellished in one way or another and the result is a single work of art made by countless hands over many years. The ceilings are covered in soot paintings, every inch of the walls is filled with portraits of members of the various fraternities, each one marked by their different colored caps. The chairs, beds and desks are all covered in carvings and even some of the windows panes have been engraved. Although the Karzer closed its doors for the last time in February 1914, just before the First World War, these images still stand as a testament to those long-departed inmates.
“Genius is a crime these days, here in this world of slavish ways,” said one inmate “Who causes the truth to flash and glint is packed off to jail to do a stint.”
Cabana Magazine N15
Covers by Ralph Lauren. May 2021.
This issue is a "love letter to Milan," a meandering walk into some of the city's most interesting interiors. Other stories spotlight Portugal, Greece, the magnificence of Althorp House in England and some of Italy's best kept secrets: two raw regions in the south that are barely known by national and international travelers, Molise and Calabria. Unfortunately we are unable to guarantee specific covers at time of order.
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