Today is the birthday of Heinrich Hoffmann, who was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1809. He is most famous for writing a book called ‘Struwwelpeter’ which has been frightening generations of children since 1845. It contains ten stories outlining the disastrous consequences of poor or reckless behaviour. For example, Harriet, a girl who plays with matches, is burned to death and a boy called Conrad who keeps sucking his thumb has them snipped off by a tailor with massive scissors. Many of us have grown up with this book of cautionary tales and a lot of us have wondered why.
Some of Hoffmann’s stories seem like cruel things to read to small children, especially at bedtime. But that wasn’t how he saw them. He wrote the stories because he had been looking for a picture book to give to his three year old son for Christmas and was disappointed by the quality of what was on offer. So he decided to write one himself. His friends thought it was so good that they persuaded him to publish it. The book’s original title, which is a bit of a mouthful, so I’ll shorten it to: ‘Funny Stories and Whimsical Pictures… for Children Aged 3 to 6’, tells us, not only that it was a work of humour, but also the age of its intended audience.
I really wanted to find out what sort of a man would write such a book and give it to his small child. Heinrich seems to have had a difficult time at school. He was thought lazy because he was easily distracted. Then he was subjected to an extremely punishing educational regime by a strict father. Details of Heinrich Hoffmann’s actual life have proved hard to come by, in English at least. Especially as he unfortunately shares his name with Hitler’s personal photographer. Hoffmann became, in his day job, a doctor. His first post was in a morgue in Frankfurt, probably making sure that all its customers were really dead, before they were taken away and buried. At the time the book was published he was working in a paupers clinic and had a second job teaching anatomy. None of his work paid very well but, in 1851, he was made doctor at the Asylum for the Insane and Epileptic, in the centre of Frankfurt, after a friend retired. He was shocked by the conditions there and quickly made plans to build a new hospital on the outskirts of the town. He managed to raise the money from private citizens, which he said he did by being “really quite unpleasant and annoying.” He gave the job of designing the hospital to an architect whose wife suffered from a nervous disorder and together, they travelled Austria, Holland, Belgium, France and England, looking for all the best that the modern European asylum could offer. The hospital’s thirty acre site included gardens and also areas for farming and growing vegetables. As well as segregating the male and female patients, he also made sure that the more excitable inmates were kept separate from the quieter ones. Unusually, for that time, there were also no bars on the windows. Hoffmann lived in the hospital with his family.
He may have been the first person to practice psychiatry that was specifically tailored to children and adolescents, but again details are scant. Hoffmann is often cited as making an early description of the syndrome we now call ADHD which is illustrated in his story ‘Zappel-Philipp’ (Fidgety Philip) about a boy who can’t sit still. This is considered proof that the condition is not a modern phenomenon. As an anatomist, he firmly believed that the causes of mental disorders lay in the brain. He performed many autopsies on deceased patient who had suffered psychiatric and neurological disorders to try to determine the anatomical cause. His successor at the institute held similar beliefs and, in 1888, employed a doctor named Alois Alzheimer.
So, Hoffmann was not a cruel man. He genuinely loved his son and he devoted his life to helping children with behavioural problems. Not all his stories end in untimely death. There is one about a boy who falls in a river, because he is too busy looking at swallows in the sky to look where he’s going. But he is rescued and is fine. Then there is a story about three bullies who get dipped in a pot of ink for teasing a black boy. Hoffmann’s stories are really no worse than ‘The Boy who cried Wolf’ and he was mostly only trying to point out life’s pitfalls in a way that was memorable. A story about a little girl who catches fire is certainly shocking, but it did happen. One of my great aunts was burned to death as a child, back in the nineteenth century, because she was standing too close to the fire and her nightdress caught fire. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with warning children that the world can be a dangerous place.