This Day in Jewish History, 1899

Jewish Cobbler Convicted in Blood Libel Case

Bohemian resident Leopold Hilsner is wrongly accused of killing a local woman and using her blood for making Passover matzo.

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On September 16, 1899, Leopold Hilsner, a 23-year-old Jewish cobbler from the town of Polna, in Bohemia, was convicted of the murder of Aneka Hrzová, a 19-year-old Catholic woman whose body had been found earlier that year in a nearby forest.

Although there were no witnesses to tie Hilsner to the crime and no convincing physical evidence, and even though the defendant himself, who was of subnormal intelligence, insisted he had no connection to Hruzova’s death, he was accused in the trial of carrying out a Jewish ritual murder, was convicted and sentenced to death.

The blood libel had a long history in Europe, but the Hilsner case was special in that it received a huge amount of publicity, a lot of it in the anti-Semitic press. Also, coming as it did just days after Alfred Dreyfus, the French-Jewish military officer who had been convicted of espionage, was convicted a second time in a September 1899 retrial, the Hilsner case had special resonance among Jew-haters. During both the investigation and at Hilsner’s trial, anti-Semitic riots broke out in a number of towns in Bohemia and Moravia.

The victim, a seamstress, had disappeared after leaving work on March 29, 1899. Three days later, on April 1, the day before Easter Sunday – which that year coincided with Passover – her body was found in the Brezina forest. Her throat had been slashed, and although she had apparently died from loss of blood, only a small amount of blood was found at the site of her body.

Police arrested four vagrants who had supposedly been seen in the area of the forest, but in the end only Hilsner went on trial, beginning on September 11. He denied his guilt, but couldn’t produce an alibi. It was the lawyer representing the victim’s family, Karel Baxa, who later became mayor of Prague, who pressed the ritual murder motive, suggesting that Hilsner had drained Hruzova’s body of its blood for use in making Passover matzo.

Hilsner was convicted on September 16. A short time later, Tomas Masaryk, then a professor of sociology at the Czech University and later the first president of Czechoslovakia, appealed on his behalf; a retrial took place in November, with a change of venue. By now, however, the body of another woman, so decomposed it was hardly identifiable, had been found, and Hilsner was charged with her murder too. On November 14, 1899, he was found guilty of both killings, and again sentenced to death.

On June 11, 1901, Emperor Franz Josef commuted Hilsner’s sentence to life imprisonment, but it was only in March 1918 that the Emperor Karl issued a pardon. The conviction was never overturned, nor was anyone else ever charged for the murders.

Hilsner lived another decade, dying on January 9, 1928, in Vienna, at age 51.