The last German student to die as a result of a duel using thrusting swords—not unlike the French épée de combat—was the young jurist Adolph Erdmannsdörffer.
Buried in the village cemetery at Wöllnitz, now integrated into the Thuringia town of Jena, his grave marker recalls him as “das letzte Opfer der Stoßmensur” (the last victim of the thrust Mensur).
The worst part: It was his own fault.
—J. Christoph Amberger
Adolph Erdmannsdörffer was born in Altenburg (Thuringia) and attended the famous university at Jena, where he enrolled to read law and became a member of the student fraternity Burschenschaft auf dem Fürstenkeller, a forerunner of today’s Germania Jena.
A brief note in a German newspaper (“Allerhand: Der Student, das Philisterium und die Mütze”, Allgemeiner Anzeiger und Nationalzeitung der Deutschen, Jahrgang 1845, vol. 2, p. 270-71) provides a condensed account of what happened.
On July 24, 1845, the law student Erdmannsdörffer initiated a verbal altercation with a young physician, Gustav Köhler from Eisenach. The reason was as trivial as they get: The color of Köhler’s fraternity cap. (He was a member of the Burgkelleraner, a rival Burschenschaft).
Köhler, who had already graduated and was about to get married, tried not to get drawn into a full-blown confrontation, but in the end the affair ended in a challenge to fight with “Pariser Degen”.
While that weapon, and its predecessors—the Jenaer Stoßschläger and the smallsword Germans called Parisien, which was used as the preferred weapon by students at the end of the 18th century—will be the subject of extensive analysis in an upcoming research paper, suffice it to say that it combined a pointed, hand-filed épée blade as found in later French dueling swords, with a small, circular guard and crossbar. (It had replaced the larger Stoßschläger about 15 years before for more serious encounters.)
On the evening of July 25th, both meet at a neighboring village. It is unclear if the duel was for the usual 24 Gänge (a Gang being ended when the seconds intervened, a fencer called “Halt!” because of exhaustion, or an injury was received), or if it was for the far graver auf einen Gang, where the seconds stood back and the fencers were required to inflict an Anschiß—a debilitating wound of a certain depth in the chest or the face, or at least 3 minor bleeding wounds on the fencing arm.
Dr. Köhler was the more experienced fencer and held back, not pressing his advantage. But in vain: During his ninth lunge at the doctor, Erdmannsdörfer advanced too aggressively, running into the opponent’s blade.
The blade entered his lung at a depth of several inches: The classic “Lungenfuchser”—a perforated lung causing a pneumothorax and internal bleeding into the lung.
Literally drowning in his own blood, Erdmannsdörffer “by midnight was a corpse, the doctor a murderer on the run”.
The grave marker, however, isn’t quite accurate. This was not a “Mensur” in the sense of Bestimmungsmensur but a duel proper, albeit according to the students’ Comment. And really, Erdmannsdörffer had it coming… he provoked the fight and pursued it with more aggressiveness than the cause of action demanded—you can hardly call him a victim. (Even if that is now de rigeur…)
Deaths during duels and rencontres were more frequent and far more savage during the mid- to late 1700’s. Still, the death of the arrogant young pup Erdmannsdörffer was the last straw that broke the back of the 200-year history of student duels with thrust weapons at Jena. That year, under the guidance of Fechtmeister Friedrich August Wilhelm Ludwig Roux, even the last fraternities engaging in Stoßduelle switched over to the Hiebcomment and introduced the Mensur proper using Schläger or curved-bladed sabers (“Krumme”).