Letters from Heaven, increasingly greedy Biblical figures, a lunch date with God, and a grisly murder committed out of a jealous rage: In every sense, the 'Angels of Schoenfels' is a baffling tale from early 1930s Luxembourg.
Deleting spam e-mails is, unfortunately, a daily occurrence for us 21st-Century humans. While doing this, we sometimes catch a glimpse of the ridiculous ways people around the world try to scam us out of our money, and perhaps you have wondered before who on Earth would fall for these obvious traps.
However, as some of you may already be aware, most scam e-mails are deliberately outlandish. Of course, 99% of us will delete them as soon as they arrive in our inbox, but that is not important – the scammers are only interested in the 1% who will not delete them. By making them outlandish, they ensure that only the most gullible, and thus the most vulnerable, will reply.
What does this have to do with today's story, you ask? Well, let's just say that if you think e-mail scams are outrageously unbelievable, you are not prepared for this infamous Luxembourgish fraud case that made headlines across the Grand Duchy in the early 1930s.
This story took place in Schoenfels and involved four local residents: Catherine Kerzmann, an 80-year-old widow and the victim of the scam, Barbara Ewert-Willms and her younger half-sister Theresa ("Rosa") Willms, the scammers, and Franz Ewert, a former farmer and husband of Barbara Ewert.
In 1933, Catherine Kerzmann lived a peaceful life in Schoenfels, Luxembourg. One day, she received a strange letter, which had supposedly been sent from Heaven and was signed Alle Heiligen des Himmels ("All Saints from Heaven"). According to a newspaper report in the Escher Tageblatt from 18 February 1933, this first letter was dirty and "smelled more of dung and fertiliser than of incense and myrrh and should have raised some questions regarding heavenly cleanliness and divine postal administration."
The letter explained to Mrs Kerzmann that the angels of heaven would really like some raspberry jam, urging her to give "a big jar" to "the angel incarnate" Theresa, called Rosa, Willms, her next-door neighbour. Despite the sketchy appearance of the letter, Mrs Kerzmann, a pious woman, willingly complied.
The widow started receiving more letters after this. But before long, she was communicating with Archangel Gabriel himself, rather than nameless hosts of angels. The latter was clearly above simple raspberry jam and instead asked for "three or more" eggs and some wine. "Gabriel" also revealed to Mrs Kerzmann that her neighbour Rosa was not just a medium between Schoenfels and Heaven but in fact a saint herself.
It seemed that word of the charitable 80-year-old Schoenfels resident travelled quickly in Heaven, as Mrs Kerzmann soon received a letter from the Virgin Mary. What, you might ask, could Jesus' mother possibly want from an elderly woman living in the Luxembourgish countryside? Well, as you might have guessed, as the rank of the heavenly correspondents increased, the demands became more expensive. In her letter, the Virgin Mary explained to Mrs Kerzmann that she is in need of… a bicycle.
Bicycles were incredibly expensive at the time, but this did not stop poor old Mrs Kerzmann, who travelled all the way to Mersch to buy one. Clearly happy with her new ride, Our Lady in Heaven wrote yet another letter to her faithful servant, this time instructing her to give 1,000 francs to Rosa so that the latter may accompany her mother on a pilgrimage.
You might have already guessed the inevitable conclusion to this egregious con. Around New Year's Day, God himself sent Mrs Kerzmann a rather grimy letter, in which he announced in scrawly handwriting that he and four of his angels would come around for lunch (!) in the coming days. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it ultimately turned out that the Almighty was rather busy and so instead, he sent his trusty representatives on Earth: Barbara Ewert and her little sister Rosa.
After the divine lunch, Mrs Kerzmann received one last letter in which the 80-year-old widow was outright instructed to bequeath her house to "Saint Rosa Willms." Gathering all of her courage, the devout woman wrote back to the Almighty, stating that while she is happy to leave her house to Theresa, would it be possible to wait until she was dead?
Since they could quite literally get nothing more from Mrs Kerzmann, the "angels" wanted to replicate their success with her with other people. Those concerned, however, almost instantly informed the police, and so the matter was brought to court.
The angels on trial
On 17 February 1933, the case was heard by the prison police court.
When confronted, the accused claimed that the letters really were sent from Heaven. Tragically, the scammers could count on the support of their victim, as Mrs Kerzmann also insisted that there was no fraud at play, and that she really had been in contact with otherworldly beings. The widow was adamant about this. Even when it was proven that the writing in the letters clearly matched that of Rosa, or when the judges asked her why on Earth the Virgin Mary would need a bicycle. Mrs Kerzmann also continued to believe that angels came to have lunch with her, telling the court that they particularly enjoyed the chips she had prepared, and insisted on seeing Archangel Gabriel in the courtroom.
Barbara Ewert was fined 1,000 francs by the court. The fact that she had no prior criminal record was considered a "mitigating circumstance" by the court. Rosa Willms was acquitted on the grounds that she was still too young to be criminally liable. The letters were confiscated.
A tragic end
While everyone assumed this would be the end of the story, the case made headlines once again almost a year after the trial when Mrs Kerzmann was found brutally murdered on 13 January 1934. It was the local mailman, an 18-year-old called Serres, who discovered the body. He would later tell the Escher Tageblatt that he was so shocked by the horrific scene that he was unable to report it to the police himself and had to ask someone else to do it.
The gendarmes from Mersch quickly arrested four suspects: Fritz Ewert, Barbara Ewert, Rosa Willms, and the latter's boyfriend, a man called Meiers. It was not long before it was found that Fritz Ewert was the perpetrator of the heinous crime, since he admitted to it the next day.
Ewert had struggled with alcoholism in previous years and had sold all of his land to fund his addiction. He was heavily inebriated at the time of the crime, and the gendarmes suspected he was out for vengeance because his wife had been sentenced to pay a 1,000-franc fine for her letter scam, a payment which would have been due soon.
However, another motive emerged during the trial. It turned out that Ewert had been cheating on his wife with Rosa, and he grew enraged when the latter began a relationship with another man shortly after moving in with... Mrs Kerzmann. In an interview with the Escher Tageblatt on 17 January 1934, she explained that she started spending "day and night" at her former victim's house to escape from Fritz Ewert's violent outbursts.
On 5 June 1934, he was sentenced to lifelong forced labour.
In 2013, Marc Thoma created a Luxembourgish film based on the story. Thoma not only studied the available documentation in the national archives to make the film as authentic as possible, but he also interviewed witnesses who were alive at the time the story took place.
The title of the film was D'Engelcher vu Schëndels, and it premiered in Luxembourg on 16 January 2013.