The Count, the Washerwoman, and the Asylum
It was a story right out of a fairy tale.
In 1905, Count Francis Erasmus von Erbach-Erbach was riding through the woods of his ancestral estates in Germany, when he chanced upon a young woman, Dora Fischer, who was gathering sticks in the forest. Fischer, when not collecting firewood, assisted her mother in the estate’s laundry.
The young woman was stunning, a perfect German rose. The young count — twenty-two years old at the time — was pierced by Cupid’s shaft. After finding opportunities to see the washerwoman, he declared his interest and was gratified to learn that his passion was reciprocated: Dora loved him as well. They began making plans for marriage, and a future that would exemplify the traditional ending to a story of this type: “They lived happily ever after.”
Not So Fast
Ever engaging fable demands a villain, an obstacle to happiness. In this case, the poisonous thorn on the rose was Erasmus’ father, Francois Georges Albert Ernest Frederic Louis Christian, Count von Erbach-Erbach, lord of Brenberg, Wildenstein, Steinbach, Curl et Ostermannshofen. In less time than it took to pronounce his full name and title, the elder count forbade a union between his son and a common servant. The Erbachs stood in the first rank of European royal families. Genealogists had traced their line back into the tenth century, and every member, male and female, had been of noble birth. Erasmus would not be permitted to break the pattern; he must renounce his intention to marry the washerwoman, said the senior count, or he would be disinherited, stripped of his titles, and turned out.
This was a serious threat. The family owned three palaces; their extensive property holdings generated more than a million dollars each year. Marriage to Dora would result in a serious hardship.
But can you put a price on love?
Erasmus defied his father. He and Dora fled Germany, traveling to Paris via automobile. They crossed the English Channel and took lodgings in London, where, after the statutory time, they wed.
The Count Strikes Back
After honeymooning in Paris, the couple returned to Germany. Unfortunately, Erasmus’ father had not been idle. He had convened a meeting of the family, which issued an ultimatum: the marriage was illegal because Erasmus had not secured permission to wed from the various branches of the noble family. If Erasmus did not divorce his servant-wife in three years, he would be disinherited, and his uncle, Count Arthur, would take his place as next in line. His annual allowance would be reduced from $300,000 to $900.
Erasmus shrugged off the threat. He announced that he intended to study law and earn his way. Three years passed. The couple spent their days happily. No divorce.
The senior count, when he saw that his threats had failed to break the union, sent an extraction team to Frankort-on-Main, where Erasmus and Dora were living. The count’s men overpowered Erasmus and hauled him away to the Ahrweiler Asylum, where he was placed in the hands of the resident psychiatric team. Erasmus was clearly insane, argued his father, “no count who was not a mad man would marry a washerwoman.”
The family persuaded the German courts to annul the marriage, and Count Francois offered Dora a fifty dollar monthly stipend if she would slip quietly back into obscurity. Although they must have believed that this sum would tempt a commoner, they had underestimated her fidelity. The countess-washerwoman was not for sale.
Dora crafted a cunning plan to extricate her husband from the insane asylum. She bribed an attendant at the institute to slip a rope, a file, and a message to the inmate. Erasmus set to work with the file, cutting slowly through the iron bars that caged his window.
On the appointed night, Erasmus tied one end of the rope to his bed frame, bent the detached bars and climbed out of his upper-story window. He slid down the rope to the ground. Dora was waiting with a car, and the two fled to Switzerland, 200 miles away. They hid in Geneva for three weeks, and then slipped into Bavaria, where they took up residence in a forest outside Volkers.
“This cottage in the woods has been the retreat which had sheltered us ever since my father’s anger pursued us,” Erasmus told a British journalist. “Five separate times my father has sought to deprive me of my liberty, and five separate times I have made my escape.”
“My privations have utterly failed to chasten me,” continued Erasmus. “I insist on the preservation of my personal liberty. I desire to remain my wife’s husband.”
“Have you not in English an expression: ‘Love will find a way?’”
Indeed, there is such an axiom. However, the trials and tribulations that laughter dismisses in the first flush of love, become a burden as ardor’s flames settle. Erasmus tried to earn a living to support the couple, but, unfortunately, he had few practical skills. He been raised in a rarefied environment — taught to recite the names of his ancestors back to the tenth century, and to consider himself superior to the rest of the world. These skills did not translate into a vocation. His family and all of Germany’s noble families turned their backs on the estranged son. All doors were slammed in his face; he was thoroughly and completely cut-off from the only world he knew.
By 1911, the couple had been ground fine by the mill of poverty. Dora decided to return to her family, if only to save herself from starvation. Erasmus sought a reconciliation with his father, but was forced to divorce Dora before the idea could be entertained.
He filed for divorce, charging her with desertion.
The family received the repentant prodigal back into the noble fold, but they did so on their own, cold terms. Erasmus was officially declared a perpetual minor. He was “deprived of all his civic rights and of the control of his property, which is vested in the hands of trustees.” The irresponsible and unstable son was made the ward of court-appointed guardians: he was denied the right to conduct business, sign contracts, or enter any legal or financial arrangements without the approval of his overseers.
Erasmus spent the rest of his days, powerless, dominated by others; the beautiful washerwoman returned to her laundry tubs, and unlike a fairy tale, neither lived happily ever after.
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Sources: Austin American-Statesman (TX), Jan. 19, 1908; Chicago Tribune, July 1, 1915; Detroit Free Press, Jan. 12, 1908; Herald and Review (Decatur, IL), Oct. 2, 1905; Indianapolis Star, Sept. 26, 1905; Lincoln Star (NE), Jan. 12, 1908; Miami Herald, July 26, 1911.