Growing up is a stage in life where we are all up-to one mischief or the other. While the disciplinary action can vary depending upon the gravity of the mischief committed and the damage done, have you ever heard about a prison sentence for such crimes? Well if you were a student at the Heidelberg University in the early 19th century, then going to prison for misdemeanors was a realty.
On my recent visit to Heidelberg with Germany Tourism, I asked the Heidelberg tourism office for their must see suggestion in the city, apart from the famous Heidelberg castle, and they all recommended the “Student Prison and the Great Hall”. I have seen India police stations and even stayed in a prison converted to a hostel (in Ljubljana), but a student prison was something I had never seen or heard of before. Intrigued I decided to visit.
This prison is a small ground +2 floors structure near the University Museum. There is a small souvenir shop at the entrance that sells tickets to visit the Prison only or a combined ticket for prison and the great hall. I bought the combined ticket.
The moment I entered the building I saw interesting and colorful graffiti on every inch of the walls; even on the ceiling. There was a handy one page sheet at the entrance to the rooms (in multiple languages) that provided a quick introduction to this place.
The student prison was established in the 1780s and remained in use until 1914. From the time of the foundation of the Heidelberg University, the University had the right to exercise legal jurisdiction above its students and not the city law enforcement. So if the students were found guilty of any misconduct the University would conduct a hearing for the student and award an appropriate sentence of serving jail time from 24 hours to 4 weeks.
The best part was the list of common offenses that led to this jail term – disturbing the peace of the city in the night by loud singing in the streets, inappropriate behavior in public place as a result of inebriation, participation in unregulated fencing duels, insulting policemen on duty, using a stick to knock off the hat of a policemen and having a good laugh at their expense etc etc. But it seems the students favorite act of mischief was releasing pigs and piglet in the nights and then driving these squealing animals through the night.
Convicted students were assigned to one of the prison’s small rooms, each outfitted with a hard bed, a straw mattress, a desk, a chair and a heater. They had to pay for a pillow, cover and sheets or bring their own. For the first two days, students were given just bread and water and post that they were permitted to order food from outside. While in the prison, students could attend classes, play card games, visit fellow inmates, carve names on tables, chairs etc.
However over time going to prison started becoming “cool” thing too, a matter of honor and something that had to be experienced during your stint at the Heidelberg University. It also became a great way to “bunk” classes and avoid tests. To summarize, to boost their local reputations, students began committing petty crimes for an opportunity to be sent to prison to do “jail time”.
And over time students also started decorating the walls with scrawled messages, fraternity house symbols, cartoonish figures, traced silhouettes of the heads of fellow prisoners, family crests, etc. For the black color they used soot from the fire-place or candle-smut. Later on they started bringing paint with them.
There were also names for the prison suites – Solitude, Palais Royale and Sanssouci. It is said that during Mark Twian’s visit to Heidelberg he visited an American friend in this prison and mentioned it in his book – “A Tramp Abroad”. Mark Twain in his excerpts mentions that when he visited the prison amongst everything else there was a placard on the wall with the prison rules. Sadly the placard is not there now and I am sure it would have been a fun read.
All these images survive in an excellent condition till today and are the main draw of this museum. Well I loved my visit to this unique museum and totally recommend it to everyone.
After the museum I went to see the Great Hall. The entrance for this is from the side of the University Museum. The Great Hall is Heidelberg University’s magnificent historic auditorium and is located on the first floor. This Great Hall was redesigned in 1886 and used for courses and lectures. It is a beautiful hall with paintings, carvings, busts of university’s founders, innovators, benefactors and important academics. Though for the life of me I couldn’t understand how anyone could concentrate on a lecture in this hall! There are so many small and beautiful elements to see and I loved the wood work around.
There is a University museum here on the ground level that offers a tour through the history of this university but I didn’t visit it as everything seemed to be in German and I can’t boast of it being my strongest language.
If you are visiting Heidelberg and want to revisit adolescence, do take some time and visit the Student Prison and the Great Hall. It’s a small place and doesn’t take too much of your time.
Tips for the Trip:
- Entrance here is free with the Heidelberg Card.
- You can buy your ticket at the University Museum in the Alte Universitäte on Grabengasse, then walk around the block to the Student Prison or from the souvenir Shop at the entrance of the Student Prison.
- The combined ticket for the Student Prison and the Great Hall is pretty cheap and both are worth a visit.