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Have you met Saskia?

Martine Oudenhoven - 2 januari 2015, 0 1931

Have you met Saskia?

We are experimenting with online science storytelling at ScienceOnline Leiden. Follow our main character Saskia as she tries to verify the story of a serial killer who lived in Leiden in the late 19th century.

Saskia de Peurder* is a freelance journalist with a strong interest in crime reporting and science. Some time ago, Saskia came across the story of Leiden’s famous serial killer: Goeie Mie (Good Mary). She started to develop some doubts. How convincing is the evidence? And did Mie really commit all the crimes she was accused of? Saskia decided to create a Twitter account (@saskiadepeurder) and to dig into it. Follow Saskia to keep track of her discoveries. 

Goeie Mie: a serial killer in Leiden

Almost 100 years ago, in April 1915, Maria Catharina Swanenburg died. Maria, or Mie, may be the largest serial killer in the history of The Netherlands. She was suspected of poisoning 102 people, of which 27 died. When she was caught in 1883, it turned out that she collected the funeral insurances that she had taken out on her victims.  You can imagine the outrage when the people of Leiden found out that a serial killer had been living (and killing) among them for years. Ironically, the nickname of Mie was 'Goeie Mie' (Good Mary), because she took care of children and ill people in the poorest parts of Leiden.

ScienceOnline Leiden and Goeie Mie

When Frank Nuijens came across this story, he got intrigued. And by now several of us are equally intrigued. The story raises so many science-related questions. Think for instance of pathology and forensic science. How did it work in the late 19th century? Or think about the health care system: why were the poisonings not discovered earlier? But it also raises anthropological questions and queries about the economical and legal system around that time. Goeie Mie finally confessed to three of the murders, but how trustworthy is the testament of a woman of low means and intellect under duress? Once we started reading and gathering information, we realized how little we know about what really happened.

This dark period in Leiden history deserves to be explored further, and we decided to do that with the expertise of the ScienceOnline Leiden community. Therefore, we will organize workshops that are based on this story. In these workshops, participants can pick a perspective (for example pathologist, anthropologist or economist), pick an online medium, and start working on their own online story. On top of that, we felt like experimenting ourselves and created Saskia for that purpose. 

*Peurder is a historic term used in Leiden for someone who fishes with a peur, a weighted fishing line with a bunch of worms attached to it.