Wait a second, I recognise this room from somewhere, I thought to myself, squinting my eyes at the computer screen, cocking my head to one side. I was looking at this photograph above that I’d found while digging around some forums on Flickr, and it seemed so familiar– that corner by the window, the shaft against the graffiti-covered wall and the rickety bed frame; I’d seen them before, but where? Of course! Do you remember my recent post “A Brief Compendium of Vintage Opium Underworlds”? Take a close look at the next image …
This is the same room! One of the photos I posted in my compendium included this vintage photograph with the caption: “Students at the University of Heidelburg take a break from their studies while smoking opium (c. 1900)”.
However, what the caption didn’t mention is that this photograph of students at Heidelburg was actually taken inside the notorious university prison– yes, a student prison– known as the Karzer.
Heidelberg is a university town, the oldest and most prestigious in Germany, counting Victor Hugo and Mark Twain among its alumni, as well at least 56 Nobel prize-winners over the years. As brilliant as their students were however, if they misbehaved, the university had the jurisdiction to incarcerate them in their own dungeons and sentences could run on from days to weeks.
Their crime? Usually getting caught drunk, streaking about campus naked and something to do with letting a nearby farmer’s pigs loose into the town.
Karzers existed at universities and high schools until the 1930s and while punishments for arrest were originally more severe, respect for the prisons diminished towards the 19th century, when it turned into a different experience entirely.
Students were now responsible for bringing in their own food and drink and eventually, the receiving of visitors was even permitted. Being locked up in a karzer cell became a social occasion, an excuse to consume excessive amounts of alcohol and apparently, smoke a lot of opium.
Students would even deliberately commit crimes just to say they’d spent time incarcerated at the legendary prisons. The graffiti of students passing the time or proudly marking their visit can still be found on the walls of the Heidelberg karzer, which has been preserved by the university.
If only my detention hall had been this epic.