2021.09.19 12:00

Tavern hostage drama or courtship in 18-century Vilnius

Aivaras Ragauskas, Orbis Lituaniae2021.09.19 12:00

A curious incident from the early 18th century gives a glimpse into relations between the sexes in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

February 22, 1709, was, in all likelihood, a nice winter day. Otherwise a company of Germans – some of them residents of Vilnius, others their guests from Königsberg – wouldn’t have chosen it for a sledge trip to Trakai.

One of their goals was to visit the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin, the painting that still hangs inside the St Virgin Mary Church in Trakai. Lutherans, unlike Reformed Evangelicals, revere Mary as a virgin mother of Jesus. In this respect, they are similar to Catholics.

However, matters of faith proved of little consequence to what happened that day. On their way back, the Germans stopped at a tavern in Vokė.

It was Ona Lehr, a young lady from a wealthy family of Vilnius merchants, who was at the centre of the subsequent drama. She was betrothed to Samuel de Strunk, the captain of the foreign branch of the royal army, who has insistently sought her “eternal friendship”, as marriage was sometimes called back in the day.

By joining the party to Trakai, Ona Lehr stirred the jealousy of her fiancé. De Strunk was furious, he took several dozen men from his squadron, all on horseback and with firearms, and set off for Vokė.

The German party was already inside the tavern when de Strunk and his men rushed in and surrounded them.

Captain de Strunk had no clear idea who exactly was his potential rival and so directed his wrath at Christoph Henrik Daurer, a merchant from Königsberg. He was subjected to a torrent of incessant insults: “How dare you talk, sit, and travel beside miss Lehr, my betrothed?”

Mister Daurer responded that he was a free merchant and a subject of Royal Prussia – and a happily married one at that. He had therefore no reason to court a girl from Lithuania.

Unconvinced, de Strunk hit him in the face and ordered his men to take aim at the merchants. As one witness attested later, a soldier would have killed someone if they had not pushed him over.

Eventually, de Strunk ordered the soldiers to bring axes and the merchants to lay on the ground.

The male hostages fell down on the floor, while the women escaped to an empty room. De Strunk followed his fiancée and “made her confess and publicly vow her eternal friendship to him; otherwise, he threatened to take the Königsberg merchants, all tied up like rams, to his regiment.”

To make it look even more momentous, he added: “If and when you marry that merchant, I will kill him in his house.”

The Germans later described the scene for a court of law: “Lady Lehr, scared to death, was forced to vow her friendship publicly; she also took a ring off her finger and gave it to mister de Strunk so that he left the Königsberg merchants in peace.”

Which de Strunk did – and let them go.

Courtship at gunpoint

The source of the story is court documents which give only the position of the German plaintiffs, so one may question how accurate it is. Some details might have been exaggerated, but overall the story looks plausible enough and, in a way, rather typical of the realities of the day.

Kidnapping of young women had become a real problem in 17th-century Vilnius. It is no coincidence then that King Sigismund Vasa issued a privilege in 1627, making it strictly illegal to try to persuade, kidnap, and secretly marry girls from Vilnius if men were interested “only in the property of the bride”.

Any girl marrying without the permission of her parents risked losing all her wealth and inheritance.

Any girl marrying without the permission of her parents risked losing all her wealth and inheritance. The royal document was specifically aimed at Vilnius.

It has to be said, though, that lower-class, but well-to-do girls rarely objected to being kidnapped by noblemen, as marriage could ultimately introduce them and their children to the ranks of nobility.

What happened to Miss Lehr and Mister de Strunk

Ona Lehr was a daughter of Joachin Lehr, a merchant of wine, haberdashery, and spice. He had passed away before the day of the hostage drama, making Ona and her brother inheritors of a fortune amounting to no less than 31,000 złotys in goods and cash.

Her father’s post-mortem inventory lists gold and silver jewelry, silver spoons and porcelain among other valuables. He also owned 35 paintings, three mirrors, several cupboards, a number of closets, tables, and carpets as well as nearly 30 books, all attributes of a wealthy Vilnius family.

Samuel de Strunk was a son of royal secretary Christoph de Strunk. His family had a coat of arms and ranked among Vilnius upper classes, at least in financial terms. In the early 18th century, many de Strunk males served in the army and owned plots of lands in different parts of Lithuania.

Although Miss Lehr promised to marry Samuel, he eventually tied the knot with one Katarzyna, a girl from a family of provincial nobles. They had two children, but de Strunk was killed soon after the birth of the second child. His father later claimed the murder had been planned by “ungrateful” Katarzyna.

Not much is known about Miss Lehr’s life. Shortly after the incident in Vokė, a plague hit Vilnius. Ona probably fled the city, possibly to Königsberg, where she could indeed have married a local merchant.

The story is part of the Orbis Lituaniae project by Vilnius University

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