From: Charles Dickens, The Modern Robbers of the Rhine, in Household Words, vol. II, 1850, pp. 178-185 (abridged)

‘”How picturesque!” says Mrs. Smith, as she stands in the centre of a group on board a Rhine steamer, all of whom are looking up at the ruined castles along the choice portion of the banks near Pfaltz.

“How poetical!” says her daughter, Miss Smith (just budding sixteen), who has been reading the scraps of Byron and Southey quoted in that ubiquitous red volume, Murray's “Handbook”.

“Crack wines grow hereabouts, I believe?” says the son of twenty-two, who smokes, and wishes to be able to talk about what he has tasted, when he gets back to London and his untravelled companions.

“Ah! ah!” says Smith, senior, to his friend Jones, who forms one of the party of forty or fifty English people daily seen – now steam-travelling is so cheap – making a holiday on the Rhine. ”Ah! ah! Sir, I flatter myself we now-a-days know a great deal better how to manage things than our forefathers did. Talk of the wisdom of our ancestors, Sir! it's all moonshine; bosh, Sir; why every one of those tumble-down places that my wife thinks so picturesque, and my daughter calls so poetical, used to be full of thieves. People who write novels, and that sort of trash, may colour them up into heroes, Sir; but they were nothing but thieves, footpads, highwaymen; nests of roystering vagabonds, who got along by robbing on the highway and plundering the boats that came down this river. But now-a-days we manage these things better. Policemen and newspapers have stopped that sort of thing. Depend upon it, our brave ancestors, our wise ancestors, were nicely beaten and robbed. They put up with it; but we, Sir, know better.” And so saying, Smith drew up his head in a very significant way.

Mr. Smith used to go every year to Margate or to Brighton; but cheap trains and cheap steamboats have lured him to the Rhine, where he thanks his stars that he lives in 1850 – in these our later days, when the robbers of that famous stream are supposed to exist only in its legends. Simple Mr. Smith!

The bold robber-barons of the older period, and the famous Schinderhannes of more modern date, are gone, it is true; but just change an English sovereign on a Rhine steamer, speak English at a Rhine hotel, or stay but one day at Wiesbaden, Homburg, or Baden-Baden, and it will soon be evident enough that we have modern types of the old originals – real, living, breathing, cunning, unscrupulous robbers of the Rhine.

In literature, in science, in art, we find Germany quite on a level with the present age. She has produced men and books equal to the men and books of England or France, as the names of Goëthe, Schiller, Humboldt, Liebeg, and a score of others bear testimony. But whilst in poetry, philosophy, and science, she is on a par with the best portions of modern Europe; in politics – in the practical science of government – she is an indefinite number of centuries behindhand. Governmentally, she is now where the English were during the Saxon Heptarchy, with seven or more kingdoms in a space that might be well governed by one sceptre. Where she might get along very well with two, she has a dozen petty kings, and petty courts, and petty national debts, and petty pension-lists, and paltry debased and confusing coinages, and petty cabals, quarrels, and intermixture of contending interests.

Out of this division of territory arises, of course, a number of small poor princes; and as poor princes do not like to work hard when their pockets are low, we find them busy with the schemes, shifts, and contrivances, common from time immemorial with penniless people who have large appetites for pleasure, small stomachs for honest work – real, living, reigning Dukes though they be, they have added to the royal “businesses” to which they were born, little private speculations for the encouragement of rouge et noir and roulette. These small princes have, in fact, turned gambling-house keepers – hell-keepers in the vulgar but expressive slang of a London police court – proprietors of establishments where the vicious and the unwary, the greedy hawk and the silly pigeon, congregate, the one to plunder and the other to be plucked. That which has been expelled from huge London, as too great an addition to its vice, or, if not quite expelled, is carried on with iron-barred doors, unequal at times to protect its followers from the police and the infamy of exposure – that which has been outlawed from the Palais Royal and Paris, as too bad even for the lax morality of a most free-living city – that huge vice which caters to the low senses of cunning and greediness, and tempts men to lose fortune, position, character, even hope, in the frantic excitements of, perhaps, one desperate night – such a vice is housed in fine buildings raised near mineral springs, surrounded by beautiful gardens,

enlivened by music and sanctioned by the open patronage of petty German princes holding sway in the valley watered by the Rhine. In fact, unscrupulous speculators are found to carry on German gaming-tables at German spas, paying the sovereign of the country certain thousands of pounds a year for the privilege of fleecing the public.

The weakened in body are naturally weakened in mental power. The weak in bod are promised health by “taking the waters” at a German bath. The early hours, th pleasant walks, the good music, the promised economy, are inducements. The weakene mind wants more occupation than it finds, for these places are very monotonous, and the gaming-table is placed by the sovereign of the country in a noble room – the Kursaal to afford excitement to the visitor, and profits – the profits of infamy – to himself. There are grades in these great gaming-houses for Europe. Taking them in the order in which they are reached from Cologne, it may be said that Wiesbaden is the finest town, having very pleasant environs, and the least play. The Grand Duke of Nassau, therefore, has probably the smallest share of the gaming-table booty. Homburg, which comes next in order, is far more out of reach, is smaller, duller – (it is indeed very, very dreary) – and has to keep its gaming-tables going all the year round, to make up the money paid by the lessees of the gambling-house to the Duke. The range of the Taunus is at the back of the “town” (a village about as large, imposing, and lively as Hounslow), and affords its chief attraction. The rides are agreeable if the visitor has a good horse – (a difficult thing to get in that locality) – and is fond of trotting up steep hills, and then ambling down again. In beauty of position, and other attractions, it is very far below both Wiesbaden and Baden. Baden-Baden is the third, and certainly most beautiful of these German gambling-towns. The town nestles, as it were, in a sheltered valley, opening amongst the hills of the Black Forest. In summer its aspect is very picturesque and pleasant; but it looks as if in winter it must be very damp and liable to the atmosphere which provokes the growth of goître. At Baden there is said to be more play than at the other two places put together. From May till the end of September, roulette and rouge et noir – the mutter of the man who deals the cards, and the rattle of the marble – are never still. The profits of the table at this place are very large. The man who had them some years ago retired with an immense fortune; and one of his successors came from the Palais Royal when public gaming was forbidden in Paris, and was little less successful than his predecessor. The permanent residents at Baden could alone form any idea of the sums netted, and only such of those as were living near the bankers. They could scarcely avoid seeing the bags of silver, five franc pieces chiefly, that passed between the gaming-tables and the bank. A profit of one thousand pounds a fortnight was thought a sign of a bad season; and so it must have been, when it is calculated that the gambling-table keeper paid the Duke a clear four thousand pounds a year as the regal share of the plunder, and agreed to spend two thousand a year in decorating the town of Baden.


The play goes on in a noble hall called the Conversations House, decorated with frescoes and fitted up most handsomely. This building stands in a fine ornamental garden, with green lawns and fine avenues of tall trees; and all this has been paid for by the profits of roulette and rouge et noir. Seeing this, it may cause surprise that people play at all; yet the fascination is so great that, once within its influence, good resolutions and common sense seem alike unequal to resistance. All seems fair enough, and some appear to win, and then self-love suggests, “Oh, my luck will surely carry me through!” The game is so arranged that some win and some lose every game, the table having, it is said, only a small percentage of chance in its favour. These chances are avowedly greater at roulette than at rouge et noir, but at both it is practically shown that the player, in the long run, always loses. It is whispered that, contrary to the schoolboy maxim, cheating doesthrive at German baths; and those who have watched the matter closely, say a Dutch banker won every season by following a certain plan. He waited till he saw a heavy stake upon the table, and then backed the other side. He always won.

Go into one of the rooms at any of these places, and whom do you see? The off-scourings of European cities – professional gamblers, ex-officers of all sorts of armies; portionless younger brothers; pensioners; old men and old women who have outlived all other excitements; a multitude of silly gulls, attracted by the waters, or the music, or the fascination of play; and a sprinkling of passing tourists, who come – “just look in on their way”, generally to be disappointed – often to be fleeced. Young and handsome women are not very often seen playing. Gaming is a vice reserved for middle age. Whilst hearts are to be won, dollars are not worth playing for. Cards and rouge, and dyspepsy seem to be nearly allied, if we may judge by the specimens of humanity seen at the baths of Wiesbaden, Homburg, and Baden. The players – and player and loser are almost synonymous terms – are generally thin and anxious; the bankers, fat and stolid.
As the brass whirls round, the table-keeper has the look of a quiet bloated spider, seemingly passionless, but with an eye that glances over every chance on the board. At his side see an elderly man, pale and thin, the muscles of whose lower jaw are twitching spasmodically, yet with jaded, forced resignation, he loses his last five pounds. Next him is a woman highly dressed, with false hair and teeth, and a great deal of paint. She has a card in her hand, on which she pricks the numbers played, and thus flatters herself she learns the best chances to take. Next to her see one of the most painful sights these places display. A father, mother, and young girl are all trying their fortune; the parents giving money to the child that they “may have her good luck”, reckless of the fatal taste they are implanting in her mind. Next is a Jew, looking all sorts of agonies, and one may fancy he knows he is losing in an hour, what it has cost him years of cunning and self-denial to amass. And so on, round the table, we find ill-dressed and well-dressed Germans, French, Russians, English, Yankees, Irish, mixed up together in one eager crowd; thirsting to gain gold without giving value in return; risking what they have in an insane contest which they know has destroyed thousands before them; losing their money, and winning disgust, despondency, and often despair and premature death. Never a year is said to go by without its complement of ruined fools and hasty suicides. The neighbouring wood afford a convenient shelter; and a trigger, or a handkerchief and a bough, complete the tragedy.

Let us say no more of our civilisation having banished Schinderhannes, and his predecessors, the half-soldiers, half-thieves, who built the stone towers now crumbling up above the vineyards of the noble German river. Their booty in a year could not have equalled the plunder of a single month at Wiesbaden, Homburg, or Baden-Baden. The real freebooters of the place are still extant, and carry on their trade under the banner of chieftains who share the spoil – the reigning Dukes of Nassau, Homburg, and Baden – who are the veritable grand modern robbers of the Rhine.’

This site has been conceived in conjunction with the HERA-funded research project The European Spa as a Transnational Public Space and Social Metaphor. Conception: Astrid Köhler, Text © Astrid Köhler and Karen Southworth, Design © Jana Riedel.