Students of the Brothers Grimm know that the original versions of their “fairy tales” lived up to their name – not ‘fairy’ but ‘grim’. “Snow White” (Sneewittchen) has a witch, an evil stepmother, murder for hire, attempted murders, multiple poisonings, dripping blood, a strange coffin and death by dancing. That certainly doesn’t resemble the “Heigh-ho-heigh-ho” version by the Brothers Disney, but it does have elements of something even scarier … it appears Jacob and Wilhelm based “Snow White” a real person. Need proof? The gravestone of the actual Snow White has been discovered in Germany.
"The story of Sophia's life was well known at the start of the 19th Century. The Brothers Grimm made literature out of the stories they heard from local people."
‘Sophia’, according to Holger Kempkens, the director of the Diocesan Museum in the southern Germany city of Bamberg, was Maria Sophia von Erthal, who was born in 1725 to a wealthy family in Lohr am Main, a town near Bamberg. He told the BBC that Maria Sophia grew up to become an attractive and caring baroness, but her life changed for the worse when her widowed father, Philipp Christoph von und zu Erthal, married her stepmother, Claudia Elisabeth von Reichenstein, who allegedly abused Sophia and her siblings. Thus began the grim parallels to the Grimm story of Snow White.
In the 1980s, Lohr historian Dr. Karlheinz Bartels found many more links between the girl in Sneewittchen and Sophia.
Lohr was a famous centre for glassware and mirrors and Sophia's father owned the local mirror factory. A mirror from there given to the stepmother and engraved with the words “amour propre” (self love) is on display at the Lohr Castle, where they once lived.
A forest near Lohr was notorious for robbers and dangerous wild animals.
A mine outside of Lohr can only be reached by crossing seven hills… the same number Snow White crossed to reach the story’s miners – the seven dwarfs.
Because the mine shafts were so low and narrow, little people and children were employed as miners and wore hooded cloaks to protect themselves from falling rocks.
Fortunately, after Sophia fled a murder attempt by her wicked stepmother and moved in with the dwarfs, she was found by a prince and lived happily ever after. Right?
Sorry, fairy tale fans. The life of Maria Sophia von Erthal doesn’t make a good pleasant-dream-inducing bedtime story. The abusive stepmother prevented her from ever marrying, so Sophia moved to Bamberg, where she eventually went blind and died in 1791 at the age of 71. She was buried in the local church cemetery and her grave was marked with a headstone – something special for a woman in those days. When the church was demolished in 1804, the headstone was moved the local hospital in Lohr which was founded by Sophia’s brother – the kids managed to do good despite the wicked stepmother.
When the hospital was replaced by a new clinic in the 1970s, the headstone was thought to have been lost. However, it turns out it was in the possession of a local family, who recently donated it to the Bamberg Diocesan Museum, where it is now on display. (See it here.)
About 60 years after Maria Sophia von Erthal died, the Brothers Grimm were born in nearby Hanau and began collecting, retelling and embellishing local folktales. Was “Sneewittchen” an embellishment of the sad story of Maria Sophia von Erthal? There are some researchers who say it was based on, or possibly combined with, the life of Countess Margarete von Waldeck , who was born in Germany in 1533. Her father owned a mine where the workers’ growth was stunted by early employment in the small and dirty mineshafts. She allegedly fell in love with the Spanish prince who would eventually become Phillip II, but his father Charles V disproved of the relationship. Margarete mysteriously died of poisoning at 21 and it was alleged but never proven that the king had her assassinated.
Grim? You bet. Grimm? Both real-life stories have their similarities to the famous fairy tale. Only one has an actual gravestone from a city that has long promoted itself as the home of the real Snow White. When in Bamberg, stop by the museum and see the one real link to what may have been the one real Snow White.
Just don’t whistle and sing “Heigh-ho-heigh-ho.”