Ever since Walt Disney released his animated classic, Snow White, in 1937, audiences have come to love the story of the ill-fated princess with a happy ending. Most know that the movie was based on one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a collection of folk stories Grimm brothers collected from German sources. But most are unaware that the original story of the princess with the snow-white skin may have been based on a real person. If researcher and Snow White expert Dr. Karlheinz Bartels is correct, her name was Maria Sophia von Erthal (we’ll call her Maria, for short).
She was born in 1729 in the town of Lohr, Bavaria (now part of Germany). Her father was a wealthy landowner named Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal, and her mother was Baroness von Bettendorff. Maria was born in her father’s castle, which you can still visit as the Spessart Museum.
Family chroniclers for the Erthal family describe Maria as merciful, kind, and charitable. She was well-loved by the people and happy, at least for a time. When she was 14, her comfortable life was shattered when her mother died and her father married Claudia Elisabeth von Venningen, the Countess of Reichtenstein.
Maria’s new stepmother had children of her own, and she favored them over her stepchildren, whose lives she made miserable. She was domineering and cruel, and possibly even vain, just like the evil stepmother in the Disney movie. This is evidenced in the multitude of mirrors she owned. She even had a “talking mirror” that was given to her by Prince Philip. This mirror was made by the Lohr Mirror Manufacture, and its speech was actually sayings engraved in its frame. Claudia’s mirror was engraved with the saying “Amour Propre,” which means “self-love.” If the legends are to be believed, this saying was true of cruel Claudia.
The real Snow White’s story does not include a team of helpful dwarfs, death by poisoned apple, or resurrection by a kiss. But the history of Lohr provides some clues as to how these plot elements ended up in the folk tale.
The dwarfs may come from the nearby mining town of Bieber. The small tunnels could only be reached by small people, so children were often employed as miners. These children often stayed small once they reached adulthood, due to the backbreaking labor and malnutrition. They also were known to wear bright hoods, like the dwarfs in the movie and in many illustrations that depict them.
As for the poisoned apple, the land around Lohr is still covered with apple orchards. The fruit would have been quite common among the people who lived in the area. The belladonna flower, also known as the deadly nightshade, is also abundant in the area and is a well-known poison. Put these two local plants together, and you have the makings of a fairy tale.
There is even a potential origin for the glass coffin that features in the story. As mentioned earlier, there are numerous glassworks in Lohr (one produced the famous mirror), and the area has been known for the quality of its glass products. They could certainly have made a glass coffin, though there is no record of Maria being buried in one.
There is little information available about Maria. We aren’t sure who, or even if, she married, and we don’t know her date of death, though it likely wasn’t by poison apple. The story of Snow White may even be based on a compilation of unhappy German noblewomen. She could even be a complete fabrication. We may never know.