Oberammergau, a small Catholic village in Bavaria, Germany, is known for its woodcarvers and for its almost 400-year tradition of mounting an elaborate Passion Play.
The Passion Play is performed in years ending with a zero. Due to economic instability, however, the 1920 performance of the Passion Play was postponed to 1922.
That year, Henry Scripps Booth and his friend J. Robert F. Swanson were traveling on a ten-month-long European tour and decided to see the rescheduled Passion Play. Henry and Bob stayed at Max Spegel’s pension in Oberammergau, Germany. It was there Henry met Herr and Frau Spegel, their sons Wilhelm and Max, and their daughter Sophie. After the trip, Henry corresponded with Frau Spegel and her son Wilhelm, until about 1937.
In January 1924, Frau Spegel suggested, because some items Henry had ordered in Oberammergau had never arrived, “Dear Friend, might Willy [Wilhelm] not carve something for you?” From then on, Henry was agreeable to having the Spegel family carve wood panels, gates, doors, and ceilings for his new home, Thornlea.
Carvings by the Spegels can be found throughout Thornlea:
Wilhelm writes, in 1926, “I am sending you with this letter a pascel (sic) containing the two doors for the plate warmers . . . I myself have done all the carving and it took me about 55 hours . . . there is not much work for the wood carvers people have no mony (sic)”
In order to help his friends, Henry designed a three-section sideboard, into which he inset carved panels done by Wilhelm and Max Spegel — the original idea was to have the panels used as a frieze around a room, but that never materialized. Henry paid the Spegels $8 per panel and let them have creative input into the design and subject matter.
The Spegels next created an elaborate set of ceiling panels for use in Thornlea’s Oratory. In a letter to Wilhelm in October of 1928, Henry writes, “The ceiling looks exceptionally well and we are thoroughly pleased with it. Everyone who sees your work certainly is complimentary towards it.”
In 1929, Wilhelm had the idea to come to America, as jobs for woodcarvers were scarce at the time. He had asked Henry to “write a letter to the American Consulate in Stuttgart . . . so that they know who I am and that you have known me for many years.” There is no mention of the said letter in any of Henry’s replies but later letters indicate the move to America did not happen.
Henry and Carolyn Farr Booth visited the Spegels in Oberammergau in 1930, likely to see that year’s Passion Play. In the play, Herr Spegel was Rabbi Jakob, as he had been in 1922; Wilhelm was one of the man-servants of Pilate; and Max “will figure amongst the people.”
Letters from the Spegels stop in 1937. We do not know what happened to Wilhelm Spegel after 1937 except that he was married on April 17 of that year and died in 1951. We do know that Max Spegel (the younger) served in the German Infantry during World War II and died in service in 1942 at the age of 30. His name appears on the war memorial in Oberammergau.
One item of note, and a fact that Henry S. Booth himself pointed out in a letter to his sister: George G. Booth’s favorite woodcarvers John Kirchmayer and Alois Lang were from Oberammergau, Germany. Henry seemed happy to have found his own carvers in the same city.
– Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar