On this date in 1628, a prepubescent boy went to the stake at Würzburg, the victim of a witch-hunting spasm amid the confusion of the Thirty Years’ War.
Here is the story as related by Midelfort’s Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684:
Bernhard Reichardt, a magistrate and wealthy man of Markelsheim, had tried to give his young son, Johan Bernhard, a decent education by sending him to school at Neuen Münster in Würzburg. In December of 1627, however, the father became convinced that his son had been seduced into witchcraft there, and transferred Johan Bernhard to the Jesuit school at Dettelbach. By mid-March 1628 the authorities in Würzburg were aware that this nine-year-old boy had been involved in witchcraft and wrote politely to the Teutonic Order in Mergentheim to ask for assistance in extraditing the child to Würzburg for questioning. Johann Caspar, Administrator of the Teutonic Order, responded at once that the boy was to be delivered up formally to the authorities at the border. By the end of March he was under the jurisdiction of the Würzburg authorities. Far from merely questioning him, the Würzburg court got Johan Bernhard to sign a confession on April 8 that he had been seduced into witchcraft by a classmate. Among other horrors, he had denied God, Mary, and all the saints and angels. With his own blood he had written “Ich, Johannes Bernhardus Reichard, hab mich dem Teüfel vergeben.” He had flown to numerous dances and, although only nine years old, had had intercourse with the devil on numerous occasions. Like adults, Johan Bernhard always found the devil “hard as horn” and “of a cold nature.” Implicating his complices, the boy noted that he had seen three other persons known to him at the dances.
One month later, on May 9, 1628, the authorities at Würzburg burned Johan Bernhard Reichardt and four others. Johann Caspar in Mergentheim heard of the execution only after it had occurred, but agreed fully that it had been justified.
Little Johan was far from the only child prosecuted as a witch in Europe, and many very young children number among the casualties of the Würzburg witch trials. With Catholic and Protestant armies romping back and forth over German principalities, it was a ripe moment for feeling the presence of existential threats to the civilization … and for trying children as adults.
[A] “New Treatise on the Seduced Child-Witches” thundered against the rapid increase in childhood witchcraft. The author asserted that the first reason for such conditions was the sins of the parents, for whom witch-children were a fitting punishment. But more important, such witchcraft was due to the sins of the children themselves. One should not think that they were innocent merely because they were young. Their cursing, coveting, and immoral words and games were proof enough that these children had fallen into mortal sin.
And why, after all, shouldn’t children be witches? Everybody else was. The chancellor of Würzburg’s Catholic Prince-Bishop wrote a comrade in the summer of 1629:
As to the affair of the witches, which Your Grace thinks brought to an end before this, it has started up afresh, and no words can do justice to it. Ah, the woe and the misery of it — there are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex, nay, even clerics, so strongly accused that they may be arrested at any hour … a third part of the city is surely involved … there are children of three and four years, to the number of three hundred, who are said to have had intercourse with the Devil. I have seen put to death children of seven, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen.
In the version of this story preserved in Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, desperate public demonic incantations repeated by “witches” who were either persuaded of their own guilt or hopeless of any source of aid save the infernal were absorbed by youngsters’ timeless instinct for that which is forbidden by their elders, further feeding the frenzy:
Many an unhappy urchin, who in a youthful frolic had repeated it, paid for his folly the penalty of his life. Three, whose ages varied from ten to fifteen, were burned alive at Wurzburg for no other offence. Of course every other boy in the city became still more convinced of the power of the charm. One boy confessed that he would willingly have sold himself to the devil, if he could have raised him, for a good dinner and cakes every day of his life, and a pony to ride upon. This luxurious youngster, instead of being horsewhipped for his folly, was hanged and burned.
However locally and temporarily overwhelming this current, it was never without resistance — everyday people willing to complain that charges were absurd, judges inclined to skepticism. An onset of acquittals was known to presage the end of a witch-hunting spasm.
A particular voice left to us is Friedrich von Spee, a Jesuit theologian whose tract Cautio Criminalis — Precautions for Prosecutors — accepted the existence of witches but argued forcefully against the legal apparatus of accusation and torture. To Spee’s mind, not two in fifty burned witches were truly in league with the devil, and his book quickly became influential to both Catholic and Protestant audiences. It remains in print down to the present day