On this date in 1600, Bavarians thronged to a half-mile-long procession in Munich for the horrific execution of the Pappenheimer family.
They were marginal, itinerant types: the father, Paulus Pappenheimer, cleaned privies (“Pappenheimer” would remain as Nuremberg slang for a garbageman into the 20th century, according to Robert Butts); the mother, Anna, was the daughter of a gravedigger. They wandered, begged, did odd jobs. They were Lutherans in a Catholic duchy.
So they were vulnerable to their extreme turn of bad luck. Fresh to the throne of Bavaria, young Catholic zealot Duke Maximilian I wanted a crackdown on the infernal arts, and when others accused the Pappenheimers of witchcraft, they found they had become the stars of a show trial.
they were stripped so that their flesh could be torn off by red-hot pincers. Then Anna’s breasts were cut off. The bloody breasts were forced into her mouth and then into the mouths of her two grown sons … a hideous parody of her role as mother and nurse …
Church bells pealed to celebrate this triumph of Christianity over Satan; the crowd sang hymns; vendors hawked pamphlets describing the sins of the victims.
Meanwhile, Anna’s chest cavity bled. As the carts lurched along, the injured prisoners were in agony. Nonetheless, they were forced at one point to get down from the carts and kneel before a cross, to confess their sins. Then they were offered wine to drink, a strangely humane act in the midst of this barbaric ritual.*
One can hope that between the wine and loss of blood, the Pappenheimers were losing consciousness. They had not been granted the “privilege” of being strangled before being burned, but in keeping with the extreme brutality of these proceedings, they would be forced to endure the very flames.
Further torments awaited Paulus. A heavy iron wheel was dropped on his arms until the bones snapped … [then] Paulus was impaled on a stick driven up through his anus …
The four Pappenheimers were then tied to the stakes, the brushwood pyres were set aflame, and they were burned to death. Their eleven-year-old son was forced to watch the dying agonies of his parents and brothers. We know that Anna was still alive when the flames leapt up around her, for Hansel cried out, “My mother is squirming!” The boy was executed months later.
Dr. Kunze was good enough to share his thoughts on the Pappenheimers’ milieu with Executed Today.
You present the Pappenheimers as a sort of “show trial” case; what makes a witchcraft show trial a compelling need for a German duke at the end of the 16th century? Why do you think witch persecution arises so especially in this period especially?
Towards the end of the 16th century the Middle Ages had been overcome. People no longer believed in a God taking care of every little thing in their lives. The world was no longer regarded a safe home, guarded by the Father in heaven. Religion had been replaced by reason. The kings, princes and dukes took over direct responsibility for their countries and citizens. They started to build modern states, rationally organized und fully controlled.
The main problem was that full control was difficult to achieve. The streets were in very bad condition, the countryside far stretched, the woods were dark, the villages far away. All kinds of crimes were committed, and when the police arrived the robbers, thieves and murderers had long disappeared. In time without photographs or identity papers it was difficult to trace them. The slow flow of information was also a problem.
That’s why the authorities tried to abhor criminals by show trials and spectacular executions. A witch trial was ideal, because people believed that all mischief and evil was induced by the devil. All criminals were more or less suspected of a deal with the devil.
What’s the biggest challenge we have in our time to re-imagining the world that witch prosecutors and “witches” lived in, or the biggest difference in mindset?
People in the 16th century were absolutely convinced that the devil was a real force trying to use humans to work against God’s intentions. They believed in a huge battle between good and evil, and those who changed sides and helped the devil were regarded as traitors committing High Treason.
At the same time the modern idea that everything that happens has an explainable cause made the authorities suspect the devil’s work behind every thunderstorm, not to mention deadly accidents. People were not more stupid than we are. It was the mixture of medieval superstitions and modern rationalization that led to the witch trials.
How did contemporaries of the Pappenheimers and Duke Maximilian think about this event?
It was indeed a monstrous case and quite an event at the time. The contemporaries did not doubt that 1) the Pappenheimer family had been instruments of the devil, and 2) that the brutal punishment had saved their souls. Duke Maximilian certainly regarded the execution as a means to stabilize safety in his country.
In researching the interrogations and trials in these cases, where did you get the sense that we still revert to “witch trial logic” in some modern cases? If so, when does it arise?
It’s obvious that we still interpret laws based on our beliefs and point of views. The judges involved in the witch trials thought they “knew” for certain that the devil can talk to people and make deals with them. They also believed that torture brings the truth to light. Isn’t today’s deal bargaining also a form of torture? After all the authorities tell the defendant that he will be severely punished if he does not confess. That’s what I call a forced confession. Yet it is done around the world.
Obviously, this execution is utterly horrific in its particulars. How typical would this sexualized theater — slicing off Anna Pappenheimer’s breasts, impaling Paulus Pappenheimer — have been for a witchcraft case at that time and place? How would this have been understood by witnesses, as opposed to “merely” burning or breaking on the wheel?
The point was to abhor by cruelty. People should see what horrors the criminals had to endure and tell it to everyone for years to come.
* Or, perchance, the wine was offered to revive them and protract their tortures.