On this date in 1693, fortified with a half-pot of wine provided at public expense, 74-year-old Anne Palles was beheaded and then burned as a sorceress — the last “witch” put to death in Danish history.
Palles got caught up in the usual way: an aged farmer’s wife misfortunate enough to be attached to a couple of incriminating coincidences. Nine-tenths of Denmark’s 1,000 or fewer executed witches were women, two-thirds of them over 50 years old. (Danish-language source.)
Palles was accused (Danish) by a “wise woman” who was herself trying to beat a rap for attempted murder with black magic.
Once that happened, it all started to make sense (more Danish): the sudden death of a woman her husband had once danced with; the poor production of cows passing a place where Palles had pissed.
Clap her in prison and twist her arm a little, and she’ll cop to having “given herself to the Devil, life and soul”, and rolled with an infernal familiar (a black cat: how trite) by the name of “Puus”.
Though you wouldn’t call a thousand executions a drop in the bucket, Denmark never really experienced the witches’ holocaust that occurred in some other European locales. A 1576 law* providing an automatic judicial appeal for sorcery condemnations is often credited for this happy-ish circumstance; in this case, Palles recanted her confession on appeal as torture-induced, and a divided high court in Copenhagen only confirmed the death sentence by an 11-6 vote. (Antonin Scalia writing for the majority.) Even her burning-alive sentence was moderated by the crown to beheading, followed by posthumous burning.
Everyone being a little uncomfortable with the case didn’t ultimately do Anne Palles much good. Another woman, Anne Kruse, had died in prison with her, and was posthumously burned at the stake; the woman who’d made the initial accusations was flogged … and Anne Palles had her head struck from her body and her remains burned to ashes as a witch.
But an era had passed with the cooling of those embers.
Just three years later, an outbreak of witch accusations — the “possessions of Thisted” — rocked northern Jutland. This case boomeranged on its accusers (we’ve seen that elsewhere in Scandinavia), and largely put a stop to witchcraft prosecutions … though the superstition that generated them would persist for quite some time longer.
After 1650 — and thus long before the official day of reckoning for witch-belief during ‘the possession of Thisted’ in 1696-98 — a marked drop in the numbers of witch-trials took place … and the Jutland High Court judges grew more and more sceptical. One of them, the Professor of Mathematics, Villum Lange [Danish bio], wrote to Peder Schumacher (the later Griffenfeldt) in 1670: ‘During the past few days we have had a crowd of women brought before us, accused of sorcery. We have condemned a number of them to the stake; but because they are so foolish and simple-minded we have recommended to the court that the case should first be brought before His Majesty for appeal … One of them confessed to us herself that she had talked with the devil; but whether it was melancholia or some other form of fantasy, or was the honest truth, God alone knows. To me she appeared to be a person in her second childhood.’ No wonder that rumours soon began to circulte that this High Court judge ‘was siding with the sorceresses and saying that no sorceresses existed.’ Towards the close of the century the common people were complaining that the Jutland High Court judges never condemned anyone to the stake any more, and tht was the reason for there being so many sorceresses in Jutland.
But it was only among the educated upper clases [sic] that attitudes were changing. Among ordinary folk the need for witch-trials continued to be felt far into the future, and when the authorities would no longer agree to her this type of case, people several times took the law into their own hands. In 1722 some pesants at Gronning on Salling lynched a witch by burning, and in 1800 the last murder of a witch occurred at Brigsted in the neighbourhood of Vejle.
Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark”, Folklore, Vol. 93, No. 2 (1982), pp. 131-137
* The first of its kind in Europe. Two other legal ordinances from earlier in the 16th century restricted the use of torture to gain confessions and barred courts from crediting the accusations of other convicted witches, and they also helped constrain outbreaks of widespread persecutions. (Anne Palles’s case looks to have skated pretty close to the line on both of those counts.)