November 8th, 2012 Headsman
On this date in 1676, the tiny German principality of Hohenlohe strangled and burned to death its last convicted “witches”.
This story is the subject of the recent book The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village by Thomas Robisheaux. (Interview with the author.)
Almost a full year had elapsed since Anna Fessler had received a few shrovetide cakes from the daughter of the neighboring millers.* Hours later, Fessler (who had delivered a child just a week before) took painfully ill and died in her bed.
The cakes led back to the miller’s wife Anna Schmieg, of course. But decades after the Thirty Years’ War, the whole witchcraft construct was on its way out. Robisheaux builds a powerful micro-history of the local magistrate’s painstaking effort to satisfy the era’s rigorous legal standards for witch-persecution.
These standards would soon break down entirely, but in the here and now (or there and then), the authorities had to establish Schmieg’s malevolent reputation, and figure out if there was sufficient evidence to license torture. There wasn’t, the legal doctors whom Hohenlohe consulted advised; Hohenlohe made up a justification to do it anyway.
Hey, times hadn’t changed that much. Maybe still haven’t.
Anyway, the torture did to a co-accused what torture usually does. That luckless itinerant local woman was named Barbara Schleicher: she’d been under a pall from the accusation of a previously-tortured “witch” in a nearby village a few years before, and with the requisite pressure she soon copped to everything. Schmieg denied and fought and repelled, but eventually she too broke down and made the fatal confession. So, on November 8, 1676, before a court constituted of local grandees,
Anna Elisabeth Schmieg and Barbara Schleicher had to confess one more time, openly and publicly.
This was the moment of danger. Were Anna now to curse the judges as she had cursed the executioner before she was tortured, “asking them to join her for God’s Judgment in the Valley of Jehosaphat,” the proceedings might break up. She could be tortured again, but the curse would have had a shocking effect and raised the question about whether an injustice was about to be committed.
Because of these dangers, instead of asking the women to speak for themselves, the county’s officer spoke for them, saying that the two poor sinners had freely confessed their crimes and were ready to be given over to justice. The scribe read of Anna’s use of witchcraft and murder, as well as her seduction by Satan. He pronounced that she had done so many evil things that she could not even remember them all. He then read out a list of Schleicher’s crimes, which included witchcraft, murdering two husbands, turning herself into a wolf, and attempting to commit suicide. Whoever these two poor sinners had been before that day, they were now publicly branded as witches, poisoners, and murderers.
Talk about speak now or forever hold your peace. For not raising a ruckus, the court threw a bone to the wicked and now-confessed hags and mitigated the sentence of tearing at their flesh with iron tongs followed by burning at the stake to tearing at their flesh with iron tongs followed by strangulation followed by burning at the stake.
Chief Justice Assum turned to the court assessors and asked them whether the sentence had been decided as the court scribe had read it. Together they replied yes. Assum then rose, broke the ceremonial staff in two, and threw the pieces to the floor. With this old legal gesture, the blood court was symbolically breaking its staff over the lives of the prisoners. Then he said, “God help their poor souls.” [Local Count] Heinrich Friedrich’s representative then asked that the executioner carry out the sentence. According to prescription, the command to the executioner was repeated three times. At the close the chief justice forbade everyone present, on penalty of bodily punishment, from seeking revenge for this act of justice. No one was to take up violence against the law or question what was being done. The court scribe repeated his admonition.
The executioner then led the women out of the court, across the drawbridge, and over into the market square, where they joined the procession that had assembled. Drummers beat out a cadence, schoolboys sang hymns, and the sober procession marched down Langenburg’s long main street and out the gate at the east end of the town.
Once past the town gate, Anna’s and Barbara’s expulsion from the community was complete. From many perspectives, as we have seen, Anna’s emotional world was not like our own. It would be wrong to assume that Anna and Barbara felt the same anxiety and fear that we would today as they climbed the “Path of Straw” to Gallows Hill. The belief that someone who received absolution before an execution, and who did not sin again by resisting, would go right to heaven may help explain why prisoners rarely resisted at this point. Most tried to meet their fate as best as they could. Considering the suffering of the last ten months, Anna may have welcomed her end. She and Schleicher may also have been fortified for the ordeal by wine. Prayer may have brought them solace. However she felt about her fate, no record mentions her resisting or cursing the executioner or members of the court.
The scene at the gallows must have been crowded. The execution was seen as an example, and it was considered essential that the Langenburg schoolchildren be let out of school to join the procession. There, with the rest of their neighbors, they would have watched Anna and Barbara torn with hot irons and then strangled with a rope. After the bodies were burned to ashes, the last ritual gesture was made. “Lord Chief Justice,” Master Endris asked, “Have I carried out the law?” To which Assum would have replied, “If you have executed what the law and the sentence require, then the law has been fulfilled.”
This verbal exchange was critical for the execution to have fulfilled its purpose. At this moment the law, formally in suspense since Anna’s arrest, had been restored. The breach in public order that had opened on Shrove Tuesday was now mended. Count Heinrich Friedrich had seen to it. The chief justice and the assessors filed back into town and into the courtroom. Once they took their seats, it was announced that justice had been done. A lavish feast awaited them.
Just stay away from the cakes.
* A delicious tradition. Here’s a recipe for vanilla-frosted custard-filled shrovetide buns, from Denmark. Deadly deadly Satanpoison is optional.
Also on this date
- 1793: Madame Roland, éminence grise
- 1752: James of the Glen
- 1861: Sushun, by Empress Dowager Cixi
- 1969: Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, assassin of Tom Mboya
- 1845: Lavinia Burnett and Crawford Burnett
- 1892: Jens Nielsen, the last in Denmark
- 1520: Stockholm Bloodbath