August 19th, 2014 Headsman
On this date in 1738, the last victims of witch trials in the Lower Rhine were burned at the stake in Gerresheim, an ancient German city today subsumed by Düsseldorf.
More eccentric than demoniacal, the sicky 14-year-old Helena Curtens reported having seen some ghostly apparition during a curative pilgrimage to Kevelaer, and received from him some towels with weird occult inscription. (She actually did have such towels.)
This adolescent attention-seeking turned into a whole thing when judge Johann Weyrich Sigismund Schwarz’s long ears caught hold of Gerresheim’s wagging tongues.
The whole idea of witches and witchcraft was trending ever less fashionable at this time, but not for Schwarz: he routed Curtens’s occult encounter into the judicial Hexenprozess and got on record an accusation against her neighbor Agnes Olmans as well as the usual stuff about playing the harlot with a visiting devil.
Their case extended for more than a year; Helena Curtens was 16 by the time she burned.
In that time, Curtens stayed curiously committed to her crazy story, even knowing that it was putting her under the shadow of the stake.
Olmans, by contrast, fought with every fiber the allegations that her young neighbor kept confirming. Olmans even fell ironic victim to the uneven development of rational witch-law reform when she tried to demand that she be put to the ordeal of water to prove her innocence: it turned out that this backwards practice of pseudo-forensics had been barred in 1555, so Schwarz could not order it. At trial, her denials were easily overcome by the gossip of neighbors, and even her own husband — who recalled that the mother-in-law had a distinctly witchy reputation. Hey, ’til death do us part, babe.
Today, there’s a public stone monument to these milestone sorceresses, the Gerresheimer Hexenstein (“Gerresheim witches’ stone”)
Its inscription reads:
Human dignity is inviolable.
For Helene Mechthildis Curtens and Agnes Olmanns.
Burned in Gerresheim on August 19, 1738.
After the last witch trial in the Lower Rhine
and for all those tortured and outcast
On this day..
- 1774: Not Patrick Madan, saved at the death - 2016
- 1901: Three Boer rebels against the Cape Colony - 2015
- 1897: Harvey DeBerry, raving like a madman - 2013
- 1919: Boonpeng Heep Lek, the last public beheading in Thailand - 2012
- 1692: Martha Carrier, ferocious woman - 2011
- 1799: Thomas Nash, after rendition to the British - 2010
- 1626: Henri Talleyrand, Comte de Chalais - 2009
- 1937: Ikki Kita - 2008