Archive for May 30th, 2020

1629: Thomas Schreiber, “thistles, thorns, and strife”

Add comment May 30th, 2020 Headsman

The heartrending and entirely timeless story of a man destroyed for during the three-year witch hunt paroxysm in Mergentheim for having more wisdom and decency than the duly constituted authorities is excerpted from Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684: The Social and Intellectual Foundations.

Book CoverThomas Schreiber had a strong sense of justice. When the trials in Mergentheim had run only two months, he had already lost faith in the judicial procedure. On December 1, 1628, when Martha, wife of Bürgermeister Hans Georg Braun, was executed, Schreiber was heard by many persons exclaiming that she had been done a gross injustice. Schreiber even let slip that “King Nero” had also conducted such bloodbaths. Six weeks later Schreiber was again appalled when the extremely wealthy widow of Lorenz Gurren was convicted of witchcraft, and executed on January 12, 1629. When attending the execution of the lady, he had the temerity to express amazement over her confession. The Amtmann Max Waltzen turned to him and said pointedly, “Ha, ha, those who know the devil should not be so amazed.” That kind of talk perturbed Schreiber, and when magistrates began avoiding him, he prepared to flee. During this time he repeatedly denounced the court for its unjust trials and declared that “if anything happens to me, let every pious Christian fear for himself.” He also prayed that “God might preserve everyone from Neuenhaus [the jail and torture chamber], for even the most pious if put in there would be found to be a witch.” The trials, he insisted, were bloodbaths, and the magistrates were out to “wash their hands in my blood.”

Other records show some of the reasons for the behavior of the magistrates toward Schreiber. On December 12, 1628, Martha Dökherin claimed to have seen Schreiber at a witches’ dance. On January 29, 1629, a second woman denounced him. Schreiber’s terror grew as he sensed that things were closing in on him. Schreiber’s terror grew as he sensed that things were closing in on him. He arranged to have money sent out of town to a place where he could later pick it up. On February 1, 1629, he left town, and fled to Ansbach, and later to Hohenlohe. He left in such a hurry that he later had to write his wife to send him his cloak, shoes, black hat, and a pair of green trousers. He wrote also to his friend, the Latin teacher George Allemahn, asking him to examine the case secretly to see whether it was safe to return. In a letter to Bürgermeister Paul Nachtraben [whose own wife had also been executed as a witch -ed.], Schreiber again explained why he had left and protested his innocence. He noted that he feared trial because torture led people to confess lies. In yet another letter to his wife he comforted her with the thought, “Oh what pains these unjust judges will have to suffer in hell!” Finally in a tiny note no larger than three inches by four, he told his wife to meet him at Ebersheim in Hohenlohe.

Unfortunately this note and perhaps the other letters were intercepted by the magistrates in Mergentheim. On February 9, 1629, they wrote to Hohenlohe that Schreiber was staying in Ebersheim, and to kindly detain him until extradition papers could be prepared. By February 10, Schreiber was back in Mergentheim answering questions. He admitted at once that the trials seemed like bloodbaths to him but he could not be sure that anyone had been done an injustice. When asked if he had not defended the witches “and held that witchcraft was mere fantasy,” Schreiber replied that “he had always said [that witch trials were legitimate] only if no one is done an injustice.” At this point the authorities in Mergentheim were apparently confused. There were only two denunciations of Schreiber as a witch, not enough for torture, and Schreiber was too important a man to be dealt with lightly. The first deficiency was remedied on February 13, when Catharina, Georg Reissen’s wife, denounced Schreiber. We may suspect that Schreiber’s name had been suggested to her, as indeed it may have been to the preceding two women.

Schreiber’s friends were another matter. On April 10, the authorities in Mergentheim received a supplication from friends and relatives in Heidenheim, Langenau, Ellwangen, Dinkelsbühl, and Aalen. They protested the lengthy incarceration of Schreiber without specific charges, admitted that he might have sinned against the magistracy set up by God, but pleaded that his youth and his four little children be mitigating factors.

Instead of considering Schreiber’s children, the court wrote to Würzburg for advice. On May 6, 1629, the authorities at Würzburg replied that (1) because three persons had denounced him, (2) because he had fled, (3) because he had attacked the judicial system, Thomas Schreiber might be tortured. The court in Mergentheim proceeded to this step on May 19. Once again Schreiber called the ever mounting trials a bloodbath, [the author here footnotes that 33 more persons had been executed since Schreiber’s capture] but claimed to be glad that God was letting him suffer. Dr. Baumann interrupted to insist “as surely as God is in heaven, this is justice.” Schreiber countered by swearing “as truly as Christ died on the cross, and God created me, I am innocent.” He also asked, “Cannot the learned make mistakes in this matter too?” That ws the last straw; he was given over to torture. After hanging for the length of a Pater noster, he admitted that he had committed adultery three years ago with a woman who turned out to be the devil. In addition he had denied God and said that “men die like cattle.” The rest of his confession proceeded readily as he admitted attending witches’ dances and named those whom he had seen there. He claimed that he had never harmed anyone by magic, since his only reason for giving himself to the devil was Pullschafft (sexual intercourse). He confessed that he had stolen the host from the Eucharist, and proved to be incapable of repeating his rosary. For a man with so many relatives in Protestant Heidenheim, this incapacity must have seemed particularly significant. He confirmed this confession on May 22, naming seven complices, and ratified these confessions and denunciations again on May 25, 26 and 28. Clearly the authorities wanted to establish beyond all doubt the voluntary nature of his confession.

In letters to his wife during this time, Schreiber continued to protest his innocence and with great emotion took leave of his family. Fortunately he could look forward to meeting them again in heaven, but even this did not create resignation. He urged his wife to marry again and noted that she had always repeated an axiom that now had especially bitter relevance: “Whoever is chosen for eternal life must undergo thistles, thorns, and strife.” In the only note we have from Anna Schreiber, written in a very crude hand, she begs pardon for ever giving him the idea that she thought him guilty of witchcraft, and wishes she were dead. The letters are certainly as touching and revealing as the famous one of Mayor Junius in Bamberg, or that of [Magdalena] Weixler in Ellwangen.

The case of Thomas Schreiber is better documented than most, but it reveals the shock and fear that pervaded a town in the grip of panic. Friendships broke down as men lost confidence in one another; families were rent with grief and self-accusation. This case reveals most clearly the danger of attacking the judicial system in the midst of spasms of witch hunting. Doubts, if any, were for the judges, not the populace. Theoretical statements, especially in Latin, were also tolerable. But specific attacks on men and policies were contempt of court and brought swift retribution. On May 30, 1629, Thomas Schreiber was beheaded and burned. Yet how can one measure his contribution to the crisis of confidence in Mergentheim?

The fires continued to burn after the protest of this innkeeper “zum Hirsch.” But the growing awareness that he had been right after all brought witch hunting to a close in Mergentheim before the Swedes arrived to enforce such a policy. The panic had lasted two and a half years, had cost 126 lives, and had disrupted the lives of hundreds more. If this was social catharsis, it nearly killed the patient.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Public Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions,Witchcraft

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