Posts filed under 'Germany'

1948: Hans Karl Möser, for rocketry

Add comment November 26th, 2014 Headsman

In 1943, punishing Allied bombing had chased Germany’s brilliant rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his team away from the Baltic port of Peenemünde where their pioneering work on the V-2 rocket had taken such a heavy toll on London.

Casting about the Third Reich for a suitable spot to base the missile team, the rocketeers settled on the Kohnstein, a hill in Thuringia already hollowed out by gypsum mines. This tunnel network was readily adapted into a subterranean munitions factory called Mittelwerk — difficult for the Allies to find, and once they found it, difficult to bomb.


A U.S. Army soldier poses with a half-assembled V-2, one of about 250 such rockets found in the Mittelwerk labyrinth when the facility was captured.

With the facilities and the big brains in place, only one thing was missing: millions of man-hours of labor.

Nazi Germany had that in plentiful supply.

Beginning in late 1943, concentration camp inmates at Buchenwald began to be funneled out to a new facility, Mittelbau-Dora. Initially just a Buchenwald sub-camp, Dora grew over the course of 1944 into an immense facility holding 50,000 prisoners — a handful of German undesirables, but mostly captured foreign nationals: French, Dutch, Polish, Czech, and Russian. Short of food, sleep, and clothing for the 1944-1945 German winter, they were systematically worked to death in the Mittelwerk shafts to build a better bomb.

Our day’s principal, Hans Möser/Moeser (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an SS-Obersturmführer who made a living throughout the war years pulling guard detail in a number of concentration camps.

On May 1, 1944, Möser was transferred from Auschwitz to Mittelbau-Dora. It was the last job he would ever hold, but were Möser on the market today his C.V. would laud his team-player orientation and project management skills on a high-priority initiative. No doubt he was just the sort of reliable agent who understands how things are done that the world’s mad bombers need at their back.

“Ninety percent of the prisoners lived and worked in the tunnel of the mine,” testified one German who worked at Dora as a secretary and doctor’s aide.

As a result of the uninterrupted work in the mines and the absence of any installation for forced draft and ventilation, there prevailed a stuffy cold atmosphere, which made breathing difficult. The prisoners also slept in the subterranean tunnel in big chambers hewed out of the rocks, in five beds on top of each other. Already in 1944 3,500 prisoners used to sleep in such a room. In the tunnel of the mine there was no ater, the prisoners got absolutely insufficient quantities of tea for drinking purposes. But for weeks they were not able to wash themselves. As a result of the heavy work in the mines and of the bad food numerous prisoners died from exhaustion during their work.

According to that same testimony, the camp received a frightful order on Good Friday, which fell on March 30 in 1945: drive every last prisoner into those tunnels and bring down the caves around them. “No prisoner should be allowed to fall into Allied hands alive.”

The speedy arrival of the American 3rd Armored Division and 104th Infantry Division just days later prevented that order from taking effect.

The facilities themselves, too, were to be destroyed as part of Hitler’s scorched-earth “Nero Decree” intended to deny the benefit of German industry and infrastructure to the arriving conquerors. But Hitler’s War Production Minister Albert Speer was intentionally ignoring that order, a decision that might well have helped him avoid hanging at the Nuremberg trials.

Mittelwerk was a valuable capture indeed for the Allies. The Americans who first occupied it, and then the Russians who took it over a few months later, ransacked it for parts and technical specifications. The V-2 was the first man-made object to reach the space, blasting at the speed of sound to the edge of orbit before plummeting back with its payload into the heart of London or wherever. It’s the ancestor of the long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles that would come later, as well as the space programs of the countries who could build such missiles.

And of course, it wasn’t just the parts.

Wernher von Braun himself was the top catch of all — the young genius (he was just 33 when World War II ended) with the weapons of the future in his skull. As Germany collapsed in 1945, von Braun and his team of engineers had resolved to surrender themselves to the Americans rather than the Russians, but they too were subject to an order given the SS to execute the scientists if their capture appeared imminent. The Fuhrerbunker knew as well as the Allies how valuable this asset was.

In the event, von Braun managed to give himself up to a surprised American private. He disappeared into American custody, the prize catch of “Operation Paperclip” that grabbed some 1,500 scientists from Germany and helpfully whitewashing their past misdeeds — misdeeds like Nazi party affiliation, and participating in slave labor camps.

Firing guided rockets into space was one thing. Unfortunately for our man Möser, his own skill set of bullying subordinates was not in short supply for either of the Cold War antagonists.

Möser was the one defendant (among 15) condemned to death at the resulting trial of Dora camp personnel. Rocket scientists, naturally, were not present for the occasion; Wernher von Braun and his team were hard at ork at this time at Fort Bliss, Texas adapting the V-2 to the American Hermes program.

But at Dora, it had been Möser’s job to oversee camp discipline and labor strength for the slaves doing the grunt work manufacturing von Braun’s brainchild. Testimony convinced the court that the SS man had done this far too brutally, and perhaps with sadistic pleasure.

Several witnesses testified Möser frequently beat prisoners and participated in executions, often shooting at the men who were hanged for camp infractions — while they were hanging, or after they were taken off the gallows. (And of the latter, some already dead and some still alive.) “The accused told the twelfth witness that it was a pleasure to give the mercy shots, like shooting a deer.”

Möser for his part countered that he took no joy himself in the beatings and killings that he had to conduct as part of his job — and that the camp commandant had early on reprimanded him for leniency, threatening that “in view of the importance of the V-weapons operation, this could be interpreted as sabotage because it reduced the work efficiency.” How’s that for a hostile work environment?

(There’s a large .pdf of the entire trial summary here. Möser’s section begins on page 36 of the pdf (page 68 per the numbering in the scanned book pages).)

His presence on this here site betrays the outcome. On this date in 1948, Hans Möser was hanged at Landsberg Prison along with several other (unrelated) convicted war criminals.

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1593: Gabriel Wolff, Nuremberg adventurer

1 comment October 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1593, Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt beheaded one of that city’s finest con artists.

Gabriel Wolff, a burgher’s son, had gone on a picaresque swindling bender through central Europe and all the way to Constantinople, posing as a V.I.P. in various courts for fun and profit.

As Schmidt recounted it, Wolff first “called himself George Windholz, Secretary to the Elector at Berlin, also took the name of Ernst Haller and Joachim Furnberger, borrowed 1,500 ducats from a councillor here in Nuremberg by means of a forged letter in the Elector’s name and under the seal of the Margrave John George in Berlin; was arrested at Regensburg and delivered over to Nuremberg.”

And this was far from all.

The inveterate trickster had made off with 1,400 crowns from the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands and fled to Ottoman Turkey. He had had a misadventure with an Italian abbess, netting a silver clock for his trouble; conned a Knight of St. John out of his mount; and ensconced himself as the Habsburg emperor’s personal attendant in Prague, where he perpetrated “many other frauds, causing false seals of gentlemen to be cut, wrote many forged documents and was conversant with seven languages; carrying on this for twenty-four years.” In his time he got the best of “a councilor at Danzig, the count of Ottingen, his lord at Constance, two merchants at Danzig, a Dutch master,” and similar worthies crisscrossing Europe from Lisbon to Crete to Krakow to London and seemingly every point worth mentioning in between.

As Schmidt’s biographer observes, it’s more than likely that the crowd under the scaffold beheld Wolff with admiration as much as opprobrium, for this native son’s silver tongue and brass balls had enabled him to spend a lifetime in material luxury, hobnobbing with the masters of Europe — and certainly ensured him an afterlife in pleasurable folklore he could scarcely have conjured had he spent his days respectably haggling for a better price on the ell. Frankly, we in drab modernity could ourselves do with a Gabriel Wolff book.

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1529: Adolf Clarenbach, Lower Rhine evangelist

Add comment September 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1529, the city of Cologne burnt Protestant evangelist Adolf Clarenbach at the stake.

Clarenbach (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a humanist-trained teacher who caught the Reformation spirit when he read Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian in about 1523.

The ears of our generation have been made so delicate by the senseless multitude of flatterers, that, so soon as we perceive that anything of ours is not approved of, we cry out that we are being bitterly assailed …

-Luther in the dedicatory preface* to On the Freedom of a Christian (Source)

Adolf Clarenbach in statuary on present-day Cologne’s city hall. (cc) image from Raimond Spekking

Luther’s words would kindle many a fagot in the years to come. Clarenbach got an early start assailing orthodox delicacies; he was dismissed from teaching posts and harried from city to city (German link, a handy little biography). Munster ran him out for agitating against idolatrous images of saints in 1523; Duke Johann III** personally ordered his expulsion from Jülich-Cleves-Berg; Osnabrück, Büderich and Elberfeld all gave him the boot before Cologne finally arrested him in April 1528.

Clarenbach’s condemnation would only be secured by an arduous process stretching well over a year and contested by the heretic and his friends not only in theology but in law (Clarenbach, a layperson, disputed the ecclesiastical court’s right to try him and appealed successfully to an Imperial court against Cologne, dragging out the process) and in public opinion (Clarenbach’s supporters in Cologne published defenses of him). Even the actual death sentence took half a year to enact after it was issued in March 1529 while authorities loath to conduct it negotiated with their prisoner to moderate his heresy.

He was finally put to death together with another Lutheran, Peter Fliesteden; they are among the first Protestants to die for their confession in the Lower Rhine.

Given the Lutheran movement’s strong run in Germany, it’s no surprise to find this seminal martyr honored in many places in present-day Germany — and his name ornamenting a street in his hometown, a seminary, and a primary school.

* On the Freedom of a Christian was dedicated to the sitting pope. While Luther’s dedication inveighed furiously against the Roman curia, it took the politic and preposterous rhetorical angle that the Medici Leo X was a helpless ingenue undone by his scheming court, “like Daniel in the midst of lions”: “I have always grieved that you, most excellent Leo, who were worthy of a better age, have been made Pontiff in this. For the Roman Court is not worthy of you and those like you, but of Satan himself, who in truth is more the ruler in that Babylon than you are.”

Luther signed that dedication on September 6, 1520. He had not been excommunicated at that point.

Just a few weeks later, he received the papacy’s official (and none too polite) rebuttal to Luther’s 95 theses. Luther answered this missive much less temperately, and his breach with Rome was complete by January 1521.

† Cologne at this time was under the bishopric of Hermann of Wied, a humanist with the germ of refrm curiosity. Many years later, he would actually convert to Lutheranism which naturally led to his excommunication and deposition. (But not execution.)

** That’s Duke Johann of Cleves, the father of the Anne of Cleves whose unsatisfactory betrothal to Henry VIII precipitated the downfall of Thomas Cromwell.

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1944: A Dutch Kapo named Raphaelson

1 comment September 27th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On an unspecified Saturday afternoon in September 1944, a Dutch Jew was hanged before a crowd of thousands in Blechhammer, a Nazi forced-labor camp that was a subcamp of Monowitz, which was in turn a subcamp of Auschwitz.

Witness Israel J. Rosengarten, describing the event forty-five years later, identified the executed man as “Raphaelson” and described him as “about twenty-four years old … a very capable carpenter.”

Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names includes an entry for a Rudolf Israel Raphaelsohn that seems to fit: he was born in Berlin in 1922, spent the war in the Netherlands, and perished in Blechhammer in 1944. His individual page of testimony describes his occupation as “sawmill owner.” This is probably, but not definitely, our man.

Rosengarten wrote about Raphaelson’s execution in his book Survival: The Story of a Sixteen-Year-Old Jewish Boy, published in 1999. According to him, Raphaelson was a Kapo, meaning he had certain privileges and a position of leadership over other Jews in the camp, sort of like a prison trusty.

He met his death through sheer bad luck.

By 1944, Blechhammer was being bombed by the Americans on a regular basis. As Rosengarten records,

Book CoverThis Kapo had seen a bomb lying on the ground, which had not exploded. It was split open, but the mechanism had not detonated. The Kapo saw a yellow powder lying in the middle of the split bomb. He obviously did not realize it was dynamite. Because we had no washing powder in the camp, he got the idea of smuggling some of that yellow powder into the camp in a parcel to see if it could be used as a washing powder.

While he was busy taking the powder in, he was caught by an SS man. He was whipped until he fell down. Next, when he came into the camp he was sent to the Politische Abteilung. The SS of the political department drew up a protocol in which it was stated that Raphaelson … had “plundered” the dynamite and that he had done it with the intention of committing “sabotage.” His deed was stamped as a “terror against the Third Reich.” Raphaelson was then forced to sign the statement.

And then … the SS let him go.

He was not relieved of his position as Kapo. He was not transferred to a punishment detail. A whole four weeks passed by and the incident was never mentioned, and the inmates, who had enough to worry about in their difficult day-to-day existence, forgot all about it.

Raphaelson’s execution took everyone completely by surprise. Everyone came back to camp after a hard day’s work and noticed the SS were all in dress uniform and parading them around as if some important holiday was being celebrated.

The inmates weren’t allowed to go to their barracks as normal. Instead they were assembled in the center of camp, where a gallows had been set up.

It turned out the confession Raphaelson had been signed had been sent all the way up to the leadership of Auschwitz for them to decide what to do about it, and they had taken their time. Only now, a month later, had the SS in Blechhammer gotten their answer, and now the “saboteur” had to pay the price for his “crime.”

“The whole thing,” Rosengarten noted sardonically, “had the appearance of a lawful trial and a truly democratic tribunal.” He happened to be standing in the front row, so had an intimate view of the proceedings:

After a very long wait, the stool was pushed away from under his feet with a firm kick. A panicked chill passed through us as if time were falling away. But then it seemed the rope was not holding. Suddenly, it broke in two. Raphaelson fell unhurt to the ground. Everybody present stood amazed.

We all hoped now that Raphaelson would be given mercy because of that unusual event. But such a thing was, of course, unthinkable for the SS. The rope was repaired and once again the boy was placed on the stool. Again it was kicked away. But the unbelieveable happened again! The rope broke in two a second time!

A sort of providence seemed to have insinuated itself. Everything we saw was so unusual, so unreal! But the Nazis did not give up. For the third time, the Kapo was placed upon the stool, and the noose was put around his neck. Because of what had happened, Raphaelson came more and more to his senses. He seemed to be more clearly aware of what was going on. All of the sudden he yelled, “Friends! Do not lose courage! Those who today want to murder us will themselves soon be kaput!” The two SS who stood next to him could not believe what they were hearing. “Hold your beak, you!” they shouted. Quickly they again kicked the stool away. And then Raphaelson sank down. For a couple of long minutes we had to look him in the eyes. After that, he was no longer among the living.

After Raphaelson finally expired, the six thousand prisoners were required to stand there another fifteen minutes, then march around the scaffold so everyone could see him. “Only after this,” Rosengarten recorded, “were we allowed to crawl quietly and dejectedly to our barracks.”

Israel Rosengarten survived several concentration camps and death marches before he was liberated in Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. By then, he was near death from starvation and exhaustion.

After he recovered his health he went home to Belgium and discovered he was, at eighteen years of age, the sole survivor of his large family.

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1904: Newly caught Herero prisoners-of-war

Add comment September 26th, 2014 Headsman

“Newly caught Herero prisoners-of-war were hung by the neck. Since that day, I would often see Herero swaying from the branch of a tree.”

-Diary of German soldier Emil Malzahn, writing of prisoners captured and summarily executed 26 September 1904 at the waterhole of Owisombo-Owidimbo during the Herero genocide

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1946: Ernst Lohmeyer, theologian

Add comment September 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1946, the Soviets occupying East Germany executed Bible scholar Ernst Lohmeyer.

A fifty-five-year-old professor when the NKGB whisked him out of his apartment without explanation to his dumbfounded wife, Lohmeyer (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an important Protestant theologian of the interwar period with a knack for eschewing the opportunistic choice.

By refusing to disavow Jewish associates, his academic career got derailed in the 1930s, despite his producing influential critical commentary on the Gospel of Mark;* by patriotically serving in the Wehrmacht despite his reservations about the Third Reich, he set himself up to profile as an undesirable after World War II.

For a long time, Lohmeyer’s fate was, if not difficult to guess, obscure in its particulars. Not until 1957 was his execution in a forest near Hanshagen officially confirmed; he had been condemned by a military tribunal for participating in the German occupation of Sloviansk even though he wasn’t personally associated with any known atrocities.

The post-Soviet Russian state officially exonerated Lohmeyer in 1996. The University of Greifswald, where Lohmeyer was teaching when arrested, has a theology faculty building named for him.

* Lohmeyer postulated that the Gospel of Mark reflected a contemporary-to-the-evangelist (that is, post-Jesus) conflict between Christian communities in different locales, and that Mark himself was associated with Galilee’s Christians and therefore structured his narrative to exalt this location.

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1573: Hans von Erschausen, Seeräuber

Add comment September 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Hanseatic city of Hamburg beheaded the Seeräuber Hans von Erschausen with his crew, leaving naught but a vast row of pike-mounted heads and some excellent woodcuts.

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1771: Matthias Klostermayr, the Bavarian Hiasl

Add comment September 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1771, the German outlaw Matthias Klostermayr was broken on the wheel in Dillingen.

The “Bavarian Robin Hood” (English Wikipedia entry | German) led a band of poachers (their merriness or lack thereof is unrecorded) who in the 1760s did a famous business, exploiting the jigsaw of tiny statelets in the region to keep the heat off by ducking across a border every few weeks.

Their exploits zestily raiding the hated private hunting preserves of haughty lords elevated them in the popular imagination to social bandits. They’re really said to have distributed a portion of their booty to the poor. They were slated with nine homicides during their run, of game wardens or soldiers whom they did not hesitate to handle much less generously. The gang’s long run proliferated legends multiplying their prowess, even crediting them with supernatural powers like invulnerability to bullets.

Klostermayr was the subject of folk songs even in his lifetime, and that exposure meant that he eventually became the subject of multilateral coordination among the principalities whose limited jurisdictions he so expertly exploited. A 1769 mutual-assistance arrangement permitted authorities to cross the border in hot pursuit; by the end of 1770, an outright military expedition with 300 troops had been arranged. They took Klostermayr by storm on January 14, 1771 in the town of Osterzell; the theater and the shooting club still carry Klostermayr’s name in Osterzell, a small testament to the robber’s enduring popularity two and a half centuries on from his death.

That death was bound to be a demonstrative one, revenging all the offenses Klostermayr had done to his superiors.

The agonizing public shattering of his bones on the breaking wheel, preserved for us in graphic drawings, did no disfavors to the bandit’s fame. Buttressed by his thinly-veiled appearance a few years later as the protagonist of Schiller‘s first play, The Robbers, Klostermayr’s renown persists in Germanophone Europe right down to the present day.


Detail view (click for a larger image) of the terrifying device on which Bavarian outlaw Matthias Klostermayr was stretched out to have his limbs crushed with a breaking-wheel on September 6, 1772.

Detail view (click for a larger image) of Matthias Klostermayr being broken on the wheel.

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1806: Johann Philipp Palm, press martyr

Add comment August 26th, 2014 Headsman

Nuremberg bookseller Johann Philipp Palm was shot on this date in 1806 for publishing a manifesto against the French occupation.

For centuries a proud Free Imperial City, Nuremberg had over the few months preceding Palm’s martyrdom been smushed up by the conquering Grande Armee into an amalgamated French client, the Confederation of the Rhine.

This was a huge political shakeup. Even the Empire of which Nuremberg had been a Free Imperial City was no more: the 854-year-old Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, a casualty of the Battle of Austerlitz. At just 25,000 residents and far removed from its mercantile preeminence of yesteryear,* Nuremberg wasn’t even one of the Confederation of the Rhine’s 16 constituent polities: it had been rolled up into Bavaria, in a partial cleanup of the tiny Kleinstaaten pocking the old German map.

Nuremberg’s prostration in this arrangement mirrored Germany’s as a whole vis-a-vis the Corsican. Napoleon was the official “protector” of the Confederation of the Rhine, and its end of the protection racket entailed shipping conscripts to the French army.

The Confederation of the Rhine ultimately included four kingdoms, five grand duchies, 13 duchies, 17 principalities, and the Free Hansa towns of Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen, and covered much of the territory of present-day Germany (sans Prussia). For some odd reason, Germans whose dreams of national unification were beginning to stir weren’t too enthusiastic about having it marshaled by France.

In July of 1806, Palm gave voice to the sentiment by publishing a 144-page treatise, Germany in its Deep Humiliation. The identity of the seditious author(s) he resolutely kept secret, but it’s attributed now to Count Friedrich Julius Heinrich von Soden.

Palm had the fortune or sense to be safely away in Prussia by the time irate Frenchmen raided his shop, but was caught after he boldly slipped back into the city against all sensible advice. He was transferred to a fortress at Braunau am Inn, and shot there.

His death made him an early national martyr (“involuntary hero”, in the words of a 2006 Braunau bicentennial remembrance), and his name is still preserved on a variety of streets in German cities. In Palm’s native Schorndorf, the Palm Pharmacy building sports plaques honoring the martyr. And a Palm Foundation awards, every two years, a Johann Philipp Palm Prize journalism prize. It’s announced on this date, each even-numbered year. (Update: Salijon Abdurakhmanov of Uzbekistan and Nazikha Saeed of Bahrain received the 2014 Palm awards.)

A publishing house, Palm und Enke, actually founded post-Napoleon by the uncle under whom our Johann Palm completed his apprenticeship, still exists today. (It is no longer in the control of any Palm relative, however.)

* Back when being the executioner of Nuremberg was a plum assignment.

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1738: Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmans, inviolable dignity

1 comment 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

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