Posts filed under 'Witchcraft'

1697: The Paisley Witches

1 comment June 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1697, the Paisley, Renfrewshire Gallow Green played stage for the strangling and burning of six “witches.” They’re known as the Paisley witches, the Renfrewshire witches, or the Bargarran witches, and are sometimes acclaimed the last mass-executed witches in western Europe.

This book posits a more than incidental resemblance between Salem and Renfrewshire, given that the “possessed child” figure was not a usual ornament for Scottish witchcraft cases.

In a setup bearing a disturbing similarity to the Salem witch trials,* an 11-year-old brat named Christian Shaw, the daughter of a local laird, got a tongue-lashing from the family servant and then turned around and accused her a sorceress.

The psychological mechanisms at play make interesting speculation in such cases. Was she merely a spiteful little monster, or did she believe in accordance with the superstitions of her time that the servant’s curses had effect, and suffer real afflictions that ensued upon this belief? Can we see her in the end as a creature necessarily produced by her nation in its troubled hour, unmoored as it was by the political and religious dislocations of the Glorious Revolution, gnawed by famine, and hurtling towards an unwilling union with England? (The bizarre execution of an Edinburgh university student for blasphemy also unfolded in 1696-1697.)

We leave such speculations to the reader as we plunge into the onset of supernatural doings in these environs almost a year before the consequent executions — via a 1698 pamphlet titled “A True Narrative of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girle Strangely Molested, by Evil Spirits and their Instruments, in the West”

August 22 [1696], the Child went to Bed in good health; but so soon as she fell asleep, began to struggle and cry, Help, Help: And then suddenly got up, and did fly over the top of a Resting-bed, where she was lying (her Father, Mother, and others being in the Room, and to their great Astonishment and Admiration) with such violence, that probably her Brains had been dasht out, if a Woman, providentially standing by, and supported by a Door at her back, had not broke the force of the Childs motion, who being laid in another Bed, remained stiff and insensible as if she had been dead, for the space of half an Hour; but for Fourty eight Hours thereafter could not sleep, crying out of violent Pains thorow her whole Body, and no sooner began to sleep or turn drowsie but seemed greatly affrighted, crying still Help, Help.

These frightening spasms continued for days, contorting her body and robbing her of speech; helpless doctors bled her to no effect.

Some dayes thereafter was an alteration in her Fitts, so far, that she got speaking, during the time of them; and while she was in the fits, fell a crying, that Katharine Campbel and Agnes Naismith were cutting her side, and other parts of her Body; Which parts were in that time violently Tormented. And when the fit was over she still averred, that she had seen the same Persons doing the same things which she complained of while under the fit (it being remarkable that in the intervals she was still as well and sensible as ever) and would not believe but that others present saw them as well as she!

Katharine Campbell was servant who had chewed her out. Agnes Naismith was an old lady with a witchy reputation. In time they would headline the execution that occasions this post.

We must here pause to remark that the decision of the adults around Christian Shaw to steer this crisis in the girl’s life towards a judicial witch hunt was by no means predetermined. While capital statutes against bewitchment remained on the books, they were fading in practice; according to the invaluable Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database, there had been only a single witchcraft prosecution in Scotland since 1683, and that one did not result in execution. The sudden eruption of a dormant and vanishing cosmology, with sufficient force to devour seven humans, shocks the eye.

Credit must go to Shaw for a rare commitment to the performance, as her symptoms continued intermittently for months, and accumulated a growing roster of accused supernatural tormentors. She was taken to Glasgow for treatment, and taken again; she went on regimens of prayer and fasting; at one point she began pulling debris out of mouth like a prestidigitator, in such number and variety that her doctor remarked that “Were it not for the hairs, hay, straw, and other things wholly contrary to human nature, I should not despair to reduce all the other symptoms to their proper classes in the catalogue of human diseases.”

Although modernity will doubt that they bewitched the child, the accused women, Agnes and Katharine, knew exactly what was up when they were brought to confront their accuser. They addressed their common peril with opposite strategems. Agnes, “did (tho not desired) pray for her, viz. that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth might send the Damsel her health,” which prayer cured Christian Shaw of continuing to accuse Agnes of muddling her (“upon the contrary, as she apprehended, defending her from the fury of the rest” of the witches) — whereas the saltier Katharine “could by no means be prevailed with to pray for the Damsel, but upon the contrary when desired by some, cursed them and all the Family of Bargarran, and in particular the Damsel and all that belonged to her, withal adding this grievous Imprecation; The Devil let her never grow better, nor any concern’d in her, be in a better condition than she was in, for what they had done to her.” I like this Katharine, but Laird Bargarran had the sheriff throw her forthwith into the dungeon; the reader may recall from our foreshadowing that Agnes’s more diplomatic approach did not ultimately serve her any better.

By January, five months after Christian’s first fits, the doctors and ministers had been defeated and the Privy Council appointed a tribunal to investigate the matter and shoo away the hags bothering Christian Shaw. The annals of their actions makes for repellent reading, even by the standards of judges. Readers with strong eyeglass prescriptions can enjoy the full pdf here, but most will probably prefer this lucid summary by Undine, a onetime Executed Today guest blogger. We also have a Victorian compilation of records related to the affair here.

The hunt swept up a 14-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother, a 17-year-old girl who was made to furnish accusations that incriminated still more people besides. One can see in our credulous 1698 account the enspelled little shit begin to revel in her theatrics and the power she held over her neighbors.

February 12. Margaret Laing and her Daughter Martha Semple, being delated by the three Confessants, and accused by the Girl to have been active instruments in her Trouble, came of their own accord to Bargarran’s House, and before they came up Stairs the Girl said, she was now bound up, and could not accuse Margaret Laing to her face: And accordingly the Girl’s Mother having desired somer of those who were sitting by her to feel some parts of her Body, and they having done it, found her Body so stiff and inflexible, that there was no moving of it, and immediately again found some parts of her Body contracted and drawn hard togethe [sic], as if by Cords; after this Margaret Lang and her Daughter, having gone to the Chamber of the Girle, did in presence of the Ministers and others, desire the Damsel to come to her; for she would do her no Harm, and laying her Arms about her, spake very fairly to her, and question’d her if ever she had seen her other Daughter among her Tormentors, to which the Girle did positively reply, she had frequently seen her Daughter; but declined thorow fear to accuse herself, saying faintly No, after which Margaret and her Daughter returning into the Hall, and the Minister enquiring at her why she said No, seeing she had accus’d her before, she answered, take me contrar, upon which she was seiz’d with a grievous Fit; yet after her recovery being urg’d again by those present to tell her Mind freely, whether or not Margaret Lang was one of her Tormentors the Child thereupon Essaying to say Yes, and having half-pronounced the Word, was cast into unexpressible Anguishes; and again in the interval of the Fit, she Essay’d to express the same thing, and saying only the word Tint (that is soft) was on a sudden struck with another fit, and when the fit was over, and the Child returned to the Chamber, Margaret Lang who was sitting near the Hall door, spoke these words after her. The Lord bless thee, and ding (that is beat, or drive) the Devil out of thee. A little after which words, Margaret going down stairs, the Damsel came to the Hall and said, her Bonds were now loos’d, and that now she could accuse Margaret Lang to her Face, and declar’d the occasion of her being so Restrain’d and Bound up while Margaret was present, was her letting fall a parcel of Hair at the Hall door as she came in; being a Charm made by her for that end, which also had been the occasion of her uttering the word Tint in the former fit: And accordingly a parcel of Hair had been found at the Hall-door, after Margaret Lang had gone straight from the Hall to the Chamber, which immediately was cast into the Fire and burnt. And its remarkable, that it could be attested that there was no Hair, or any other thing else in that place before Margaret Lang came in, and the Girle being enquired, what way she knew Margaret Lang had laid the forementioned Charm upon her, replyed, something speaking distinctly to her as it were above her Head, had suggested that to her.

In the end — and posterity unfortunately lacks the original trial record — there were seven condemned to death and although their names in the surviving accounts “are not very distinctly stated” they appear to comprise our two original accused, Katharine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, the aforementioned Margaret Lang, the 14-year-old child James Lindsay and an apparent kinsman named John Lindsay, and also John Reid and Margaret Fulton. (Some accounts more mawkishly make it little James Lindsay with his 11-year-old brother Thomas, but that’s not indicated by the primary sources which repeatedly note that Thomas is “under the age of pupilarity.”)

John Reid managed to hang himself in prison and cheat the executioner. Katharine Campbell did him one better by fighting her persecutors all the way to the stake, and deservedly showering everyone in earshot with curses. The legend has it that Campbell’s malediction lurks behind any civic setback endured by Paisley down the years, such as the 1810 Paisley canal disaster. A horseshoe placed over the embittered sorceress’s grave to keep ill fortune at bay was lost in the 1960s; in 2008, a brass horseshoe plaque was installed in its place at the intersection of Maxwellton and St. George Streets — the memorial admitting the injustice done to all the Renfrewshire witches.


(cc) image by Paisley Scotland.

As for the witches’ accuser, Christian Shaw mirrored in her own life’s story the epochal shift that transformed witches from a legally recognized threat to a ridiculous superstition — as she grew up to become essentially the founder of Paisley’s distinctive (and still to this day important) thread industry by creating the “Bargarran Thread” .

* Coincidentally, the first execution of the Salem trials also occurred on June 10.

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1533: The witch of Schiltach

Add comment April 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1533, a German woman, nameless to posterity, was burnt as a witch in the town of Schiltach.


Engraving of Schiltach from 1643, a century after the events in this post. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Der Teufel von Schiltach (1930), by Eduard Trautwein. Bottom: Der Teufel von schiltach (1926), by Karl Eyth

This Black Forest idyll had been ravaged by fire on Maundy Thursday, the 10th of April.

We have seen many times in these pages how frightful was the scourge of fire for early modern cities, and the haste by which it was liable to be attributed to a malevolent plot.

In this case, common superstition soon acclaimed the fire an arson by the hand of an unpopular former maid of Schiltach’s mayor, who had recently been dismissed under a cloud of suspected diabolism. (This summary in German of the German book Der Teufel von Schiltach delves into the particulars.)

One problem: upon her dismissal, she had returned to her native Oberndorf. Not being in Schiltach at all during the events in question seemed like a pretty good alibi.

But since witchery was contributing means and motive, why not opportunity as well? Everyone knew that witches could fly. She was proximate, if not spatially then conceptually, to a disaster, and this was reason enough.

The luckless woman was retrieved from Oberndorf to answer the tortures of her disgruntled ex-boss, and consigned to the stake … and, as the images accompanying this post will attest, to local legend.


1533 woodcut illustration (click for larger version with German narrative text) about the Schiltach witch. (From Wikimedia Commons)

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2013: Kepari Leniata burned as a witch

1 comment February 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2013, villagers at the Papua New Guinea village of Paiala tortured their neighbor Kepari Leniata into confessing the witchcraft murder of a local child, then burnt her alive in a trash dump. Sorcery is widely feared and practiced in PNG.

Kepari Leniata, 20, ‘confessed’ after she was dragged from her hut, stripped naked and tortured with white-hot iron rods.

She was then dragged to a local rubbish dump, doused in petrol and, with hands and feet bound, thrown on a fire of burning tyres. As the mother-of-two screamed in agony, more petrol-soaked tyres were thrown on top of her.

The tragedy unfolded after Miss Leniata’s young neighbour fell sick on Tuesday morning. He complained of pains in the stomach and chest and was taken to Mt Hagen hospital where he died a few hours later.

Relatives of the boy were suspicious that witchcraft was involved in the death and learned that two women had gone into hiding in the jungle.

After they were tracked down, the pair admitted they practised sorcery but had nothing to do with the boy’s death. Miss Leniata, they said, was the person responsible.

The boy’s family went to her hut at 7am on Wednesday, stripped her and dragged her away to torture and death. (Source)

Horrific pictures circulated in the international media.

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1591: Agnes Sampson, North Berwick witch

1 comment January 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Agnes Sampson, the “Wise Wife of Keith”, went to the stake at Edinburgh during the North Berwick Witch Trials.

Perhaps Scotland’s most notorious witch hunt, the 1590-1591 sweep caught up something approaching 70 supposed sorcerers thanks to the king’s security panic after dangerous North Sea storms had beset the sea voyages uniting King James VI of Scotland and his new wife Queen Anne of Denmark. An inquisition in Denmark had made witches the culprit, and the young James — amusingly described by one commenter as “a superstitious and distrustful poltroon”* — opened an inquiry of his own as soon as he returned to native heather. His subsequent obsession with witchcraft is one of the signal characteristics of his reign, immortalized in literature via Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

James turned 24 in the summer of 1590, his short life already buffeted by fratricidal court politics (his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, lost her head; the regents who subsequently jostled over control of James had a frightening tendency to violent death). However misplaced upon magicians, his fear was well-founded; James’s cousin Lord Bothwell, himself escaped from arrest during the North Berwick scare, openly plotted against James throughout the early 1590s — one occasion coming “with fire to the king’s door, with hammers to the queen’s door” and on another surprising him in a vulnerable position during his morning toilet, causing the king to exclaim, “Came they to seek his life? let them take it — they would not get his soul.”

Peril to life and soul everywhere stretched into James’s world from the world beyond. “Our enemie is over craftie, and we over weake,” James would write in his remarkable 1597 disquisition on black magic, Daemonologie: Satan’s earthly minions so mighty that “They can rayse stormes and tempestes in the aire, either upon Sea or land.”


In an illustration from Daemonologie, James personally interrogates witches.

A woman named Geillis Duncan, maid to the deputy mayor of a small town near Edinburgh, was the fountainhead of the the North Berwick trials, when her suspicious master tortured her into admitting to witchcraft. King James personally joined the ensuing interrogations which saw her denounce several dozen Edinburghers as fellow necromancers, among them our day’s principal — a matronly widow named Agnes Sampson, who was a respected “wise woman” and folk healer much in demand among Edinburgh’s elites.

In Duncan’s involuntary narration, this woman “was the elder Witch” and when she “stood stiffely in the deniall of all that was laide to her charge” they dragged her to prison and put her to torture, also shaving her hairless in search of the inevitable small disfigurement that would be prejudicially construed her witches’ mark — “and forasmuch as by due examination of witchcraft and witches in Scotland, it hath latelye beene found that the Deuill dooth generallye marke them with a priuie marke, by reason the Witches haue confessed themselues, that the Diuell dooth lick them with his tung in some priuy part of their bodie, before hee dooth receiue them to be his seruants, which marke commonly is giuen them vnder the haire in some part of their bodye.”

We’re quoting here the 1591 pamphlet Newes from Scotland, one of the key primary sources (and justifications) of the witch trials which was issued from a pen very near to the king’s own hand. Having endured the cruel torture of having her hair wrenched (“thrawn”) by ropes for an hour, Newes from Scotland reports, Sampson broke down when an incriminating wart was discovered upon her bared pudenda.

the said Agnis Tompson confessed that the Divell being then at North Barrick Kerke attending their comming in the habit or likenes of a man, and seeing that they tarried over long, he at their comming enjoyned them all to a pennance, which was, that they should kisse his Buttockes, in signe of duetye to him: which being put over the Pulpit barre, everye one did as he had enjoyned them: and having made his ungodly exhortations, wherein he did greatlye enveighe against the King of Scotland, he received their oathes for their good and true service towards him, and departed: which doone, they returned to Sea, and so home againe.

At which time the witches demaunded of the Divel why he did beare such hatred to the King, who answered, by reason the King is the greatest enemy he hath in the worlde: all which their confessions and depositions are still extant upon record.

Item, the saide Agnis Sampson confessed before the Kings Majestie sundrye thinges which were so miraculous and strange, as that his Maiestie saide they were all extreame lyars, wherat she answered, she would not wishe his Maiestie to suppose her woords to be false, but rather to beleeve them, in that she would discover such matter unto him as his majestie should not any way doubt off.

And therupon taking his Majestie a little aside, she declared unto him the verye woordes which passed betweene the Kings Majestie and his Queene at Upslo in Norway the first night of their mariage, with their answere eache to other: whereat the Kinges Majestie wondered greatlye, and swore by the living God, that he beleeved that all the Divels in hell could not have discovered the same: acknowledging her woords to be most true, and therefore gave the more credit to the rest which is before declared.

One can see the work this tract — circulated as its title implies in England, where James was already being set up to inherit rule from the aging Queen Elizabeth — effects as propaganda: James as “the greatest enemy [the Devil] hath in the worlde”; James as the savvy and thorough interrogator too worldly to be taken by Agnes Sampson’s crazy stories until she proved them with a conveniently unfalsifiable private conference. Definitely no superstitious poltroon! Why, it was only by his superlative faith that James earned the divine favor required to overcome his adversaries’ weather machinations.

She confessed that she tooke a blacke Toade, and did hang the same up by the heeles, three daies, and collected and gathered the venome as it dropped and fell from it in an Oister shell, and kept the same venome close covered, untill she should obtaine any parte or peece of foule linnen cloth, that had appertained to the Kings Majestie, as shirt, handkercher, napkin or any other thing which she practised to obtaine by meanes of one John Kers, who being attendant in his Majesties Chamber, desired him for olde acquaintance betweene them, to helpe her to one or a peece of such a cloth as is aforesaide, which thing the said John Kers denyed to helpe her too, saying he could not help her too it.

And the said Agnis Tompson** by her depositions since her apprehension saith, that if she had obtained any one peece of linnen cloth which the King had worne and fouled, she had bewitched him to death, and put him to such extraordinary paines, as if he had beene lying upon sharp thornes and endes of Needles.

Moreover she confessed that at the time when his Majestie was in Denmarke, she being accompanied with the parties before specially named, tooke a Cat and christened it, and afterward bound to each parte of that Cat, the cheefest partes of a dead man, and severall joynts of his bodie, and that in the night following the saide Cat was conveied into the midst of the sea by all these witches sayling in their riddles or Cities as is aforesaide, and so left the saide Cat right before the Towne of Lieth in Scotland: this doone, there did arise such a tempest in the Sea, as a greater hath not beene scene: which tempest was the cause of the perrishing of a Boate or vessell comming over from the towne of Brunt Iland to the towne of Lieth, wherein was sundrye Jewelles and riche giftes, which should have been presented to the now Queen of Scotland, at her Majesties comming to Lieth.

Againe it is confessed, that the said christened Cat was the cause that the Kinges Majesties Ship at his comming foorth of Denmarke, had a contrary winde to the rest of his Ships, then being in his companye, which thing was most strange and true, as the Kings Majestie acknowledgeth, for when the rest of the Shippes had a faire and good winde, then was the winde contrarye and altogither against his Majestie: and further the saide witche declared, that his Majestie had never come safelye from the Sea, if his faith had not prevailed above their ententions.

Moreouer the said Witches being demaunded how the Divell would use them when he was in their company, they confessed that when the Divell did receive them for his servants, and that they had vowed themselues unto him, then he would Carnallye use them, albeit to their little pleasure, in respect of his colde nature: and would doo the like at sundry other times.

The History of Witchcraft podcast does a deep dive on the North Berwick trials in episode 9 which indulges detail (from about 25:40) on the logistics of witch-burning executions. This episode is part of a whole series on witchy King James that also compasses episodes 7, 8, and 10.

* Ray Defalque and A.J Wright, “In the Name of God: Why Agnes Sampson and Eufame McCalyean were burned at the stake” in Bulletin of Anesthesia History, July 2004. The interest in the case from this unusual-to-Executed Today source is that the charges against Sampson included those of witcherous midwifery, to wit, “remov[ing] Lady Hirmestone’s pain and sickness the night of her labor” and doing the same for Eufame McCalyean. As a result, “several authors have suggested that obstetrical analgesia started in Edinburgh in 1591,” an interpretation that Defalque and Wright, both anesthesiologists, reject.

** Newes from Scotland puts this part of the confession into the mouth of a more historically elusive woman called “Agnis Thompson”: many scholars believe that Sampson and Thompson are the same person.

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1641: Maren Splids, Jutland witch

1 comment November 9th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1641, one of Denmark’s most famous witches suffered at the stake.

Maren Splid, Spliid, or Splids (English Wikipedia entry | Danish) remains a paradigmatic exemplar of the witch-hunt’s terrifying capacity to make magicians of anyone some neighbor might one day accuse. In Splids’s case, the neighbor was a competitor of her prosperous husband, a tailor in the Jutland town of Ribe; the commercial motive obviously suggests itself but one dismisses superstitious folly at one’s peril. Apparently Maren Splids had given him some nasty words a full 13 years before the trouble started and Didrick nursed the grudge along as if he was carrying a flame for her.

In 1637 this accuser, Didrik by name, denounced our misfortunate principal for bewitching him unto an infernal illness; he even delivered to gobsmacked investigators some strange object that he had vomited up under her spell.

Now, Maren and husband were big enough wheels to defeat this case in Ribe — but the diligent Didrick proceeded to carry the matter all the way to King Christian IV, a supernatural paranoiac in the mold of his witchsniffing contemporary and brother-in-law James VI of Scotland/James I of England.

This sovereign ordered the case re-tried and put it on goodwife Splids to produce no fewer than 15 witnesses to her witchless character. The headsman is not quite certain whether, in a pinch, he could conjure 15 witnesses capable of credibly exonerating him of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping; neither did Splids manage to satisfy the court with a sufficient chorus.

Still supported by her husband, Splids leveraged a right of appeal which initially resulted in the grandees of Ribe overturning the conviction but her enemies were able to kick the appeal to the national government. Tortured in Copenhagen’s Blue Tower, Splids at last cracked and admitted the charges, also implicating several other women,* and was returned to Ribe to burn at the stake.


Marker at Maren Splids Hus in Ribe, which is a tourist attraction. (cc) image by Wolfgang Sauber.

She’s one of Denmark’s best-remembered sorceresses and an emblem of the witching era that saw 22 such prosecutions in Ribe alone from 1572 to 1652. She’s also been latterly reclaimed as an admirable figure — for instance, there was a 1970s feminist magazine called Maren Splids.

* One other woman, Anne Thomasdatter, would be put to death on the basis of Splids’s confession. Several others endured stays in the dungeon.

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1471: Giovanna Monduro, Piedmont witch

Add comment August 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1471, Giovanna Monduro, wife of Antoniotto Marandolo, burned at the stake in her native Piedmontese village of Miagliano.

Michael Tavuzzi, whose very specific title Renaissance Inquisitors: Dominican Inquisitors and Inquisitorial Districts in Northern Italy, 1474-1527 is our main source for this post, describes the case as “representative of the witch-trials conducted by Dominicans, both conventual and observant, in northern Italy during the Renaissance” which “seem to have been procedurally very similar.”

The story begins with a trial that we don’t know about, the trial at a nearby village of a witch called Maddalena who at some point offered Giovanna’s name to her tormentor.

Said tormentor, one Giovanni Domenico da Cremona, arrived in January 1470 to the beautiful Piedmont hamlet of Salussola* bearing a frightful boon: the offer of leniency for anyone who would gift the Inquisition their comprehensive confessions, and the names into the bargain of anyone else who was up to something sub-orthodox.

More than likely Giovanna’s name was actively solicited on the basis of Maddalena’s accusation; in either event, it was certainly supplied by family and neighbors to whom the woman had a witchy reputation. After an incriminating attempt to flee, she was brought to trial in the village church on February 13, 1470.

This time was very early days yet for the great witch-hunts yet to disgrace Europe, but it is recognizably of a piece with them. Over the course of the preceding generations, jurists and scholars had painstakingly constructed the edifice to support the many stakes and scaffolds: the conflation of folk magic, superstition, and holdover pagan customs with a literal network of flying, Satan-fucking warlocks bent on the destruction of Christendom.

For many centuries, “the Church, as the civilizer of nations, disdained these old wives’ tales,” Hugh Trevor-Roper put it in The European Witch Craze. But come the antechamber of modernity, “to deny the reality of night-flying and metamorphosis would be officially declared heretical; the witches’ sabbat would become an objective fact.”

Inquisitors’ preconceptions of the menace came to structure the trials they conducted, to insinuate themselves through questioning by turns sly and violent into the mouths of their prey, whose admissions would then compound not only upon the next town over but to the confirmation of the entire diabolic schema. It’s difficult to know where were the heads of long-gone peasants and townsfolk in all this but Giovanna’s attempt to escape suggests that whatever beliefs they might have held, all knew to dread the inquisitor.

Back to Tavuzzi’s treatment of the Salussola case:

The list reproduced in the trial’s transcript of the predetermined questions that were to be put to Giovanna by Giovanni Domenico during the course of the trial is instructive, for it reveals very well indeed the conceptual baggage that an inquisitor brought to such a task at this time. The questions amount to a kind of primer of the diabolic interpretation of witchcraft and allude to almost all its essential components: the sect of the witches, repudiation of the Christian faith, the pact with the devil, sexual congress with him, abuse of the sacraments, the performance of malevolent magic. Inquisitors invariably compiled such a list of points, known as articuli or capituli inquisitionales, to guide them in their interrogations, and it is through these that their own witch-beliefs and demonology would have impinged upon the course and outcome of a witch-trial.

Woe betide she who faced such questions … for the answers were already written.

Though Giovanna met this dreadful interrogation with some steadiness, human fortitude but rarely equaled the ordeal. Interrogated twice, she denied all repeatedly, even remaining steadfast through her third session that introduced torture to the proceedings.

Days later, the Inquisitor broke her.

A fourth interrogation took place on 20 February, and at that point she began to confess: she admitted that she had indeed belonged to the sect of the witches for twenty-three years, recapitulated all the elements of the stereotype of diabolic witchcraft, including shapeshifting and transvection that are not mentioned in Giovanni Domenico’s initial list of questions, and admitted to having caused the deaths of several persons.

She started coughing up names — some local women, some residents of a nearby village, a local priest — and when in fear for flesh or soul she attempted to walk back her confessions and accusations, she was tortured afresh until she adhered to the preferred story.

For unknown reasons it was not until almost 18 months later that

on 17 August 1471, the deputy of the local feudal lord, the count of Tollengo, in whose dungeon she must have been incarcerated since the trial, emitted the sentence whereby Giovanna was to be burned at the stake in nearby Miagliano — her birthplace — and it was carried out the same day.

* A display at a museum there commemorates the event.

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1789: Giovanna Bonanno, la Vecchia dell’Aceto

Add comment July 30th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1789, the Sicilian poisoner Giovanna Bonanno was hanged in Palermo.

Portrait of an Old Woman, by Giorgione (c. 1500-1510)

Bonanno (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) had borne the unremarked burdens of the poor into her ninth decade; her life prior to the brush with infamy is all but dark to us save a suspected marriage record from 1744. She seems to have scrabbled her way by beggary and folk magic.

In 1786, she chanced upon the the formula to concoct a lethal yet subtle draught from white wine vinegar and arsenic. (She never divulged its precise composition.)

For a few years in the late 1780s Bonanno’s vinegar became the hit choice for the choice hit. It was the ideal concoction: victims couldn’t detect it and doctors couldn’t diagnose it — so dissatisfied spouses, overeager heirs, rivalrous lovers, keepers of grudges, and all other manner of winnowers beat a path to her door.

Inevitably this business was betrayed as word got about; although it would surely have occurred by means of some other leak soon enough, in the event it happened when Bonanno’s delivery-woman realized that her parcel was intended for someone that she knew, and warned him.

As usual, it was the purveyor who bore the brunt of the law, as suppliers and clients alike damned her for a sorceress as well as a poisoner. Although hanged for her crimes, La Vecchia dell’Aceto — “The Old Vinegar” — entered instantly into Sicilian folklore; Italian speakers might enjoy Luigi Natoli‘s novel of that title.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Murder,Public Executions,Sicily,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1505: The Val Camonica witches

Add comment June 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1505, seven women and a man were burned in the town of Cemmo in Lombardy’s Val Camonica — the first victims of that region’s outbreak of witch-hunting that would claim over 100 lives all told.

This alpine valley fell in the remit of the city of Brescia which meant that (since the 1420s) it answered ultimately to the Most Serene Republic of Venice. But in the hinterlands of the fragmented Italian peninsula were

Remotenesses like Val Camonica are among the focal points for the fancy or hope that pockets of paganism held on from antiquity even in the heart of Christendom. Brescia lay in the belt spawning doctrinal and political challenges to the medieval church — the very zone that gave rise to the Inquisition.

During two distinct periods — 1505 to 1510, and again from 1518 to 1521 — that Inquisition fastened on folk in this region who constituted “a most pernicious kind of people … utterly damned by the stain of heresy, which was causing them to renounce the sacrament of the baptism they had received, denying their Lord and giving their bodies and souls to Satan whose advice was leading them astray.” (1521 communique of Pope Leo X, quoted here)

The circumstances for these purges can only be guessed at, as most of the primary documentation, particularly of the earlier episode, is lost. But the context of Papal-Venetian rivalry all but insists upon itself. Indeed, Venice’s ruling oligarchy is known during the 1518-1521 Inquisition to have interceded to prevent the Pope’s delegate from putting torch to flesh, provoking one of the innumerable jurisdictional imbroglios between the rival city-states.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Venice,Witchcraft,Women

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1821: Tommy Jemmy executes Kauquatau

Add comment May 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1821, a chief of the Seneca Native American nation slit the throat of a woman named Kauquatau, who had been condemned as a witch.

As Matthew Dennis explains in his book on the Seneca of the early American Republic, Seneca Possessed, the rapid march of European settlement and the Seneca’s recent and ambiguous incorporation into the newborn United States had strained the indigenous society in complex ways.

One of those reactions was a period of gendered witch-hunting in the early 19th century, especially growing out of the religious movement of the prophet Handsome Lake.

“Handsome Lake pinpointed the dangers the Seneca faced, the threats that they faced, the source of those threats, and a way … of purging his society of those who were most likely to resist his changes,” Dennis explained in this New Books Network podcast interview.

The “threat” for the instance at hand was a tribal healer who had become suspected of bewitching a man to his death — and her guilt in the same voted on by the Seneca elders. One of their number, Chief Soonongise — known as Tommy Jemmy to whites — went to her cabin on May 2, 1821, and killed her. It’s anyone’s guess whether Kauquatau realized what was happening — whether she took it as a social call or recognized her angel of death from the outset. But to New Yorkers, it was murder plain as day — and Tommy Jemmy was soon confined to a gaol to stand trial for his life.


Another reaction occasioned by the upheaval of those years, a reaction destined to emerge dramatically in this instance, was a feeling-out of the Seneca people’s position within the Anglo Republic that had engulfed it. “If the Senecas were a conquered people, as some tried to allege, the terms of their conquest were ill defined, their sovereignty, though diminished, still recognizable,” Harris writes. In these very pages we have met this ill-defined sovereignty several times: a few years on from the events of this post, the state of Georgia would defy a Supreme Court stay and execute a Cherokee man in a case turning on disputed sovereignty.*

Here in New York, Tommy Jemmy’s trial would open a different contest over the same underlying question.

Rather than attempting to deny or minimize his “crime,” Tommy Jemmy defended it as a legal execution conducted by the proper jurisdiction of Seneca laws — no matter for the interference of New York. It’s a position that appeared to have ample sympathy among Anglo New Yorkers,** who gingerly kicked the argument to a Circuit Court and thence to the New York Supreme Court which found itself thereby obliged to “a very thorough examination of all the laws, treaties, documents and public history relating to the Indians” going all the way back to the Dutch. (Cherry-Valley Gazette, Aug. 21, 1821)

What musty old scrolls could supply by precedence, the luminous Seneca orator Red Jacket brought to life in his forceful defense. Red Jacket had an expert feel for the pangs in the Anglo conscience, as one can appreciate by his retort against one obvious line of condescension.

What! Do you denounce us fools and bigots because we still believe what you yourselves believed two centuries ago? Your black-coats thundered this doctrine from the pulpit, your judges pronounced it from the bench, and sanctioned it with the formality of law; and would you now punish our unfortunate brother for adhering to the faith of his fathers and of yours? Go to Salem! Look at the records of your own government, and you will find that thousands have been executed for the very crime which has called forth the sentence of condemnation against this woman, and drawn upon her the arm of vengeance. What have our brothers done more than the rulers of your people? And what crime has this man committed, by executing in a summary way the laws of his country and the command of the Great Spirit?

It was by no means certain that Tommy Jemmy’s argument would prevail here; a literally simultaneous case in Michigan saw a native defendant make a similar jursidictional argument and still wind up on the gallows. The question in the end stood outside any existing grant of law — and it was resolved in a legally questionable way, too.

Accepting the merits of Tommy Jemmy’s position but also unwilling to render Indian power over life and death into the statutes, Tommy Jemmy was set free without any judgment and subsequently pardoned by the legislature — the pardon reversing no conviction. He was an executioner, after all.

* U.S. President Andrew Jackson vigorously supported the state in this separation-of-powers dispute: it’s the case of which he alleged to have remarked, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

** In an essay appearing in New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas, Dennis notes the precedent here of an 1802 trial involving a Seneca man named Stiff-Armed George. Although Stiff-Armed George murdered a white victim and not on Seneca land, Red Jacket also urged a defense, successfully: “Did we ever make a treaty with the state of New-York, and agree to conform to its laws? No. We are independent from that state of New-York … we appeal to the government of the United States.” (The Seneca did have treaties with the federal government.)

They finessed the issue in the end: Stiff-Armed George was convicted, but immediately pardoned.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,USA,Witchcraft,Women

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1717: Anna Maria Wagemann, the last witch burned at Fürfeld

Add comment February 5th, 2017 Headsman

Three hundred years ago today, Anna Maria Wagemann suffered the last witch execution at Fürfeld.

Conveniently available information on this case appears to derive mostly from a single German-language local history volume which is rather extensively summarized in her German Wikipedia entry.

Despite the late date — the entire cosmology of witchery was coming apart by the 18th century — she fit the classical demographic profile of a witch hunt victim. Wagemann was an aged — 66 or 67 at the time of her trial, she thought — and penniless woman who knew her way around medicinal herbs and had a pre-existing reputation for witchcraft.

When the burning times were truly aflame, marginal people like this could easily be ignited by the accusations a torturer wrung from the last luckless soul to be named to the Black Sabbath. By 1716, when Wagemann went on trial, the case strangely conjoined an ancient superstition to a ponderous Enlightenment legal process, with an 879-page codex of the interrogations with vague witness accusations endorsed by jurists at the University of Tübingen.*

There weren’t any raging famines or plagues afoot that demanded supernatural attribution. It seems in this case that before the neighbors could accuse her of drying up their cows and such, Anna Maria Wagemann was targeted thanks to the oldest enmity in the book: family politics. A daughter-in-law of our principal was either quite convinced she had married into sorcery or else quite weary of the dynamic at family meals, and it was her denunciations (supported by her 9- and 12-year-old daughters) that brought Wagemann to book. It’s difficult to piece together the chain of causation; this woman, Anna Margarethe Wagemann, was herself suspected of witchcraft and jailed for many weeks,** so her charge too might have been issued under duress. In the end, it was only Anna Maria who was tried, and Anna Margarethe gave evidence against her — although Anna Margarethe was also punished by being made to witness the execution with her young daughters, and then being expelled from Fürfeld.

* We’ve seen this university in our pages before, involved in the case against Johannes Kepler’s mother.

** Years later, she would appeal for compensation for her wrongful imprisonment. (It’s not known whether the appeal succeeded.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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