Posts filed under 'Witchcraft'

1704: Anna Ericksdotter, the last witch executed in Sweden

Add comment June 15th, 2020 Headsman

Sweden conducted its last witch execution — a beheading — on this date in 1704.

Anna Eriksdotter (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) was a local cunning-woman whose talent for healing both men and beasts had seen her dogged with rumors of devilry for many years.

Evidently she leaned into the story or — who knows? — believed it herself. When a man named Nils Jonsson accused her of striking him blind, deaf and dumb, she acknowledged punishing her “disgusting” neighbor, and even claimed that, raised to witchery from her childhood, she had committed various other supernatural offenses against the community: laying a curse on the vicar, and conjuring wolves to prey on livestock.

These “admissions” might have been necessary to actually bring a witch to the block in 18th century Sweden, scorched as consciences were after a particularly notorious witch hunt 28 years before.

Even so, Anna Ericksdotter just barely attained her milestone. Her sentence was approved by the young king Charles XII — a bit preoccupied in that moment getting rinsed on northern Europe’s battlefields by Peter the Great — over the strong pardon recommendation of his magistrates who considered Ericksdotter “full with mad imaginations”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Sweden,Witchcraft,Women

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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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1630: Stine Teipel and Grete Halman, nine-year-old witches

Add comment May 4th, 2020 Headsman

Horribly, on this date in 1630 nine-year-old “witches” named Christine Teipel and Grete Halman were executed for witchcraft, in either Oberkirchen (where they were from) or Fredeburg (where they were tried).

For unknown reasons — maybe some deep well of trauma, or maybe just being a mischievous small child with no grasp of the consequences — “Stine” Teipel began spouting off in 1628 about being a witch herself, and about all the neighbors she knew who were also witches. The damage was not immediate — likely she wasn’t taken seriously — but the girl’s fabulisms lay around like dry tinder, perfect material in early 17th century Germany for gathering to a pyre.

The next year, a Hexenprozess local maximum brought her charges into the ambit of a judiciary and she

told the court that, after some ointment had been applied under her arm, she had flown to a meeting place of witches, several of whom she had recognized. She had also been on a mountain where the devil had provided everyone with beautiful clothes, as well as beer and wine in barrels of gold. In her mind the sabbath was a sort of dressing-up party in which the villagers acquired higher status and partook in a splendid meal. Belonging herself to one of the poorest families of cotters, the feast represented a kind of Schlaraffenland (Land of Cockayne). The dance had lasted two hours, and her partner had had a ‘thing’ on his body, which he had put in her private parts, but it had not given her any pleasure. (The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft)

Grete Halman was another girl whom she accused, and who corroborated the charges, with their implications of various named adults then echoing in the customary fashion into secondary accusations and cross-confirmations. Both children, along with seven adults, were executed on May 4 — just a fraction of some 61 witches known to be put to death by this court over the span of about a year. Stine Teipell’s stepmother and Grete Halman’s parents were among the other victims.

Visitors to Schmallenberg can take in an exhibit on this particular horror at the local Holthausen museum.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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1572: Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder

Add comment March 28th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder were all condemned and burned at Neustadt am Rübenberge, as witches and poisoners.

Although commoners, they were the luckless casualties of misbegotten marital politics in the Holy Roman Empire, and in the words of Tara Nummedal in Anna Zieglerin and the Lion’s Blood: Alchemy and End Times in Reformation Germany, “the entire incident laid bare simultaneously the fear of poison and sorcery and the reluctance to advance witch accusations against women of elite status in the princely courts of central Europe.”

The particular princely court of interest for us is that of Eric(h) II, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, a Lutheran convert who married a House of Wettin princess called Sidonie of Saxony. It was one of those love-matches by which the bluebloods slip the bonds of arranged dynastic alliances and often, of historical irrelevancy. ‘Tis a likely antechamber to the volumes of Executed Today.

Sidonie was a decade Eric’s senior, leading one wise grandee to predict, “All sorts of things will happen inside this marriage after the kissing month ends.”

Just so. Eric reverted to Catholicism and the childless couple became bitterly estranged — not only over religion, but money, and the want of a child. (Eventually Eric would die without an heir, and pass his realm to a cousin.) So intense would the couple’s antipathy become that they began to suspect one another of seeking an abrupt annulment by the hand of the poisoner.

That hypothesis became self-confirming when Eric fell ill in 1564, and Eric (this is Nummedal again) “initiated an investigation, accusing four women in Neustadt am Rübenberge, close to Hannover, of both trying to poison him and using sorcery to disrupt his marriage, keep him away ‘from his land and people,’ and make Sidonie barren.”

Three of these four women broke under torture and admitted not only poisoning but witchcraft; they were burned in 1568. But the fourth woman, Gesche Role, had the fortitude to withstand her interrogators and was released.

It’s by way of Gesche Role that we arrive at our day’s principals — for in some fresh turn of the diplomatic jockeying between the estranged power couple, Eric renewed his accusation and re-arrested the poor woman upon fresh claims of fiendery. This time she succumbed and confessed — adding, as is the style, a series of charges against five other acquaintances: our three victims, Annecke Lange, Gesche Herbst, and Annecke Rotschroeder; plus, Annecke’s husband Hans Lange, who died under torture; and, a woman named Margarethe Ölse or Ölsin, whose fate was stayed by dint of her pregnancy. Hans Lange had actually been a barber and surgeon who had been in ducal employment, affording some material connection to the “victim’s” plate, but of course all confessions were secured in the usual violent manner.

On the 28th of March, our three victims were condemned at Neustadt and immediately sent to the stake. Several others in the widening witch inquiry shared a like fate later that same year; the overall number of Neustadt “witches” executed from the various procedures initiated by Eric is not known, but might run up towards 60.

The reader will mark that all these souls were merely humble folk destroyed as flies to wanton boys. Witch fires were usually quenched once their flames licked titled estates, and so it was in this case, as the 1572 Hexenprozesse “also implicated a cluster of noblewomen (Anna von Rheden, Katharina Dux, and Margaretha Knigge), and it was not long before Duke Erich’s estranged wife, Sidonie, herself was accused of directing the poison plot against her husband, purportedly because of his relationship with his mistress, Katharina von Weldam. This escalation of the trial as it reached into the nobility proved to be too much, apparently, even for Duke Erich II, who halted the trial before the noblewomen were sentenced,” and after a pause the Holy Roman Emperor reconvened a hearing at which all concerned were exonerated.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Attempted Murder,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Innocent Bystanders,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1653: Anne Bodenham, “A pox on thee, turn me off”

Add comment March 19th, 2020 Headsman

The old Witch executed was,
this moneth the 19. day,
She ever had a face of Bras
as all the people say,
Insteed of pensivenesse and prayer
She did nought but curse and sware,
You that will goe, &c.

God nothing had to doe with her
she said most desperately
She swore and curst and kept a stur
and desperately did dye.
Let all good people therefore say
[They’ll join the]ir hearts with me and pray,
[You that w]ill goe
[High or low
Resolve upon this doubt.]

Ballad, “a true Relation of one Mistris Bodnam living in Fisherton next house but one to the Gallowes”

We’ve previously noted in these grim annals the 1628 lynching of reputed warlock John Lambe, the occult familiar of hated royal favorite George Villiers.

On this date in 1653, his former assistant Anne Bodenham was hanged as a witch at the village of Fisherton Anger, which has since been absorbed into the city of Salisbury.

A Wiltshire cunning-woman hailed before the Salisbury assize when her everyday services like finding lost objects and warding off sickness became entangled in a running feud between local families. Eventually a maid implicated in a poison plot denounced Bodenham in a clear bid to save her own skin. The imprisoned woman, thought to have been pushing 80 years of age at this point, revealed to a pamphleteer named Edmond Bower her decades-old connection to the infamous Lambe — for, quoth Bodenham,

she had been a Servant to Dr. Lambe, and the occasion she came to live with him, she said was, that she lived with a Lady in London, who was a Patient many times to him, and sent her often in businesse to him, and in particular, she went to know what death King James should die; and the Doctor told her what death, and withall said that none of his Chil?dren should come to a natural death; and she said she then saw so many curious sights, and pleasant things, that she had a minde to be his Servant, and learn some of the art; and Dr. Lambe seeing her very docile, took her to be his Servant; and she reading in some of his Books, with his help learnt her Art, by which she said she had gotten many a penny, and done hundreds of people good, and no body ever gave her an ill word for all her paines, but alwayes called her Mrs. Boddenham, and was never accoun?ted a Witch but by reason of this wicked Maid now in prison, and then fell a cursing of and reviling at the Maid extremely. (“Doctor Lamb revived, or, Witchcraft condemn’d in Anne Bodenham a servant of his, who was arraigned and executed the lent assizes last at Salisbury, before the right honourable the Lord Chief Baron Wild, judge of the assise”)

Whether this tutelage was fact or marketing copy is anyone’s guess but a generation on from Lambe’s destruction Bodenham had allegedly acquired the power to “transform her self into the shape of a Massive Dog, a black Lyon, a white Bear, a Woolf, a Bull, and a Cat; and by her Charms and Spels, send either man or woman 40 miles an hour in the Ayr.” The maid, playing her strongest card, went into fits which she attributed to Bodenham’s influence, and we can add the gift of prophesy to the latter’s arts for she moaned that this accuser “had undone her, for shee should be hanged … Ah Whore! Ah Rascall! I will see her in hell first, I will never see her more, she hath undone me, by raising these reports of mee that am an honest Woman; ’twill break my Husbands heart, he grieves to see me in these Irons.”

The maid’s melodramatic performance formed the lynchpin of a standard witchcraft case against the heretofore harmless magician. (And worked for the maid, too: she walked.) For her part, Anne Bodenham kept her sharp tongue all the way to the gallows, where Bower reports,

she went immediately to goe up the Ladder, but she was pulled back again and restrained: I then pressed her to confesse what she promised me she would, now be?fore she dyed, but she refused to say any thing. Being asked whether she desired the prayers of any of the people, she an?swered, she had as many prayers already as she intended, and desired to have, but cursed those that detained her from her death, and was importunate to goe up the Ladder, but was restrained for a while, to see whether she would confesse any thing, but would not: they then let her goe up the Ladder, and when the rope was about her neck, she went to turn her self off, but the Executioner stayed her, and desired her to forgive him: She replyed, Forgive thee? A pox on thee, turn me off; which were the last words she spake.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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2011: Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser

Add comment December 12th, 2019 Headsman

Per the BBC’s report of a Saudi Interior Ministry statement, a woman named Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser was beheaded for sorcery in the northern province of Jawf on this date in 2011.

The London-based newspaper, al-Hayat, quoted a member of the religious police as saying that she was in her 60s and had tricked people into giving her money, claiming that she could cure their illnesses.

Our correspondent said she was arrested in April 2009.

But the human rights group Amnesty International, which has campaigned for Saudis previously sentenced to death on sorcery charges, said it had never heard of her case until now, he adds.

Amnesty says that Saudi Arabia does not actually define sorcery as a capital offence. However, some of its conservative clerics have urged the strongest possible punishments against fortune-tellers and faith healers as a threat to Islam.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Public Executions,Saudi Arabia,Witchcraft,Women

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1636: Johann Albrecht Adelgrief, king-scourged

Add comment October 11th, 2019 Headsman

October 11, 1636 was a grievous date for self-proclaimed prophet Johann Albrecht Adelgrief, who was burned as a sorcerer and heretic.

Adelgrief (English Wikipedia entry | the equally terse German) was the educated son of a Protestant minister and could wield multiple ancient languages including whatever tongue was the address of seven heavenly angels who “had come down from heaven and given him the commission to banish evil from the world, and to scourge the monarchs with rods of iron.” Not going to lie, there are some a few monarchs out there that could use a good scourging.

Alas, the nearest potential scourgee, the Duke of Prussia, made sure the rods were wielded in their customary direction. Adelgrief met his fate aptly in Königsberg (“King’s Mountain”: it’s modern-day Kaliningrad, Russia), where he was condemned for witchcraft. All his writings were suppressed.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Heresy,History,Prussia,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Russia,Witchcraft

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1750: Maria Pauer, the last witch executed in Austria

Add comment October 6th, 2019 Headsman

Maria Pauer on October 6, 1750 achieved the milestone of being the last person executed for witchcraft in the territory of present-day Austria — a “judicial murder” for which the Archbishop of Salzburg begged “forgiveness for this atrocity” in 2009.

It’s a late year for a witchcraft execution; we’ve seen in these pages that the ancient superstition was still in its dying throes.

Pauer (English wiki entry | a longer German one) was a household maid of about 15 years in the Bavarian town of Muehldorf, where she must have carriead a fey reputation — because when the locals started believing a building afflicted by some sort of poltergeist, they proceed to associate the haunt with a recent visit paid by the maid.

Held for over a year under close confinement and closer questioning, she eventually capitulated to the accusations, maybe even believed them herself. The Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Andreas Jakob von Dietrichstein, refused the now-16-year-old mercy for her infernal traffic and permitted her beheading and subsequent burning in his beautiful city.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Holy Roman Empire,Milestones,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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1647: Thomas Boulle and the remains of Mathurin Picard, for the Louviers possession

Add comment August 21st, 2019 Headsman

In the Louviers case, a horrid record of diabolism, demoniac masses, lust and blasphemy, on 21 August, 1647, Thomas Boullé, a notorious Satanist, was burnt alive in the market-square at Rouen, and what is very notable the body of Mathurin Picard who had died five years before, and who had been buried near the choir grille in the chapel of the Franciscan nuns which was so fearfully haunted, was disinterred, being found (so it is said) intact. In any case it was burned to ashes in the same fire as consumed the wretched Boullé and it seems probable that this corpse was incinerated to put an end to the vampirish attacks upon the cloister.

From The Vampire: His Kith and Kin, by Montague Summers

On this date in 1647, Thomas Boulle, vicar of Louviers, France, was executed as a witch.

Reminiscent of the recent Loudun Possessions — and perhaps directly inspired by the lucrative pilgrimage trade earned by that recent witchcraft scam — the Louviers Possessions featured a similar cast of characters: possessed, fornicating nuns; performative public exorcisms; and a village priest as the demoniacal mastermind whose bonfire climaxed the whole show. (Said priest had, as Summers notes in the pull quote above, the substantial aid of a deceased confederate, the former director of the nunnery who did his supernatural mischief from the grave.)

As with Loudun and several other high-profile witch panics in 17th century France the tableau was thoroughly pornographic with a parade of nuns reporting being taken to Black Mass orgies and copulating with a demon named Dagon.

Magdelaine Bavent, the first accuser who started the fireball rolling, was interviewed for print a few years later. The resulting Histoire de Magdelaine Bavent, Religieuse de Louviers, avec son interrogatoir is one of the key primary documents on the affair.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Posthumous Executions,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Witchcraft

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1779: Manuel, burned for witchcraft in the USA?

Add comment June 15th, 2019 Clarence Alvord

(Thanks to the late University of Illinois history professor Clarence Walworth Alvord for the guest post, which originally appeared in an essay he wrote for the centennial of the Land of Lincoln‘s 1818 statehood. For context to this 1779 execution, the area comprising the future U.S. state of Illinois had been attached by the British crown to its own recently annexed province of Quebec, formerly French and Catholic. Illinois had then been seized during the Revolutionary War by Virginia, which at this moment (and only a few years thereafter) maintained it as Virginia’s own “Illinois County”. Notwithstanding Dr. Alvord’s rebuttal, the slave Manuel is still frequently described down to the present day as having been burned for witchcraft. -ed.)

The secret of writing true history depends upon the collection of all the contemporary evidence bearing on the case. The reason that people complain of the changing interpretations of history is that new material is found as society demands a broader and broader interpretation of the phenomena of the past. There was a time when history consisted in what we call to-day the drum and fife history; the doings of the great political leaders, events of military glory; and almost no other phenomena of changing society were noted. To-day the task of the historian, however, is far greater; and he is obliged to cast his net far afield in order to collect the material for the social development of the past …

“it must be remembered that the Creoles were very ignorant and superstitious, and that they one and all, including, apparently, even their priests, firmly believed in witchcraft and sorcery. Some of their negro slaves had been born in Africa, the others had come from the Lower Mississippi or the West Indies; they practised the strange rites of voudooism, and a few were adepts in the art of poisoning. Accordingly the French were always on the look-out lest their slaves should, by spell or poison, take their lives …

At this time the Creoles were smitten by a sudden epidemic of fear that their negro slaves were trying to bewitch and poison them. Several of the negroes were seized and tried, and in June two were condemned to death. One, named Moreau, was sentenced to be hung outside Cahokia. The other, a Kaskaskian slave named Manuel, suffered a worse fate. He was sentenced “to be chained to a post at the water-side, and there to be burnt alive and his ashes scattered.” These two sentences, and the directions for their immediate execution, reveal a dark chapter in the early history of Illinois. It seems a strange thing that, in the United States, three years after the declaration of independence, men should have been burnt and hung for witchcraft, in accordance with the laws and with the decision of the proper court. The fact that the victim, before being burned, was forced to make “honorable fine” at the door of the Catholic church, shows that the priest at least acquiesced in the decision. The blame justly resting on the Puritans of seventeenth-century New England must likewise fall on the Catholic French of eighteenth-century Illinois.

-Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West

An example of how easy it is to misinterpret a past event, provided all the material available is not collected, and how easy is that interpretation after the material has been found, has come under my observation … About forty years ago Edward G. Mason, at that time secretary of the Chicago Histori[c]al Society, found the record book kept by the county Lieutenant, John Todd,* in the year 1779, when Todd came to govern the territory that had been occupied by George Rogers Clark and his Virginians during the Revolutionary War. In this record book Mason found the copy of a warrant for the death of a negro, named Manuel, by burning at the stake, which burning was to take place after consolation to the criminal had been given by the parish priest. The copy of the warrant had been crossed out by drawing lines through it. Please bear this fact in mind, since it should have suggested a correct interpretation. Naturally this warrant aroused the imagination of Mr. Mason, and he vegan to search for an explanation and discovered that about this time there was an outbreak of voodooism among the Illinois slaves and that two slaves had been put to death. He drew the natural conclusion therefore that Manuel had been burned at the stake for the practice of witchcraft. Basing his interpretation upon Mr. Mason’s find, a well-known ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, who among other occupations has dabbled in history, wrote at some length upon this episode and drew a comparison between eighteenth century Catholic Illinois, where for the practice of witchcraft men were burned at the stake with the sancttion [sic] of the parish priest and in accordance with French Catholic law, with a similar episode in the history of Puritan Massachusetts in the seventeenth century.

Fortunately there has come into my hands a full record of the court’s proceedings by which Manuel was condemned; and I find that the judges in the case, although they were obliged to listen to the superstitious accusations of negro slaves, were careful to determine the fact that Manuel and another negro had been guilty of murder by poisoning their master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Nicolle, and that it was for this act the two negroes were condemned to death. I then looked up the law of the land. Naturally it might be supposed as Roosevelt did that this was French law, but there was another possibility, namely that Virginia law in criminal cases would be used by a Virginian magistrate, such as John Todd. I found that the Virginia law in the case of murder of a master by a slave was death by burning at the stake so that in the case of Manuel you see that the condemnation was strictly in accordance with Virginia law and not with French law. Another document of even greater interest in the case also came to my hands. It certainly was a surprise. This was another warrant for the death of Manuel, issued at a later hour in the day, but by this later warrant the death penalty was changed from burning at the stake to hanging by the neck. To summarize then: Manuel was not condemned for witchcraft but for murder; he was not condemned to be burned at the stake in accordance with French law, but in accordance with Virginia law; and finally he was not burned at the stake at all, but was hung by the neck. This is an excellent example of the danger of drawing inferences in regard to historic events upon too narrow information. There was one fact which both Mr. Mason and Mr. Roosevelt ignored in their interpretation of the warrant. The copy of the warrant was found in a carefully kept record book, and was crossed out by lines being drawn through it. That fact should have made them suspicious of their own interpretation. Records such as this condemnation to death would not be lightly erased by the keeper of a record book. An historical Sherlock Holmes would not have been misled.

* Todd’s brother Levi was grandfather to eventual U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Witchcraft

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