Posts filed under 'Witchcraft'

1323: Jean Persant, a black cat, and the body of Jean Prévost

1 comment December 7th, 2014 Headsman

From the French Grandes Chroniques. The numbered footnotes within the blockquote are verbatim from this text.

Moreover, it befel in this year [1323] that an abbey of the Cistercian Order was robbed of a marvellous great sum of money.

So they managed by the procuration of a man who dwelt at Château-Landon and had been provost there (for which cause he was still called Jean Prévost) that an agreement was made between him and an evil sorcerer, that they should contrive to discover the thieves and compel them to make restitution, in the fashion here following.

First, the sorcerer made a chest, with the help of the said Jean Prévost, wherein they clapped a black cat; and this they buried in a pit in the fields, right at a cross-way, and set three days’ meat for the cat within that chest, to wit bread steeped and softened in chrism and consecrated oils and holy water; and, in order that the cat thus interred might not die, there were two holes in the chest and two long pipes which rose above the earth thrown over that chest, by which pipes the air might enter therein and suffer the cat to breathe in and out.

Now it befel that certain shepherds, leading their flocks afield, passed by this cross-way as had ever been their wont; and their dogs began to scent and get wind of the cat, so that within a brief while they had found the place where she lay. Then began they to scratch and dig with their claws, for all the world as it had been a mole, nor could any man tear them away from that spot.

When the shepherds saw that their dogs would by no means depart thence, then they drew near and heard the cat mew, whereat they were much amazed. And, seeing that the dogs still scratched without ceasing, one who was wiser than the rest sent word of this matter to the justice, who came forthwith to the place and found the cat and the chest, even as it had all been contrived; whereat he was much astonished, and many others who were come with him.

And while this provost of Château-Landon pondered anxiously within himself how he might take or find the author of so horrible a witchcraft, (for he saw well that this had never been done but for some black art; but whereof or by whom he knew not) then it came to pass, as he thought within himself and looked at the chest which was newly-made, that he called all the carpenters of that town, and asked them who had made this chest.

At which demand a carpenter came forward and said that he had made it at the instance of a man named Jean Prévost; “But so help me God,” quoth he, “as I knew not to what purpose he had bidden me make it.”

Then within a brief space this Jean Prévost was taken upon suspicion, and put to the question of the rack: upon which he accused one Jean Persant as the principal author, contriver, and inventor of this cursed witchcraft; and afterwards he accused a monk of Cîteaux, an apostate, as the special disciple of this Jean Persant, and the Abbot of Sarquenciaux [Serquigny?] of the Order of Cîteaux, and certain Canons Regular,(2) who were all abettors of this wickedness. All of whom were taken and bound and brought before the Official of the Archbishop of Sens and the Inquisitor at Paris.

When they were come before them, men enquired of them — and of these more especially of whom they knew by report that they were masters in this devilish art — wherefore they had done this thing. To which they answered that, if the cat had dwelt three days long at those four crossroads, then they would have drawn him forth and flayed him; and from his hide they would have made three thongs, which they would have drawn out to their fullest extent and knotted together, so that they might make a circle within the compass whereof a man might be comprised and contained. Which when they had done, he who was in the midst of the circle would first nourish himself in devilish fashion with the meat wherewith this cat had been fed; without which these invocations would be null and of none effect. After which he would have called upon a devil named Berich, who would presently have come without delay, and would have answered all their questions and discovered the thefts, with all those that had been principal movers therein and all who had set their hands thereunto; and in answer to their questions he would have told them all the evil to be done.

Upon the hearing of these confessions and downright devilries, Jean Prévost and Jean Persant, as authors and principals in this accursed witchcraft, were adjudged to be burned and punished with fire; but while the matter was drawn out and delayed, Jean Prévost chanced to die; whose bones and body were burned to ashes in detestation of so horrible a crime, and the other, to wit Jean Persant, was bound to the stake with the cat around his neck, and burned to ashes on the morrow of St Nicholas’ day; after which the Abbot, and the apostate monk, and the other Canons Regular who had administered the chrism and other matters to this witchcraft, were first degraded and then, by all rules of law, condemned and put into prison for their lives.

(1) In the face of such abuses of things consecrated, the church Councils of the Middle Ages constantly insisted that the Pyx, the Chrismatory, and the Font must be kept under lock and key in all churches. The neglect of these precautions is one of the points most frequently noted by official visitors.

(2) Canons bound to the lifelong observance of a Rule; the best known are the Austin Canons and the Praemonstratensians. They were in fact practically monks, and are often so-called by medieval writers, though modern pedantry sometimes ignores this. Cf. Chaucer, Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.

(3) Quasi-heraldic personal insignia, with motto; cf. Richard II, Act iii, Sc. I. [“From my own windows torn my household coat,/Razed out my imprese”]

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1441: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye

Add comment October 27th, 2014 Headsman

There was a Beldame called the wytch of Ey,
Old mother Madge her neyghbours did hir name
Which wrought wonders in countryes by heresaye
Both feendes and fayries her charmyng would obay
And dead corpsis from grave she could uprere
Suche an inchauntresse, as that tyme had no peere

On this date in 1441, a Westminster folk magician went to the stake.

The “Witch of Eye” had meddled with powers beyond her control — not the Satanic for which her sentence condemned her, but those of the royal court.

This local wise woman had been arrested as a sorceress once a number of years before. But medieval Europe, before the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the attendant gloom of existential danger from within, was usually not eager to pursue a local shaman for serving a community’s demand for everyday magick — just so long as the charms and incantations purveyed were not being turned to any apparently injurious purpose. The Witch of Eye, Margery Jourdemayne by name, spent several months imprisoned in Windsor Castle and was released with a pledge to stop with the hocus-pocus.

In her fatal last affair this broken promise would augur very ill. But barring that extraordinary case, this was actually one of those little social regulations that could usually just be ignored in the breach. Our cowherd’s wife returned to purveying salves, potions, and elixirs, perhaps a bit more quietly.

Despite her humble rank, the Witch of Eye seems to have enjoyed a sizable client base among the great lords and ladies.

Such august persons of course had interests outside of love tonics. At the start of the 1440s, the royal court was absorbed by the affairs of the teenage king Henry VI.

In Late June of 1441, three servants of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester were accused of compassing the death of the king by using astrological divination to forecast the date of his death — which looked especially treasonable since the result reported is supposed to have been soon.

Though a Peerress by marriage, Eleanor was only the daughter of a knight. A sort of proto-Anne Boleyn, she had raised herself (and not a few eyebrows) by starting off as a lady in waiting of the Duke’s previous wife, and then

A cultivated humanist, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester gave every impression of having found a satisfying domestic union — but Eleanor’s social-climbing set her up for some resentment. It was even said by a chronicle, laying a retrospective interpretation on events, that only occult arts could account for Eleanor’s boudoir triumph:

And this same tyme was take a womman callid the wicche of Eye, whoos sorcerie and wicchecraft the said dame Alienore hadde longe tyme usid; and be suche medicines and drynkis as the said wicche made, the said Alienore enforced theforsaid duke of Gloucestre to love her and to wedde her.

The rank of the figures involved elevated such gossip beyond the courty’s everyday rumor-mongering.

Humphrey had claimed the Regency for a brief period before Henry VI declared his own majority in 1437, at age 16. More than that, Humphrey was the most senior uncle to the unmarried* Henry, which made him the heir presumptive. He was a heartbeat away from having the crown on his own head.

And that made it a very colorable accusation that Eleanor’s servants — and those henchmen soon accused Eleanor herself, too — took interest in the prospective imminent death of a king in the springtime of his youth.**

Henry’s alarmed response was twofold. First, he commissioned a horoscope reading of his own; no surprise, this improved horoscope predicted a long, healthy life.† Second, he kicked off the judicial processes that would ruin all concerned — although some ruinations were more final than others.

The servants pointed the finger at Eleanor, and the Duchess desperately fled to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. This proved not to help her that much when an ecclesiastical court handed down charges of witchcraft and heresy. One of Eleanor’s three busted cronies, Roger Bolingbroke, had already been forced to publicly abjure his devilries amid a display of his necromancing tools.

Just as Bolingbroke claimed that “he wroughte the said nygromancie atte stiryng of the forsaid dame Alienore, to knowe what sholde falle of hir and to what astat she sholde come,” Eleanor implicated her old magic-vendor, the Witch of Eye for building some of the illicit charms. By now it was pratically beside the point that Eleanor said Bolingbroke’s damning wax figurines were meant to inflict children upon Eleanor rather than injury upon His Majesty. Margery Jourdemayne had shaped the wretched dolls, and nobody caught in the storm of charges had less pull than she. Plus, of course, she was now a repeat offender.

How she in waxe by counsel of the witch,
An image made, crowned like a king,
… which dayly they did pytch
Against a fyre, that as the wax did melt,
So should his life consume away unfelt.

Condemned by a court presided by the Archbishop of Canterbury, she was burned at Smithfield.

Two of the three courtiers died violently, too: Roger Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn, and quartered on November 18, while Thomas Southwell died suddenly in prison around the time of Jourdemayne’s execution. He might have poisoned himself. The third man, John Home, was only shown to have known what his fellows were up to and not to have taken part himself: he skated on a royal pardon.

The Duchess of Gloucester did well to confine her own juridical guilt to ecclesiastical charges only — heresy and witchcraft — and beat the much more dangerous treason charge that was leveled at her. (In another century, Britons would be much more used to the idea of executing elite nobility.) Her marriage was annulled (she procured it by witchcraft, remember?) and she was forced to perform a humiliating public penance on foot around Westminster and London before being shunted off into a forced and closely-watched retirement.


The Penance of Eleanor, by Edwin Austin Abbey (1900)

The scandal didn’t directly touch the Duke of Gloucester, but it essentially forced him out of public life. Six years later he was arrested for treason, but he died (possibly of a stroke, or possibly poison) within days.

The sensational fall of this household excited literary interlocutors almost before Margery Jourdemayne’s ashes were cold — such as this nearly-contemporary “Lament of the Duchess of Gloucester” which dwells on the titular character’s self-destruction by dint of her own vanity: “who wille be high, he shalle be low / the whele of fortune, who may it trow.”

The verses excerpted above in this post come from the following century’s “Mirror for Magistrates”, which makes use of historical figures who met terrible fates not unlike this very site. She might also have helped inspire a lost play from the late 16th or the 17th century.

Shakespeare too stages this entire affair in Henry VI, Part 2, representing Gloucester as an innocent tragically bearing the disaster his enemies visit on him through his wife.

In Act I, Scene 2, Eleanor arranges her divination — and we learn that her enemies are in the process of framing her.

Eleanor. While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortune’s pageant.
Where are you there? Sir John! nay, fear not, man,
We are alone; here’s none but thee and I.

[Enter HUME]

Father John Hume. Jesus preserve your royal majesty!

Eleanor. What say’st thou? majesty! I am but grace.

Father John Hume. But, by the grace of God, and Hume’s advice,
Your grace’s title shall be multiplied.

Eleanor. What say’st thou, man? hast thou as yet conferr’d
With Margery Jourdain, the cunning witch,
With Roger Bolingbroke, the conjurer?
And will they undertake to do me good?

Father John Hume. This they have promised, to show your highness
A spirit raised from depth of under-ground,
That shall make answer to such questions
As by your grace shall be propounded him.

Eleanor. It is enough; I’ll think upon the questions:
When from St. Alban’s we do make return,
We’ll see these things effected to the full.
Here, Hume, take this reward; make merry, man,
With thy confederates in this weighty cause.

[Exit]

Father John Hume. Hume must make merry with the duchess’ gold;
Marry, and shall. But how now, Sir John Hume!
Seal up your lips, and give no words but mum:
The business asketh silent secrecy.
Dame Eleanor gives gold to bring the witch:
Gold cannot come amiss, were she a devil.
Yet have I gold flies from another coast;
I dare not say, from the rich cardinal
And from the great and new-made Duke of Suffolk,
Yet I do find it so; for to be plain,
They, knowing Dame Eleanor’s aspiring humour,
Have hired me to undermine the duchess
And buz these conjurations in her brain.
They say ‘A crafty knave does need no broker;’
Yet am I Suffolk and the cardinal’s broker.
Hume, if you take not heed, you shall go near
To call them both a pair of crafty knaves.
Well, so it stands; and thus, I fear, at last
Hume’s knavery will be the duchess’ wreck,
And her attainture will be Humphrey’s fall:
Sort how it will, I shall have gold for all.

In Act I, Scene 4, the enthusiasts summon a shade from the underworld and our day’s principal is favored with a few lines from the bard:

Margaret Jourdain. Asmath,
By the eternal God, whose name and power
Thou tremblest at, answer that I shall ask;
For, till thou speak, thou shalt not pass from hence.

But the entire party is arrested and Gloucester’s attempts to note the meaningless vagueness of the predictions supplied by the alleged demon are overrulded rudely.


The conjuration scene in Henry VI, Part 2, illustrated by John Opie.

In Act II, Scene 3 the Duke and Duchess are destroyed politically, and their hirelings destroyed bodily.

Henry VI. Stand forth, Dame Eleanor Cobham, Gloucester’s wife:
In sight of God and us, your guilt is great:
Receive the sentence of the law for sins
Such as by God’s book are adjudged to death.
You four, from hence to prison back again;
From thence unto the place of execution:
The witch in Smithfield shall be burn’d to ashes,
And you three shall be strangled on the gallows.
You, madam, for you are more nobly born,
Despoiled of your honour in your life,
Shall, after three days’ open penance done,
Live in your country here in banishment,
With Sir John Stanley, in the Isle of Man.

Eleanor. Welcome is banishment; welcome were my death.

Duke of Gloucester. Eleanor, the law, thou see’st, hath judged thee:
I cannot justify whom the law condemns.
[Exeunt DUCHESS and other prisoners, guarded]
Mine eyes are full of tears, my heart of grief.
Ah, Humphrey, this dishonour in thine age
Will bring thy head with sorrow to the ground!
I beseech your majesty, give me leave to go;
Sorrow would solace and mine age would ease.

Henry VI. Stay, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester: ere thou go,
Give up thy staff: Henry will to himself
Protector be; and God shall be my hope,
My stay, my guide and lantern to my feet:
And go in peace, Humphrey, no less beloved
Than when thou wert protector to thy King.

Queen Margaret. I see no reason why a king of years
Should be to be protected like a child.
God and King Henry govern England’s realm.
Give up your staff, sir, and the king his realm.

Duke of Gloucester. My staff? here, noble Henry, is my staff:
As willingly do I the same resign
As e’er thy father Henry made it mine;
And even as willingly at thy feet I leave it
As others would ambitiously receive it.
Farewell, good king: when I am dead and gone,
May honourable peace attend thy throne!

[Exit]

Queen Margaret. Why, now is Henry king, and Margaret queen;
And Humphrey Duke of Gloucester scarce himself,
That bears so shrewd a maim; two pulls at once;
His lady banish’d, and a limb lopp’d off.
This staff of honour raught, there let it stand
Where it best fits to be, in Henry’s hand.

Earl of Suffolk. Thus droops this lofty pine and hangs his sprays;
Thus Eleanor’s pride dies in her youngest days.

See also: Jessica Freeman, “Sorcery at Court and Manor: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye Next Westminster,” Journal of Medieval History, vol. 30, pp. 343-357.

* Henry married Margaret of Anjou in 1445. Despite the Shakespeare portrayal, she had no part in the proceedings against Eleanor or the Witch of Eye.

** It has long been supposed that part or all of the real impetus for these charges was an opportunistic attack by the Duke’s political rivals, specifically around the question of making peace with France in the Hundred Years’ War. Gloucester, who fought at Agincourt (Shakespeare’s Henry V name-checks him in the great Crispin’s Day pre-battle oration), opposed the growing pro-peace faction.

† It did not predict that Henry would end up murdered in prison.

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1692: The Salem witch trials’ last hangings

Add comment September 22nd, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1692 saw the last executions of the Salem witch trials.

Eight souls hanged from sturdy trees at Gallows Hill on the occasion:

  • Mary Easty (or Eastey)
  • Alice Parker
  • Mary Parker
  • Ann Pudeator
  • Wilmot Redd
  • Margaret Scott
  • Samuel Wardwell

As well as:

  • Martha Corey, days after her husband Giles was horribly pressed to death for refusing to recognize the court’s legitimacy by lodging any plea

This group of mostly older women (and one man who married an older widow) had, like their predecessors over the course of 1692, been the victims of wailing children charging them (with afflicted histrionics to match) as supernatural malevolents — and of the credulity of their neighbors and judges.

The latter was, at least, eroding by this point in time.

Shortly before her execution this day, Mary Easty addressed to the court a dignified petition less for her own life than for the safety of everyone else who might come under her honorable judges’ scrutiny — indicted as it stood by Easty’s own certitude of her innocence.

To the honorable judge and bench now sitting in judicature in Salem and the reverend ministers, humbly sheweth that whereas your humble poor petitioner being condemned to die doth humbly beg of you to take it into your judicious and pious consideration that your poor and humble petitioner, knowing my own innocency (blessed by the Lord for it) and seeing plainly the wiles and subtlety of my accusers by myself, cannot but judge charitably of others that are going the same way with myself if the Lord step not mightily in.

I was confined a whole month on the same account that I am now condemned for, and then cleared by the afflicted persons, as some of your honors know. And in two days time I was cried out upon by them, and have been confined and am now condemned to die.

The Lord above knows my innocency then and likewise doth now, as at the Great Day will be known to men and angels.

I petition to your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die, and my appointed time is set.

But the Lord He knows it is, if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed, which undoubtedly cannot be avoided in the way and course you go in.

I question not but your honors do to the utmost of your powers in the discovery and detecting of witchcraft, and witches, and would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world. But by my own innocency I know you are in the wrong way.

The Lord in his infinite mercy direct you in this great work, if it be His blessed will, that innocent blood be not shed.

I would humbly beg of you that your honors would be pleased to examine some of those confessing witches, I being confident that there are several of them have belied themselves and others, as will appear, if not in this world, I am sure in the world to come, whither I am going.

And I question not but yourselves will see an alteration in these things. They say myself and others have made a league with the Devil; we cannot confess. I know and the Lord He knows (as will shortly appear) they belie me, and so I question not but they do others. The Lord alone, who is the searcher of all hearts, knows that I shall answer it at the Tribunal Seat that I know not the least thing of witchcraft, therefore I cannot, I durst not belie my own soul.

I beg your honors not to deny this my humble petition for a poor dying innocent person, and I question not but the Lord will give a blessing to your endeavors.

Mary Easty

As she herself foresaw, Easty’s petition availed her own self nothing — but her judges would soon feel the rebuke Easty voiced.

Exactly why the Salem witch trials started when they did, and ended when they did, has always been a speculative matter. This occasion was a mere 15 weeks after the first Salem witch hanging. It was the largest single mass-hanging of the affair, and it brought the body count to 19 or 20, depending on whether you count Giles Corey. (His death by pressing wasn’t technically an “execution,” merely the violent termination of his life by a legally constituted judicial process.)

The snowballing investigation, sweeping up dozens more accused besides just those executed, was making people uneasy. It surely hastened the end of the hysteria that the little accusers started pointing their witch — notably at the wife of Massachusetts Gov. William Phip(p)s.

Phips had initially established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer that was finding his little colony honeycombed with necromancy. Now considering his creature to be run amok and targeting “several persons who were doubtless innocent,” Phips stopped proceedings in October — first, by barring so-called “spectral evidence” (which was tantamount to barring the trials altogether since kids claiming to be tormented by underworld spirits was the only evidence on hand); and on October 29, dissolving the court altogether and prohibiting further arrests.

A special court established to try the remaining 52 cases in January of 1693 acquitted 49 of the prisoners; the rest, and all those still in jail for witchcraft, were pardoned by May of 1693. Within just a few years, jurors and judges and even accusers issued public mea culpas for hanging the Salem “witches”.

The original witch-court’s Judge William Stoughton joined Cotton Mather in pridefully refusing to acknowledge the injustice they had helped to author.* Among most others, it would very quickly become shamefully understood that Salem had done the accused witches a very great wrong.

John Hale, the Puritan minister of nearby Beverly, Mass. — and like Gov. Phips a man who had had his own wife chillingly accused by one of the “possessed” brats — would later write a book ruminating on “the nature of witchcraft” (like Mary Easty, he wasn’t quite ready to give up the concept categorically). In it, he notes the forehead-slapping indicia of the witches’ innocence — and if we dock him points for obtaining his wisdom retrospectively, we might also consider as motes in our own jaundiced eyes the ridiculous non-evidence and overlooked exculpations that have served to seat men and women on the mercy chair in our own time.

It may be queried then, How doth it appear that there was a going too far in this affair?

Answer I. — By the number of persons accused. It cannot be imagined, that, in a place of so much knowledge, so many, in so small a compass of land, should so abominably leap into the Devil’s lap, — at once.

Ans. II. — The quality of several of the accused was such as did bespeak better things, and things that accompany salvation. Persons whose blameless and holy lives before did testify for them; persons that had taken great pains to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, such as we had charity for as for our own souls, — and charity is a Christian duty, commended to us in 1 Cor. xiii, Col. iii.14, and many other places.

Ans. III. — The number of the afflicted by Satan daily increased, till about fifty persons were thus vexed by the Devil. This gave just ground to suspect some mistake.

Ans. IV. — It was considerable, that nineteen were executed, and all denied the crime to the death; and some of them were knowing persons, and had before this been accounted blameless livers. And it is not to be imagined but that, if all had been guilty, some would have had so much tenderness as to seek mercy for their souls in the way of confession, and sorrow for such a sin.

Ans. V. — When this prosecution ceased, the Lord so chained up Satan, that the afflicted grew presently well: the accused are generally quiet, and for five years since we have no such molestation by them.

In 300-odd years since September 22, 1692 on Gallows Hill, nobody else has been executed for witchcraft in the United States.

* Stoughton clashed with Phips to the extent of actually ordering in January 1693 the executions of old sentences that had been stayed for pregnancies or other reasons. Phips immediately blocked them, causing Stoughton to resign the bench.

Stoughton was no ordinary magistrate: he was also the sitting Lieutenant Governor, and would succeed Phips as the head man in Massachusetts. Had he been the man with executive power at the time all this toil and trouble bubbled over, considerably more than 20 souls might have been lost to the madness.

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1731: Catherine Repond, the last witch burned in Switzerland

Add comment September 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1731, Catherine (or Catillon) Repond was burned at the stake in Freiburg — the last person executed for witchcraft in Switzerland, more or less.*

Repond (English Wikipedia entry | the somewhat more detailed German) got caught out on some serious crazy.

A bailiff named Montenach while out hunting near Lake Gryere claimed to have wounded a fox on the foot, which shouted back at him in a human voice as it scampered away. Later, Repond, a 68-year-old vagabond with a pre-existing witchcraft reputation, turned up at a nearby farm where she sometimes hired out for odd jobs. Repond had a foot injury just like the fox.


It would be irresponsible not to speculate. (Image via SomethingAwful.com)

Montenach arrested and tortured Repond on this basis, aggravating the demonaic-shapeshifter charge with villager superstitions that the old crone wrecked their cheeses and blighted their herds. As late as the date was, this still conformed to the old witch-burning pattern of yestercentury, where idle gossip became evidence once some luckless person entered into an official investigation — evidence that thumbscrews would then confirm. She was transferred to Fribourg for execution.

It’s never been completely clear just why this one particular case navigated the Age of Enlightenment all the way to the stake — whether that was just the breaks, or if there was some larger interest at work that made Repond’s mouth worth closing.

Fribourg, in any event, adopted a 2009 resolution expressing regret for the execution, although it declined to issue a formal exoneration on the grounds that as the state itself was several times discontinuous with the one that put the “witch” to death, such a gesture would be intrinsically meaningless.


A fountain in the village of Gibloux pays tribute to the area’s resident hag. From this French pdf all about the curious case of Catillon.

* Anna Göldi is the conventionally recognized “last witch executed in Switzerland,” and even the last in all of Europe — she has her own museum and everything. But if you want to split hairs about it, Göldi was accused as a witch and tortured as a witch but her formal judicial condemnation was “merely” on the basis of poisoning (accomplished by witchcraft). Not a distinction with a great deal of difference for Göldi, or Repond for that matter, but there it is. Since Göldi was beheaded, Repond does have the sure consolation of ranking the last Swiss burned for witchcraft. (Although as was often the practice, Repond was mercifully strangled at the stake in preference to literally burning her to death.)

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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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1628: John Lambe murdered

Add comment June 13th, 2014 Headsman

Here Dr Lambe, the conjurer lyes,
Against his will untimely dies
The Divell did show himselfe a Glutton
In taking this Lambe before he was mutton
The Divell in Hell will rost him there
Whome the Prentises basted here.
In Hell they wondred when he came
To see among the Goats a Lambe.

-Libel (one of many) on John Lambe’s murder

Friday the 13th of June in 1628 bore foul luck for John Lambe, an aged astrologer, magician, and folk healer so hated of Londoners that a mob fell on him as he returned from theater this evening and butchered him in the street.

While we hope to justify Lambe’s presence in these pages under our going interest in lynchings, his curious homicide transgresses the boundaries of Executed Today as surely as did Lambe transgress those of Stuart London.

North of 80 at the time of his death — although still vigorous enough at that age to defend himself with a sword — Lambe came to misfortunate public notoriety in the 1620s. These were crisis years when the crown sowed the dragon’s teeth that would in later years devour Charles I. Lambe’s slaughter was a little taste of worse to come.

Sources from the period view Lambe as both a shameless fraud and a vile wizard, with no consistency save between the propositions save for their vitriol. Lambe seems like he got the worst of both perceptions at once: he faced a 1619 complaint to the Royal College of Physicians that he was a “mountebank and impostor.” [sic] Three years after that, he was in the dock for witchcraft

What Lambe did do was beat two charges in as many years that could easily have hanged him: the aforementioned witchcraft case in 1622, and a rape charge in 1624. Evidence in either case was underwhelming, but the charges themselves were incendiary; Lambe’s knack for slithering out of the hangman’s grasp must have suggested for the man on the street a channel to sinister higher powers.

Commoners bestirred themselves about this time against the realm’s own higher powers — the politically ham-fisted new king Charles and his grapples with Parliament to secure sufficient tax revenue for his inept war with France and Spain.

In all this mess, the Duke of Buckingham — royal favorite and possible lover of Charles’s father — was the number two man in the kingdom, and the number one object of hate.

In the mid-1620s, Lambe became conjoined in the public eye with Buckingham — as Buckingham’s demon-summoning henchman, say. Was it the Duke’s pull that spared his familiar the noose? Was it Lambe’s necromancy that captured the king in the thrall of his detested aide?

Did it even matter?

From the distance of centuries the particulars of the supposed affiliation between the two seems difficult to establish,* but it sufficed for Lambe’s death (and Buckingham’s too) that they were analogues for one another, that their respective villainies could be multiplied one atop the other.

Despite all that tinder lying around, we don’t know the exact spark for Lambe’s murder on June 13, 1628. A few months before, Buckingham had fled a humiliating military defeat in France; Parliament and King were at loggerheads that June, forcing the reluctant Charles to accede to a Petition of Right on June 7 that remains to this day a bedrock document of Britons’ liberties.

On the 13th, Lambe was recognized by “the boyes of the towne, and other unruly people” attending a play at the Fortune Playhouse.

As he left it, some began to follow him. Maybe it was just one insult too tartly answered that multiplied these hooligans, or maybe there was a ready rabble that immediately took to his heels. The frightened Lamb picked his way to the city walls menaced all the way by his lynch mob, hired a few soldiers as an ad hoc bodyguard, and by the dark of night tried desperately to find some sort of shelter from the crowd growing in both number and hostility. Under the mob’s threat, a tavern put him out, and a barrister likewise; his guards fled their posts; and someone at last laid his hands on John Lambe. By the time the frenzy had passed, Lambe’s “skull was broken, one of his eyes hung out of his head, and all parties of his body bruised and wounded so much, that no part was left to receive a wound.” Many contemporaries must have understood it as the just punishment that courts could not manage to exact.


Woodcut of the assault on Lambe outside the Windmill Tavern, from the title page of A Briefe Description of the Notorious Life of Iohn Lambe (1628)

The libels now rejoiced openly in Lambe’s summary justice — nobody was ever prosecuted for his murder — and anticipated another one to follow it.

“Who rules the Kingdome? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devill,” one menacing placard announced. “And that the libellers there professe, Lett the Duke look to it; for they intend shortly to use him worse then they did his Doctor, and if thinges be not shortly reformed, they will work a reformation themselves.”

Their thirst for “reformation” was not long delayed.

Ten weeks after Lambe’s murder, a disaffected army officer named John Felton at last enacted the swelling popular sentiment and assassinated Buckingham.

“The Shepheards struck, The sheepe are fledd,” one unsympathetic doggerel taunted, recalling the dead wizard whose supernatural exertions could no longer protect his wicked patron. “For want of Lambe the Wolfe is dead.”

* So says Alastair Bellany, whose “The Murder of John Lambe: Crowd Violence, Court Scandal and Popular Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England” in Past and Present, vol. 200, no. 1 is a principal source for this post. (It’s here, but behind academic paywalls.)

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1666: Andreas Koch, witch hunt skeptic

1 comment June 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1666, the pastor Andreas Koch suffered the pains of standing up against witch hunts in his town of Lemgo: Koch himself was beheaded as a wizard.

Lemgo recorded a busy witch-hunt record with an estimated 250 cases in the 16th and 17th centuries. But the bulk of those cases came surprisingly late — from 1653 to 1681, the period after the Thirty Years’ War witch-smelling acme.

As we’ve seen before in these grim annals, elites were not safe from the Hexenverfolgung; this, perhaps, is the reason that even we latter-day seculars still have such a visceral reaction to the term “witch hunt”.

Great is the honor for the one bold enough to stand athwart the inquisitor’s path, for great is the danger.

Andreas Koch, a Protestant pastor of the church of St. Nicolai, was a confessor to several condemned witches of Lemgo. As his position would indicate, Koch was no firebrand: he did not deny the presence of sorcerers and diabolical power in the world. But in 1665, he made bold to express skepticism about goings-on and even preached from the pulpit caution against reckless witchcraft accusations. He had found himself unsettled by the contradictory and illogical stories in supposed witches’ confessions, and finally convinced by the vow of innocence a condemned woman named Elisabeth Tillen gave him on the way to the stake. Lemgo was putting innocent people to death on spurious charges.

This epiphany, so obvious in retrospect, was a little too far ahead of his audience.

Rev. Koch was suspended from his ministry by that October, and amid new rumors circulating that he had himself been seen at the witches’ sabbaths, was arrested and put to torture the following spring. Koch was no better able to resist the interrogators’ torments than Elisabeth Tillen and her ilk had been, and obligingly confessed to diablerie. His only mercy was to die by the sword, rather than the flame; that he died before 5 in the morning might have been a mercy for his persecutors to minimize the public attendance at a potentially embarrassing scene.

Needless to say, it is Koch who has the judgment of posterity here. A present-day walking tour of Lemgo’s historic witch-hunt sites will not fail to stop at the monument that now stands in St. Nicolai’s to its devilishly skeptical former clergyman.


Detail view (click for full image) of the memorial to Andreas Koch at his former church in Lemgo. (cc) image from M. Ehret.

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1651: Jeane Gardiner, Bermuda witch

1 comment May 26th, 2014 Headsman

From Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782:

The witchcraft trouble [in Bermuda in 1651-55] began in May 1651, when Goodwife Jeane Gardiner, the wife of Ralph Gardiner of Hamilton Tribe, was accused of bewitching a mulatto woman named Tomasin. Jeane Gardiner was heard to say “that she would crampe Tomasin” and reportedly “used many other threatenninge words tending to the hurt and injurie of the said mullatto woman.” Gardiner’s victim was then “very much tormented, and struck blind and dumb for the space of twoe houres or thereabouts.” Jeane Gardiner may have been known in her neighborhood as the wife of Ralph Gardiner, a laborer who had come to Bermuda in 1612. A contentious man, he twice accused neighbors of stealing his poultry and was himself found guilty of stealing a fish gig. The assize record mentions that Jeane Gardiner, in addition to practicing witchcraft on Tomasin, “at divers tymes in other places … did practice the said devilish craft of witchcraft on severall persons in the hurt and damage of their bodyes and goods.” A panel of 12 women, including the wives of several men who possessed black, Inian, or mulatto servants or slaves, found a witch mark, a suspicious “blewe spott” in Gardiner’s mouth. As a further test, Gardiner was “throwne twice in the sea” where she was found to “swyme like a corke and could not sinke” — according to the lore of witchcraft, a sure sign of guilt.


/mandatory

A white, middle-aged woman, wife of a laborer, Goodwife Gardiner was a typical candidate for witchcraft charges in Bermuda.

Of Tomasin, the mulatto woman who was Jeane Gardiner’s alleged victim, nothing is known except her name. Since she is not identified as belonging to any master, it is possible that Tomasin was a free woman. Perhaps she was a neighbor of Gardine’s. Jeane Gardiner and Tomasin may have lived near each other, but nothing is known of their relationship. Did Tomasin, in word or action, offend Jeane Gardiner? Did Gardiner, the wife of a laborer, feel threatened by, or jealous of, Tomasin? On the connection between this white woman and her mulatto neighbor the record is silent, but Bermuda’s legal system inflicted the full measure of punishment upon the mulatto woman’s malefactor: Jeane Gardiner was hanged “before many spectators” on May 26, 1651.

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1690: Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov, stolnik

Add comment January 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, the Russian stolnik (an administrative office in the Russian court) Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov was put to death with the magicians he allegedly contracted to bewitch Tsar Peter the Great.

Whatever its other sins, Russia enjoys a reputation for having largely steered clear of the frightful witch-hunts that broke out elsewhere in Europe. Certainly tsars issued many decrees against witchcraft and even prescribed the death penalty in law. But unlike courts in western Europe, Russia does not seem ever to have folded the entire swath of extra-Christian folk beliefs and everyday peasant “magic” together into a juridical theory of omnipresent diabolical terrorism stretching from the neighborhood midwife to the Prince of Darkness himself. Perhaps for that reason, its historical record of witch persecutions presents fewer and more scattered data points.

Elites, write Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen,* “demonstrated no interest in formulating a systematized or theorized framework for explaining the uncanny power of magic [and] they also made no effort in their courtrooms to unearth evidence of such a framework … Instead of pursuing connections to the devil, Muscovite judges exerted themselves to track the lineages and results of magic: Who taught you? Whom have you taught? Whom have you bewitched? The judges’ concerns were concrete and this-worldly: who were the victims and who were the victimizers?”

Unfortunately for Bezobrazov, his victim was the tsar himself.

Bezobrazov allegedly obtained the service of “sorcerers and witches” who worked magic “on bones, on money and on water” to enspell the new 17-year-old sovereign during the uncertain period after Peter threw off the regency of his older sister Sophia. Despite Peter’s ultimate reputation as Russia’s great westernizer, the immediate effect of this transition was an oppressive interregnum wherein conservative religious interests took advantage of the new sovereign’s distraction from internal Russian politics to reassert themselves violently.

For Bezobrazov, political turnover augured personal uncertainty. The innocent explanation for his “witchcraft” was invoking a little ritual in hopes of catching a favorable assignment in Peter the Great’s new Russia. It didn’t work.

Bezobrazov was beheaded on Red Square on this date at the same time two folk healers went to the stake with their magic talismans and healing herbs at a swamp across the Moskva from the Kremlin. An essay in this Festschrift describes what it’s like to be a peasant folk healer suddenly under investigation for regicide.

Dorofei Prokofiev … had treated animals belonging to the Bezobrazov household. But when arrested and interrogated, Dorofei did not identify himself as a “sorcerer,” but rather as a posadskii chelovek (artisan), specifically a horse-trainer (konoval) and a blood-letter (rudomet’). He admitted to practicing bean divination and palm reading in addition to treating the illnesses of children and adults with herbs and incantations. His bag contained beans, incense (for protecting brides and grooms from sorcerers, Dorofei said), and a variety of herbs. The herb bogoroditskaia (= royal fern) he gathered himself on St. John’s Day, while reciting the charm “whatever you, herb, are good for, be good for that.” But he denied ever casting a spell to harm the sovereign, and he claimed not to be acquainted with Andrei Bezobrazov — a lie that was quickly uncovered when Dorofei was subjected to torture. At that point Dorofei changed his story: Bezobrazov had asked him to cast a spell on the tsar, but only to make him feel favorably towards Bezobrazov, not to damage the sovereign’s health. Dorofei gave his interrogators examples of the incantations that he used in fortune-telling, all intertwined invocations of Christian figures with sympathetic magic. In short, Dorofei tried to rescue himself by claiming that his healing and fortune-telling activities were all well-intentioned. But the investigators, and Peter himself, were convinced of Bezobrazov’s guilt, which meant Dorofei was guilty as well. Bezobrazov was beheaded, and Dorofei was burned at the stake as a witch.

For everyday folks like Dorofei Prokovie, the author notes, “well-positioned patrons could be either a source of protection or of danger.”

According to Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia, which is also the source of the January 8 date, Bezobrazov’s wife was punitively tonsured for not reporting the “plot” and several other of Bezobrazov’s peasants were knouted and sent to Siberia.

* “Prosaic Witchcraft and Semiotic Totalitarianism: Muscovite Magic Reconsidered” in Slavic Review, vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring 2011)

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1663: Tempel Anneke, witch

Add comment December 30th, 2013 Headsman

Three hundred fifty years ago today Anna Roleffes — nicknamed “Tempel Anneke” — became one of the last* witches executed in Braunschweig, Germany.

Roleffes (English Wikipedia page | German) is particularly interesting due to the lengthy and detailed records of her case that remain preserved. Consequently she’s become the subject of one of the most compelling microhistories of the witch-hunt era, The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663.

The accused was a widow about 63 years of age, putting her right in the demographic sweet spot for a witchcraft accusation. She lived with her son, and kept up a side business in folk medicine and fortune telling, putting her right in the professional sweet spot for a witchcraft accusation.

But again, this was the decline phase of the burning time. The Thirty Years’ War was over,** and with it the time of panicky bloodbaths was receding (ever so gradually) relative to more measured legal procedures. In this meticulously documented instance, procedural rules are rigorously followed by rational, educated investigators looking to convict a duly accused citizen of being the bogeyman.† Some records of the investigation stretch from a full year before her June 1663 arrest.

It’s not completely clear exactly how she first entered the judicial process,‡ but her reputed felicity in the augury business stacked up the evidence against her. (Even though some of the witnesses providing it were themselves fined by the court for engaging it in the first place.) One of the first witnesses in the record was a fellow who came to Tempel Anneke for some palmistry. She told him that he’d soon retrieve some pewter silverware that had been stolen from him, and indeed he did. After such an event, you and I might be tempted to leave Tempel Anneke a favorable review on Yelp; Hans Tiehmann, by contrast, reported her for maleficium.

A person in such proximity to the many private woes of her neighbors could find such accusations quickly became self-confirming in the juridical eye. One shepherd came to her after losing several sheep. She prescribed a burnt curative and this proved effective in protecting the remainder of his flock. Then he returned complaining of an illness of his own, and this she could not cure. Both transactions inculpate her in the record. Just another satisfied customer!

The demonology theory of the day held that any magic at all flowed by definition from Hell. In the hands of judges steeped in such ideas, everyday hexes and cantrips — which, again, many of the witnesses themselves voluntarily sought out — could become, officially, infernal manifestations. From turning up lost cutlery, the proceeding segued all the way demonic contracts.

Tempel Anneke was literate and sharp, cannily refusing to confess anything voluntarily. But the terms of the Carolina — the 16th century Germanic criminal code governing proceedings — authorized torture to obtain such a confession upon a “credibly established legally sufficient and consequently suitable indication” of criminal behavior. (Source) The judges submitted their investigation records to legal experts at the University of Jena, who ruled that they had indeed met the legal threshold to enhance interrogation. This she could not withstand, and so eventually confessed that she had made a pact with Satan sealed with fornication

on her son’s farm in the granary … by the light of the moon, she had to step into a circle on the ground which was black, and on [the Devil’s] urging, she let three small drops of blood into a small piece of linen, from her smallest finger on her right hand, which she had pricked with a needle, and she had to give it to him. Thereupon he had started and said, “I now have your blood, now you are mine, with body and blood, now you shall do what I want from you.”

* She was for a time thought to be the last witch executed in Braunschweig. That distinction appears to belong instead to Katharina Sommermeyer (1698).

** Gone, but certainly not forgotten. Tempel Anneke was a widow because her husband died in the Thirty Years’ War.

† Modernity can’t cast too many stones here.

‡ The Carolina licensed investigation of someone who was simply “suspected of a crime through common repute.” Many accused witches of course were prior to their formal accusations suspected or reputed witches.

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