1628: Edmund Arrowsmith, Catholic priest

Add comment August 28th, 2016 Headsman

Lancashire priest Edmund Arrowsmith was martyred on this date in 1628.

Actually named Bryan by his parents, Arrowsmith took the name of an uncle while matriculating at the English seminary in Douai.

He deployed for the old religion his “fervour, zeal and ready wit” in Lancaster from 1612 to 1622, withstood an arrest, then entered the Jesuit order and resumed his underground ministry — until, as the story has it, a man whom Fr. Arrowsmith had chastised for his adulteries petulantly shopped him.

Arrowsmith suffered the horrible public butchery of drawing and quartering, as well as posthumous burning. From the remans, someone retrieved as a relic a charred hand and sent it to Arrowsmith’s relations, who (per a 19th century relative) “keep it in a silver case, and honour it very much, and every Sunday all the crippled or diseased Catholic poor come to kiss it, and the priest touches them with it. It has performed many authentic cures, — some in our time, — so strong is faith.” It has since been transmitted to the Church of St. Oswald and St. Edmund Arrowsmith in Ashton. Look for the stained glass of Edmund and his Holy Hand in this beautiful Flickr album of the church.

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1628: John Lambe murdered

3 comments 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 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 Lambe 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.”

The History of Witchcraft podcast has an excellent episode on Dr. Lambe here.

* 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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1628: Milady de Winter, Three Musketeers villainess

1 comment August 27th, 2012 Headsman

Late this night* in 1628 was the fictional execution of The Three Musketeers antagonist Milady de Winter.

Milady de Winter, as the heroine of Agnes Maupre’s revisionist French graphic novel series (Author interview | Another (Both in French)).

This conniving minx bears the fleur-de-lis brand of a teenage crime upon her shoulder — a very naughty beauty-mark indeed — but becomes a secret agent of Cardinal Richelieu. (Richelieu is a point of friction for the Musketeers right from the start.)

This novel — which has long been in the public domain (Text at Gutenberg.org or ClassicReader.com | Free audio book at Librivox.org) — features Milady continually bedeviling the protagonist d’Artagnan. He loves her; she keeps trying to kill him. Pretty typical for these grim annals. (She also used to be Athos’s wife, years ago, until he tried to murder her. Long story.)

To skip to the end of things, Milady is portrayed as having orchestrated at Richelieu’s behest the (actual, historical) assassination of the Musketeers’ buddy the (actual, historical) Duke of Buckingham, which Milady accomplishes by seducing and manipulating his (actual, historical) assassin, John Felton. In reality, Felton was motivated by the stirring Republican sentiment that would soon generate a revolution; in Dumas, he’s a horny dupe who beholds his seductress escaping by sea even as he’s placed under arrest.

Buckingham was (actually, historically) murdered on August 23.

The fictional narrative picks up on August 25, when the escaped Milady writes to Cardinal Richelieu from the safety of Boulogne. Unbeknownst to her, her hours are numbered.

Milady proceeds the next morning to a convent in Bethune where she chances to encounter the mistress of her old foe d’Artagnan … and, by that night, to slay said mistress with poison just ahead of the arrival of the Musketeers.** But the Musketeers are able to track the escaping murderess down by the next evening. There, they subject her to a snap “trial”:

“We wish to judge you according to your crime,” said Athos; “you shall be free to defend yourself. Justify yourself if you can. M. d’Artagnan, it is for you to accuse her first.”

D’Artagnan advanced.

“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having poisoned Constance Bonacieux, who died yesterday evening.”

He turned towards Porthos and Aramis.

“We bear witness to this,” said the two Musketeers, with one voice.

D’Artagnan continued: “Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having attempted to poison me, in wine which she sent me from Villeroy, with a forged letter, as if that wine came from my friends. God preserved me, but a man named Brisemont died in my place.”

“We bear witness to this,” said Porthos and Aramis, in the same manner as before.

“Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having urged me to the murder of the Baron de Wardes; but as no one else can attest the truth of this accusation, I attest it myself. I have done.” And d’Artagnan passed to the other side of the room with Porthos and Aramis.

“Your turn, my Lord,” said Athos.

The baron came forward.

“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having caused the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham.”

“The Duke of Buckingham assassinated!” cried all present, with one voice.

“Yes,” said the baron, “assassinated. On receiving the warning letter you wrote to me, I had this woman arrested, and gave her in charge to a loyal servant. She corrupted this man; she placed the poniard in his hand; she made him kill the duke. And at this moment, perhaps, Felton is paying with his head for the crime of this fury!”

And so forth.

Then these obviously impartial judges judge her guilty, and have the executioner of Lille — whom they have thoughtfully procured in advance — chop off her head and dump her in a river.

“The executioner may kill, without being on that account an assassin,” said the man in the red cloak [i.e., the executioner himself], rapping upon his immense sword. “This is the last judge; that is all. Nachrichter, as say our neighbors, the Germans.”

Extrajudicial is as extrajudicial does. And in this case, Richelieu is just as happy to be rid of his duplicitous agent and, admiring the protagonist’s moxie, commissions d’Artagnan a lieutenant in the Musketeers. D’Artagnan is the fourth of the titular “three Musketeers”, so this denouement means that he’s finally made it … and he should stand by for duty in sequels continuing to mix-and-match Dumas’s fictional characters with actual, historical events.

Indeed, in the next volume of the series, Twenty Years After, it’s Milady’s vengeful son Mordaunt who acts as Charles I‘s executioner.

This date’s captivating femme fatale has appropriately been portrayed by a ravishing host of silver screen sirens including Lana Turner, Mylene Demongeot, Antonella Lualdi, Faye Dunaway, Rebecca de Mornay, Emmanuelle Beart, and (most recently as of this writing), Milla Jovovich.

* August 27-28, right around midnight. Dumas isn’t specific as to pre- or post-midnight.

** In the novel, it’s Madame de Chevreuse who has arranged this rendezvous of d’Artagnan with his lover — another actual, historical person whom we have met elsewhere in these pages.

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1628: John Felton, assassin of the Duke of Buckingham

2 comments October 28th, 2011 Headsman

The rack, or question, to extort a confession from criminals, is a practice of a different nature: this being only used to compel a man to put himself upon his trial; that being a species of trial in itself. And the trial by rack is utterly unknown to the law of England; though once when the dukes of Exeter and Suffolk, and other ministers of Henry VI, had laid a design to introduce the civil law into this kingdom as the rule of government, for a beginning thereof they erected a rack for torture; which was called in derision the duke of Exeter’s daughter, and still remains in the tower of London: where it was occasionally used as an engine of state, not of law, more than once in the reign of queen Elizabeth but when, upon the assassination of Villiers duke of Buckingham by Felton, it was proposed in the privy council to put the assassin to the rack, in order to discover his accomplices; the judges, being consulted, declared unanimously, to their own honour and the honour of the English law, that no such proceeding was allowable by the laws of England.

William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. iv (via Harper’s)

Although the jurisprudence of 17th century England with its proscription of legal torture* still stacks up favorably next to that of Berkeley law professors, it certainly did not stand in the way of assassin John Felton‘s execution on this date in 1628.

Felton, an army officer passed over for promotion, stabbed to death nobby royal favorite George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham at Portsmouth — a private grievance fused to a widespread public one. Reams of laudatory verse churned out in the two months between crime and punishment suggest the popular opprobrium for the duke.**

Or you, late tongue-ty’d judges of the land,
Passe sentence on his act, whose valiant hand
Wrencht off your muzzels, and infranchiz’d all
Your shakl’d consciences from one man’s thrall?
But O! his countrie! what can you verdict on?
If guiltie; ’tis of your redemption.

Felton’s victim, the Duke of Buckingham — portrayed in 1625 by Rubens.

Villiers, “handsomest-bodied” scion of the minor gentry, had parlayed his comeliness into power as the favorite (and possibly the lover) of King James I. He had, as Alexandre Dumas put it in The Three Musketeers (in which adventure Buckingham is an important character) “lived one of those fabulous existences which survive, in the course of centuries, to astonish posterity.”†

Buckingham latched himself to the king’s 20-something son and heir Charles I and became a dominant influence in foreign policy as well as wildly unpopular in England. He raised Protestant hackles with Machiavellian statecraft like angling for a Spanish queen and aiding the French against the Huguenots, and since he exercised a share of the royal power he vigorously upheld the rights of the crown as against those of the commons. An opponent once compared him to Sejanus.

Indeed, Buckingham helped the youthful Charles, king since March of 1625, set the tetchy tone for his relationship with Parliament that would define his rule and ultimately cost the monarch his own head. When Parliament demanded Buckingham “be removed from intermeddling with the great affairs of State” as a condition for coughing up any more money, Charles haughtily dissolved Parliament rather than give up his favorite.

That forced the king into sketchy expedients like the “forced loan” and, when the money disputes continued after Buckingham’s death, the king’s eventual legislature-free Personal Rule that set up the Civil War.

So one can see how the sudden 1628 murder of this resented courtier, to whom was imputed every fault and abuse of Charles himself, would have been celebrated. “Honest Jack” — the assassin’s widely-honored nickname — was likewise credited with every perceived virtue of the Parliamentarian party. Juridically, the man was doomed — but in the popular eye,

[t]he passage of Felton to London, after the assassination, seemed a triumph. Now pitied, and now blessed, mothers held up their children to behold the saviour of the country; and an old woman exclaimed, as Felton passed her, with a scriptural allusion to his short stature, and the mightiness of Buckingham, “God bless thee, little David!” Felton was nearly sainted before he reached the metropolis. His health was the reigning toast among the republicans.

In fact, the man who had recently tutored future literary giant (and future Cromwellian agent) John Milton was sentenced by the Star Chamber have an ear cut off for drinking Felton’s health. (The sentence was remitted thanks to some pull with Archbishop William Laud.)

While he’s sometimes described — or dismissed — as merely a disgruntled careerist, the assassin’s own ideological commitment ought not be downplayed. Whatever Felton’s personal pique, the assassination was unambiguously political: our killer had returned from war wounded and melancholy and proceeded to marinate in the era’s anti-monarchical currents. In time, Felton came to understand — surely in concert with many of his countrymen now forgotten by time — that there was a greater good to be served by the sin of murder.

He had left behind in his trunk a few propositions that underscored his state of mind: “There is no alliance nearer to any one than his country” and “No law is more sacred than the safety and welfare of the commonwealth.” He justified himself at trial in similar terms, and did so without desiring to escape the extremities of the law that his crime demanded.

Felton had really expected to be killed in the act of the assassination himself. To that end, he had left a note pinned in his hat that is as good an elegy for him as any a republican ballad. “That man is cowardly and base and deserveth not the name of a gentleman that is not willing to sacrifice his life for the honor of his God, his king, and his country. Let no man commend me for doing it, but rather discommend themselves as to the cause of it, for if God had not taken away our hearts for our sins, he would not have gone so long unpunished.”

While Felton played his part in the generations-long struggle to subordinate king to parliament, the most immediate beneficiary of this affair was not so much the Commons as it was the noble rival who usurped the late Buckingham’s power — the Earl of Strafford.

* Certain though we are of the human rights commitment of Felton’s prosecutors, the man himself made sure of it by dint of a deft bit of interrogatory jujitsu. Menaced with the prospect of torture, he cheerfully resigned himself to it — “Yet this I must tell you by the way,” he added. “That if I be put upon the rack, I will accuse you, my Lord of Dorset, and none but yourself.”

That’s the way to convince judges not to torture you.

** An entirely less negative remembrance commemorates Buckingham and “accursed” Felton at the Portsmouth Cathedral.

† Felton also appears in The Three Musketeers, committing the murder of Buckingham at the instigation of the seductive fictional villain Milady de Winter just days before the musketeers execute Milady herself.

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1628: Johannes Junius “will never see you more”

1 comment August 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1628 was burned in Bamberg (former) Burgomaster Johannes Junius, a civic official caught up in the frenetic witch-hunts of Bavaria in the Thirty Years’ War.

Fellow townspeople under torture accused him; Junius eventually did the same, copping to the stock stuff witch trials knew just how to use:

there had come to him a woman like a grass-maid … And thereafter this wench had changed into the form of a goat, which bleated and said, “Now you see with whom you have had to do. You must be mine or I will forthwith break your neck”. Thereupon he had been frightened, and trembled all over for fear. Than the transformed spirit had seized him by the throat, and demanded that he should renounce God Almighty, whereupon Junius said, “God help me”, and thereupon the spirit vanquished through the power of these words. Yet it came straightway back, brought more people with it, and persistently demanded of him that he renounce God in Heaven and all the heavenly host, by which terrible threatening he was obliged to speak this formula: “I renounce God in Heaven and his host, and will henceforward recognize the Devil as my God”.

After the renunciation he was so far persuaded by those present and by the evil spirit that he suffered himself to be baptized by the devil in the evil spirit’s name. The Morhauptin had given him a ducat as dower-gold, which afterward became only a potsherd.

He was then named Krix. His succubus was called Vixen (Füchsin). Those present had congratulated him in Beelzebub’s name and said that they were now all alike.

Etc.

What survives of him among the thousands of similar unfortunates is the illicit letter in his own hand describing those tortures in detail … a reminder (regrettably current) of the reality of crippled limbs and ripped flesh and the meager limits of human hardiness that surround a word like “torture”.

July 24, 1628

Many hundred thousand good-nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and – God pity him – bethinks him of something.

I will tell you how it has gone with me.

When I was the first time put to the torture, my brother-in-law, Dr. Braun, Dr. Kotzendorffer, and two strange doctors were there. Then Dr. Braun asks me; “Kinsman, how come you are here?” I answer, “Through falsehood and through misfortune”. “Hear, you,” he retorts, “you are a witch. Will you confess it voluntarily? If not, we’ll bring in witnesses and the executioner for you”. I said, “I am no witch; I have a pure conscience in the matter. If there are a thousand witnesses, I am not anxious, but I’ll gladly hear them”.

Then the Chancellor’s son was set before me, who said he had seen me. I asked that he be sworn and legally examined, but Dr. Braun refused it. Then the Chancellor, Dr. George Haan, was brought, who said the same as his son. Afterward Höppfen Ellse. She had seen me dance on Hauptsmorwald, but they refused to swear her in. I said: “I have never renounced God, and will never do it – God graciously keep me from it. I’ll rather bear whatever I must”.

And then came also – God in highest Heaven have mercy – the executioner, and put the thumbscrews on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood spurted from the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing.

Thereafter they stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up on the ladder. Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end. Eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony. I said to Dr. Braun, “God forgive you for thus misusing an innocent and honorable man”. He replied, “You are a knave”.

And this happened on Friday, June 30, and with God’s help I had to bear the torture. When at last the executioner led me back into the cell, he said to me, “Sir, I beg you, for God’s sake, confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture which you will be put to; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow another until you say you are a witch. Not before that,” he said, “will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another”.

Then came George Haan, who said the commissioners had said the Prince-Bishop wished to make such an example of me, that everybody would be astonished.

And so I begged, since I was in wretched plight, to be given one day for thought and a priest. The priest was refused me, but the time for thought was given. Now, my dearest child, see in what hazard I stood and still stand. I must say that I am a witch, though I am not – must now renounce God, though I have never done it before. Day and night I was deeply troubled, but at last there came to me a new idea. I would not be anxious, but, since I had been given no priest with whom I could take counsel, I would myself think of something and say it. It were surely better that I just say it with mouth and words, even though I had not really done it; and afterwards I could confess it to the priest, and let those answer for it who compel me to do it . . . And so I made my confession, as follows; but it was all a lie.

Now follows, dear child, what I confessed in order to escape the great anguish and bitter torture, which it was impossible for me longer to bear.

Then I had to tell what people I had seen (at the witch sabbat). I said that I had not recognized them. “You old knave, I must put the torturer at your throat. Say – was not the Chancellor there?” So I said yes. “Who besides?” I had not recognized anybody. So he said: “Take one street after another. Begin at the market, go out on one street and back on the next”. I had to name several persons there. Then came the long street (die lange Gasse). I knew nobody. Had to name eight persons there. Then the Zinkenwert – one person more. Then over the upper bridge to the Georgthor, on both sides. Knew nobody again. Did I know nobody in the castle – whoever it might be, I should speak without fear. And thus continuously they asked me on all the streets, though I could not and would not say more. So they gave me to the torturer, told him to strip me, shave me all over, and put me to the torture. “The rascal knows one on the market-place, is with him daily, and yet won’t name him”. By this they meant Burgomaster Dietmeyer: so I had to name him too.

Then I had to tell what crimes I had committed. I said nothing. . . “Hoist the knave up!” So I said that I was to kill my children, but I had killed a horse instead. It did not help. I had also taken a sacred wafer, and had buried it. When I had said this, they left me in peace.

Now, dearest child, here you have all my acts and confession, for which I must die. And they are sheer lies and inventions, so help me God. For all this I was forced to say through dread of the torture beyond what I had already endured. For they never leave off with the torture till one confesses something; be he ever so pious, he must be a witch. Nobody escapes, though he were an earl. If God send no means of bringing the truth to light, our whole kindred will be burned. God in heaven knows that I know not the slightest thing. I die innocent and as a martyr.

Dear child, keep this letter secret, so that people do not find it, else I shall be tortured most piteously and the jailers will be beheaded. So strictly is it forbidden. . . . Dear child, pay this man a thaler. . . . I have taken several days to write this: my hands are both crippled. I am in a sad plight. . . .

Good night, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you more.

Junius adds, in the margin, a touching gesture towards posthumous healing by asking no bitterness be kept against his false accusers.

Dear child, six have confessed against me at once: the Chancellor, his son, Neudecker, Zaner, Hoffmaisters Ursel, and Hoppfens Elsse–all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged my forgiveness in God’s name before they were executed. . . . They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say it, just as I myself was. . . .

Haan, Junius’s accuser, was also burned at the stake.

Their mutual inquisitor, Dr. Braun, was arrested in 1629 — tortured — confessed — and burned as well. (Source)

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1628: Johan Bernhard Reichardt, a nine-year-old witch

2 comments May 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1628, a prepubescent boy went to the stake at Würzburg, the victim of a witch-hunting spasm amid the confusion of the Thirty Years’ War.

Here is the story as related by Midelfort’s Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684:

Bernhard Reichardt, a magistrate and wealthy man of Markelsheim, had tried to give his young son, Johan Bernhard, a decent education by sending him to school at Neuen Münster in Würzburg. In December of 1627, however, the father became convinced that his son had been seduced into witchcraft there, and transferred Johan Bernhard to the Jesuit school at Dettelbach. By mid-March 1628 the authorities in Würzburg were aware that this nine-year-old boy had been involved in witchcraft and wrote politely to the Teutonic Order in Mergentheim to ask for assistance in extraditing the child to Würzburg for questioning. Johann Caspar, Administrator of the Teutonic Order, responded at once that the boy was to be delivered up formally to the authorities at the border. By the end of March he was under the jurisdiction of the Würzburg authorities. Far from merely questioning him, the Würzburg court got Johan Bernhard to sign a confession on April 8 that he had been seduced into witchcraft by a classmate. Among other horrors, he had denied God, Mary, and all the saints and angels. With his own blood he had written “Ich, Johannes Bernhardus Reichard, hab mich dem Teüfel vergeben.” He had flown to numerous dances and, although only nine years old, had had intercourse with the devil on numerous occasions. Like adults, Johan Bernhard always found the devil “hard as horn” and “of a cold nature.” Implicating his complices, the boy noted that he had seen three other persons known to him at the dances.

One month later, on May 9, 1628, the authorities at Würzburg burned Johan Bernhard Reichardt and four others. Johann Caspar in Mergentheim heard of the execution only after it had occurred, but agreed fully that it had been justified.

Little Johan was far from the only child prosecuted as a witch in Europe, and many very young children number among the casualties of the Würzburg witch trials. With Catholic and Protestant armies romping back and forth over German principalities, it was a ripe moment for feeling the presence of existential threats to the civilization … and for trying children as adults.

Midelfort, again:

[A] “New Treatise on the Seduced Child-Witches” thundered against the rapid increase in childhood witchcraft. The author asserted that the first reason for such conditions was the sins of the parents, for whom witch-children were a fitting punishment. But more important, such witchcraft was due to the sins of the children themselves. One should not think that they were innocent merely because they were young. Their cursing, coveting, and immoral words and games were proof enough that these children had fallen into mortal sin.

And why, after all, shouldn’t children be witches? Everybody else was. The chancellor of Würzburg’s Catholic Prince-Bishop wrote a comrade in the summer of 1629:

As to the affair of the witches, which Your Grace thinks brought to an end before this, it has started up afresh, and no words can do justice to it. Ah, the woe and the misery of it — there are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex, nay, even clerics, so strongly accused that they may be arrested at any hour … a third part of the city is surely involved … there are children of three and four years, to the number of three hundred, who are said to have had intercourse with the Devil. I have seen put to death children of seven, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen.

In the version of this story preserved in Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, desperate public demonic incantations repeated by “witches” who were either persuaded of their own guilt or hopeless of any source of aid save the infernal were absorbed by youngsters’ timeless instinct for that which is forbidden by their elders, further feeding the frenzy:

Many an unhappy urchin, who in a youthful frolic had repeated it, paid for his folly the penalty of his life. Three, whose ages varied from ten to fifteen, were burned alive at Wurzburg for no other offence. Of course every other boy in the city became still more convinced of the power of the charm. One boy confessed that he would willingly have sold himself to the devil, if he could have raised him, for a good dinner and cakes every day of his life, and a pony to ride upon. This luxurious youngster, instead of being horsewhipped for his folly, was hanged and burned.

However locally and temporarily overwhelming this current, it was never without resistance — everyday people willing to complain that charges were absurd, judges inclined to skepticism. An onset of acquittals was known to presage the end of a witch-hunting spasm.

A particular voice left to us is Friedrich von Spee, a Jesuit theologian whose tract Cautio CriminalisPrecautions for Prosecutors — accepted the existence of witches but argued forcefully against the legal apparatus of accusation and torture. To Spee’s mind, not two in fifty burned witches were truly in league with the devil, and his book quickly became influential to both Catholic and Protestant audiences. It remains in print down to the present day

On this day..

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

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