On this date in 1676, two sisters were beheaded in Stockholm in one of Sweden’s most famous witch trials.
The great Swedish witch hunt of 1668-1676 was at its crescendo, having spread from the provinces to the capital. Here was repeated pattern by now familiar — children accusing adult women of taking them to witches’ sabbaths, and various and sundry infernally-inspired offenses against the civic order.
Brita Zippel (or Britta Sippel) was a natural magnet for accusations. Born well-off but fallen into poverty, and hot-tempered (as we shall see) besides, she had already survived two previous witch trials.
Her sister Anna remained a member of the town’s elite, but her status proved no use to her when suspicion fell on the family. Rumors and accusations snowballed over a period of months — that the sisters kidnapped children; that they committed arson; that both Anna’s wealth and Brita’s poverty proved their diabolical affiliations. That Anna Zippel and her business partner Anna Mansdotter made money selling medicines to the rich and powerful hardly decreased suspicion. The children who drove all this really made the most of the limelight — fainting spells, supernatural tales, the whole nine yards.
While the well-heeled Annas maintained a dignified stoicism during their trial — which only served to condemn them — Brita gave rein to all her furious indignation — which only served to condemn her. Anna Zippel defended herself calmly. Brita threatened witnesses, attacked her sister, and poured invective on her persecutors. Same result.
Their contrast in demeanor continued to the scaffold itself.
Shaking her chains, threatening her confessor with her posthumous vengeance, and cursing her onlookers, Brita required the offices of five men to wrestle her to the block for her beheading. (She went first because of the scene she was making.) Anna Zippel followed quietly, and then (quieter still) Anna Mansdotter, who had managed to commit suicide in prison but whose corpse still suffered the same fate of decapitation and burning.
These first witch-hunt victims in Stockholm were not the last, but they would presage the collapse of an enterprise that had consumed some 200 lives over the preceding eight years. According to Witch Hunts in Europe and America,
[i]n the spring of 1676, the court of appeals in Stockholm began investigating cases directly, rather than simply examining the records local officials forwarded. This resulted in the appointment of yet more royal commissions, but these were completely dominated by skeptical Stockholm officials. Turning the pressure on the accusers, the commissions gained several confessions from child accusers stating that they had made the whole thing up. The witch-hunt quickly collapsed, and four accusers, including a boy of 13, were executed.