1717: The witch-children of Freising

1 comment November 12th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1717 a witch hunt in the Bavarian town of Freising concluded with the beheading of three beggar children as magicians.*

The accusations of other kids in the city against two youths named Andre and Lorenz got the snowball rolling with the aid of adults credulous enough to believe the pubescent warlocks could conjure piglets and mice.

Andre and Lorenz, naturally, then supplied confessions and additional accusations, as a result of which several more children aged 9 to 14 were arrested, all of them cajoled and tortured towards symoptic allegations. Thirteen-year-old Andre eventually hanged himself; Lorenz and two others were put to sword and fire on November 12, 1717.

Notably, two other boys were spared execution but forced to watch their fellows’ fate. One of those, Veit Adlwart, would stand at the center of a second Kinderhexenprozess in Freising that claimed eight boys and three adults in the early 1720s. Veit Adlwart was put to death on December 15, 1721.

* Street children were at great risk of catching the witch stigma given the wrong place at the time.

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1599: Elisabeth Strupp, Gelnhausen witch

1 comment August 3rd, 2018 Headsman

The German town of Gelnhausen executed Elisabeth Strupp as a witch on this date in 1599.


Sculpture erected before Gelnhausen’s Marienkirche on the 400th anniversary of Elisabeth Strupp’s prosecution; it is one of five monuments to the victims of Gelnhausen’s witch hunts — all 52 of whom were symbolically rehabilitated in 2015.

The widow of a Protestant pastor,* Strupp is little known for her life. Strupp was probably in her sixties when a preceding accused witch, one Barbara Scherer, served Strupp’s name up to interrogators in a Hexenprozesse.


Illustration of a witches’ sabbat, from the Swiss National Museum.

The usual farrago of gossip and defamation then compiled itself into legal trappings sufficient for execution: a woman who miscarried after Strupp stroked her belly; some foul words exchanged with a maid; a couple of townsfolk who had suffered random injuries that they attributed to Elisabeth Strupp’s influence; and some colorful confessions of black sabbaths. Her rank earned her only the “privilege” of beheading prior to burning.

Elisabeth Strupp is the best-known witch hunted in Gelnhausen, thanks in part to a romantic early 20th century novel by Heinrich Zipf which names her “Maria” and considerably fictionalizes her story. This book is presumably in the public domain, but if it’s available online I have not been able to locate it.

* The Strupp family had been instrumental in the early promulgation of Lutheranism in Gelnhausen.

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1697: The Paisley Witches

1 comment June 10th, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(cc) image by Paisley Scotland.

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

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

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1591: Agnes Sampson, North Berwick witch

1 comment January 28th, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

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


In an illustration from Daemonologie, James personally interrogates witches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1505: The Val Camonica witches

Add comment June 23rd, 2017 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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1661: Maeyken de Smet, Olsene witch

Add comment February 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1661, 62-year-old Maeyken de Smet was strangled and burned in Olsene

Implicated a sorceress by the last “witch” they tortured during the witch trials of Olsene-Dentergem in the early 1660s, Maeyken had little likelihood of resisting her own bout with enhanced interrogation and duly settled upon a vast register of infernally aided mischief plus 23 more humans to accuse.

On the advice of five witchcraft lawyers, Maeyken De Smet was sentenced to burning at the stake and the confiscation of all of her property. Because she had concluded a written contract with the devil, which she had signed with her own blood; had renounced God, Our Lady and all of the saints; had had sex with the devil several times; had attended several meetings of witches and their devils; had bewitched people and cows with a grey powder; and had contaminated flax with flee-beetles and trees with pernicious insects, she was strangled at the stake on a scaffold on the gallows-field and then burnt to ashes. All of her goods were confiscated. The trial had lasted eighteen days and had cost 301 pounds, 8 Schellings and 10 groats. (Six Centuries of Criminal Law: History of Criminal Law in the Southern Netherlands and Belgium)

The hecatomb this situation would seem to portend did not quite come to pass, as many of the other accused mounted vigorous defenses — often successfully exploiting judicial mechanisms to tie up the juggernaut long enough that they could get out of its way. (One even successfully used a hunger strike to avoid execution.) This particular witch hunt fizzled out by the end of 1662.

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1630: Christina Plum, at the stake, in Cologne

1 comment January 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1630, the city of Cologne burned Christina Plum.

This aptly-named fruit vendor was a real peach. During Cologne’s 1627-1630 witch hunt, Plum in 1629 denounced a bushel of Cologne’s leading citizens for devilry. While threatening established elites with torture and the stake certainly seems downright bananas with benefit of hindsight, the free city had in 1627 burned an influential woman — and possibly Germany’s first female postmaster — named Katharina Henot. Indeed, it was Plum’s contention that such varied characters as the wife of the Burgermeister, the pastor of St. Alban’s Church, and Katharina Henot’s brother had all been keeping regular dates at the late Katharina’s Black Sabbath orgies.

The city was at that moment facing intense pressure by the Archbishop of Cologne Ferdinand of Bavaria — an imperial elector and enthusiastic hammer of witches — to root out Satan’s earthly minions. It was not at all past thinking that Plum’s accusations could have cut a swath through the city’s upper crust.

Instead, they destroyed the credibility of the witch hunts.

After unsuccessfully pressuring Plum to just pipe down and go away, the city had her arrested as a witch. After all, how did she know so much about who was going to the orgies? And, as was almost inevitable in such cases, the consequent interrogation proved sufficiently vigorous to force a confession from the woman’s lips.

In 1631, as the witch fever abated in Cologne, and elsewhere throughout Germany, the Cologne-educated jurist Friedrich Spee published one of the seminal takedowns of witch-hunting, Cautio Criminalis. (Spee himself lost a kinswoman to the Hexenprozesse.)

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1685: Krystof Alois Lautner, Witch Hammer victim

Add comment September 18th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1685, Catholic priest Kryštof* Alois Lautner was degraded from the clergy and burnt at the stake as a sorcer — but his real crime was standing athwart a witch hunt.

The term “witch craze” doesn’t quite seem the just one for the Northern Moravian witch trials since they spanned 18 terribly systematic years until the gouty main inquisitor mercifully retired in 1696, having put about 100 people to the sword and stake.

Generally understood in the context of Catholic hostility to reform denominations on the soil of the present-day Czech Republic, this dreadful affair started when a Vernirovice woman was caught sneaking the Host out of Easter Mass in 1678, intending to use it as a charm for a folk spell to enhance the fertility of her cows.

By 1679, that woman was burned at the stake — along with two others whom she was induced to accuse by the threat of torture.

These executions were the fruit of a witchcraft commission that had been empaneled to pursue the original desecration of the communion bread, but now that the witch team was an institution it began finding more and more necromancers, in a self-justifying spiral of accusations.

Lautner, a well-liked deacon of Sumperk, spoke against the witch hunt when it came to that city and for his pains he was arrested there in 1680 … then leisurely broken by torture over a period of four years until he was at last undone by accusations wrenched from the torture of the wealthy Sattler family. (Whose valuables the commission did not neglect to appropriate.) It was standard witchcraft fare: black sabbaths, incestuous orgies, pacts with Satan.

Milder tortures were used against him initially” the records say. “But those he admirably resisted, and remained obdurate. Then came harsher steps. Lautner began to confess, but when he was removed from the devices he recanted his admissions. So he was put to torture again and again, to defeat the devil’s secrecy. He was interrogated in June 1684 — twelve days in a row, except Sunday.” The case progressed so deliberately in part because the prosecution of a clergyman required the signoff of church heirarchy** … and in part because Lautner’s own friends intervened to try to free him. (One such ally, the priest Tomáš König, wrote a letter to the bishop on Lautner’s behalf and thereby became an object for investigation himself; it’s thought that he was about to be arrested by the witchsmellers when he fortuitously died in 1682.)

In the end the cleric could not hope to withstand the pressure. 20,000 people are reported to have swelled Sumperk for his execution by fire.

His case — which has latterly been commemorated by public monuments celebrating Lautner as a hero of conscience — was dramatized in the historical novel Witch Hammer by Vaclav Kaplicki. Otakar Vavry adapted the story for the silver screen; Kladivo na Carodejnice is available online in its entirety, but you’ll need to be up on your Czech.

* Hacek courtesy of Jan Hus!

** Pope Innocent XI ultimately signed off on proceedings, on the sententious grounds that clergy can’t be above the law when they traffic with devils.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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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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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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1629: Anna Gurren, in the Mergentheimer Hexenprozess

Add comment January 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1629, the German city of Mergentheim burned its late mayor’s widow for witchcraft.

Anna’s remains: the inventory of the late sorceress’s estate taken by its new owner, the city of Mergentheim.

Witch-hunting was a growth industry for Thirty Years’ War-torn Germany in the late 1620s.

Not long before, a Mergentheim Teutonic knight had been petitioned for help extracting a schoolboy from Wurzburg, where the absentee father feared he was running with a devilish crowd. Once the authorities heard that witchy stuff, all the inhuman gears came to life.

Instead of returning the tyke to his concerned dad, Wurzburg arrested the boy, strongarmed him into admitting his Satanic ties, and burned him at the stake. Nine years old.

That was Wurzburg. But back where the allegation originated, writes H.C. Erik Midelfort, “the discovery in Mergentheim that children might be guilty of witchcraft was to have serious consequences.”

Like a fresh plague outbreak, a witch persecution broke out in Mergentheim and neighboring Markelsheim, with some schoolchildren hounded by inquisitors within a few weeks of their compatriot’s execution over in Wurzburg. From there, it became epidemic all over town. By October 1628, the first witches were shrouded in flames for their neighbors’ edification. Over the course of 1629, the peak year for the Mergentheimer Hexenprozess, 91 humans were put to death as Satanic wizards — not counting those who were tortured to death.

Nor was this strictly confined to the weakest prey, your outcasts and servants.

Our victim today was big game, a wealthy city elite, and she wasn’t the only such. These must have made some kind of hedgerow gossip, but the general hysteria of the place made it dangerous to sustain any public controversy even about the downfall of the recently well-connected.

Midelfort, again, on the very relatable circumstance of a prosperous innkeeper who was a little too incensed for his own good at seeing Anna Gurren die.

Thomas 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 Burgermeister Hans Georg Braun, was executed, Schreiber was heard by many persons exclaiming that she had been done a gross injusice. 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 confesion. 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.”

Schreiber fled town on February 1, having heard that people had started denouncing him. But he didn’t make it long.

He, too, was dead by the end of May — as a confessed (just like he predicted) witch.

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

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