Posts filed under 'Switzerland'

1509: Four Dominicans for the Jetzer affair

Add comment May 31st, 2016 Voltaire

(Thanks for today’s guest post to anti-clerical Enlightenment polemicist Voltaire, whose intervention in (and caustic commentary upon) death penalty cases in his own day we have several times featured. The events described arise from the Dominican order‘s Aquinas-derived dissent from the view, predominant theologically as well as popularly, of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception would later become settled doctrine in the Church. -ed.)

It is well known that the Cordeliers or Franciscans and the Jacobins or Dominicans have detested each other ever since they were founded. They were divided on several points of theology as well as being financial rivals. Their chief quarrel turned on the state of Mary before her birth. The Franciscans argued that Mary had not sinned in her mother’s womb, while the Dominicans were of the opposite opinion. There never was, perhaps, a more ridiculous question, and yet it was this very matter which made these two religious orders quite irreconcilable.

A Franciscan, preaching at Frankfurt in 1503 on the immaculate conception of Mary, happened to see a Dominican called Vigan come into his church. “I thank the Holy Virgin,” he exclaimed “for not having permitted me to belong to a sect which dishonours her and her son.” Vigan eplied that this was a falsehood. The Franciscan then came down from the pulpit, carrying an iron crucifix, and struck the Dominican such a violent blow that he almost killed him, after which he went on to finish his sermon on the Virgin.*

The Dominicans held a meeting to plan their revenge, and, in the hope of heaping greater humiliation on the Franciscans, they resolved to perform miracles. After several fruitless attempts they finally found a favourable opportunity in Berne.

One of their monks was confessor to a simple-minded young tailor named Jetzer, who was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and to Saint Barbara. This imbecile seemed to them to be an excellent subject for miracles. His confessor convinced him that the Virgin and Saint Barbara expressly commanded him to become a Dominican and to give all his money to the order. Jetzer obeyed and too the habit. When his vocation had been well tested, four Dominicans, whose names appear in the subsequent trial, disguised themselves on several occasions as best they could, one as an angel, another as a soul in purgatory, a third as the Virgin Mary and the fourth as Saint Barbara. At the end of these apparitions, which it would be too tedious to describe in detail, the Virgin finally revealed to Jetzer that she was born in original sin; that she would have been damned if her son, who was not yet on this earth, had not taken care to regenerate her immediately after she was born; that the Franciscans were impious and had grievously offended her son by claiming that his mother had been conceived without mortal sin, and that she charged him to announce this to all the servants of God and Mary in Berne.

Jetzer did not fail to do this. Mary appeared again, accompanied by two robust and vigorous angels. She thanked him and said that she had come to imprint upon him the holy stigmata of her son as proof of his mission and as a reward. The two angels tied Jetzer up and the Virgin drove nails into his hands and feet. The next day Brother Jetzer was exhibited on the altar for all to see, freshly bleeding from the heavenly favours he had received. The devout flocked to kiss his wounds. He performed as many miracles as he wanted, but the apparitions still continued. Finally Jetzer recognised the voice of the sub-prior beneath the mask he wore. He cried out and threatened to reveal everything. He followed the sub-prior into his cell, where he found his confessor and the two angels, who were entertaining some girls.

The monks, now that they were unmasked, had only one course open to them, which was to poison Jetzer. They sprinkled a communion wafer with some corrosive which had such a foul taste that Jetzer could not swallow it. He fled from the church crying out against the sacrilegious poisoners. The trial lasted for two years and came before the bishop of Lausanne because at that time laymen were not allowed to judge monks. The bishop sided with the Dominicans. He decided that the apparitions were real and that Jetzer was an imposter; he was even so cruel as to sentence the poor man to torture. But later the Dominicans imprudently degraded Jetzer, stripping him of his monk’s habit. This meant that Jetzer was now a layman again and his case could therefore be heard by the Council of Berne. As a consequence of his testimony the long catalogue of crimes was confirmed. When the ecclesiastical judges were called in from Rome, they were compelled to deliver up the criminals to the secular authorities. The guilty were burnt at the Marsilly gate on 31 May 1509. Records of the trial are now in the archives of Berne and have been printed on several occasions.


The fourteenth panel (click for the full glorious graphic novel) of a woodcut series illustrating the progress of the hoax. (Via).

* The Dominican Wigand Wirt, who denounced the Immaculate Conception so vociferously that he was summoned to Rome in 1507 to answer for it.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scandal,Switzerland,The Supernatural

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1524: Klaus Hottinger, sausage radical

Add comment March 9th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1524, the first Reformation martyr of Switzerland was beheaded in Lucerne.

Klaus Hottinger (English Wikipedia entry | German), a cobbler by trade, was among Zurich’s early radical reformers — the folks impatient enough for ecclesiastical change to go looking for provocative transgressions.

On March 9, 1522 — two years to the day before his martyrdom — Hottinger was among several Zurich denizens who calculatedly broke the Lenten fast by gobbling sausages at a printer‘s home. History charmingly designates this event “the Affair of the Sausages”. It was scandalous precisely because Zwingli, a pastor, made no attempt to enforce the Church’s fasting edict on his fellows, and then defended the carnivores.

This sort of behavior marked an important cleavage with Luther, both tactically and theologically. Luther certainly agreed with Zwingli that meat was not forbidden Christians, and even that believers ought to assert this right forcefully when bullied:

you must in no wise allow yourself to be drawn away from the liberty in which God has placed you, but do just the contrary to spite him, and say: Because you forbid me to eat meat, and presume to turn my liberty into law, I will eat meat in spite of you. (Fourth Invocavit sermon)

But still, Luther — strenuously at work in this period to dissociate his own cause from rebellion — would have his followers pick their battles. Does going out of your way to beef over the meat thing help or hinder the cause?

There are some who are still weak in faith, who ought to be instructed, and who would gladly believe as we do. But their ignorance prevents them, and if this were faithfully preached to them, as it was to us, they would be one with us. Toward such well-meaning people we must assume an entirely different attitude from that which we assume toward the stubborn. We must bear patiently with them and not use our liberty, since it brings no peril or harm to body or soul, nay, rather is salutary, and we are doing our brothers and sisters a great service besides. But if we use our liberty without need, and deliberately cause offense to our neighbor, we drive away the very one who in time would come to our faith.

Hottinger wasn’t the bearing patiently type. As if the sausages weren’t enough, our enragee ratcheted up the deliberate offense in 1523 with an iconoclastic strike against a roadside crucifix.

This stunt got him exiled from Zurich and put his sacrilege show on the road. As it transpired, not every canton was as easygoing as Zurich.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Switzerland

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1482: Richard Puller von Hohenburg and Anthony Mätzler

2 comments September 24th, 2015 Headsman


The Alsatian knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, Anthony Mätzler, burned for sodomy at Zurich. From illustration in Die Grosse Burgunderchronik by Diebold Schilling de Altere, c. 1483.

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1543: Jakob Karrer, Vesalius subject

1 comment May 12th, 2015 Headsman

osing his head on May 12, 1543 made Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler’s name in the annals of art and and medicine.

The remains of the Basel felon — who attacked his wife with a knife when she discovered his bigamous marriage — were turned over after execution to Andreas Vesalius.

That brilliant Flemish doctor was in the midst of a proper Renaissance leveling up of medicine, lifting it past the centuries-long thrall of ancient Greek physician Galen.

Human dissection was essential to Vesalius’s project, as it was alike to many other medical men and to artists too. In his career, Vesalius’s cunning scalpel stripped numerous cadavers for students and urban grandees. With Karrer, Vesalius performed a public dissection, articulating Karrer’s skeleton.

Gifted to the university there, the skeleton was restored in 1985 and can be seen to this day at the Institute of Anatomy in Basel, Switzerland — one of the very earliest still-preserved articulated skeletons.

Why is it a Basel criminal who enjoys this distinction?


From Wikipedia’s library of De Humani illustrations.

Because in 1543, Vesalius was in that city* to work with printer Johannes Oporinus, even then publishing the physician’s magnum opus De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Vesalius personally transported to Oporinus the famously gorgeous and detailed woodcuts of Titian’s pupil Joannes Stephanus Calcarensis that made De Humani a smash hit in Vesalius’s own time and one of the most treasured artifacts of Renaissance scholarship.

* There’s still a street named for Vesalius in Basel.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Public Executions,Sex,Switzerland

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1910: Mathias Muff, reproached by 15 orphans

Add comment May 2nd, 2015 Headsman

Thanks to the outstanding Trove digitized records of Australian newspapers, we have this item from the Advertiser (Adelaide) published May 4, 1910, concerning an affair from two days previous on the other side of the globe.

The death penalty was barely in use in Switzerland at this point; Muff’s execution would be the fifth-last for common crimes in Swiss history.


LONDON, May 3.

Mathias Muff, who some time ago murdered four persons in the canton of Lucerne, was executed in Lucerne, the capital, yesterday, the guillotine being used.

This is the first execution which has taken place for many years in Switzerland, Lucerne being one of the cantons which have re-enacted the death penalty after its abolition. Muff, when urged to sign a petition to the President for the commutation of the death sentenced, refused, saying, “I cannot live to hear the voices of fifteen orphans reproaching me.”

There was some difficulty in obtaining a guillotine, there being none in existence in Switzerland, and the authorities were compelled to secure the loan of one from the French Government. In France there are but two official guillotines, and both are kept in Paris, but one is specially reserved for executions in the provinces. Neither of these could be spared, but one was obtained from the French colonies, which between them have nine.

The cost of the guillotines is said to be £250 each, but they are well made, for the two now in use in France were made in 1870 in the place of those burnt during the Commune and by all accounts they still work as well as when first tested on a bundle of straw.

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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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1559: The remains of David Joris, Anabaptist fugitive

Add comment May 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1559, the corpse of “Johann van Brugge” — recently exposed as underground Anabaptist leader David Joris, even though Brugge/Joris was three years dead — was burned in Basel.

The flame-bearded Joris (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Dutch) was a glass-painter by trade who came to the fore of the Anabaptist movement following its catastrophe at Muenster.

His home city of Delft in 1528 had flogged him and bored his tongue for his religious scruples, but Joris maintained a strong following among the re-baptized in that city. Many of those followers had occasion to try their faith against the torturers’ tongs, and dozens of arrestees impressively concealed their leader’s whereabouts from his enemies. The man’s own mother was executed in 1539.

He could only duck in and out of Delft — once he had to slip out in a basket innocuously loaded onto a boat* — or any other city. From the 1530s, his was a life on the run in Reformation Europe, where Anabaptists were no safer from Protestants than they were from Catholics.

(Sample dangerous heresy: Joris was a very early adopter of the idea that the devil was best understood as an allegorical figure, not an actual entity.)

With a literal price on his head he wandered to Strassburg, to England, back to the continent in Westphalia and Oldenburg, Strassburg again, then Antwerp, and on to Basel, Switzerland in 1544.

In Deventer in 1542 his ecstatic Wonder Boeck was printed. (We recommend the engravings.)

In Basel our hunted man was able to settle in as Brugge and live out the balance of his life, still pouring out voluminous writings in secret — a very impressive retirement considering his notoriety and his distinctive facial hair. Joris was in his fifties when he died: the years of rough living on the run had done him no favors.

Three years after his death, his son-in-law — who disagreed with Joris theologically — exposed his real identity. Basel had nothing left to do about it but to visit on his bones the punishment David Joris’s living flesh escaped to the end of his days.

* From Gary Waite’s “Staying Alive: The Methods of Survival as Practiced by an Anabaptist Fugitive, David Joris” in the January 1987 Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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1571: Hans Haslibacher, Bern Anabaptist

1 comment October 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1571, Anabaptist Hans Haslibacher was martyred in Bern, Switzerland.

Haslibacher (German link) joined the oft-suppressed movement in 1532 and quickly established himself as one of the most energetic proselytizers in the Emmental in Bern canton.

Condemned at last in 1571 after a lifetime of arrests, he was honored in a 32-stanza anonymous poem “Das Haslibacherlied” (German) alleging that Haslibacher prophesied that his death would be marked with three signs:

  1. His head when struck off would spring into a hat and laugh aloud;
  2. The sun would turn blood-red;
  3. The town fountain would spew blood.

According to the poem, all three prophesies came to pass … and “the hangman too was heard to say: / ‘Tis guiltless blood I’ve shed today.”

The Swiss Anabaptists are noteworthy as the confessional ancestors of the present-day Amish: the latter sect is named for 17th century Bern canton Anabaptist Jakob Ammann, who was the leader of one faction in a 1693 schism within the Swiss Anabaptist community.

Fortunately (though not for this here site) that schism emerged too late in the day for a classic religious martyrdom. Hans Haslibacher, in fact, was the last Anabaptist put to death for his faith in Bern.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Switzerland

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1940: Hans Vollenweider, the last guillotined in Switzerland

1 comment October 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Hans Vollenweider became the last person executed in Switzerland.

The Swiss had long experience with executions by beheading and, of course, with mechanical refinements, so adoption of the guillotine was a natural fit … especially after Napoleon overran Switzerland.

Actually, Switzerland had experimented with guillotine-like machines centuries before the French introduced the device, but in the 19th century its Jacobin associations led to a running tug-of-war that saw some cantons abolish the guillotine (German link) in favor of a return to public beheading with a sword. At the same time, the pan-European move away from capital punishment saw a precipitous decline in actual executions, culminating with outright abolition in Switzerland’s 1874 constitution.

Although the death penalty was narrowly reinstated by referendum* (more German) in 1879, its use thereafter was sparing and often contested. In 1938, Switzerland adopted by referendum a new, federal criminal code abolishing the death penalty.

But that code did not take legal effect until January 1, 1942 … and in the intervening years, two people would be controversially guillotined under the outgoing statutes.

Hans Vollenweider (German link) “enjoys” the distinction of being the last of these.

He was a triple murderer, although formally condemned only for one of these homicides — and condemned by an Obwalden court not even a month before, on September 19. Vollenweider’s last legal appeal and his application mercy were disposed of in the week before he lost his head.

There’s a 2004 German-language documentary film about this milestone execution, Vollenweider – Die Geschichte eines Mörders (Vollenweider – The Story of a Murderer).

Vollenweider was the last person executed in Switzerland for an “ordinary” crime, but the death penalty did remain on the books for treason until 1992. Seventeen additional people were executed for that crime during World War II — executed by shooting, not beheading.

Switzerland today has abolished the death penalty at the constitutional level for all crimes. It does retain one single guillotine left in a warehouse somewhere as its last keepsake from an increasingly distant era.

* More precisely, the individual cantons were granted the right to introduce the death penalty in their own territories.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Switzerland

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1707: Pierre Fatio, Genevan Gracchus

1 comment September 6th, 2012 Headsman

On the evening of this date* in 1707, Pierre Fatio was secretly shot by arquebusers in a Geneva prison.

This Swiss Gracchus — classically-minded contemporaries could hardly fail to draw the parallel — was a magistrate and a rising member of the patrician oligarchy that ran nominally democratic Geneva.

But despising the side his class bread was buttered, Fatio (English Wikipedia page | French) took up the standard of the masses … or at least the masses of the bourgeoisie, whose universal-propertied-male suffrage was belied by the power exercised by Geneva’s magnates club, the “Petit Conseil” of 25 who actually ran the city-state.

Pierre Fatio really looks less like a revolutionary and more like a would-be liberal reformer. What started all the trouble was Fatio’s January 1707 sponsorship of a measure for a secret ballot and a little less nepotism: a modest downward redistribution of power.

Then as now, the powerful resisted.

From the pulpit the ministers cried at the top of their lungs against the people … accusing the people of rebellion against the magistrates, of insubordination to the laws, of enjoying only disorder and fomenting divisions, violating the oath which promises to be good and loyal to the city. (Source)

Oligarch apologists went on and on about these secret-balloteers having “broken all the bonds of society” (Benedict Calandrini) as the popular clamor for a bit of state accountability grew. In political-philosophy terms, this manifested itself as a debate between whether the sovereignty of the people (again, meaning the propertied male people) actually implied that these sovereigns were entitled to govern.

And the Little Council won the debate the old-fashioned way: by crushing its opponents as seditious, with the military aid of their brother-oligarchs at neighboring Swiss cantons. Several popular-sovereignty types were killed or exiled (French link) in mid-1707.

Its government is a mixture of Aristocracy and Democracy; but as the principal and most ancient families use their utmost endeavours to derogate from, and by slow degrees destroy the privileges of the citizens, in order to draw the power over to themselves, and perpetuate themselves in their posts, this practice is attended with frequent murmurings, and in these last times an insurrection had began, which would have broken out into a great fire, if Zurich and Bern had not sent wise and able deputies to extinguish it, and afterwards a good number of troops to garrison the city, which at present seems to keep quiet, though with evident prejudice to the liberty of its citizens. (Vendramino Bianchi in Relazi one del paese de Svizzeri (1708), quoted in this book

Fatio was the last and most noteworthy to go, and the council was so nervous about the “murmurings” if it should behead him in public, it determined its death sentence in secret: apt climax for a struggle over state accountability.

Rather than risk further disturbances, it simply dispatched its agents directly to Fatio’s cell where they informed him that he was condemned, and had him shot inside the prison without further ado.

“I would look with great honor on being the martyr of liberty,” a cool Fatio is said (by his party, naturally) to have remarked upon hearing his condemnation.

Martyr he may have been, but unlike the Roman Gracchi, Pierre did not have a brother to catch up his falling torch: Pierre’s, who was already among the Little Council, went ahead and voted for his sibling’s execution.

The martyr had more impressive family in cousin Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a mathematician and Isaac Newton collaborator. Still more noteworthy heirs were kin of spirit, not of blood: one David Rousseau lost his state job for supporting Fatio’s movement … and Rousseau’s famous Genevan grandson would become the favored philosopher of the coming revolutionary age.

There’s a hard-to-find French biography of our man, Pierre Fatio et la crise de 1707, by his descendants Nicole and Oliver Fatio. (Here’s a French interview with Oliver.)

* I really hate to contradict the 7 September date that’s carved into marble, but as best I can interpret the documentation, Fatio’s sentence was finalized on the day of 6 September and executed within just a few hours that very evening. See e.g. the 6 September document excerpted in fn 1 here.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Activists,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Judges,Lawyers,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Switzerland

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