Germany - Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The worst atrocities of the Witchcraze occurred in German lands between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Some suggest that at least half of all witch-trial related deaths occurred in German lands.

The German witch-hunts operated on a particularly broad scale; at its peak almost no one was truly safe. The stereotypical image of the witch-hunt victim is an elderly impoverished woman; these women were certainly killed during the German witch-hunts but the wealthy were targeted too, as were the socially prominent.

Magic and traditional witchcraft were among the duties of the ancient Pagan Germanic housewife. Sagas describe ordinary women routinely practicing magical healing and divination and casting protective spells for the benefit of their families.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries most witch-trials in German lands were tried by Papal Inquisition, not by civil courts. Witches were usually hanged or imprisoned, although they were often dragged out of prison by local townsfolk and burned alive in public lynchings. By the fifteenth century, the customary means of execution for witches in German lands was burning alive, unlike other regions where convicted witches were traditionally strangled before burning.

Local German courts exercised tremendous autonomy over witch trials in their regions. German Inquisitors and witch-hunters developed torture into a fine art. All torture instruments were blessed by a priest before use, and witches were tortured so severely, confession was virtually guaranteed.

Image Victims were force-fed salted herrings to induce thirst and then denied water

Image Victims were stripped naked and frequently raped, sometimes gang-raped, before being led to torture chambers

Image Children of convicted witches were typically treated identically to their parents under the theory that, as acorns don’t fall far from oaks, witchcraft ran in families and the children would inevitably become witches eventually. Children were tortured to provide information about parents and relatives and to provide greater lists of suspects.

In 1563, 63 women were executed in the small Lutheran territory of Weisensteig, and in 1572 the Law Code of Saxony decreed that even “good” witches must be burned.

The region around the city then known as Treves (now Trier) was beset by natural disasters in1580, including storms and plagues of grasshoppers and mice. Witchcraft was blamed; a witch panic ensued. Trials were begun in both ecclesiastical and civil courts. A series of convictions eliminated two entire villages. No one was left. Only two members of the female population of a third village were left alive.

Among the last victims was Dietrich Flade (?—1589), Chief Civil Magistrate of Trier, arrested in 1588 and charged with witchcraft and with showing leniency to witches in his courtroom. Could the judge himself be a witch?

A boy swore he witnessed Flade at a sabbat. A woman about to be killed testified that Flade was a witch in exchange for the mercy of strangling before burning. Flade, brutally tortured, confessed to plotting against the Archbishop of Trier and of throwing dirt into the air, which transformed into crop-eating slugs. He was convicted, strangled, and burned.

Image 1589: In Quedlinburg, Saxony, 133 women are burned as witches in one day

Image 1590: 32 are burned as witches at Nordlingen

Image 1590: A witness writes that in Wolfenbüttel “the place of execution looked like a small forest from the number of stakes”

Image 1590—1: Forty-nine out of a population of 4,700 are burned as witches at Werdenfels in Bavaria

Between 1590 and 1640 Eichstadt was the site of a series of witch-hunts. Conservative estimates of numbers killed range from between 1,500 and 2,000 people. The first wave occurred in 1590, followed by continuous witch panics between 1603 and 1630, slowly tapering off after that.

The Pappenheimers were an impoverished Bavarian family; they worked seasonally as privy-cleaners, supplementing their income with begging. In 1600 the family was arrested in the middle of the night, literally pulled from their beds in a rooming house, and charged with witchcraft. The youngest son, 10-year-old Hansel, was left behind but the next day, their landlord brought the child to the prison where his parents were incarcerated, giving him to the authorities.

The family was tortured mercilessly, including strappado, squassation, and torture by fire (see page 827, Torture). Hansel was caned.

Although all initially pleaded innocent, eventually they confessed to anything put to them. The adults confessed to virtually every unsolved crime of the past decade in that region as well consorting with Satan. They implicated over 400 other people.

It was decided that examples would be made of the Pappenheimers and so their public execution was particularly brutal. Ten-year-old Hansel was forced to watch from the crowd; the Sheriff of Munich was stationed beside him to observe the child’s reactions and to force him to watch the torture and murder of his parents and brothers.

Sixty-year-old Anna Pappenheimer’s breasts were torn off via a torture instrument known as “the spider.” Her severed breasts were first stuffed into her own mouth, then into the mouths of two of her sons who were concurrently being tortured.

Using red-hot pincers, flesh was ripped from the bodies of the male victims. Paulus Pappenheimer, the father, was broken on the wheel. Following the execution, the sheriff brought Hansel back to jail. On November 26, 1600, Hansel Pappenheimer was burned at the stake.

Witchcrazes continued in German lands throughout the seventeenth century:

Image Between 1603 and 1606 Balthasar Ross, Judge of the town of Fulda, orders the execution of 300 witches. He later boasts that because of his activities over 700 people had been executed. He himself is later hanged for embezzling state funds.

Image 1609—1623: A witch panic begins in Bamberg that only continues to escalate. At least 400 people are recorded as executed from 1609 until the ascension to power of a new ruler in 1623, Prince-Bishop Gottfried Johann Georg II Fuchs von Dornheim, whereupon things take a turn for the worse.

Although witch-hunting was well established in Bamberg before his ascension to power, Prince-Bishop von Dornheim streamlined the process by which the accused were interrogated, tried, and executed. From first accusation until execution could now take less than three weeks.

Von Dornheim became known as the "Witch Bishop." He established a professional Witch-hunters’ organization with expert torturers and executioners. Attorneys were hired with express orders to convict. He built a new prison solely to house accused witches. The Hexenhaus ("Witches’ House") was constructed specifically for the interrogation (torture) of accused witches. Suffragan Bishop Friedrich Förner presided over what was essentially an extended torture chamber.

Trials were short and speedy and closed to the public. Defendants were not permitted lawyers. Testimony on behalf of the accused was virtually impossible and a guilty verdict was pretty much a sure thing. Those who criticized procedures, verdicts or the witch-hunters’ organization usually found themselves quickly accused of witchcraft themselves.

Von Dornheim directed that all accused witches be tortured before and after confession. Tortures included dunking suspects in boiling water mixed with caustic lime, forcing suspect to kneel on spikes, and having their armpits set afire, as well as standard tortures like thumbscrews and bone-crushing. Convicted witches often had their right hands cut off before execution.

In general, most defendants in Bamberg were wealthy. Witch-hunters targeted the wealthy, because those found guilty (and once targeted, virtually everyone was condemned) were required to surrender all their property and possessions to the head of the witch-hunting organization, Bishop Förner, who then distributed the funds, rewarding witch-hunters according to the wealth each had collected.

Witnesses were typically paid informants. All accusations were kept secret until after the suspected witch was arrested, eliminating the possibilities of escape and revenge.

Affluent citizens began abandoning Bamberg in fear for their lives. From exile, some petitioned Ferdinand I, Emperor of Germany, to end the Bamberg witch-hunt. The Emperor eventually issued mandates in 1630 and again in 1631 requiring all accusations of witchcraft be made public. The procedure of seizing a convicted witch’s property was ended. Von Dornheim died in 1632 and the witchcraze tapered off.

Johannes Junius, Burgomaster of Bamberg (c.1573—1628) is the sole victim of the entire Witchcraze to speak to us in his own voice without the filter of torturers. A literate, articulate man, he took tremendous effort to write a farewell letter to his daughter, which was smuggled from prison by a jailor and eventually published.

Junius was accused of witchcraft, as, ultimately, were all the burgomasters of Bamberg. On June 28, 1628, he protested his innocence but witnesses testified they saw Junius at a sabbat and at a witches’ dance on the Haupstmoor where a communion wafer was desecrated. Junius still denied the charges and was given 48 hours in jail to think about them. He still asserted his innocence on June 30th and so was put to thumbscrews and boots. He was stripped and searched for a witch’s mark, which was allegedly found. The strappado was administered and finally, on July 5th, he confessed to consorting with Satan since 1624.

The authorities paraded Junius down the streets of Bamberg, ordering him to name other witches. He did but in insufficient numbers; he was tortured again to name more and was then condemned to burn at the stake in late July. Before his death, Junius wrote a letter to his daughter Veronica, which was smuggled out by a jailor and delivered. This is an excerpt of the lengthy letter:

Many hundred thousand goodnights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent I must die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head…the executioner…put the thumbscrews on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing…Thereafter they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me and drew me up in the torture [strappado; see page 829, Torture]. 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…When at last the executioner led me back into the prison he said to me, “Sir, I beg of 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”…And so I made my confession…but it was all a lie…

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…I have taken several days to write this; my hands are both lame…

Goodnight, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you no more. July 24, 1628.

He added a postscript to the margin: “Dear child, six have confessed against me…all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me and begged my forgiveness in God’s name before they were executed…They were forced to say it, just as I myself was…

At the same time as the Bamberg witchcraze, between 1623 and 1632 approximately 900 people including 300 children were tortured and executed at Würzburg, ruled by Prince-Bishop Phillipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, cousin of Prince-Bishop von Dornheim of Bamberg.

A contemporary chronicler wrote:

A third of the city is surely implicated. The richest, most attractive, most prominent of the clergy are already executed. A week ago, a girl of 19 was burned, said everywhere to be the fairest in the whole city…there are 300 children of 3 or 4 years who are said to have intercourse with the devil. I have seen children of seven put to death, and brave little scholars of ten, twelve, fourteen…

Among the victims was Ernest von Ehrenberg, the Prince-Bishop’s sole heir. A guard who permitted some prisoners to escape was executed, as were travelers who had the misfortune to be passing through the region.

In 1630, three women were killed when mandrakes were found in their home in Hamburg (see BOTANICALS: Mandrake), and Rheinbach, near Bonn, was the site of two major witch panics, one in 1631 and another in 1636.

The panics in Rheinbach were documented by Law Court Official Hermann Löher, who estimated that every other family in Rheinbach lost at least one member to the witch-hunts. Löher wrote that what he learned is that those tortured will confess to anything. He urged local German princes to terminate the practice of torture. His opposition to the witch trials put him and his family in jeopardy. He sold his property and fled to Amsterdam in 1636.

Franz Buirmann, who presided over the Rheinbach trials, was authorized by the Prince-Archbishop of Cologne to discover witches and confiscate their property and so wealthy citizens were particularly vulnerable. In 1631, town leaders offered to pay Buirmann to go away, abandon his hunt, and move elsewhere. He took the bribe but returned in 1636 for a new series of trials.

Forty years later, Löher published a description of the panic in Rheinbach Most Pressing Humble Complaint of the Pious Innocents, in which he described how one judge conducted a witch trial. The judge addressed the cowering defendant “Confess your sins of witchery; reveal the names of your accomplices! You filthy whore, you devil’s wanton, you sackclothmaker, you dumb toad!…Tell who it was that taught you witchcraft and who you saw and recognized at the witches’ sabbat.”

Even by the standards of his time, Buirmann was brutal, condemning those few who refused to confess despite torture to death anyway against standard procedure. Instead of the usual stakes, living victims were placed inside dried straw huts, which were then set ablaze. Buirmann held power to override any objections of the civil authorities and had his opponents tried and executed.

It’s estimated that the Rheinbach witch trials of 1631 and 1636 led to the executions of 150 people from the 300 families living in the region. However, many died before reaching trial during the torture and interrogation process. Their numbers are unknown. The Mayor of Rheinbach, Dr Schultheis Schweigel, charged with witchcraft, died after seven hours of continuous torture.

Friedrich von Spee was the leading Jesuit official at Würzburg. His duties included hearing the last confessions of condemned prisoners prior to their executions. In the process he came to the conclusion that virtually all those accused of demonic practices were completely innocent. He wrote, “Grief has turned my hair white, grief for the witches I have accompanied to the stake.”

In 1631, Spee anonymously published a revolutionary book, Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors—see BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Spee), in which he denounced torture, and called for rational trial proceedings with fair use of evidence and permitting defendants legal representation. Spee wrote, “Previously, I never thought of doubting that there were many witches in the world. Now however when I examine the public record, I find myself believing that there are hardly any.” He wrote further, “There is nobody in our day…who is safe, if he have but an enemy and slanderer to bring him into suspicion of witchcraft” and “Often I have thought that the only reason why we are not all wizards is due to the fact that we have not all been tortured.”

Spee claimed that, under the existing system, confessions were inevitable, writing, “If she confesses, her guilt is clear: she is executed; if she does not confess, the torture is repeated—twice, thrice, four times. She can never clear herself; the investigating body would feel disgraced if it acquitted a woman; once arrested and in chains, she has to be guilty, by fair means or foul.”

In Cautio Criminalis Spee exposed what he saw as the true incentive of the German witch-hunts: Inquisitors received payment for each person burned. Assets of the condemned were confiscated. He denounced claims that some confessions were secured without torture, explaining that trial records indicating “no torture” really indicate that “light” torture was used rather than the most severe.

After publication, many Jesuits denounced Spee’s book and attempts were made to suppress it; however it was eventually translated into 16 languages and widely read throughout Europe. Although it was initially published anonymously his fellow Jesuits suspected Spee’s identity and were hostile towards him. Shortly after publication, his superiors transferred Spee to serve as a confessor for plague victims. He contracted the plague and died in 1635 at age 44.

Benedict Carpzov (1595—1666) published Practica Rerum Criminalum in response to Cautio Criminalis in 1635, which justifies aggressive pursuit and persecution of witches: witches deserve fewer rights during trials than other criminal defendants, he writes, because of the danger they pose to society and to judges and jurors. Torture is required in order to extract confessions. Carpzov, Chief Witchcraft Prosecutor of Saxony, personally signed no fewer than 20,000 death warrants.

Image 1651: The executioner in Neisse built an oven in which to roast witches. That first year, he roasted, according to records, at least 42 women and children, including little girls as young as two years old. Over the next nine years, the same executioner roasted at least 1,000 people.

Image 1676: Chaterina Blanckenstein (1610—1679) of Saxony served a child some of her homemade jam. When the child died four days later, the 66-year-old widow was arrested for murder via witchcraft. During her trial, others came forward to blame her for various crimes (she magically overturned a cart, for instance). Despite torture, including thumbscrews and ropes around her neck, Blanckenstein refused to confess. No devil’s mark could be found. The judge decided the case couldn’t be proved and released Chaterina once she paid the cost of her imprisonment, trial, and torture. Neighbors shunned her when she returned home and she eventually relocated. Her daughter, whose name is only given as L. in trial transcripts, remained in town however. L. was arrested on charges of murder by witchcraft in May 1689. A local baby had died unexpectedly. During the investigation into the death it was discovered that the baby’s father owed L. money. Because of the family’s reputation, it was quickly decided that L. was responsible for the baby’s death and arrested. At first sight of the instruments of torture, she confessed. Jailed, L. tried to hang herself two days later, but was discovered and revived so that she could be burned alive.

Anna Maria Schwaegel was the last woman executed for witchcraft in Germany, in 1775. She was a servant in a wealthy household in Lachen. She fell in love with the household coachman who promised to marry her but instead married another. Anna Maria took this very badly, running away to become a homeless, vagabond beggar. Discovered starving, her clothing in rags, she was taken to a church asylum for the deranged where she told the Mother Superior that the devil had seduced her in the form of a coachman. He had brought her to sabbats and encouraged her to commit unspeakable acts. The Mother Superior reported the case to the magistrate of nearby Kempten, Bavaria. Anna Maria was arrested and placed on trial: she repeated her story and was convicted of witchcraft and beheaded.