Switzerland - 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

There were sporadic outbreaks of witch panics in Switzerland from the late fourteenth century to the sixteenth:

Image 1392—1406: Peter von Greyerz of Bern, Governor of the Simme Valley, conducts major witch-hunts

Image 1428: There is a witchcraze in the Canton of Valais region led by the Bishop of Sion, who declared that anyone accused of witchcraft by more than two people should be arrested and forced to confess so that they may be burned; allegedly over 100 are burned

Image 1480: Two women of the Alpine region of Valtellina, Domenega and Contessia, are denounced as “wicked” and condemned to time in the pillory followed by three-years banishment for worshipping the “Mistress of the Grove”

Image 1513: 500 accused witches are executed in Geneva

The last legal execution of a witch in Switzerland occurred in 1782. A physician accused Anna Göldi of casting a spell over his young, ailing son. She was executed by hanging at Glarus.


If you were tortured to name names, who would you name? In the desire to protect those you love, whose names would you divulge? “Standard” tortures during the Witchcraze included:

Image Burning

Image Dipping in boiling oil

Image Flaying of skin

Image Flogging

Image Garroting

Image Impaling on stakes or spikes

Image Inducing thirst by force-feeding salty food or liquids

Image Rape

Image Scalding the body with boiling and/or caustic liquids

Image Scalding liquids poured down throats

Image Sleep deprivation

Image Stretching limbs until bones broke and muscles ripped

Image Vises or other instruments to break or crush bones

Image Whipping

Witch-hunters’ manuals offered guidelines for the administration of torture. Some sort of torture occurred to varying degrees wherever there were witch-hunts; although certain regions are described as lacking torture, what constitutes torture is subjective. Certainly the threat of death was constant. Also, when historians consider torture, they often think in terms of “torture devices” or formalized techniques like the strappado (see page 829), but sometimes overlook rape, sexual humiliation, and intimidation, which were constant.

In regions where torture was comparatively mild, there were many, many fewer convictions and less witch panic.

The worst, most sadistic torture occurred in German regions—also the regions with highest rates of confessions and convictions. Victims in these lands included pregnant women and children as young as two. German witch-hunters tortured accused witches until they confessed or died. Resistance to torture, refusal to confess or perhaps higher tolerance levels to pain was perceived as the devil’s protection and a proof of magic powers.

When a victim died under torture, it was commonly claimed that the devil had killed her either to protect her from further harm (and foil the witch-hunters) or to prevent her from talking and exposing secrets and other witches.

In 1257, Pope Innocent IV authorized torture as a means of extracting confessions.

Many torture procedures still in use today were invented by the Inquisition.

The Malleus Maleficarum insisted that only confessions obtained under brutal torture could be considered valid.

French witch-hunter Jean Bodin advocated the harshest, most brutal torture possible for all witches. (Of course, this was a man who regretted that the experience of burning alive didn’t last long enough.) Bodin advocated torturing children just as brutally as adults so that they would testify against parents, relatives, and other adults. Bodin was proud that, as a judge, he had ordered children and adults burned with hot irons until they confessed to every charge. His success rate was a point of pride for him.

Friedrich von Spee’s publication Cautio Criminalis offers meditations on the nature of torture: Spee noted that any sign of “goodness” in an accused witch was perceived by her Inquisitors as a trick or falsehood. Refusal to confess under torture was not understood as innocence but as proof of connivance with Satan. Spee revealed that in his experience, most official documents stating that an accused witch had voluntarily confessed were fraudulent: some sort of torture was almost always used.

Near the end of the witch-hunt era, perhaps in response to Spee, the use of torture to extract confessions had become controversial, disreputable, and unpopular with the general public as well as many prominent authorities.

Torturers responded to public opinion: they recorded, in official trial transcripts, that suspects had confessed without torture so that confessions would appear voluntary when, in fact, torture was used. This was especially done in cases presented before judges with a reputation for “leniency” toward witches. These falsifications are a further reason why records are unreliable.

Further, action taken during “preparatory examinations” didn’t count as torture. Torture only “officially” began when proceedings “officially” began. Being arrested and searched didn’t count. The accused were customarily stripped of their clothing, roughly handled, and raped: this wasn’t recorded and so didn’t count as torture.

The following are a list of “specialized tortures” used during the Burning Times.

Image Black Virgin: this was a German invention and used mainly in German regions; the victim was placed within a hinged, life-sized iron form with spikes within so that she was pierced when the form was closed around her. Also known as the Iron Maiden.

Image Boots: also known as the Spanish Boots, in honor of the Spanish Inquisition. There were various kinds of boots, the standard was a kind of special leg-ware intended to break legs and crush bones; this torture device encased both legs from the knees to the ankles and was then tightened until bones cracked. A torturer could also intensify torture by hammering wedges between the victim’s knees. Other boots were large metal devices containing the feet and legs into which boiling oil or water could be poured.

Image Creative torture was encouraged: for instance, in sixteenth-century Holland, the victim was bound in a prone position and dormice were placed on their abdomen. A bowl was placed over the trapped dormice and a fire lit on top of the bowl. In their efforts to escape the heat and fire, the dormice dug into the victim’s stomach.

Image Pear: a vise-like device used to pry an orifice open to excruciatingly painful degrees. Mouth, anal, and vaginal pears existed.

Image The Rack: the victim was placed on a board so that their wrists were tied to one end and their ankles tied to the other end. Rollers at each end of the board (the rack) were turned so that the victim’s body was simultaneously wrenched in two opposing directions.

Image Sexual torture: red-hot iron instruments were inserted into vaginas and rectums. Burning feathers coated with sulfur were applied to genitalia.

Image The Spider: a claw-like iron device typically heated in fire until red-hot and then used to gouge flesh, often breasts, from the victim’s body.

Image Squassation: this is essentially the strappado (see below) taken to the maximum degree; the victim was tied up then fitted with weights, potentially as heavy as 600 pounds. The person was repeatedly jerked up to the ceiling, and then abruptly dropped to the floor. Squassation was used sparingly as typically as few as three repetitions were sufficient to kill the prisoner.

Image Strappado: the victim’s arms were tied behind the back; weights were attached to her feet. She was then repeatedly and violently hoisted to hang from the ceiling and then let fall abruptly so that, among other damage, shoulders and assorted arm joints dislocate. Strappado derives from strappare (Latin: “to pull”) and was known as Garrucha in Spain.

Image Swimming the witch: the suspected witch’s wrists were tied to her ankles and then she was tossed into water, usually a stream or river. Traditionally, her left thumb was tied to her right big toe and the right thumb tied to the left big toe. If she floated, her status as a witch was confirmed. If she sank, she had been vindicated and was deemed innocent, although this might be posthumous. Theoretically, she was supposed to be pulled out, however frequently standard procedure involved leaving her in long enough to be sure she was really innocent. Swimming the witch was widely practiced throughout England. It was not considered torture but an ordeal intended to prove witchcraft.

Image Thumbscrew: the victim’s thumbs and/or toes were placed in a device resembling a press. By turning a screw, the device was lowered onto thumbs or toes, crushing them at the base of the nail.

Image The Wheel: the victim was stretched and bound across the spokes and hub of a large wheel. The torturer then used a heavy instrument to break her arms and legs. The wheel might be horizontal but also could be propped upright so that it was vertical in order to provide a better view for an onlooking crowd.

Image Witch’s Bridle or Witch’s Bit: a hoop was passed over the head, forcing a piece of iron with four prongs or points into the mouth. Two prongs were directed towards the tongue or palate, the other two pointed outwards towards each cheek. The bridle was secured with a padlock. A ring was fixed to the back of the collar so that it could be attached to a cell wall.

Witch’s Mark, or Devil’s Mark

A witch’s mark is ostensibly a bodily mark allegedly identifying someone as a witch. Locating the witch’s mark was highly subjective, as was exactly what constituted the mark. However most witch-hunters agreed that a witch’s mark was secret; a pimple smack in the center of your nose was not likely to be a witch’s mark. Favored places included genitals, armpits, beneath the breasts, within folds of skins, beneath eyelids or behind ears and knees.

Among the various things that passed for a witch’s mark were birthmarks, scars, especially scaly pitches that wouldn’t bleed easily if pricked with a pin, also calluses, scars or other hardened patches of skin. Some witch-hunters included moles, pimples, age or liver spots, even hemorrhoids. Withered or extra fingers or any other unique aspects of anatomy were also considered evidence of witchcraft.

Witch-hunters searched for this mark, which allegedly proved that someone had made a pact with Satan. In order to locate the witch’s mark, victims were stripped, shaved, and minutely searched, sometimes in public.

At the height of the Burning Times, some witch-finders claimed witch’s marks were so secret they were invisible, making allowances for when they were not located.

Witch’s Tit

A witch’s tit was believed to be the most definitive form of witch’s mark. Unlike vague witch’s marks, witch’s tits or teats are clearly defined. The witch’s tit is a supernumerary nipple, an extra nipple beyond the standard two, interpreted as intended for the devil or imps to use for sucking blood. It was allegedly a sign of initiation, created by the devil by branding, beating, touching, clawing or licking the witch. The witch’s tit, sometimes classified among witch’s marks, was considered irrefutable evidence of the existence of an imp or familiar.