10 Little Known Witch Trials From History
10 Little Known Witch Trials From History

10 Little Known Witch Trials From History

Natasha sheldon - August 1, 2018

10 Little Known Witch Trials From History
Burning of Three witches in Baden, Switzerland by Johann Jakob Wick. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The Wiesensteig Witch Trials

The Protestant Reformation led to religious turmoil in sixteenth-century Europe, as Catholics and their reforming opponents vied for supremacy over the hearts and minds of the people. This rivalry often occurred in settings of political and social uncertainty. Suddenly, the witch craze that had been slowly building momentum across Europe exploded. From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, Germany, in particular, was the setting for some of the most extensive and devastating witch trials. The Wiesensteig witch trial of 1562-63 was the first.

Wiesensteig was a relatively unremarkable town in Southern Germany. Founded around a Benedictine Abbey in the ninth century, the town remained staunchly Catholic until 1555. Then, the town’s overlord, Count Ulrich XVII of Helfenstein introduced Lutheran Protestantism. Thus, Wiesensteig became divided into those who embraced the new religion and those who clung to the old Catholic ways. At the same time, the town suffered some misfortunes, which culminated on August 3, 1562. A huge hailstorm hit Wiegensteig, causing extensive damage. This storm was the last straw for Count Ulrich. He announced that, in his opinion, Wiesensteig was the victim of witchcraft.

Ulrich acted immediately. With the full support of Wiesensteig’s Lutheran Leader Leonhard Culmann, he had several women arrested. The women were tortured and confessed to being part of a malicious coven. They also implicated citizens from nearby Esslingen. As a result, the authorities arrested three Esslingen citizens. However, they equally quickly let them go. Outraged at this laxness, Count Ulrich stepped up the investigations in Wiesensteig to compensate.

Wiesensteig’s Lutheran authorities immediately arrested and executed a further forty women. In December 1562, Ulrich approved the execution of twenty more. The events at Wiesensteig were so unprecedented that they inspired a snappily entitled pamphlet “The True and Horrifying deeds and Activities of Sixty Three Witches who have been executed by Fire in Wiesensteig” However, this book was answered by another; Johann Weyer’s “Of the Tricks of Demons.”

Weyer used the trials in Wiesensteig as an example of why witchcraft persecutions were erroneous. The book became a sixteenth-century best seller, reaching six editions by 1583. However, it did nothing to stop the persecutions, by both Protestants and Catholics. The trials at Wiesensteig were part of a Europe-wide trend and the first of four significant witch trials in Germany alone.

Nor was Wiesensteig the only trial to make the popular press.

10 Little Known Witch Trials From History
An image of a witch and her familiar spirits taken from a publication that dealt with the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell and Mother Margaret in Windsor, 1579. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Mother Stiles

Witchcraft first became a criminal offense in its own right in England and Wales in 1542 when a paranoid Henry VIII added it to the statute book. Although the act was repealed in 1547, it reinstated in a much more severe form in 1563. Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I had suffered a fright when on royal progress after wax poppets in her image were discovered. Witchcraft was once more a royal concern. It was in this atmosphere that witch trials in Britain began to become sensationalist fodder for the masses.

One of the earliest British witchcraft pamphlets was“A Rehearsall both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile, alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, Fower Notorious Witches” Published in 1579, the pamphlet recorded the case of 65 year old Windsor widow, Elizabeth Stiles who had been charged with witchcraft the previous year. Stiles was a bad-tempered beggar, known for railing at those who refused her alms. Her odd reputation was enhanced by her unusual choice of a rat for a pet. One day, a local innkeeper refused Stiles’ pleas for food. Soon afterward, he became ill.

Convinced the old woman had cursed him, the innkeeper set about breaking the spell. So he accosted Stiles and scratched her to make her bleed- a sure-fire remedy against the curse if she was the guilty witch. Blood flowed and the innkeeper recovered. As for Mother Stiles, she was arrested. In custody, Stiles described how together with three other old outcasts known as Mother Margaret, Mother Dutten, and Mother Devell she had practiced “image magic’; the practice of creating a poppet of their intended victim which they stabbed with pins. The women were also associated with a Father Rosimunde who was reputedly able to assume “the shape and likenesse of any beaste whatsoever he will.”

Stiles and her accomplices were tried, found guilty and hanged on February 26, 1579. While the inclusion of shadowy figure of Father Rosimunde helped connect the women’s witchcraft with the by now equally dubious “‘popish superstitions’ of Catholicism, religion was not the only motive behind their conviction. For women were increasingly being associated with witchcraft- especially those women with no set place in society. Old, deformed, marginal figures were at risk- especially those with only pets for company. The pamphlet telling the tale of Mother Stiles helped shape the image of the witch that remains with us to this day.

Women who challenged the status quo were also at risk.

10 Little Known Witch Trials From History
A Witch hanging. Google Images

Gwen ferch Ellis

In 1594, Gwen ferch Ellis became the first person in Wales to be hanged as a witch. However, her real crime seems to have been overstepping the social boundary. Forty-two-year-old Gwen lived in Bettws, Denbighshire. Three times married and twice widowed, she was a weaver by trade. However, on the side, she also did a little healing. Gwen’s enterprise was a harmless one. She provided remedies in the form of herbs or charms for both people and farm animals. In return, she accepted nothing but food and wool for her loom. Up until 1594, no one had a bad word to say about Gwen’s activities. However, in 1594, upper-class Thomas Mostyn claimed Gwen had left a curse in his house, Gloddaith. Gwen was associated with a Jane Conway of Marle Hall in Conwy, with whom Mostyn was at odds. He claimed that one night while he was away, Gwen had stayed in his house and had taken the opportunity to plant the curse at Conway’s behest as a form of vengeance.

Up until 1594, no one had a bad word to say about Gwen’s activities. However, in 1594, upper-class Thomas Mostyn claimed Gwen had left a curse in his house, Gloddaith. Gwen was associated with a Jane Conway of Marle Hall in Conwy, with whom Mostyn was at odds. He claimed that one night while he was away, Gwen had stayed in his house and taken the opportunity to plant the curse at Conway’s behest as a form of vengeance.

Gwen denied leaving any charm at Goddaith although she did admit to healing people and using charms. She even recited some to convince her interrogators of their harmless nature. “In the name of God the father, the son and the holy spirit of God,” began one. It continued: “And the Three Marys and the three consecrated altars, And the blessed son of grace, And by the stones and by the herbs, To which the son of grace bestowed their virtue, In order that they should defend thee, the sinner who suffered adversity, As Christ defended.”

Predictably, this blatant blend of Catholicism and older beliefs did little to save Gwen. In October 1594, she was sent to trial. Mysteriously, the poem that started the affair never materialized as evidence against her. However, various neighbors did, suddenly coming forward with previously unspoken complaints of Gwen’s malice. One told how Gwen had driven her son mad and caused his death. Despite the evaporation of the original charge, this was enough to have Gwen found guilty and hanged.

It seems, however, that Gwen’s real crime was not witchcraft but illicit knowledge. For Mostyn appears to have had an illicit affair with Jane Conway- and Gwen knew of it. The disappearance of the charm suggests Mostyn fabricated it- thus ensuring Gwen never revealed his secret.

By the seventeenth century, the witch craze had spread further north, to Scandinavia.

10 Little Known Witch Trials From History
Cloud over Varangerfjord. Picture Credit Ricksulman. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Vardo Witch Trials

The North had a sinister reputation amongst Christians. Dark, cold and forbidding, it was believed to be the realm of the Prince of Darkness. The Norwegian Finnmark was remote, marginal and about as far north as one could go in Norway. It was also the home of the indigenous Sami people whose continued ancestral practices alarmed the Christian authorities. So, in 1621, the stage was set for the first of a 70-year spate of witch trials in the Vardo-Kiborg region of the Finnmark.

The prelude to the trial was a massive storm that blew up around the Varanger Fjord on December 24, 1617. The wind was so sudden it came “as if loosened from a bag.” Most of the male population of the nearby fishing villages of Kiberg and Vardo were out fishing that Christmas Eve. In all, twenty-three boats were out on the fjord when the storm broke. Only five returned. Forty men drowned, devastating the population, as Vardo and Kiberg had no more than 150 inhabitants between them.

In 1620, Danish and Norwegian anti sorcery laws passed in 1617 finally reached the Finnmark. The local authorities counted amongst their number Germans and Scots already familiar with the witch trials occurring elsewhere in Europe. These authorities seized upon the laws with relish. They were already suspicious of the small settlements of the Finnmark, with their mixed populations of Christian Norwegians and pagan Sami. So, in January 1621, the questioning of suspect witches began, beginning with a local Kiberg woman, Mari Iorgensdatter.

Under duress, Mari claimed the devil had initiated her as a witch in December 1620. After her initiation, she was transformed into a raven and flew to a coven meeting on the Lydhorn Mountain outside the city of Bergen in southern Norway. Accompanying her was her coven leader, Kirsti Sorensdatter, the Danish wife of a wealthy local merchant Anders Johanssen. There Mari met local witches from the villages of Kilberg, Vardo and the surrounding settlements. All admitted it was they who raised the great storm.

Other arrests followed. One of those implicated, Else Knutsdatter was nearly drowned in the sea before explaining how the witches conjured the storm. Else described how three knots were tied in a fishing rope. The witches then spat on the knots before untying them and unleashing the wind. When Kirsti Sorensdatter returned to Vardo from a visit she had made to Bergen, she too was arrested and forced to confess to her witchcraft. Kirsti burnt on April 28, 1621. But although Kirst implicated several other locals, including the bailiff Bertel Hendrikssen, no one else was arrested.

Most witch trials had ulterior motives. However not all were such blatantfit-ups‘ as our next example.

10 Little Known Witch Trials From History
Portrait of Urbain Grandier. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Father Urbain Grandier and The Loudun Possessions

Father Urbaine Grandier was the parish priest of St Pierre du Marche in Loudun in France. Wealthy, educated, well connected and something of a maverick, Grandier soon became popular- not least with the ladies of Loudun with whom he had several affairs. However, he also made enemies, not least the Bishop of Poitier. When in 1630 a charge of immorality failed to remove Grandier from his post, the Bishop began to look for other ways to rid himself of the troublesome priest.

In August 1632, Grandier was invited to become the confessor for Loudun’s convent of Ursuline nuns by their Mother Superior, Jeanne des Anges. He refused. A month later, the nuns began to act strangely. They were plagued with erotic dreams and began to speak in tongues and have violent, sexually suggestive fits. Possession was diagnosed- and its cause identified as Grandier.

Grandier was alarmed at the case being built against him. So, he called in his connections. The investigation stalled when the doctor of the archbishop of Bordeaux declared the women were not possessed but hysterical. Not to be thwarted, the Bishop of Poitier then played his trump card: Cardinal Richelieu. Grandier had once offended the King’s chief minister by satirizing him in a poem. Now Richelieu had his revenge. He ordered a royal commission to investigate Grandier for witchcraft.

Grandier was arrested. His entire body was shaved and searched for witch’s marks. He was tortured and both his legs broken in the boot to extract his confession. Despite the pain and humiliation he suffered, Grandier continued to maintain his innocence. At the trial, some of the nuns retracted their accusations against him. However, the prosecution dismissed this as a ploy of Satan. Grandier was found guilty of sorcery. He was burned publicly in Loudun on August 18, 1634.

A satanic pact used in evidence at the trial was later found to be in Jeanne des Anges handwriting, and the nuns were found to have been coached on how to act possessed. The possessions were also rumored to have been feigned on the orders of the Bishop of Poitier. It seems Grandier was deliberately set up. However, there was also an element of sexual obsession to the case. Jeanne des Anges reputedly dreamt of having sex with Grandier. Many psychologists now believe the possessions were in fact manifestations of hysteria brought on by suppressed sexuality, which were used against Grandier by the authorities he had embarrassed.

However, by the eighteenth century, witchcraft was becoming less credible.

10 Little Known Witch Trials From History
A Witch Swimming. Google Images

The last Indictment for Witchcraft in England

On August 4, 1717, the last indictments for witchcraft in an English secular court occurred in the town of Leicester. Jane Clarke of the village of Wigston Magna along with her son and daughter, Mary and Joseph were dragged before the court by twenty-five of their neighbors who were convinced that they were witches. The villagers accused the Clarkes of harassing them through witchcraft, causing illness and even the death of one villager, Mary Hatchings.

The witnesses told the court, presided over by Justice Ashby, how the witches’ victims were stricken with unnatural seizures. The supernatural nature of their illness was further reinforced when they began to cough up dirt and stones. At night, the witches gave their victims no peace as they manifested before them, in either human or animal form. When the local Church minister failed to break the curse, the villagers were forced to turn to a local ‘white witch’ Thomas Wood for help. Wood attempted to remove the curse and identify the witches by boiling the victims’ urine. His curious cure summoned the shades of the Clarkes into the room where they grimaced threateningly at him before vanishing up the chimney.

Once identified, the Clarke’s were set upon by a mob of angry villagers. They were stripped and searched for witch’s marks and bled to try and break the curse. Then, having decided to bring the Wigston witches to justice, the villagers decided to gather definitive evidence of their witchery by swimming them in the village pond. Each of the Clarke’s floated ‘like a cork or an empty barrel, ” However, Judge Ashby was not convinced and threw the case out of court. Twenty years later, in England at least, witchcraft was off the statute books.

However, it was some 70 years before the last execution for witchcraft occurred in Europe.

10 Little Known Witch Trials From History
Picture of Anna Goldi from the Anna Goldi museum, Mollis. Picture Credit: Patrick Lo Giudice. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany license.

Anna Goldi: The Last Witch Executed in Europe.

Anna Goldi had a sad and unfortunate life. Born to a poor family in the village of Sennwald in the Sax district of Zurich, from the age of fifteen she worked as a maid in various village houses. Her life was hard but respectable- until Anna fell pregnant at the age of 31. The father, a mercenary left her before the baby was born. Facing life as a poor single mother must have been bad enough. However, on the first night of the baby’s life, it suffocated. Anna was accused of murdering her child. She was judged guilty and tied to the public pillory before being condemned to house arrest for the next six years

However, Anna escaped. She fled to Glarus, a separate canton a days walk away where her sentence had no effect. There Anna continued to work as a maid in various wealthy homes. In 1780, at the age of 46, she took up what would be her last post as a maid to the family of the local judge of the village of Mollis, Johann Jakob Tschudi. One morning, one of Tschudi’s daughters found needles in a drink of milk Anna had prepared. Anna was immediately sacked. Because of the status of the Tschudi’s, she was unable to obtain another position and so forced to leave the area.

Eighteen days after Anna left the Tschudi house, Judge Tschudi’s eight-year-old daughter began to vomit pins. Anna became the prime suspect when the judge accused his former maid of cursing his daughter. It seems that Tschudi had had an affair with the still attractive Anna. However, he was now afraid she would reveal it and ruin his reputation. The Judges’ position ensured that Anna was tried- even though there was absolutely no evidence against her. She denied the charges but eventually was tortured into admitting she had cursed the girl with the devil’s help. So, on June 13, 1782, Anna Goldi was decapitated with a sword in Glarus. She was the last recorded witch to be executed in Europe.

However, even as late as the nineteenth century, witches were still being pursued.

10 Little Known Witch Trials From History
Bridge at Hedingham. Picture credit Nigel Cox. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The Hedingham Witchcraft Case

By the nineteenth century, the last vestiges of the witch craze that had taken so many lives across Europe were all but gone. Or were they? For a report in the “Bury and Norwich Post” on March 15, 1864, suggests that in the English village of Hedingham, beliefs in curses and witchcraft was still very much alive. It was a belief that was to prove fatal for one distinct, but harmless resident.

“Dummy” was a deaf and dumb man of around 80 years old who lived in a small mud hut near Hedingham. No one knew Dummy’s real name or where he came from although some believed he was French. He was an odd but harmless individual, who communicated through peculiar gestures and increased his layers of clothing, as the weather grew hotter. Dummy traveled around the district, accompanied by three or four small dogs, reading fortunes to earn a living. Some made fun of his peculiarities. However, most people treated him with kindness.

Dummy frequented a local inn run by a Mr. Smith. One evening, Dummy decided he’d rather stay the night and so gestured this desire to the landlord’s wife, Emma Smith. Emma refused. Dummy signaled his displeasure with his stick and left. However, shortly afterward, Emma fell ill. She became convinced Dummy had bewitched her. Like so many others across the centuries, Smith also believed only he could cure her. However, no matter how many times she asked him, Dummy could not or would not help.

On August 3, 1863, Emma tried one last time, imploring Dummy to lift what she believed to be his curse. The couple attracted a crowd of local people who began to push Dummy about, knocking him to the floor. Emma Smith then began to hit and kick the old man before dragging him off towards the local brook. As she went, she was heard to cry out: “You old devil, you served me out, now I will serve you out.”

Once at the brook, Smith and a local carpenter, Samuel Stammers attempted to swim dummy. He was only dragged out by Stammers when someone pointed out that Dummy “would die in a minute” if they did not. Soaked, exhausted and traumatized, Dummy died on September 4th1863 as a result of his ordeal. This time, however, the ‘witch hunters” paid the price and Smith and Stammers were sentenced to six months hard labor for their parts in Dummy’s death.

 

Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Hedingham Witchcraft Case, Foxearth & District Local History Society

Witchipedia: Ireland’s most famous witches, Jennifer O’Connell, The Irish Times, October 28, 2017

The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler, Bernadette Williams, History Ireland, Winter 1994

The Witch Trials – Valais Witch Trials (France/Switzerland, 1428 – 1447), Witchcraft and Witches.com Luke Mastin, 2009

No one tortured witches like the Swiss, Isabelle Eichenberger, SWI, September 14, 2009

The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, Montague Summers, Castle Books, 1992

Witch Hunts in Europe and America: An Encyclopedia, William E Burns, Greenwood, 2003

Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 4, Stuart Clark, William Monter, A & C Black, 2002.

Witchcraft in Shakespeare’s England, Carole Levin, The British Library, March 15, 2016.

The Witches’ Sabbath at Yuletide, Rune Blix Hagen (Translated by Mark Ledingham) Department of History and Religious studies (IHR), University of Tromsø – Arctic University of Norway, 2016

The story of the first woman in Wales to be hanged for witchcraft, James McCarthy, Wales Online, October 30, 2017

Looking Back: The possessions at Loudun, Craig E Stephenson, The Psychologist, 2009

Leicester in 100 Dates, Natasha Sheldon, The History Press, 2014

The Little Book of Leicestershire, Natasha Sheldon, The History Press, 2017

“Anna Göldi was like a wild horse, impossible to catch’, Lars Gotch, SWI, August 21, 2017

“Last witch in Europe” cleared, SWI, August 27, 2008.

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