|Witches in Austria and Germany
|During the years of plague, witches were thought to spread the black death. It was later discovered
that a convenient way to eliminate a rival, a romantic competitor, an enemy or a bad neighbor was to
accuse them of witchcraft, and individual cases began an upward momentum from the 14th and 15th
century. During the Inquisition, most witches were classed as heretics, not only disbelievers in church
doctrine but also servants of the Devil. Although not all witches were burned at the stake, very few
found guilty of heresy escaped this punishment.
One of the most famous witches in German lands was a poor lass named Agnes, commonly known
as Agnes the Witch.
The historic little Catholic town of Straubing in Bavaria lazes quietly on the right bank of the Danube,
crossed by two bridges and crowned by a tall square tower with five pointed turrets dating from
1208. Straubing was founded as a city in 1218 by Louis I Wittelsbach, Duke of Bavaria. It was, like
many German states of its time, a small family dukedom. Today, one of the town's eight Catholic
churches, St Peter's, houses the tomb of one Agnes Bernauer.
Duke Albrecht, the son of Duke Ernst of Würtemberg, made the intimate acquaintance of notoriously
beautiful Agnes, born about 1410 in Biberach, but she was a mere servant girl and the daughter of a
bath house proprieter. Duke Albrecht courted her and took her with him to his residence in
Vohnburg. Albrecht's father knew about Agnes, but was not concerned until he became anxious
about having a legal heir. He wanted his son to marry the daughter of Duke Erich of Braunschweig,
but Albrecht refused because of his love for Agnes.
Persuasion was useless, so the Duke resorted to publicly humiliating his son at a tournament when
he ordered the judges to refuse admittance to Albrecht on the grounds that his concubine had caused
him to neglect his filial duties. Albrecht was furious, and as soon as he returned to Vohnburg he
married Agnes. With the consent of his uncle, Duke Wilhelm, he moved his bride to Schloss
Straubing as his duchess and surrounded her with a ducal court.
Her happiness was short lived and filled with constant worry, and Agnes even had a premonition of
a little chapel being built for her own future crypt. Indeed, while her husband was on a journey in
1435, the Duke took advantage of his son's absence and had Agnes seized and imprisoned as a
witch, her guilt predetermined: she was condemned for bewitching Duke Albrecht and thus
vicariously committing a criminal offence against Duke Ernst, who signed the guilty verdict himself.
The judgment ordered her death be drowning in the river. A crowd gathered as the hangmen carried
Agnes to the bridge at Straubing. She was thrust into the water and, in a gruesome scene, drifted
back ashore because of the strong current. She held up her arms for help, and the people would have
saved her had not the hangman grabbed a pole and snarled Agnes's long hair around it so as to hold
her under water until she died. She was buried in St. Peter's cemetery.
When Albrecht returned and learned of the horrible act, and he swore vengeance. He and his cousin,
formed an alliance and began war against his own father. Reconciliation was forced upon them,
however, at the council of Basel. After building a chapel over the grave of his beloved, Albrecht
obediently married Anna, Princess of Braunschweig and in his sorrow (?) managed to produce ten
children with his new wife. In 1447, Duke Albrecht had the body of Agnes transferred to the chapel
which she had built for herself and adorned a marble of her with a simple inscription: "Obiit Agnes
Bernauerin. Requiescat in pace."
Mass witch trials began in the 15th century with the help of the 'Malleus Maleficarum', a manual for
hunting and persecuting witches drawn up by two Dominican priors of questionable reputation. It
was reprinted thirty times by 1669. The "burning times" began in earnest from 1550 to 1650, with
mass hysteria and burnings, but the number of witch trials actually dropped when the Reformation
hit. Witch hunting had become part of broader campaigns to impose religious orthodoxies, and
witch-hunts lost most of their momentum with the end of the Thirty Years War when the Peace of
Westphalia brought better religious recognition and sought more tolerance.
Witch hunting peaked in Germany in the 17th century. Early panics had taken place in Brandenburg
and Mecklenburg, then in the Rhineland and Southwest Germany, with German ecclesiastical
territories hit the hardest. The town of Baden burned 200 witches from 1627 to 1630. Tiny
Ellwangen burned 393 witches from 1611 to 1618, and the Catholic prince-bishopric of Würzburg
burned 600 witches from 1628 to 1631.
Ferdinand von Wittelsbach, Catholic prince-archbishop of Cologne burned 2,000 members of his
flock during the 1630s. In southwest Germany alone, 3,229 people were executed for witchcraft
between 1562 and 1684. Three-quarters of all witchcraft trials took place in the Catholic-ruled
territories of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Protestants were by no means immune to the witch frenzy, however. Both Luther and Calvin
directed bitter sermons against witches. In Austria before 1570, prosecution was infrequent due in
part to the moderation of Emperor Maximilian II, 1564-76. To him, witches and fortune tellers were
merely idiots. However, the closest advisors to his successor Emperor Rudolf II were witch haters
and witch trials peaked. When an old woman was seized as a witch and repeatedly tortured, she
confessed she had copulated with the devil, raised storms for fourteen years and gone to the sabbat.
The elderly municipal judge, appointed during the reign of the skeptical Maximilian II, found the old
woman insane and committed her to an asylum, but he was overruled by newly appointed judges,
who condemned the accused to be dragged to the stake and burned.
In 1597, Pastor Anton Praetorius was appointed as pastor and had to witness the torture of four
accused witches. According to court records, he was so upset about the torture that he protested
violently and succeeded in stopping the trial against the last surviving woman. He was one of the first
with the courage to protest the terrible situation of accused witches. In his new parish in Laudenbach,
he wrote a book, initially under an assumed name in 1598, "Gründlicher Bericht über Zauberey und
Zauberer" to protest against the torture and prosecution of witches. Praetorius died in 1613.
Some really enjoyed the sport. Jakob Bithner was a Lutheran witch-hunter in the Austrian duchy of
Styria during the late sixteenth century. In March 1580, Bithner was in charge of sending reports to
the court and to the estates, including assessments of the conditions and safety of the duchy's postal
routes, bridges, footpaths, and roads. He used his position to send a series of reports to the Styrian
estates outlining his interests in "eradicating all manifestations of magic and superstition," and
described his involvement in no fewer than 23 of the 39 known cases of witchcraft from 1578 to
1600. There were also witchcraft scares in Tirol and Salzburg. In Tirol, those accused of witchcraft
who may have confessed and then retracted that confession were sent back to be tortured again.
Only those under seven years old were safe.
During the secondary period of witch baiting in 1673, a judge named "Gutenhag" kept a 57 year old
woman kneeling on a torture stool with sharp prongs, a Nagelbett, for 11 days and nights, burning
her feet with sulfur, because she would not confess a pact with the devil.
In 1679, Emperor Leopold I forbade the introduction of new tortures, particularly the Nagelbett.
In that year, Emerenziane Pichler was tried at Linz, and after a year condemned with her two eldest
children. She was burned September 25, 1680 and her two children, aged twelve and fourteen, on
September 27. In 1679, a beggar boy, age 14, whom the police suspected caused storms, was
tortured until he came up with confession and the names of his accomplices. All four were burned
December 13, 1679. Meanwhile, a priest named Laurenz Paumgartner wrote in his diary that in his
small parish alone, within 15 months around 1680, thirteen witches had been executed.
|The Zauberjäeckl Trials
|A late comer to the witch hysteria, Archbishop Max Gandolph, above, hosted the Zauberjäeckl trials
in Salzburg from 1675 to 1681, in which he punished people who were actually felons as witches.
The Magic Jacket Society prosecuted in those trials had recruited orphans using "black magic,
sodomy and conjurations with mice" to control them. Only those under 12 years old escaped death,
but 200 others were executed. The Salzburg Hexenturm, above center, was constructed to hold 100
persons from ages 12 to 80 for torture, strangulation, burning and beheading. It was built between
1465 and 1480. In 1678, it was a prison with 14 cells and an apartment for the court servants who
managed the place. There was no street level door for the prisoners. They were lowered down by
means of long wooden poles and sent up tied to the same, many to be burned alive in that manner.
In 1944, the Hexenturm was destroyed in a devilish Allied cultural bombing attack on Salzburg. All
that remains in its pace is a plaque and the small witch weathervane that once adorned its roof.
“Zauberer Jackl" was Jakob Koller, son of a farmhand from Mauterndorf. It was claimed that his
mother had taught him the “handicraft” of fraud and stealing. She was accused of theft and magic,
and she implicated one Paul Kaltenpacher and they were both executed in late August of 1675.
During the violent interrogation process, both accused "Jackl" of complicity. Subsequently, a warrant
of arrest was issued against Jackl and the search began. In 1677, the authorities received a message
that Jackl was dead, but this not only proved untrue, it turned out that Jackl had recruited a whole
group of followers, mostly young, poor people, including one Matthias Thomas Hasendorfer as an
accomplice. It reported that Zauberer Jackl taught him magic. The authorities consequently began a
search and destroy mission for both the Jackl and all of his witch accomplices who used charms and
magic. A fundamental goal was to stop the propagation of the sorcery among young people.
Stories about Jackl grew more imaginative until Jackl and his followers were said to have the ability
to turn into animals and make themselves invisible, and they were also considered responsible for all
mysterious deaths or murders. It wasn't long before everyone wanted Jackl and his whole gang
caught. Today, it is thought that Zauberer Jackl was probably just a thief and a beggar, and not even
a murderer, let alone a magician. The legendary Zauberer Jackl could never be seized, however.
Instead of him, the 200 others accused of being his accomplices met their grisly deaths between
1675 and 1681, 139 alone in the year 1681.The extremely violent Zaubererjackl witchcraft trials
were one of the last of the major European witch-hunts and unusual in that the majority of the two
hundred or so victims were mostly vagrants, mentally ill persons, beggars, wage workers, thieves
and prostitutes. Two thirds were male and one third were under age 16, and most admitted to acts
of sorcery during the torturous interrogations.
The "Jackl" was supposedly a Devil who helped beggars by teaching them curses, giving them
potions with which to earn alms and by making them invisible when they stole. Most were killed
after induced confessions. The trials came with the age of workhouses for the indigent, and at a time
when the church viewed vagabonds as a sign of weakness and social policy failure at a time when
conversion back to Catholicism was being strongly enforced.
Witch hunting was not over yet. In 1688, a whole family, including children and servants, were
burned in Styria. In 1695 at Steiermark, Marina Schepp confessed to having sex with the devil after
6 1/2 hours on the torture stool and she was burned. In the provinces of Styria and the Tirol, the
Halsgerichtsordnung, a severe anti-witchcraft code, was adopted in 1707 with hideous punishments.
In the Rhine area, Hellene Mechthildis Curtens, 1722-1738, of Gerresheim, was an alleged German
witch and one of the last people executed for sorcery in Germany. She had been arrested on the
word of a 14-year old girl, and while being tortured accused her neighbour Agnes Olmans of being a
witch. They were then both accused, even though Olmans denied the charges and demanded to be
exposed to the ordeal of water. She was denied this, since that method was no longer used in the
area. Both women were judged guilty of sorcery and executed August 19, 1738. For a long time,
they were thought to be the last executed for witchery in Germany. But one Maria Renata Saenger
von Mossau was executed in 1749 and farm wife Anna Trutt Schnidenwind was executed in 1751,
accused of having caused a great fire. The very last prosecution in Germany was most likely that of
Anna Maria Schwegel of Bavaria who was sentenced to death for sorcery in 1775, but died in prison
before her execution. It was not until 1787 that all witchcraft laws in Austria were repealed.
|Once upon a time, every child born on August 18th could be tested for possible witchcraft because,
according to a local legend, an evil warlock was born on that day in 1638. The Schwarzenberg is a
mountain in the middle of the Lungau near the castle of Moosham. People there say that long ago,
witches lived in the mountain and came out of their caves at midnight. They wore white robes and
danced on the meadow under the full moon, but only children could hear their music.
In Salzburg, all night long the witches danced, whispered, laughed and quietly talked, and the
dancing-place of the witches was called "Rader Tanzhügel", or "dancing hill." On that hill the
snow melted quickly in winter, and it was said that was because the witches danced the snow away.
|THE SALZBURG EXILES
|Neumeyer, August Friedrich: Der Mühldorfer Hexenprozess 1749/50, Mühldorf 1992 Byloff, Fritz: Die letzten
Zaubereiprozesse in Mühldorf und Landshut. In: Zeitschrift für bayerische Landesgeschichte (ZBLG), Jg. 1938, S. 427–
444 Nagl, Heinz: Der Zauberer-Jackl-Prozess. Hexenprozesse im Erzstift Salzburg 1675–1690. In: Mitteilungen der
Gesellschaft für Salzburger Landeskunde, Teil I, Jg. 1972/73, S. 385–541