The Last German Lawsuit on Witchcraft

Leaflet about the Burning of a Witch, 1533

Leaflet about the Burning of a Witch, 1533

On April 4, 1775Anna Schwegelin was the last woman to be tried for witchcraft in a German court. Although she was sentenced to death by decapitation, the judgement was never executed.

The Witch Hunts

The classical period of witch hunts in Europe and North America falls into the Early Modern period or about 1480 to 1750, spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War, resulting in an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 executions. The last executions of people convicted as witches in Europe took place in the 18th century. In the Kingdom of Great Britain, witchcraft ceased to be an act punishable by law with the Witchcraft Act of 1735. In Germany, sorcery remained punishable by law into the late 18th century. The witch trials in Early Modern Europe came in waves and then subsided. There were trials in the 15th and early 16th centuries, but then the witch scare went into decline, before becoming a major issue again and peaking in the 17th century. What had previously been a belief that some people possessed supernatural abilities now became a sign of a pact between the people with supernatural abilities and the devil. To justify the killings, Protestant Christianity and its proxy secular institutions deemed witchcraft as being associated to wild Satanic ritual parties in which there was much naked dancing, and cannibalistic infanticide.

Anna Maria Schwegelin

Maria Anna Schwegelin grew up in poor circumstances in Lachen, which belonged at that time as an enclave to the territory of the prince abbots of Kempten, in Swabia, Bavaria, Germany, and earned her living as a maid. Her offices were mainly farms and inns in the surrounding area of the imperial city of Memmingen. About 1751, while Schegelin was working in Künersberg, she got acquainted to a coachman of Protestant confession. Upon his marriage proposal (which by the way never was fulfilled) Schwegelin changed from Catholic to Lutheran confession, which she tried to reverse again later. In 1769, she injured her leg, and in 1770, she was put in the poor house in the Upper Swabian town of Langenegg. Thus, a poverty-stricken, guilt-ridden woman, Schwegelin became increasingly convinced that in betraying her faith, she had left herself open to the assaults of the Evil One. Crippled as she now was, she began to wonder if her troubles were caused by the devil.

The Lawful Trial

When a child in the poorhouse began to seem demon possessed, the local pastor decided that the child must have been bewitched. In the interrogations that followed, Schwegelin reportedly freely confessed having made a pact with the Devil, but that she had never practiced any black magic or caused any harm. Transferred to the Imperial Abbey of Kempten for trial, she was judged guilty according to the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina – the first body of German Criminal Law – and sentenced to be executed on 11 April 1775. By July 1775, however, the case seems to have been forgotten, and Schwegelin remained in jail, where she died of natural causes in 1781.

Th Last Witch

The case of the “last witch” was regarded as the last execution of an alleged witch on the territory of the Holy Roman Empire for a long time due to the difficult tradition – the original files were considered lost and privately owned. It was not until 1995 that it was discovered that the death sentence had not been carried out. Nevertheless, Anna Maria Schwegelin can still be described as the last victim of the witch hunt on German soil.  BTW, in the UK the last person to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act from 1735, which made falsely claiming to procure spirits a crime, was the Scottish medium Helen Duncan in 1944. She was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment – but this is already another story…

Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe, UCLA, [6]

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