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How Margarethe Weller Lost Her Head

Germany, 1629

 
 


In 1629, the year she lost her head, Margarethe Weller Crecelius was a widow, and very likely quite elderly, having lost her 88-year-old husband, a Lutheran cleric, the year before. She and her family lived in Gemünden in the Westerwald, a little northwest of Frankfurt am Main. Gemünden lies in a beautiful valley protected by mountains to the north and to the east. The church where her husband Dietrich had served his congregation still stands, and it was already 700 years old when he worked there. See the beautiful photographs of the church and the village on Marcus Krekel's web site.

By 1629 the Thirty Years War had been raging for over 20 years, with devastating consequences, the plague had been wreaking havoc off and on for a long time, and there were crop failures and consequent famine and poverty. In these difficult times people began to believe that these disastrous events and every other misfortune that befell them, whether great or small, were the work of the devil, and that those evil works were invoked by witches.

Witch hunts raged through Europe, and these persecutions were worse in Germany than anywhere else. Many of those accused were tortured into confessing, and some were even tortured into accusing others. An estimated 250,000 people were executed, of whom about eighty percent were female, and most of these women were poor or not living under a man's protection. In other words, they were the easiest targets. But by 1629, the persecution had become so severe that no one was safe, regardless of age, sex, wealth, office, or social status. And nearly all who were accused were convicted. It was in this context that Margaret Weller Crecelius was convicted of witchcraft and beheaded in 1629.

That same year, the Chancellor of the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg wrote a friend the following letter describing the situation:

As to the affair of the witches, which Your Grace thinks brought to an end before this, it has started up afresh, and no words can do justice to it. Ah, the woe and the misery of it--there are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex, nay, even clerics, so strongly accused that they may be arrested at any hour. It is true that, of the people of my Gracious Prince here, some out of all offices and faculties must be executed: clerics, electoral councilors and doctors, city officials, court assessors, several of whom Your Grace knows. There are law students to be arrested. The Prince-Bishop has over forty students who are soon to be pastors; among them thirteen or fourteen are said to be witches. A few days ago a Dean was arrested; two others who were summoned have fled. The notary of our Church consistory, a very learned man, was yesterday arrested and put to the torture. In a word, a third part of the city is surely involved. The richest, most attractive, most prominent, of the clergy are already executed. A week ago a maiden of nineteen was executed, of whom it is everywhere said that she was the fairest in the whole city, and was held by everybody a girl of singular modesty and purity. She will be followed by seven or eight others of the best and most attractive persons. . . . And thus many are put to death for renouncing God and being at the witch-dances, against whom nobody has ever else spoken a word.

To conclude this wretched matter, there are children of three and four years, to the number of three hundred, who are said to have had intercourse with the Devil. I have seen put to death children of seven, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen. Of the nobles -but I cannot and must not write more of this misery. There are persons of yet higher rank, whom you know, and would marvel to hear of, nay, would scarcely believe it; let justice be done . . .


After the persecutions died out in his area, the canon Linden described the years of the witch hunt:
Inasmuch as it was popularly believed that the continued sterility of many years was caused by witches through the malice of the Devil, the whole country rose to exterminate the witches. This movement was promoted by many in office, who hoped wealth from the persecution. And so, from court to court throughout the towns and villages of all the diocese, scurried special accusers, inquisitors, notaries, jurors,judges, constables, dragging to trial and torture human beings of both sexes and burning them in great numbers. Scarcely any of those who were accused escaped punishment. Nor were there spared even the leading men in the city of Trier. For the Judge, with two Burgomasters, several Councilors and Associate Judges, canons of sundry collegiate churches, parish priests, rural deans, were swept away in this ruin. So far, at length, did the madness of the furious populace and of the courts go in this thirst for blood and booty that there was scarcely anybody who was not smirched by some suspicion of this crime.

Meanwhile notaries, copyists, and innkeepers grew rich. The executioner rode a blooded horse, like a noble of the court, and went clad in gold and silver; his wife vied with noble dames in the richness of her array. The children of those convicted and punished were sent into exile; their goods were confiscated; plowman and vintner failed-- hence came sterility. A direr pestilence or a more ruthless invader could hardly have ravaged the territory of Trier than this inquisition and persecution without bounds: many were the reasons for doubting that all were really guilty. This persecution lasted for several years; and some of those who presided over the administration of justice gloried in the multitude of the stakes, at each of which a human being had been given to the flames. At last, though the flames were still unsated, the people grew impoverished, rules were made and enforced restricting the fees and costs of examinations and examiners, and suddenly, as when in war funds fail, the zeal of the persecutors died out."


The information about Margarethe's conviction of witchcraft and her execution comes from the research of Dr. Hellmuth Gensicke, who has published extensively in the Nassausche Annalen, and I am grateful to Ed Rose for passing it on.