Nobody Liked Her

Lee Palmer Wandel

  • The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village by Thomas Robisheaux
    Norton, 427 pp, £18.99, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 393 06551 0

Anna Fessler was a young mother. Her death, on Shrove Tuesday, 20 February 1672, was typical of those that brought about thousands of witch prosecutions in early modern England, North America and German-speaking Europe: agonising and unexpected. Fessler’s life was otherwise unremarkable: she was a resident of a small village, peaceably married, and had given birth to her second child a month before. She was still housebound, according to custom, but had seemed healthy that day to those who were with her: her sister, her husband and a friend. Thus, a visit she received, though not unusual, later came to seem significant. Towards evening, another friend, Eva Küstner, also a young mother, brought Fessler six Shrove cakes, then insisted Fessler eat a seventh that Küstner produced from the folds of her clothing. She said that her mother, Anna Schmieg, had baked them. That night, as Fessler’s husband testified, Anna woke up abruptly, her torso swelled, she became feverish, thirsty, and began to pass blood. Again and again she cried out: ‘O God! I must die!’ By midnight, she was dead.

Anna Fessler’s death opens Thomas Robisheaux’s microhistory of a single trial for witchcraft in a small Franconian principality. The court barber-surgeon and bath master, called to examine the corpse, reported it distended and pale, but they could not determine the cause of death. The physician who conducted the autopsy concluded that ‘poisoning … likely caused her death,’ but he would not venture a guess about the source of the poison. Neighbours’ suspicions and medical evidence were brought to Tobias Ulrich von Gülchen, the chief counsellor of Count Heinrich Friedrich of Langenburg. He ordered the arrest of Küstner and Schmieg. When he received the first depositions in the case on 27 February, von Gülchen, a pious Lutheran trained in the law, asked whether the law was able to discern evil. Like so many early modern jurists and clergy on both sides of the Atlantic, von Gülchen suspected malice in the death: not the simple social malice of murder, but the cosmological malice of witchcraft.

The case is typical of early modern witchcraft trials in so many ways: Fessler’s youth and fertility; a pious jurist; a ‘hag’; a collection of ‘witnesses’ whose testimony concerns the character of the accused and offers no evidence – at least in the modern sense that would physically link the death, the cake and the accused. Trials for witchcraft are among the most intensively studied of all early modern phenomena: the accusation, prosecution, condemnation and execution for an unprovable crime have troubled historians since the Enlightenment.

Von Gülchen left extensive notes on the trial, and they are the primary source for Robisheaux’s book. His questions determined what evidence was sought, and framed its interpretation. He summoned witnesses. He consulted various authorities, from the court preacher, Ludwig Casimir Dietzel, to the Altdorf university faculties of law and medicine, and the University of Strasbourg faculty of law.

From the beginning, Schmieg was von Gülchen’s primary suspect. In his first interrogation of the two women who had been with Fessler on Shrove Tuesday, her sister and a friend, he asked them about Schmieg. ‘What did they know about her? What had they heard?’ She quickly became his sole suspect. Three chapters later, one learns that von Gülchen knew of her reputation. As another official recorded, she was

this well-known good-for-nothing woman, who is given to wine and to the quarrels, brawls, shocking curses, swearing and blasphemous insults of all kinds that stem from this drunkenness, as is shown by the established court protocols and by others who have fallen into recalcitrance with her.

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