NEW YORK — They said the devil had traveled in her clothing. Elsche Prösche, née Wohler, wife of Jochim, was in her forties, and lived a life of relative poverty in Kölzin, a village in northeastern Germany. She was my great-aunt, nine generations ago — and for charges of witchcraft, she was burned at the stake.
I learned about her story from my father. An avid researcher of family history, back in in 1997 he'd noticed a thick dossier about the witch trials of Zarrentin in church archives. It wasn't until nearly two decades later, after he and my mother met with a local historian, that our relation to one of the unfortunate sorceresses became clear.
Reading the transcript of Elsche's story, which my dad translated from German, was awful. She begged for another year with her children, and instead was tortured and burned alive. Our distant kinship was a reminder of the way each of us is personally connected to historical events in ways we can't conceive.
Witch burning in Derenburg, Germany — Source: R. Decker/Wikimedia Commons
Her story also made me suddenly quite conscious of the frequency with which politicians and other public figures accused of wrongdoing today spit out the words "witch hunt." It goes without saying that the pain they experience bears no resemblance to the psychological and physical agony of past victims of true witch hunts.
The lives of these privileged men could hardly stand in starker contrast.
Donald Trump recently dismissed House Democrats' fledgling impeachment inquiry as "breaking news Witch Hunt garbage." Senator Lindsay Graham, meanwhile, remarked during the 2018 debacle over the next Supreme Court justice that perhaps we should "dunk" Brett Kavanaugh in water to see if he would float. This references to the practice back in the 17th century of tossing suspected witches in the water: If they sank, they were not considered a witch ...
In 2017, Woody Allen told the BBC that the #MeToo movement risked creating a "Salem atmosphere where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself." Back in 2011, when Dominique Strauss-Kahn — then head of the International Monetary Fund — was accused of sexually assaulting a West African hotel maid, his defenders proclaimed that the media was engaged in a "chasse aux sorcières" — yes, the witch hunt metaphor is an international phenomenon.
The lives of these privileged men could hardly stand in starker contrast with the life of Elsche. Born in 1641 in Bantin, Mecklenburg, a village that today has an estimated population of 428, she faced repeated accusations of witchcraft and struggled repeatedly to clear her name.
In 1684, 300 years before I was born, she was imprisoned in Zarrentin and tried for crimes against people and livestock. Five witnesses swore that the devil had traveled in her clothing. One insisted that she had put a curse on the mayor's horses, so that they ran into the swamp and broke their legs. According to the Chronik von Kölzin, a typed manuscript available at the government archives, the court authorized torture if she continued to deny her misdeeds.
The local pastor noted with suspicion that Elsche had a "wild nasty habit of speaking with her tongue which flew from side to side and sometimes stuck out." Did she have some sort of congenital disfigurement? It's impossible to know, though she acknowledged having a throat ailment.
Burning sulfur was held under her nose and poured across her body.
She pleaded her innocence, but was tortured extensively. A blemish behind her left ear was poked with a needle to draw blood. Her hands were tied and attached with thumbscrews, and then she was fitted with Spanish boots — metal plates with dull nails that were squeezed over her legs. She was "hoisted into the air" and beaten with a club covered in nails known as the "roasted rabbit." Finally, burning sulfur was held under her nose and poured across her body. She admitted nothing, but screamed, cried and periodically fainted. The court demanded that she refrain from exacting revenge and released her.
In 1689, she faced another trial after a local cattle herder accused her of witchcraft. This time, when Elsche wouldn't confess, she was handed over to a man who ran a compulsory labor camp. He undressed her and subjected her to the same tortures she had experienced five years prior.
Here, the transcript notes that "it wasn't humanly possible to withstand such pain," and unsurprisingly Elsche confessed to all sorts of supernatural evils, including having sex with the devil, before the court ruled that she should be "punished by fire until death."
Т. Mattson's "Interrogation of the Sorceress' (1853) — Source: Wikimedia Commons
While we cannot know what led the mayor's horses to run into the swamp, a poor, possibly disfigured mother in her mid-forties certainly did not cause their demise through witchcraft. Or have sex with the devil.
Today, the historical witch hunts of Europe and the United States should be seen as a chilling reminder of both the wild irrationality and cold calculations of those persecuting people who are somehow seen as different, in the minority, or socially inferior. In Medieval Europe and during America's colonial period, people turned to the supernatural to explain real-life woes, and it's not surprising that women seen as different were frequent scapegoats.
Corruption and sexual assault are real.
Around the world, actual witch hunts still occur, and the victims are often, though not invariably, women. That's been true for a long time: Of the tens of thousands of people executed for witchcraft in Europe, the vast majority were women.
Likening Congressional investigations into Trump's Ukraine dealings or Kavanaugh's alleged sex crimes to the torture these women experienced is deeply misleading. While corruption and sexual assault are real problems, witchery has always been an imaginary evil. Using the term "witch hunt" to protest the investigation of a misdeed is a deliberate ploy to suggest it is impossible, rather than merely unproven.
Witches, like ghouls and goblins, don't exist. Crimes and bad acts do. Let's stop pretending we don't see the difference and drop this tired expression.