Witch Pardoned

Witch ridin' a goat(Photo: detail from "Witches' Sabbath," a woodcut by Hans Baldung (1510), © Trustees of the British Museum)

The government of Glarus, a canton in eastern Switzerland, has officially exonerated Anna Goeldi, who had the bad luck to be the last person executed in Europe after being charged with witchcraft. This was in 1782, almost one hundred years after the fun had ended even in places like Salem, Massachusetts.

Goeldi was accused of causing a girl, apparently her employer’s daughter, to “spit pins and convulse.” Showing a complete lack of appreciation for all the free pins he was getting, Goeldi’s employer denounced her as a witch. She was also accused of making needles appear in a glass of milk and a loaf of bread, and as any expert can tell you, only witchcraft can get needles into things like that. When put on trial, Goeldi insisted she was innocent, but a little torture helped the truth come out, as torture always does.  It seems that the needles had been given to her by Satan, who appeared to her in the form of a black dog.

The alternative explanation, that she had an affair with her employer and had threatened to expose him as an adulterer, was apparently rejected as too implausible.

Monty Python witch peasants

Voir dire begins in the Goeldi trial

A book published last year told Goeldi’s story and argued that her execution was a “judicial murder” intended to protect her employer. Both the canton’s government and the local council of the Protestant Church rejected the book’s call to exonerate Goeldi, the government saying that it saw no need to make a “celebratory apology” for something that happened 225 years ago. By this year, however, they had changed their minds.  “[T]hey tortured an innocent person,” said a government spokesperson, “although it was known to them that the alleged crime was neither doable nor possible and that there was no legal basis for their verdict.” An enlightened country should not do those kinds of things, he said, and officially cleared Goeldi’s name.

The government did not take any legal responsibility for her death, or any other “past wrongdoings,” but it did say it would pay about 90,000 euros to sponsor a play about her as an “additional sign” of rehabilitation.

In 2006, the governor of Virginia officially pardoned the “Witch of Pungo,” but hard-hearted Connecticut refused earlier this year to clear the names of its ex-witches. In a follow-up post to the latter story, we learned that in Salem itself, the number of guilty verdicts handed out by tourists serving as jurors in mock witch trials reportedly increased after 9/11.