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Burned at the Stake: The Story of the Viennese Witch

icon: the viennese witch with a broom

The fire went higher and reached Elisabeth Plainacher’s feet. Soon she would go down in history as the only person who had been burnt at the stake in Vienna for performing witchcraft. The Viennese folk gathered to watch the death sentence being carried out.  »Witch!” they shouted. Little did they know that bad luck was Elisabeth’s only crime.

An ordinary woman

Elisabeth Plainacher was an ordinary woman who led an ordinary life. She was a miller’s daughter born in the countryside close to Vienna in 1513. When she was a young woman, she married a miller and the couple had two children. Eventually, the miller passed away and Elisabeth became a widow. She remarried and took on her second husband’s name Plainacher.

Years went by, and her children grew up, married, and had children on their own. And nothing, absolutely nothing, was suspicious about Elisabeth Plainacher or her family.

An ambitious man

But time changed. In the western parts of Austria words of witchcraft and sorcery began to spread. Driven by the  »Malleus Maleficarum«, also known as  »The Hammer of Witches«, a book with gruesome instructions on how to deal with witches, some fanatic men made it their duty to persecute witches, sorcerers, and heretics. These men sternly held to the book’s recommendation to torture and deceive the accused in order to obtain a confession no matter the cost.

icon: a man holding a torch

Among them was Georg Scherer. He was an ambitious Jesuit preacher with a strong faith, a promising cleric career, and a talent for persuasive speeches. He would be the one to seal Elisabeth’s fate.

A granddaughter

Elisabeth was called to her daughter Margareth’s bed when she was about to give birth to her forth child. Margareth had married a farmer named Georg Schlutterbauer who was described as short-tempered and sometimes even violent. The couple already had three children but waited another ten years before deciding on having another baby.

Things were not looking good for Margareth. She was very weak and exhausted when she named her new-born girl  »Anna«. There had been complications during childbirth and Margareth herself must have known that she would not regain her strength. She was certain that there was no way her husband, soon to become a widower, would be able to look after the new-born. It would be best if baby Anna would stay with her grandmother Elisabeth. So, Elisabeth promised to take good care of her granddaughter, just before Margareth drew her last breath.

A strange condition

For 17 years Anna had lived with her grandmother. But now that she had almost come of age, her father wanted custody. Georg Schlutterbauer had always complained about how his mother-in-law Elisabeth had taken away his baby girl and now he wanted to take care of his daughter himself. 70-years old Elisabeth, by then widowed twice, didn’t make a fuss and let her granddaughter return to her father. And that’s when Anna’s strange physical condition began to show.

Anna would suddenly collapse, her whole body shaking uncontrollably, while some body parts becoming abnormally stiff. She would blankly stare into space and when those strange episodes were over she could barely remember anything.

From today’s point of view, it is pretty clear that those were all symptoms of epilepsy. However, from her father’s point of view there was no doubt that Anna was possessed by the devil.

icon: the devil

A hex

Remember the Jesuit preacher Georg Scherer? When he heard about Anna’s condition, he had the girl brought to him right away.  The preacher examined the girl. To his horror Georg Scherer detected no less than 12.652 demons possessing Anna’s body.

How could that happen? Surely, the girl was not to be blamed. There must have been someone else messing with Anna. Georg Scherer didn’t have to look far for the culprit: The girl’s grandmother Elisabeth must be responsible for that strange condition! She was the one who had taken care of Anna all the time. And wasn’t she widowed twice? She even was there when her own daughter died, and most suspiciously, she had converted to Protestantism.

At least three times Anna had to undergo an exorcism followed by several interrogations. Exhausted, she finally admitted: Yes, her grandmother had hexed her.

An accusation

Accused of having performed witchcraft, Elisabeth was brought to the Viennese court. There, in front of the judges, stood a 70-year-old woman with declining health. The witness brought before them was a sickly girl, a grumpy son-in-law, and an overambitious preacher. The court saw no evidence of any supernatural power, but correctly assumed that Anna was sick and suggested that she and her grandmother should be taken to a hospital. The charges were dropped.

Well, the story of Elisabeth Plainacher could have ended here. Yet, unfortunately, some fanatics kept holding on to the things they believed they had seen.

Georg Scherer was not a man to give up easily. He wanted Elisabeth to be punished and he was sure that the Viennese people wouldn’t accept a witch among them. So, Scherer did what he could best do: preach.

A sentence

Scared of witchcraft and sorcery, convinced by Georg Scherer’s inflammatory speeches, the Viennese demanded another trial of Elisabeth Plainacher. This time the judges should not be easy on her.

icon: a libra and a hammer as the signs of the law

The court saw no other option but to grant the people their request. Elisabeth was interrogated again, this time under torture. She didn’t stand a chance and confessed to everything no matter how absurd it was.

See, with a confession like this the judges had to sentence her accordingly. The mayor of Vienna was so outraged by the way Elisabeth had been treated that he wrote a letter to Emperor Rudolf II., asking him to overturn the court’s decision.

Most sadly, help did not come.

An end

Nearby the Danube Canal, next to the popular sight  »Hundertwasserhaus«, stood the stake for Elisabeth’s final hour in 1583. The Viennese were satisfied. The witch of Vienna was gone, her ashes scattered in the Danube River.

As for the preacher, he continued his inflammatory orations against witches and sorcerers. One day while enthusiastically preaching this tale, Georg Scherer suffered a stroke and died right there on the pulpit.

He is remembered for delivering the people Elisabeth Plainacher, the witch of Vienna.

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