(The Magic Circle, c. 1886, painted by John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Creative Commons)
10 Weeks of Torture and Fatal Abuse
In the region of southern Germany now known as Baden-Württemberg, there lived a woman named Magdalena Bollmann. She lived in the 18th century, a time when the public hysteria of witch-hunts was becoming less and less commonplace. Nevertheless, the inquisition and witchcraft trials continued to survive like cockroaches, infesting neglected villages and cities.
When Magdalena Bollmann was 42 or 43 years old, her village of Alleshausen (still within Baden-Württemberg), was experiencing one of the dying spats of the witch-hunting era. Bollmann had already survived an earlier hunt, around 7 years prior, when a woman named Anna Maria Münst accused Magdalena of being a witch. Magdalena was released during that witch-hunt, and her name remained relatively untarnished—Bollmann and Münst (the accuser) even became acquaintances again, or at least they remained willing to speak to each other.
By the fall of 1747, Magdalena Bollmann had repositioned herself back into society. As a woman who had given birth 12 times (5 children survived), her assistance in delivering babies was welcomed by many throughout her village. She especially befriended the Citterell family. With them, Magdalena would visit the local tavern, where they would share in drink and conversation. Magdalena gave gifts of food to those around her, including baked treats for the Citterell family and some fresh apples for her old accuser, Anna Maria Münst. She was also a pious woman, and she spent some of her free time pursuing religious goals, such as venturing on a pilgrimage and visiting the nearby Capuchin friars.
The frenzy of the local witch-hunt outbreak, however, threw Magdalena Bollmann’s life into turmoil. Fair-weather friends fail to come to aid when they are truly needed—and few people were ever failed like Magdalena Bollmann. The people that Bollmann let into her life turned against her, one after the other. Magdalena was arrested and, once again, put on trial for witchcraft. Even worse, this particular group of interrogators already had shown their willingness to kill; 4 other women had already been burnt to death at the stake during the small witch-hunt in her village.
When Magdalena Bollmann was arrested and put on trial as a witch, virtually everyone she knew slithered to the courthouse to attest to her guilt. Her husband, her sister-in-law and many of the women whose babies she had helped deliver into the world participated in the trial, telling stories of Magdalena’s diabolical deeds. If there were birth complications, or if a child died (as often happened before modern medicine), Bollmann was singled out for blame. If a person caught a cold, or felt faint or ill, surely it was the proximity of Magdalena’s evil presence that was to blame. Such was the nature of witch trials: a quilt woven of fear, hearsay and rumor dense enough to smother anyone caught underneath its expanse.
The testimonies that did the most damage to Magdalena came from her dear friends in the Citterell family and her renewed accuser, Anna Maria Münst. Conrad Citterell recollected for the trial an instance when Magdalena offered his young son a treat of meat, breaded and baked. Conrad did not want his son to spoil his dinner, so the rissole baked by Magdalena was instead offered to a cat. Later, during the trial, Conrad mused that the rissole must have been prepared with a witch’s hate instead of heat, because the poor cat immediately vomited the morsel onto the ground. Ignoring the rissole fiasco, Citterell allowed his son to visit Magdalena once more, but when the boy returned, his health eroded into illness and, eventually, death.
Anna Maria Münst’s tale was less dramatic. She blamed Magdalena Bollmann for the death of her child, and attributed to Magdalena the constant pain that had been plaguing her since her last childbirth, which Bollmann had attended. Her most lasting involvement in the death of Magdalena, however, arose from the trial, itself. Anna Maria Münst chose to give her testimony in the presence of Bollmann. As soon as Münst first spoke Bollmann’s name, the accuser announced that she immediately felt the onset of an anguishing and crippling pain. Münst winced, and gasped, and cramped her way through her testimony, feeling absolutely horrible—from fear or, more likely, guilt—by the end of her speech.
Unfortunately for Magdalena Bollmann, the betrayal of her family, friends and neighbors was the least of her worries. For many witch hunters, torture was a quintessential tool in the process of encouraging witches to repent. Magdalena’s family, friends, village, and even the people holding her trial, all believed in her guilt. The interrogators thought torture, therefore, was not only a way to punish a witch, but also a way to help Magdalena have a chance for salvation through repentance. Magdalena, however, had the incredible willpower and strength to refuse to confess to something she did not commit. Tragically, the interrogators did not believe in Magdalena’s innocence, and despite her courage and steely resolve, she was tortured to death.
Over a period of around 10 weeks, Magdalena Bollmann experienced an unbelievable variety of the darkest instruments of pain created by mankind. On her hands, thumbscrews were used, which were small vises that could be screwed incrementally tighter to flatten fingers. She was placed on the infamous rack, where victims could be stretched until ligaments tore and joints came unhinged. Magdalena was placed on the bock—either a sharp bench in the shape of a wedge (called the Spanish Donkey) or a nasty metal pyramid (known as the Judas Cradle) that lacerated whatever orifice was forced down upon it. Once the victim was placed upon the pointed pyramid, a slow impalement ensued. Along with the other tortures, she was whipped with a ‘blessed whip’ empowered by a Capuchin friar. They also hoisted her up with her arms behind her back and burned her nose and toes with an ‘Easter’ candle. In between torture sessions, when they only wanted to cause emotional and mental agony, they stripped away all of Magdalena’s clothes, shaved off all her hair, and searched for birthmarks, moles and skin tags, which they called ‘witch marks.’ The pain soon returned, however, for they poked and prodded Magdalena’s pubic area, for witches supposedly had little sensation in the most private of areas.
On October 16, 1747, after approximately 70 days of humiliation, excruciating torture sessions, and the long-term aches from irreparable damage done during interrogation, Magdalena Bollmann fell unconscious from all that she had endured. She was unresponsive, but still breathing. To bring her to her feet, the jailers lashed her with whips. Still, she remained unwilling, or unable, to cooperate. With Magdalena in such a state, the torturers put aside their machines of pain and prepared something to wake up their ward.
The torturers brought to Magdalena not food, not water, not even medicine—instead, they brought rope. They bound the middle-aged woman who had helped deliver numerous babies, had provided treats and meals for many a neighbor, and even forgave and befriended a person who accused her of witchcraft once (now twice). In the last hours of Magdalena Bollmann’s life, she was dragged by her interrogators across rough floors and down jagged stairs made either of wood or stone. Crushed, stretched, partially impaled, burned, whipped, jabbed with needles and finally, pulled down stairs while unconscious, Magdalena’s body could take no more. She died around 2:30 P.M. on October 16, 1747. Until the end, she maintained her innocence.
Death did not end the unjust treatment of Magdalena Bollmann. Not to be outshined by Magdalena’s fearlessness and fortitude, the interrogators gathered up the broken body of their victim and burned it in a public display. Her ashes were then uncaringly placed beneath the local gallows, far away from hallowed ground, friends or family.
Magdalena Bollmann was the 5th out of 7 women to be killed during the witch-hunt in her region. The interrogators thought that by executing witches they were fighting evil, and also allowing the worst of sinners a chance at repentance. To the witch hunters, Magdalena was infuriating. She refused to bend despite months of unbearable torture. The interrogators believed Magdalena Bollmann resisted confession not because of her innocence, but because she was unrepentant and evil. Few of these interrogators, however, wondered if they, themselves, were the ones acting wickedly.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Lyndal Roper. Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
- Lyndal Roper. The Witch in the Western Imagination. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.