Maria Holl Survived 62 Sessions Of Torture During the Late 16th-Century Witch Trials
In the last decade of the 16th century, a respectable woman who owned a restaurant along with her husband in Nördlingen, Germany, was put under arrest by the authority of the town council on suspicion of witchcraft. At first, Holl was patient with the council and their questioners; she was confident that she would be released without much of a hassle. Unfortunately for Maria Holl, the council, inquisitors and the citizens of Nördlingen all believed that she was truly a witch.
With their supposed witch in custody, Holl’s questioners quickly launched into their investigations. First, they stripped their prisoner and searched every space of her body for any abnormalities, skin tags, moles or bumps, which they believed could be ‘witch marks.’ To be thorough, Maria Holl was shaved of all of her body hair, and when a suspected mark was found, it was prodded with a needle, but was not declared a mark of witchcraft. The interrogators concluded that there were no ‘witch marks’ on Holl’s body, but even so, the investigation was just getting under way.
With her body examined, the interrogators moved on to her mind. Their first line of questioning attempted to connect Maria Holl with the devil. Had she made a pact with the devil? Had she brought a curse on any of her fellow citizens? Had the devil seduced her? By this point, after having her naked body prodded by needles, and insinuation of adultery with the devil thrown her way by her questioners, Maria Holl abruptly ended her compliance with the interrogators—she refused to make any statements that could lead to self-incrimination.
With no diabolical blemishes on her body, and no semblance of a freely-spoken confession in sight, the interrogators called for torture to begin. The successive sessions of various torture techniques used by the interrogators lasted multiple months. There is little specific information on which torture devices were used, but the strappado (she was hung by her arms with a rope), thumbscrews and the Spanish boot (a device that compressed the leg, sometimes with spikes) were likely used. The rack and the age-old whip were also frequently used in the interrogation of witches in Nördlingen, Germany. Nevertheless, after 62 sessions of torture, possibly lasting a year, Maria Holl still refused to confess to witchcraft. Her steadfast proclamation of innocence, despite months of excruciating pain, finally began to impress the citizens of Nördlingen.
The more Maria Holl resisted torture, the more the people of her town began to believe in her innocence. As the population began to support Holl, they also increasingly lost faith in the judgment of the town council and the witch-hunt it was waging against the city. With no confession of witchcraft to justify an execution, the council grudgingly put an end to the torture of Maria Holl. At this point, Holl was not set free. No, the council needed to plan how to defend itself.
The council finally agreed on a plan that would deliver Maria Holl from their dungeon, while also saving their own skins. Holl would be set free, they declared, if and only if she signed a legal form, in which she swore that she would never seek reprisal through a judicial court. For added protection, she had to publicly claim that the town council had acted justly and properly during her trial for witchcraft. Even though Maria Holl received no justice for her abuse at the hands of the Nördlingen inquisitors, she did walk away with her life, and hers was the last case of witchcraft tried in Nördlingen, Germany.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Witch Craze by Lyndal Roper. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.