During the 15th century, a giant hailstorm wiped out approximately a mile of crops in a region of farmland near the city of Salzburg, Austria. When the affected farmlands produced incredibly low crop yields for a reported three years after the incident, the Inquisition was asked to launch an investigation into possible witchcraft. Among the team of inquisitors sent to inspect the case of the hailstorm was a professor from the nearby University of Salzburg named Heinrich Kramer. This inquisitor would later write about the outcome of the investigation in the infamous book he co-wrote on witchcraft—the Malleus Maleficarum.
After fifteen days of deliberation, the inquisitors concluded that witchcraft was, indeed, afoot. After the team examined possible suspects, two women in particular fell under the most suspicion. These were Agnes, a bath-woman, and a certain Anna von Mindelheim. The two women were reportedly arrested by magistrates on the same day and sent to two separate prisons. On the first day of their incarceration, the imprisoned women both professed their innocence of any crime, either against God or man. Yet, as often happened in witchcraft cases, once the inquisitors began to apply torture, the coerced testimonies of the women became quite bizarre.
The bath-woman, Agnes was the first of the two women to break under torture. Heinrich Kramer did not specify what painful contraptions or implements were used on Agnes, but whatever it was caused enough agony to make her confess to some of the stereotypical rumors prevalent about witches at the time. Abandoning her earlier claim of innocence, she now said that a demonic familiar told her to take a pail of water out to a field. When she arrived there with the water, Agnes found that she was not alone—sitting under some trees in the field was Anna von Mindelheim and also the arch-demon, Satan, himself.
With Agnes’ arrival on the scene, Satan allegedly arose from his spot under the tree and instructed Agnes to dig a hole in the ground. When the hole was completed, Agnes reported that she poured the water from the pail into the pit and then stirred the liquid with her finger. According to Agnes and the inquisitors, this ritual, combined with an invocation of the demons, supposedly caused the devastating hailstorm that ravaged the region. In addition to this story, Agnes also confessed under torture to having a sexual relationship with an incubi demon for over eighteen years.
As for Anna von Mindelheim, Heinrich Kramer did not go into much detail about her confession. Instead, he simply wrote that her testimony generally agreed with that of Agnes. After being suspended by her thumbs, with her feet not touching the ground, Anna von Mindelheim confessed to an array of common witchcraft stereotypes—meeting in a wooded field, manipulating weather by stirring a puddle, and having a long sexual relationship with a demon.
By the second day of the women’s imprisonment, the application of torture caused both Agnes and Anna to change their original plea of innocence to that of guilty. With the confessions in hand, inquisitors evidently did not deliberate or crosscheck the validity of the testimonies. Instead, Agnes and Anna von Mindelheim were executed by burning on the third day of their imprisonment.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image from a pamphlet on witchcraft, published by The Public Domain Review on Flickr, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Flickr).
- The Malleus Maleficarum (part II, question 1, chapter 15) by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).