Margaretha Horn was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft in the German town of Rothenburg on 6 August 1652, following a dispute with a neighbour. Subjected to a variety of ordeals believed to expose witchesMethods used to identify witches. , Horn maintained throughout her captivity that she was innocent. Ironically her stubborn refusal to confess even under torture was in itself considered by the authorities to be proof that she was a witch.
Horn was nevertheless released, although not acquitted, and ordered to reimburse the costs of her trial and investigation. Her case heralded a hardening of the previously fairly lenient attitude of Rothenburg’s officials towards witchcraft.
When she was twenty-four years old – in around 1616 – Margaretha married Martin, the son of an elderly herdsman from Gebsattel. Martin’s father had been accused of witchcraft in the 1627 case against thirteen-year-old Margaretha Hörber. Local villagers throughout the region believed that witchcraft was comparable to a disease contaminating all family members, including those related by marriage. The marriage was short-lived as Martin died shortly after, but in the eyes of villagers Margaretha was tainted by the association.
Margaretha remarried then, in 1639, moved from Gebsattel to Bettenfeld, another German village, together with her husband, Hans Horn,[a] and two single daughters Eva and Cordula. From the outset the Horns did not have a good relationship with their nearest neighbour, Leonhardt Gackstatt and his family. Margaretha bore a son, Michael, who died of internal injuries; she blamed Gackstatt for the boy’s death claiming he was violent to him. The bitter quarrel between Margaretha and Gackstatt persisted for more than ten years.
The dispute between the two families reached a climax during 1652, resulting in Gackstatt levelling charges against Margaretha, claiming that she was a witch who performed magical practices.
Shrove Tuesday or Fastnacht was a day associated with witches and the Devil in traditional German culture; it was also the time to commence the spring cleaning of homes and animal quarters to eliminate vermin. Like many other housewives in the area, on Shrove Tuesday in 1652 Margaretha, by then sixty-years-old, swept her house, placing the sweepings outside. Gackstatt maintained a spell was placed on them, causing a multitude of parasites and vermin to overrun his entire property, invading bedding and clothing and biting the seven residents. Despite vigorous attempts to eradicate the infestation, within an hour their property and belongings would again be teeming with insects.
Repercussions from the incident continued over the following months. A confrontation took place between Margaretha’s husband, who was brandishing a hoe, and an axe-wielding Gackstatt. Margaretha and Gackstatt’s wife, together with the children from both households, pelted each other with stones while exchanging insults. Although Hans Horn tried to elicit help from a nearby intermediary to intervene and resolve the situation, the animosity and accusations persisted. Gackstatt held Margaretha responsible for the poor volume of milk from his cows; endeavouring to avert official scrutiny away from his own family, Horn made a complaint to dignitaries that in 1646 Gackstatt had levelled infidelity accusations against his own son. This action rebounded on Margaretha as Gackstatt responded by formally accusing her of witchcraft; she was arrested, incarcerated and charged on 6 August 1652.
The first interrogation occurred on the day Margaretha was arrested; she was subjected to at least two further bouts, on 12 and 16 August, before the final session on 22 September. During the second phase of questioning investigators began quizzing Margaretha about an angel she said visited to comfort her while she was in custody. Over the course of further days she described the conversations she had with him, adding that the angel resembled a two-year-old child, he nestled on her lap all night and was named Michael. Investigators sought legal advice concerning the status of the angel; the reply they received on 9 September informed them it could not be a good entity adding that the considered opinion of the jurist was that it was a disguised Devil making one of his habitual visits to a member of his witch followers. A charge of having conversations with the Devil was then added to the evidence against Margaretha.
While the interrogations were ongoing, investigators approached clerics and physicians asking if the infestation of parasites encountered by Gackstatt was natural or supernatural. The clerics refused to hypothesise on the cause; however investigators had their suspicions confirmed when, on 13 August, physicians they considered authorities opined that, as it was a sizeable infestation targeting only Gaskatt’s household, which could not be eradicated by routine cleaning, it came from demonic sources.
Margaretha’s inability to shed tears was counted against her. Physicians claimed a human’s heart was surrounded by fluids that exited the body as tears when the person was in an emotional state. As she did not weep whilst incarcerated it demonstrated she lacked the appropriate feelings for a woman in her position and was in the control of the Devil rather than God. Next, her interrogators noted she failed to be able to recite a prayer, stumbling over a portion where the protection of God from the Devil was chanted.
When warned she would be tortured, Margaretha had been amused and derisive. Pins were stuck into her back in the search for the Devil’s mark causing profuse bleeding until an area was found that did not bleed. She was then tortured with thumbscrews five times by an executioner who exerted as much force as he could muster. Margaretha continued to doggedly refuse to confess, adamantly maintaining she was not guilty of the charges against her. Her stubborn refusal to confess to witchcraft was deemed as further proof she was a witch by officials.
On 1 October Margaretha was released although not acquitted. Ordered to reimburse the trial and investigation costs to the city, she also had to pledge attendance at any further hearings connected to the incidents. The family were still recorded as residents of Bettenfeld seven years later.
Statistics concerning witchcraft trials in the German city of Rothenburg were unusual compared to others from the mid-sixteenth century through to the first decade of the eighteenth century. The figures reflect that city officials there tended to enact legal restraint regarding allegations of being a witch preferring instead to deal harshly with the accusers by charging them with slander. This stance was not taken in Margaretha’s case; from the outset Gackstatt’s allegations of witchcraft were regarded as more plausible by investigators. Never formally questioned, arrested or pressed for detailed answers, Gackstatt’s statements given on 28 August and 22 September were readily accepted by city officials. Reluctance to take any action against Gackstatt on the part of the Rothenburg dignitaries likely stems from them being unwilling to become involved in legal challenges with the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, an omnipotent Lutheran member of the nobility, who had jurisdiction over Gackstatt as his property was within the Margrave’s territory which bordered Rothenburg.
Academic Alison Rowlands, who undertook extensive research of the Rothenburg records, suggests Margaretha may have been describing her deceased son when discussing the angel during her interrogations. She also suspects Margaretha was too exhausted and bewildered to be able to faultlessly recite prayers when commanded to during the interrogations.
Rowlands indicates that the phrasing of the guarantees required from Margaretha by officials and the conditions they imposed on her to secure her release were “so grudging as to barely exonerate them of suspicion.”[b] The trial and its outcome are significant as it demonstrates the onset of the shift in the attitude of Rothenburg officials towards witchcraft; previously officials had been moderate in their handling of witchcraft accusations but from 1652 a harsher, more severe, position was assumed. Further, according to Rowlands, “it underscores particularly effectively the point that women on trial for witchcraft were not ‘mere mouthpieces of a patriarchal elite’, whose statements and confessions were simply forced rehashing of that elite’s demonology.”