Exonerating Europe’s ‘Last Witch’

This time of year, in the Swiss canton of Glarus, cows are herded down from snowcapped mountains to spend the winter in the valleys, their bells clanging. Sheep chew pastures with dizzying gradients. And in the pastoral villages that dot this cityless territory an hour's drive from Zurich's urbane bustle, many of the houses look like cuckoo clocks. But behind this gentle bucolic setting lies a legacy of sex, torture and ultimately political murder in the beheading of Anna Göldi, Europe's so-called last witch. Now, 225 years later, with a new museum, a best-selling book and a parliamentarian's fight to have Göldi absolved, Glarus is looking to turn its dark page of the Enlightenment.

In the hamlet of Mollis, population 3,000, a road the width of a single car was renamed Anna Göldi Way for the 225th anniversary of her death on June 13. In a mansion along the road, on a grassy gated lot, a new permanent exhibition at the local museum details Göldi's ordeal. Just as American schoolchildren read Arthur Miller's McCarthy-era parable "The Crucible," about 17th-century superstition and persecution in Salem, Mass., Swiss children learn of Göldi. Europe too was the stage for accusations of sorcery and the burning of outcasts deemed witches by maniacal courts. The death toll is estimated to have been 50,000 in Europe.

Today, historians trying to explain the flights of anxiety that sparked witch hunts blame everything from high inflation to cyclical poor weather and low crop yields to the tensions of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation of the day. But the difference, the shame, of the Glarus story is that when Göldi was beheaded with a sword in 1782, 90 years after Salem, Europe should have known better. "Witch" killings on the continent had dropped off precipitously after 1650. Other Swiss cantons, Geneva in 1652 and Zurich in 1701, had long since executed their last alleged witches. Europe was awash with the Enlightenment, and superstition was meant to have ceded to reason. It was, after all, only about 100 years before Le Corbusier and Paul Klee, Louis Chevrolet and Carl Jung, modern Swiss who are today part of our globalized lexicon.

Walter Hauser, a journalist for the Zurich weekly Sonntags Blick who comes from the Glarus town of Näfels, has written a new best-selling book on Göldi that draws on newly discovered documents. In his book Hauser calls on politicians to officially give Anna Göldi her innocence and annul her conviction. "It can be good for the image of Glarus, because we were the last to execute a witch, but we can also be the first to rehabilitate [an accused one] through an act of parliament," Hauser tells NEWSWEEK.

In the right light the clouds over Glarus seem to nestle in the mountains like thick cobwebs or to steam from their peaks as from cauldrons. But Göldi's story isn't one of sorcery. She wasn't a witch but a live-in maid. She was indeed dangerous--but the spells she cast were in the bedrooms of the most powerful men in the canton, much younger than she. At a time when extramarital affairs were illegal, word of adultery could cost even the most powerful man in the land his influence. And Göldi had a history of sexual relations with the powerful men of the houses she tended. She had a relationship with one Dr. Melchior Zwicky, a doctor more than a decade her junior from a major Glarus political family for whom she was housemaid for six years in Mollis. The new documents Hauser has found show that Göldi may even have fled to Strasbourg in 1774 to secretly deliver and have baptized Zwicky's child.

But by 1782, Göldi, then 48, was working for the Tschudi family in Glarus. Her troubles began when Dr. Johann Jacob Tschudi, 35, a married doctor and judge from a politically powerful family, made sexual advances and she complained to church authorities, Hauser discovered. "There was speculation at the time that she was pregnant by Tschudi," the author says. Göldi had to be silenced. Suddenly, Tschudi alleged, one of the Tschudi children, Annemiggeli, became violently ill and spat up 100 needles. He blamed Göldi, alleging witchcraft. Soon a warrant was issued for her arrest. Once captured, she was imprisoned and tortured until she confessed. Replicas of her cell and the instrument used to torture her--a rope strung from a pulley that lifted her by the shoulders, her arms tied behind her back, stones tied to her ankles to stretch her body--are on display at the Mollis museum. The evangelical court, packed with Tschudis, charged Göldi with poisoning the child and condemned her to death by decapitation.

For months the execution was a local affair, until two German journalists came snooping. Hauser says that a court clerk who opposed the death penalty leaked trial documents to one of them. Heinrich Ludewig Lehmann was forced to flee as far as Genoa for criticizing the trial in print, but he still managed to have the secret documents published in the German press and spark outrage abroad.

"For this period she was the most famous woman in the Canton of Glarus, maybe even in Switzerland. And we think she was the second-most famous woman in Europe after [Joan of Arc]," says Urs Nef, who helps run the Mollis museum as a volunteer on weekends with his wife Marianne, the museum's president. The exhibit is as much an illustration of Göldi's modern-day popularity as it is of her life and death. New newspaper clippings about Göldi are housed in the same room that holds her cell, in a glass case before an artist's rendition of a ragged-looking Göldi. Hauser's book is on display alongside Göldi-inspired novels, including one from 1945, and even term papers on Göldi from the local high school. There are Göldi-based radio scripts from the 1970s. And props, photos and video from the 1991 Gertrud Pinkus film "Anna Göldin, Letzte Hexe." (Annemiggeli Tschudi's spit-up nails are under glass too, but they're the ones from the film set.)

A family affair, the museum is open only six hours a week, Tuesday afternoons and weekends. The new Anna Göldi permanent exhibit takes up the ground floor of the mansion, sharing the museum space with an exhibit on the local airport. Outside sits a piece of modern art, iron-colored stone-topped stakes rendering Anna Göldi's name in Braille, offered to the museum by a Liechtenstein artist.

Indeed, for all the efforts to silence Göldi 225 years ago, her very name has become a byword for injustice and martyrdom. A new Anna Göldi Foundation has been mounted to fight for due process, minority rights and press freedom. This summer a convicted Swiss pedophile even tried to liken his plight to Anna Göldi's. At the museum in Mollis the visitors' book is pasted with a flyer promoting her pardon. The exhibit's Sept. 22 grand opening saw a big crowd (for Mollis) of 250 to 300 people, says Nef, and was attended not only by descendants of all involved--of the Tschudis, the Zwickys, even of the German journalist Lehmann--but also by her namesakes. "We had people here named Anna Göldi. They were very proud to announce that they were Anna Göldis," says Nef at the museum, which stands in the shadow of the Zwicky house, where Göldi lived.

Now, for her supporters all that remains is to strike her name from the canton's books. "Something really went wrong in a terrible way," says Fritz Schiesser, a popular local politician who has taken up Hauser's challenge in the canton parliament. "In Glarus there were a lot of enlightened people, many educated people, and nobody said, 'Let's stop this'." Schiesser isn't the first lawmaker to attempt to have Göldi rehabilitated; efforts go back 130 years, he says. In September Glarus's government recommended that parliament reject the motion to have Göldi pardoned ahead of a final decision due on or after Oct. 24.

Schiesser jokes that he's "not intelligent enough" to understand why it is so difficult to have the verdict changed. "It's impossible that generations can feel guilty for what those before have done. The young Germans are not responsible for what Germans of the 1930s and 1940s did. That's clear," he says. "But we can recognize what happened and annul the decision." But even Schiesser isn't convinced he'll succeed this time. "Maybe in 50 years there will be somebody else asking the same questions." For all the toil and trouble …

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