- The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village
witches, male witches, seventeenth-century Germany, Lutheranism, poisoning, witch trials, idea of the state
On Shrove Tuesday in 1672 a young woman called Eva Küstner indulged in the customary ritual of distributing Shrovetide cakes to neighboring women in Hürden, a village in the County of Hohenlohe in southern Germany. Eva was the daughter of Hans Schmieg, the miller of Hürden; the cakes had been baked by her mother, Anna Schmieg. This apparently innocuous event, which forms the starting point for Robisheaux's The Last Witch of Langenburg, had dramatic repercussions for those involved. Anna Fessler, who was one of the few women to actually eat a cake, suddenly became ill and died in agony the next day; the idea that she had been poisoned was confirmed by Andreas Thym, the municipal physician of Schwäbisch Hall, who was called in specially to perform an autopsy on her. The finger of suspicion turned rapidly toward the woman who had baked the cakes—the miller's wife, Anna Schmieg, who was around sixty years old in 1672. Schmieg had a bad reputation in Hürden for cursing, quarreling, brawling, and drinking, and there were also damaging local rumors linking her to the untimely deaths by drowning of two of her own children. Moreover, Anna Fessler's husband, oxherd Michel Fessler, testified to enmity between the two households, claiming that Anna Schmieg had cursed the pasture where his cows had been grazing in 1671. Fessler claimed that she wanted to poison the pasture so that his cows would die, a threat that linked Schmieg to other Langenburg women who had been accused of killing cattle by means of poison during witch trials in the area a few years earlier. Schmieg and her daughter Eva were duly arrested as the allegation against them—of Anna Fessler's murder by poison—were investigated by Dr. Tobias Ulrich von Gülchen, court advisor to the local territorial ruler, Count Heinrich Friedrich of Langenburg.
Robisheaux adopts a microhistorical approach in order to do justice to the multilayered story of Anna Schmieg, drawing on a wealth of source material to create a richly detailed picture of the complexities of her trial and its social, political, judicial, and religious contexts. A central strand of the narrative is Anna Schmieg's biography: Robisheaux argues that the verbal and physical aggression she showed after her marriage, which was to prove so damaging to her reputation, was rooted in the tenacity she had had to develop as a survival strategy as a youngster during the Thirty Years' War. Robisheaux also provides a detailed family history of the Schmiegs, in what constitutes one of the few studies of a "witch family" currently available in print. Robisheaux shows that both Anna and Hans Schmieg had been involved in various [End Page 121] disputes, not just with their neighbors but also with the Langenburg authorities, in the years preceding 1672, mainly because they defended themselves with vigor against allegations that Hans had been exploiting his position as miller in his own household's interests. Anna's trial also revealed profound tensions between Anna and her daughter Eva, who had earned her parents' wrath in 1671 by becoming pregnant out of wedlock with local good-for-nothing Philip Küstner. Eva and Philip were punished for their fornication and ordered to marry by the Langenburg Marriage Court, a ruling that dishonored the Schmiegs at the same time as it upset their own marriage plans for Eva and her brother Michel. Under interrogation by von Gülchen in 1672, Eva gradually turned against her mother, blaming Anna for having poisoned the Shrovetide cakes and also claiming that the cakes had in fact been intended originally for Philip and even herself ! As Robisheaux notes (p. 364, n. 25), the idea that Anna had plotted vengeance through poison against Philip was plausible, although it was presumably also possible that Eva's testimony constituted an (ultimately successful) attempt to...